Reading Biblical Poetry: An Introductory Guide

By J. P. Fokkelman
Louisville, Ky : Westminster John Knox (2001). viii + 243 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
15.2 (Fall 2004) : 257-259

Seminaries and universities around the world are requiring Fokkelman’s book as the textbook for courses in biblical Hebrew poetry. Some of the popularity is due to the good reputation he built with the companion volume, Reading Biblical Narrative: An Introductory Guide (Westminster John Knox, 2000). Nevertheless, this work stands on its own as a practical manual of biblical poetry. Fokkelman designed the book for those who need to rely on a translation of the Scriptures because of their inability to read biblical Hebrew (vii, 2). First occurrences of technical terms are marked by an asterisk (14) indicating that definitions are included in a glossary at the end of the book (225-28). Endnotes provide more technical discussion and resources for Hebraists (14). Notwithstanding the care taken to make this book user-friendly, it is not light or easy reading. Serious students, however, will gain immensely from the author’s tour of biblical Hebrew poetry.

At the outset, Fokkelman walks the reader through poems in Isa 1:16 -17 and 2 Sam 1:19-27 (3-12). This immersion whets the reader’s appetite, provides basic awareness of what Hebrew poetry entails, and sets the stage for a more detailed explanation of Hebrew poetics. This approach reveals Fokkelman’s skills as a teacher.

Recent studies have modified the traditional definitions of Hebrew poetry by revising the description of parallelism. James Kugel’s The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981), Adele Berlin’s The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism (Bloomington, Ind .: Indiana University Press, 19 85), and Robert Alter’s The World of Biblical Literature (New York: Basic Books, 199 2) contributed to this significant revision. As a result, some professors and students have tended to throw out parallelism entirely as a characteristic of Hebrew poetry. That over-reaction misrepresents the conclusions of Kugel, Berlin, and Alter. Fokkelman demonstrates that parallelism is present in Hebrew poetry, but that the three traditional categories (synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic) need expanding beyond the simplest categories created by vocabulary and grammar. The exegete must look for parallelism beyond the Lowthian paradigm of the verse (61). Indeed, “a complete ladder of parallelisms should be climbed if we want our attention and emotion to cover the possibilities and effects of poetry in a satisfactory way” (30). Fokkelman employs the metaphor of binoculars to explain how parallelism actually works in Hebrew poetry (78-79). In other words, the differences between two similar lines, verses, or strophes produce a fuller picture of what the poet is saying. Hebrew poets exploit parallelism in order to convey a message (80). It is also “a powerful mechanism for regulating proportions” (86)—a key theme in Fokkelman’s work.

Rigidity in any definition of language or literature destroys the objectivity of an interpreter’s approach to the biblical text. Language and literature are not rigid and inflexible. As Fokkelman puts it, “There is no call for mathematical rigor in the playful world of poetry” (37). Versets (Fokkelman’s term for cola), verses, strophes and stanzas make up the normal biblical Hebrew poem. Accurate translation and interpretation of Hebrew poetry must reflect these divisions (40). Responding to the objection that his model of poetic structure is a Western imposition on the Hebrew text, Fokkelman demonstrates that biblical acrostic poems independently confirm his text model (44-45).

Speaking of the apparent consistency in the number of syllables per verset, the author concludes, “This highly remarkable finding can be explained only by assuming that the poets themselves counted syllables” (47). His reasoning is suspect because (a) he himself has already spoken against mathematical rigor, (b) we are at too great a distance from the originals to speak so dogmatically about something that cannot be proven, and (c) most poets in any culture and language have an innate sense of balance and length when it comes to poetic lines (note the innate sense of musical rhythm even in very young children). Would it be accurate to conclude, for example, that M artin Luther King’s rhythmic oratorical cadences were the result of counting syllables? Some Hebrew poets might have counted syllables, but certainly not all. Lineation is “a kind of pendulum-swing intrinsic to the experience of poetry. Since the oscillation occurs more times per minute than the parallel experience of reading prose, it contributes to the hypnotic quality of poetry” (Alfred Corn, The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody, SLP W riters’ Guide [Ashland, Ore.: Story Line Press, 199 7] 10). On meter in poetry in general, I recommend Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, rev. ed. (New York: Random House, 1979).

Fokkelman places his greatest emphasis and makes his greatest contribution on the levels of structure above the verse: the strophe (87-115) and the stanza (117- 40). Students of Hebrew poetry usually have great difficulty in distinguishing these two layers of the Hebrew poem (cf. 161). The distinctions are not simple, but the author lays a solid foundation of definition and explanation followed by his pièce de résistance, extensive but carefully expounded examples from the biblical text. For the strophe he develops Isaiah 1 (100-108) and Psalm 88 (108-15); for the stanza he presents Isa 44:24–45:7 (123-32) and Job 28 (132-40). Fokkelman also provides detailed descriptions of a number of psalms to illustrate how a full poem is initiated and closed (142-57). He hammers home the point that “the correct division in turn is the basis for a correct interpretation of the poem” (157). He devotes another chapter to the pursuit of correct divisions (159-73). This treatise highlights repetitions in Psalm 103 as a means of determining its divisions.

Separate chapters are dedicated to discussions of wisdom literature (175- 88), illustrated by Job 10, and love poetry (189-206), illustrated by the Song of Songs. A summary chapter deals with the attitude of the reader of Hebrew poetry and the questions to be asked (207-9). The book’s final chapter (211-24) presents Fokkelman’s divisions for all 150 Psalms as well as the books of Lamentations, Job, the Song of Songs, and a number of other major OT poems (Genesis 49; Exodus 15; Numbers 23–24; Deuteronomy 32; Judges 5; 1 Sam 2:1-10; 2 Sam 1:17-27; 22; Isaiah 40–55; Proverbs 1–9).

Liabilities in this volume include an occasional glimpse of Fokkelman’s apparently pessimistic view of the Masoretic Text (cf. 51, 232 n. 2, 234 nn. 2 and 3), his treatment of Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes as pseudepigrapha (190), his overdependence on literary and mathematical analysis to establish eight as the “central norm figure” of Hebrew prosody (48), and the absence of a subject index.