1. Hebrew poetry (extract)
The Old Testament repeatedly breaks out into poetry. Even its narratives are graced here and there with a couplet or a longer sequence of verse to make some memorable point (cf. e.g. Gen. 2 - 4 in any modern version), and its prophecies predominantly take this form. While the Psalms are the main body of poems in Scripture, and were given (with Job and Proverbs) a distinctive system of accents by the Massoretes to mark the fact, they are themselves surrounded by poetry and rooted in a long and popular poetic tradition.
By its suppleness of form, Hebrew poetry lent itself well to this widespread use. A proverbial saying, a riddle, an orator's appeal, a prayer, a thanksgiving, to mention only a few varieties of speech, could all slip into its rhythms almost effortlessly, for its metre was not parcelled out in `feet' or in a prescribed arrangement of strong and weak syllables, but heard in the sound of, say, three or four stresses in a short sentence or phrase, matched by an answering line of about the same length. The lighter syllables interspersed with the stronger were of no fixed number, and the tally of strong beats in a line could itself be varied with some freedom within a single poem. There was room and to spare for spontaneity.
A hint of these rhythms can be felt at times even in translation, when our words happen to correspond roughly with the Hebrew. In the latter, while there are sometimes lines of two stresses, or of four or even more, the commonest rhythm is 3:3, which comes through in, e.g., the RSV of Psalm 26:2,
Próve me, O Lórd, and trý me;
tést my héart and my mínd.
... But the fundamental characteristic of this poetry was not its external forms or rhythms, but its way of matching or echoing one thought with another. This has been described as thought rhyme, but more often as `parallelism', a term introduced by Bishop Robert Lowth in the eighteenth century. It is recognizable at once in such a couplet as Psalm 103:10, where the two lines are synonymous:
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor requite us according to our iniquities.
In this form of parallelism the second line (or sometimes a second verse) simply reinforces the first, so that its content is enriched and the total effect becomes spacious and impressive. The nuances of difference between the synonyms should not be over-pressed; they are in double harness rather than in competition. So, e.g., `man' and `the son of man' in Psalm 8:4, or `my soul' and `my flesh' in 63:1 are paired rather than contrasted. ...
--This text refers to an alternate