Bible Review 2:3, Fall 1986

Bible Books

The Art of Biblical Poetry

Robert Alter (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 238 pp., $17.95

The warhorse that supposedly characterizes biblical verse is the parallel couplet: Sisera’s mother wails, “Why do his cavalry hesitate to come? / / Why are the hoofbeats of his chariots late?” (Judges 5:28). Moses blesses two tribes, “Rejoice, Zebulun, in your going out, // And Issachar, in your tents!” (Deuteronomy 33:18).

To naive readers, such biblical formulations may seem repetitious—a mere convention of poetic form. This view has even been urged in professional scholarship, where the symmetry of the parallel stichs (or lines) is sometimes mistaken for synonymity. The view has also engendered many technical studies that focus on the structural types of parallelism. Sometimes it seems that the formal aspects of parallelism have mesmerized critics.

Robert Alter, however, promises more—insight into the organics of Hebrew poetry, into the almost erotic union of poetic form and intent, the offspring of which are art and meaning.

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