Poetic License

When I teach biblical interpretation, one of the things I use to help explain the difference between biblical narrative and biblical poetry is to ask the students to compare Judges 4 and Judges 5. These two chapters make my job easy, because both chapters describe the same event: Barak and Deborah’s victory over Sisera.

I point out that the purpose of poetry is not to clearly describe events or to give us instructions. Instead, poetry is emotional; it gives us a feeling—it is not propositional. For instance, the Afordible Healthcare Law, usually called Obomacare, is not written in poetry. Likewise, autorepair manuals are not written in poetry, nor are history books or newspapers. But music lyrics are poetry—and what you expect from listening to the lyrics of songs is not what you expect when you’re listening to a news report on the latest horrors in Egypt.

So, consider the contrast between these two descriptions of the same event. First, Judges 4:17-21 which gives us the narrative form of the event:

Sisera, meanwhile, fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because there was an alliance between Jabin king of Hazor and the family of Heber the Kenite.

Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come, my lord, come right in. Don’t be afraid.” So he entered her tent, and she covered him with a blanket.

“I’m thirsty,” he said. “Please give me some water.” She opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him up.

“Stand in the doorway of the tent,” he told her. “If someone comes by and asks you, ‘Is anyone in there?’ say ‘No.’ ”

But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.

Judges 5:24-27 relates the same event, but as poetry:

Most blessed of women be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite,
most blessed of tent-dwelling women.
He asked for water, and she gave him milk;
in a bowl fit for nobles she brought him curdled milk.
Her hand reached for the tent peg,
her right hand for the workman’s hammer.
She struck Sisera, she crushed his head,
she shattered and pierced his temple.
At her feet he sank,
he fell; there he lay.
At her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell—dead.

Hebrew poetry is dependent on what is called parallelism—the rhyming of ideas rather than the rhyming of sounds, and thus it seems repetitious to modern western readers. What we would express in a single concept, perhaps with some added adjectives or adverbs, gets stated twice in slightly different words. More obviously, the death of Sisera is described much more violently, with Jael as violent, and overpowering him in an epic battle. The point of the poetry is to suggest the emotions of the event, rather to to give a blow by blow description of how the event occurred. It gives us insight into how Jael felt about what she did, and how the Israelites felt about it: how they saw it as a triumph over their humiliated opponent. Poetry makes more use of metaphor and allegory, the painting of pictures with words. One can get into a lot of trouble trying to understand poetry literalistically.

What is interesting to consider when you see the difference in poetry versus narrative is when it comes time to read the prophets of the Old Testament. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the 12 minor prophets—most of what they write, most of the “word of the Lord” is presented as poetry. Don’t read the prophets (or Psalms, or Proverbs) then the same way you’d read the narratives of 1 and 2 Chronicles; don’t expect them to give you the same sort of information.

Thus, be very careful how you understand what is going on. The same with the Psalms, Song of Solomon and the wisdom literature, such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes: recognize that you’re dealing with poetry. Be careful to allow for unusual idioms and twists. For instance, the prophets will occasionally talk about “adultery” and how Israel or Judah are “adulterous.” The prophets are not talking about the behavior of married adults in ancient Palestine. Rather, the terms are used metaphorically to describe how unfaithful to God the Israelites have become. Instead of worshiping Yahweh exclusively, they’ve run off and started worshiping other gods as well, while still coming back to the Temple and going through the rituals as if nothing is wrong. “Adultery” is a perfect picture of the religious situation in Israel and Judah.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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