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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

Parallelism in Hebrew Poetry

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It is now generally conceded that parallelism is the fundamental law, not only of the poetical, but even of the rhetorical and therefore of higher style in general in the Old Testament. By parallelism in this connection is understood the regularly recurring juxtaposition of symmetrically constructed sentences. The symmetry is carried out in the substance as well as in the form, and lies chiefly in the relation of the expression to the thought. The same idea is expressed in its full import— that is, in its various aspects and turns— not in a continuous, uninterrupted sentence, but in several corresponding clauses or members with different words. Hence the name "parallelismus membrorum" or "sententiarum." It has also been aptly called "sinnrhythmus" (Ewald). For the parallel members are related to each other as rhythmical protasis and apodosis, as π ρ ο ῳ δ ό ς and ἐ π ῳ δ ό ς .

The first to see this law clearly and to distinguish between its basic forms was the Anglican bishop Robert Lowth ("De Sacra Poesi Hebræ orum Præ lectiones," 1753, Lecture xix. and "Preliminary Dissertation to Isaiah," 1778, pp. 12-26). Unknown to him Christian Schoettgen referred to this principle in a general way ("Horæ Hebr." 1733 comp. Diss. vi., "De Exergasia Sacra," pp. 1249-1263: "exergasia quid sit, omnes Rhetorum libelli docent, conjunctio scilicet integrarum sententiarum idem significantium"). But even before that Ibn Ezra and Ḳ imḥ i had characterized this feature of Hebrew poetry by the expression "kaful" ("doubling") or, more fully, "kefel ' inyan be-millot shonot" ("doubling of the thought with other words"). Both, however, regarded it merely as an elegant form of expression ("derek ẓ aḥ ot"). On Abu al-Walid see Bacher, "Aus der Schrifterklä rung des Abulwalid," p. 39.

According to the logical interrelation of the members there are distinguished three kinds of parallelism:

  1. The synonymous, in which the same sentiment is repeated in different but equivalent words:
    Psalm 25:5 comp. ib. exiv. Numbers 23:7-10 Isaiah 60:1-3 etc.). "Shew me thy ways, O Lord Teach me thy paths"Frequently the second line not merely repeats but also reenforces or diversifies the idea:( Proverbs 1:31 ) "They shall eat of the fruit of their own way, And be filled with their own devices"(ISam. 18:7 comp. Isaiah 13:7 , 55:6 et seq. Psalm 95:2 ). "Saul hath slain his thousands, And David his ten thousands"
  2. The antithetical, in which the parallel members express the opposite sides of the same thought:
    Proverbs 11:3 comp. ib. 10:1 et seq. Isaiah 54:7 et seq. Psalm 20:8 , 30:6 ). "The integrity of the upright shall guide them, But the perversity of the treacherous shall destroy them"Frequently there are one or more synonymous elements in both members, thus making the contrast more emphatic:(Proverbs 29:27 comp. ib. 10:5, 16:9, 27:2). "An unjust man is an abomination to the righteous, And he that is upright in the way is an abomination to the wicked"
  3. The synthetical (called also constructive and epithetical), in which the two members contain two disparate ideas, which, however, are connected by a certain affinity between them:
    Proverbs 1:7 comp. ib. 3:5,7 Isaiah 50:4 Psalm 1:3 , 15:4 )."The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: But the foolish despise wisdom and instruction"

Kinds of Parallelism.
Lowth observes of these three fundamental kinds of parallelism ("Preliminary Dissertation," p. 26): "Synonymous parallels have the appearance of art and concinnity and a studied elegance they prevail chiefly in shorter poems, in many of the Psalms, in Balaam's prophecies, in many of those of Isaiah, which are most of them distinct poems of no great length. Antithetical parallelism gives an acuteness and force to adages and moral sentences, and therefore abounds in Solomon's Proverbs, but elsewhere is not often to be met with. The poem of Job, being on a large plan and in a high tragic style, though very exact in the division of the lines and the parallelism, and affording many fine examples of the synonymous kind, yet consists chiefly of the constructive."

Other distinctions which refer rather to the structure and form of the verses than to the nature of parallelism are:

The introverted parallelism (Jebb, "Sacred Literature," 1820, § iv., p. 53), in which the hemistichs of the parallel members are chiastically arranged after the scheme ab-ba:( Proverbs 23:23 et seq. , Hebr. comp. ib. 10:4,12 13:24 21:17 Psalm 51:4 ). "My son, if thine heart be wise, My heart shall be glad, even mine Yea, my veins shall rejoice, When thy lips speak right things"The palillogical parallelism, in which one or more words of the first line are taken up, like an echo or the canon in music, in the second:( Nahum 1:2 comp. Judges 5:3,6 , 7,11, 12,15, 16,23, 27 Isaiah 2:7 , 24:5 Hosea 6:4 Psalm 72:2,12 , 17 cxxi. cxxiv. cxxvi.). "The Lord is a jealous God and avengeth The Lord avengeth and is full of wrath The Lord taketh vengeance on his adversaries, And he reserveth wrath for his enemies"Perfect and imperfect parallelism, according to the equality or inequality of the number of words in each line.

Sometimes a distich does not contain the logical development or repetition of the thought as in the instances quoted above but the thought goes forward through both lines, either because one line was not sufficient to express it or because the second line supplements the first in the form of a relative, final, causative, or consecutive clause.

There is also that parallelism which is called (e.g. , by De Wette and Delitzsch) the rhythmical: (Psalms 138:4 ) "All the kings of the earth shall give thee thanks, O Lord, For they have heard the words of thy mouth"(Proverbs 15:3 comp. ib. 16:7,10 17:13,15 19:20 21:23,25). "The eyes of the Lord are in every place, Keeping watch over the evil and the good"

Number of Parallel Members.
The simplest and most frequent form is the distich, in which two lines balance each other in thought and expression. But the parallelism may extend to several lines with the same variety of relations as in the distich.

The tristich may consist either of three synonymous lines, as in Psalm 1:1 Numbers 6:25 Lamentations 1:1 Isaiah 47:11 Micah 6:15 or of a distich with an introductory or a concluding line, as in Isaiah 43:5 Psalm 123:2 .

The tetrastich may comprise four synonymous lines (Numbers 24:6 Isaiah 1:4 , 58:6 ), or may consist of two distichs balanced against each other (Genesis 25:23 Isaiah 43:2,6 ), or, more elegantly, the lines of the distichs may be arranged crosswise after the scheme ac-bd (Psalm 33:13 et seq. Isaiah 49:2 ), or acdb (2Samuel 3:23 et seq. ), or while the pairs are synonymous within themselves they may be antithetic with reference to each other (Isaiah 54:10 , 65:21 et seq. Psalm 37:10 et seq. ). Examples of antithesis within the two distichs are Psalm 30:6 , and 20:8 et seq.

The pentastich is either a combination of a distich and tristich (Zechariah 9:5 ) or of two distichs and a single verse (Numbers 24:3 et seq. Joshua 10:12 et seq. 1Chronicles 12:19 ).

The hexastich is formed either of three distichs (Numbers 24:17 Isaiah 2:7 et seq. Habakkuk 3:17 ) or of a distich and a tetrastich (Genesis 27:29 Song of Song of Solomon 4:8 ). Such combinations are rare in lyrics, but more frequent in the prophetical writings.

The strophes are subject to the same law of parallelism as the lines themselves. Thus Numbers 24:39 is composed of five strophes of 5,6, 4,5, and 4 lines respectively. Job iii., after the introit in verse 3, can be divided into seven strophes with 6,10, 6,8, 6,8, and 6 lines respectively, balanced against one another in thought ( e.g. , cursing of day and night the enviable condition of the still-born and those in the grave and the pain of those tired of life). So also Psalm 62: and 10-12 ib. 2:1-3,4-6, which form two antithetical strophes.

— In Post-Biblical Literature:

In the oldest post-Biblical Hebrew poetic productions extant, that is, the liturgy, the principle of parallelism is existent, though not exhibiting the regularity and symmetry of the Biblical poetry. It is sufficient here to refer to such prayers as "Le-El Baruk," "Ahabah Rabbah," "' Ezrat Abotenu," and the "Shemoneh ' Esreh." Parallelism is also discernible in the few poetic remnants preserved in the Talmud. So, for instance, in the elegy on R. Ḥ anin , who, when a child came to him late in life died on the day of its birth:

(Translation .)(Ket. 104a). "Gladness turned into sadness, Joy and grief met together, His joy was mingled with sighing, Grace reached him only to depart"With the adoption of rime and meter in the Spanish period the parallelism fell into decay, though it maintained itself in the liturgy. Occasionally it breaks through in other poetical productions of that period, as in the complaint of Abraham ibn Ezra:

(Translation .)

"I strive to succeed, but without avail— for my horoscope was unlucky Were I trader of death-shrouds, none would die while I lived The cycle of planets in their position took a wrong course at my birth Were candles my wares, the sun would not set before my death."
Likewise in Judah al-Ḥ arizi's maḳ amah of the "Unhappy Marriage":

(Translation .)

"Blessed He who preserved me on the day of distress And in His mercy showed me grace. My inclination sold me into the hand of my folly, But the Rock in His compassion delivered me After I had already entered the chambers of hell, He opened the belly of hell and brought me up."
The same may be noticed in modern Hebrew poetry. So, for instance, in N. H. Wessely's elegy on the death of Moses Mendelssohn:

(Translation .)

"Death! thou hast hewn off the tree, but left its fruit Not the whole hast thou destroyed, but a small part. The sum of his wisdom is engraved on the tablet, Still is he discussing with his friends letters and science Not with lips of flesh, dust, and ashes, Not in words and sounds, but in the spirit."

Exegetical Importance.
The importance of parallelism as an aid in determining text-critical and lexicographical questions, thus affording the key to the correct interpretation of many passages in the Bible, is evident. From an esthetical point of view the parallelism may be termed the rhythm of nature. Paralleliś m is not an exclusive peculiarity of Hebrew. It is met with not only in Assyrian (A. Jeremias, "Die Babyl.-Assyr. Vorstellung vom Leben nach dem Tode," p. 91, Leipsic, 1878 E. Schrader, in "Jahrbü cher fü r Protestantische Theologie," 1:122) and in Egyptian (Georg Ebers, "Nord und Sü d," 1:1 J. H. Breasted, in "The Biblical World," 1:55), but is also characteristic of Finnish song, especially the "Kalevala" (D. Comparetti, "Der Kalevala," Halle, 1892 J. C. Brown, "People of Finland," p. 280, London, 1892). A. Wuttke ("Der Deutsche Volksaberglaube der Gegenwart," p. 157, Berlin, 1869) and Eduard Norden ("Die Antike Kunstprosa," 2:813, Leipsic, 1898) consider parallelism as the most ancient and the original form of poetry, as "perhaps the most important formal ethnic thought ["formale Vö lkergedanke"] in existence." But it is best adapted to the genius of the Hebrew language with its wealth of synonymous expressions which enables the poet or the prophet to dwell upon a theme with an almost inexhaustible variety of expression and coloring. The parallelism is so inwrought in the nature of Hebrew poetry that it can not be lost in translation and to this fact is perhaps due not in a small measure the fact that the poetry of the Old Testament has become the common property of mankind.

Bibliography : Besides the works cited in the article, Lor. O. Leforn, De Parallelismo Sententiarum , Abo, 1774 Gbr. Hern, De Parallelismo Membrorum , Abo, 1812 T. P. Kaiser, De Parallelismi in Sancta Hebrœ orum Poesi Natura et Generibus , Erlangen, 1839 E. du Mé ril, Essai Philosophique sur le Principe et les Formes de la Versification , pp. 47 et seq. , Paris, 1841 Ewald, Die Poetischen Bü cher des Alten Bundes , 1:57-92, Gö ttingen, 1835-39 Die Dichter des Alten Bundes , 2d ed., pp. 91 et seq. , ib. 1866. On the parallelism of strophes: Kö ster, in Theologische Studien und Kritiken , 1831, pp. 40-114.E. C. I. M. C.

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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Parallelism in Hebrew Poetry'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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