Semitic Poetry: A Key to Context

Semitic Poetry: A Key to Context
One major key to context is poetic parallelism. At least one third of the Tanak is written in Hebrew poetic form and a large portion of the “New Testament” is also written in the form of Hebrew Poetry.

One of the major forms of Semitic poetry is called Poetic Parallelism.

This is a sort of thought rhyme with a near one-to-one relationship of both form and concepts between successive poetic lines. (more of the Tanak and the NT than you ever knew is written in poetic form)

We will be addressing five forms: synonymous antithetic synthetic climactic chiasmus
Synonymous Parallelism

In this form the same concept is expressed in successive lines so that the second line simply repeats the meaning of the first in slightly different words.


Why did I not die at birth
come forth from the womb and expire?
why did the knees receive me,
and why the breasts, that I should give suck?
(Job 3:11-12)

Can mankind be just before Elohim?
can a man be pure before his Maker?
(Job 4:17)

He who sits in heaven laughs
The Lord scoffs at them.
(Ps. 2:4)

The heavens are telling of the glory of Elohim
And their expanse is declaring the work of his hands.
(Ps. 19:1)

An ox knows its owner
And a donkey its master’s manger,
(Is. 1:3a)

But let justice roll down like waters
And let righteousness like an ever-flowing stream
(Amos 5:24)

Examples in the NT:

Ask ant it shall be given to you
Seek and you shall find
knock and it shall be opened to you
(Mt. 7:7 see also verse 8)

Love your enemies
Do good to those who hate you
Bless those who curse you,
Pray for those who mistreat you.
(Lk. 6:27b-28 see Lk. 6:29-30)

When this form of parallelism can be identified one can easily use the meanings of corresponding phrases from parallel lines to better understand the passage.
Antithetic Parallelism

In antithetic parallelism the concept expressed in the second line contrasts and emphasizes the concept of the first line.


I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear
But now my eye sees You;
(Job 42:5)

For the LORD knows the way of the righteous.
But the way of the wicked will perish.
(Ps. 1:6)

The young lions do lack and suffer hunger;
But they who seek the LORD shall not be in want of any good thing.
(Ps. 34:10)

A wise son makes a father glad.
But a foolish son is a grief to his mother.
(Prov. 10:1 b)

A gentle answer turns away wrath,
But a harsh word stirs up anger.
(Prov. 15:1)

A “New Testament” example:

Every good tree bears good fruit,
But the bad tree bears bad fruit.
(Mt. 7:17, See also Mt. 7:18)

Where antithetic parallelism may be detected, we know that our understanding of the second line should contrast our understanding of the first line and vice versa.
Synthetic/Formal Parallelism

Synthetic parallelism, sometimes called “formal parallelism” does not contain repitition in different words, nor contrasting statements. In synthetic parallelism the concept of the first line is carried further in a progressive flow of thought and completed in the second and succeeding lines.


And he will be like a tree planted
by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.
(Ps. 1:3)

YHWH has looked down from heaven
upon the sons of men,
To see if there are any who understand,
Who seek after Elohim.
(Ps. 14:2)

Wherever synthetic parallelism can be identified, we know that the second line must continue the same thought as the first line.
Climactic/Step Parallelism

Climactic parallelism, sometimes called “step parallelism”, combines the qualities of synonymous and synthetic parallelism. In climactic parallelism the second line echoes the concept or repeats part of the first and also adds to it an element which carries forward or completes the meaning which is the climax of the whole.

Ascribe to YHWH, 0 sons of the mighty,Ascribe to YHWH glory and strength.(Ps. 29:1)
Pray to your Father who is in secret.And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. (Mt. 6:6b)
Whoever receives this child in My name receives Me;And whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me; (Lk. 9:48a)
In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with Elohim. And the Word was Elohim. (Jn. l : I )

Where climactic parallelism may be identified, like synthetic parallelism, the second line must continue the thought of the first line.

Is an inverted type of parallelism. Parallelism is turned around so that the second line follows in reverse order. Chiasmus may appear in the various forms of parallelism. For example synonymous chiasmus may be found in Is. 55:8:

For My thoughts are not your thoughts. Neither are your ways My ways.

New Testament examples are as follows, in Mt. 10:39:

He who has found his life shall lose it,
And he who has lost his life, for my sake, shall find it

Mt. 5:12-14:

[A] Happy are they, which are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
[B] for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven [C] Happy are you,
[D] when men shall revile you,
[E] and persecute,
[D] and shall say all evil against you falsely,
for my sake.
[C] Rejoice and be glad,
[B] for great is your reward in heaven,
[A] for persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

I Cor. 12:12:

[A] For even as the body is one
[B] and yet has many members
[C] and all the members of the body
[B] though they are many
[A] are one body, so also is the Messiah

Being familiar with the forms of Hebrew poetry can be very helpful in obtaining context and in using the seventh rule of Hillel.

For example the forms of Hebraic poetry are a major key to understanding the identify of the Suffering Servant figure of Isaiah 53.

Let us look at the poetic patterns of Is. 52:7; 52:10 and 53:1: Isaiah 52:7 is written in Synonymous Parallelism as follows:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that brings goodnews,
that publishes peace;
that brings goodnews of good,
that publishes salvation,
that says to Zion: “Your Elohim reigns!”

Isaiah 52: 10 is written in a Chiastic structure as follows:

[B] has made bare his holy arm
[C] in the eyes of all the nations
[C] and all the ends of the earth [B] shall see the salvation
[A] of our Elohim.

And Isaiah 53:1 is also written in Synonymous Parallelism as follows:

Who has believed our report?
And to whom is the arm of YHWH revealed?

Now from these structures it is clear that “publishes salvation” in 52:7 parallels “shall see the salvation” in 52: 10. “Shall see the salvation” clearly parallels “made bare his holy arm” in 52: 10. And “made bare his holy ann” in 52:10 clearly parallels “the arm of YHWH revealed” in 53:1. Therefore the message delivered by the figure “standing upon the mountains” of 52:7 is the “report” given by the speaker of 53: I. In other words this figure is the speaker of Isaiah 53. This is important because in recent years some Rabbinic commentators have sought to identify the speaker of Isaiah 53 as the “gentile kings of the earth”, but no one understands the gentile kings of the earth to be the figure on the mountains in Isaiah
‘ They do this because in Isaiah 53 the speaker is contrasted with the servant. If the speaker is Israel (as is demonstrated elsewhere in this book) then the Servant cannot be Israel. But if the speaker is the Gentile kings, then one could argue that the servant is Israel.



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