Acrostics and other techniques of ancient poetry (Lamentations 1)

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All poetry, except perhaps free verse, maintains some kind of repetition. Sometimes it is metrical, as in iambic pentameter, based on rhyme, or based on the number of syllables per line, as in Haiku. Biblical Hebrew poetry did not employ rhyme and, although there is some dispute about this issue, probably did not use meter or syllable counting. Long ago, however, scholars recognized that ancient Hebrew poetry often employed parallelism, which may be loosely described as “saying the same thing twice”. Lamentations 2:7 illustrates the principle:

The Lord has rejected His altar

and abandoned His sanctuary.

Each line contains a subject, “Lord” (understood but not explicitly mentioned in line 2), a verb (has rejected/(has) abandoned) and a direct object (His altar/His sanctuary), and each object is composed of a pronoun and a noun. This often called “synonymous parallelism”. Yet Hebrew parallelism is often much more complex and subtle than the above example suggests (e.g. contrasting thoughts are often used as well, such as in Proverbs 22:17). Also, not all Hebrew poetry uses synonymous parallelism, nor is all synonymous parallelism poetry; it can occur as well in Hebrew prose.

Biblical Hebrew makes use of several other devices to establish the repetition poetry requires. Certain words may be repeated across several lines, or consecutive lines of poetry may begin with the same Hebrew letter. Another device is “inclusion”, in which the first and last lines of a poem or strophe (also called “stanza”, it refers to a major division in a poem) are identical, and the main topic is elaborated between them (e.g. Psalm 8). Sometimes the Hebrew poem will repeat a full line at every other line, as in Psalm 136. It appears that Hebrew poetry follows certain constraints regarding, for example, the number of verbs allowed per line; this, too, can create poetic symmetry.

Sometimes a Hebrew poem may be an acrostic: The first letters of each consecutive line or strophe, taken in total, list the Hebrew alphabet in order. For example, the first verse of Lamentations 1 begins with aleph (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet), the second verse with beth (the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet), the third with gimel (the third letter), and so forth. Fundamentally, the acrostic is a type of repetition used in some Hebrew poetry.

Our understanding of Hebrew poetry is limited by the fact that no one living today has ever heard how it was originally sung. Sadly, much of the oral art of Hebrew poetry has been forever lost to us,


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