Poetic Device

source: jimmiehomeschoolmom via Flickr
source: jimmiehomeschoolmom via Flickr

“I spoke once, but I have no answer—
    twice, but I will say no more.”
Job 40:5 (NIV)

Okay, so no great spiritual inspiration from the chapter this morning, but I find myself musing on a textual issue that may be of interest to someone. For many years I ran across an odd pattern of phrasing, especially in the book of Proverbs, that left me scratching my head:

There are three things that are never satisfied,
    four that never say, ‘Enough!’’
Proverbs 30:15

My left brain would get its undies in a bunch and scream “Well, is it three or four? Why do you put it like that? Say what you mean!” But over time my right brain has been creatively open to understanding, and has patiently tutored his twin hemisphere about this odd way of turning a phrase.

The books of the Old Testament (Genesis through Malachi) were written in Hebrew, and a lot of it, including Job, were written in poetic in form. Unless you are a student or live in a hip city where poetry slams are common you probably don’t read a lot of poetry. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. Poetry as a cultural art form isn’t any where near as prevalent in our culture as it once was. Pitiful, but true.

In poetry, there are these things called poetic devices:

Poetic devices are tools that a poet can use to create rhythm, enhance a poem’s meaning, or intensify a mood or feeling. These devices help piece the poem together, much like a hammer and nails join planks of wood together. (education-portal.com)

One example of a poetic device in the english language is repetition. When writing, we typically don’t repeat, repeat, repeat, a word because it would sound silly and would confuse the reader, but you do use repetition in poetry. Edgar Allen Poe used this device when he wrote:

To the swinging and the ringing
of the bells, bells, bells–

The repetition of the word “bells” illustrates the “swinging and the ringing” and gives the reader a sense of the repetitive clanging that happens when a bell is swung and rung.

So the Hebrew poetry of books like Job, translated into English, uses this poetic device when communicating many things or a number of things. You mention one number, then immediately mention a greater number to give the reader a sense of a growing number, of things being added, and of the important of of the many:

Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;
    you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.
Ecclesiastes 11:2

For three sins of Gaza,
    even for four, I will not relent.
Because she took captive whole communities
    and sold them to Edom…
Amos 1:6

We will raise against them seven shepherds,
    even eight commanders
Micah 5:5

This is one of the things that I find fascinating and love about my on-going sojourn through God’s Message. I’m never done learning. I’m always finding new layers of depth, not only in the subject, but in the text itself. It makes me a better reader, it broadens my understanding, expands my appreciation, and I hope it makes me a better communicator.

Oh, and for the record, my left brain is much calmer now whenever I come across one of these poetic devices in the text. Thanks, right brain.

3 thoughts on “Poetic Device”

  1. Nice post.

    There has not been much said on this in churches, and I think it would be helpful. Growing up, I went to a private Christian Junior High and High School. I remember enjoying bible classes. The way this was explained to me was that Hebrew Poetry rhymed meanings as opposed to rhyming the sound of the words in most english poetry.

    One thing that your post made me think about is how many conservative evangelicals (I;m actually mostly in that camp) interpret the bible very literally. This is a good thing in many respects, but there is a danger in not taking the poetic form into account when pulling doctrine from poetic texts. We are fortunate that much of the doctrinal teaching in the bible comes from new testament books where its fairly clear instruction. However much of old testament prophecy are written in the poetic form, so its not always a good idea to take everything literally, such as to interpret something as a list when really its just a comparative listing of similar items to prove one particular point.

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