Instead of rhyming on vowel endings, or matching syllables and emphases, Hebrew poetry primarily relies on parallelism. The simplest form of such parallelism is two lines (usually comprising a single verse). Such line pairs typically exhibit one of three possible relationships:
- They combine to refine the root idea. This is called a hendiadys (more on that below).
- The second line extends or amplifies the idea of the first line.
- The second line contrasts the idea of the first line.
Even with such a simple structure, such possible relationships can enrich the level of communication.
Other poetic tools include:
- Hendiadys (mentioned above), meaning two into one (more on this below).
- Chiastic structures
Here is a formal definition of “merismus:” (https://www.wordnik.com/words/merismus)
n. A metonymic term to describe a type of synecdoche in which two parts of a thing, perhaps contrasting or complementary parts, are made to stand for the whole. [i.e., a totality, a whole, is expressed in abbreviated form by the citation of parts, such as “night and day” representing something taking place continuously].
From Ancient Greek μερισμός (merismos, “a dividing”), derived from the Greek verb μερίζω (merizō, “to divide into parts”). (Wiktionary)
The Book of Job has many poetic expressions that succinctly expresses by word or phrase pairs, a certain, all-encompassing idea. Such tool of poetry is call a “merismus;” the name is not important, but recognizing the use of such tool is helpful in interpretation of the text and fully appreciating the poetry itself.
Let’s first consider everyday use of merismus. If we have been working long hours, we might express this as “I’ve been working night and day.”. Here “night” – “day” are a word pair (merismus) that conveys the idea that my work hours have not been confined to the ordinary limits of daytime. Or, we might say I have looked high and low for the missing keys. Or, it was a life and death situation.
Three important examples of merismus occur in the opening chapter of the Book of Job after he has experienced the loss of all things by the destructive hand of Satan:
- Job 1:20…Job got up (then tore his robe, shaved his head), and fell to the ground in worship. The phrases got up and fell to the ground ‘bookend’ the four actions he took in preparation for worship.
- Job 1:21…Job notes that he entered life naked and he was always going to leave life naked so the loss of all things has not changed either condition.
- Job 1:21…Job proclaims the great Sovereign truth, that the LORD gives and the LORD takes away.
Merismus expressions convey a completeness, finality, comprehensive condition. They are weighted with a finality. These is also a subtle element of contrast with a merismus. In Job 1:20, the text could simply have omitted the opening phrase got up, and so just noted his act of tearing his robe, shaving his head, and prostrating himself in worship. But the dramatic addition of opening with got up heightens the effect. It would not be unexpected for a man in such circumstance to stand and scream, or shout, or throw up his arms in anguish, or anger, or some expression of retributive force. But, no, here Job stands to take certain actions of humility (the tearing of his robe and shaving his head) and then in such humbled condition, to fall from the erect to prone position, emphasizing his act of worship.
Chiastic structures (CS) are similar to merismus. CS differ in that they typically involve multiple verses or lines within verses that make succeeding statements, say a / b / c, then immediately followed by a reversed order, namely c/ b / a. So the overall sequence looks like: a / b / c / c / b / a.
The similarity to merismus is that such CS creates an enveloping, encompassing, ‘whole’ idea.
The dominant form of Hebrew poetry is idea parallelism as expressed by the meaning of the words used. This differs dramatically from our more familiar parallelism of poetry which rhymes on vowels (“roses are red, violets are BLUE, sugar is sweet, and so are YOU), or Shakespearean poetry which uses parallels of word stress the word pair (STRESSED unstressed) forming a “foot” with five “feet” to a line.
There are multiple forms of Hebrew parallelism:
- Synonymous: the parallel line repeats the original line, expressing the same or a nuanced same meaning using different words.
- Antithetic: the parallel line presents a diametrical contrast (opposite) to the first line highlighting the contrast.
- Synthetic: the parallel line extends the meaning of the original line, as a progression or extension of the idea.
- Climatic: is similar to Synthetic except that the extended line carries a the idea of a conclusive end.
A hendiadys is a word-pair whose meaning is emphasized to be where the range of possible meanings of each of the paired words overlap (i.e., are congruent) . A simple example suffices. In 1 Cor 16:13, in the original Greek, the verse begins with two words usually translated “watch” and “guard” (or “protect”). “Watch” has a range of meanings even within the context of guard duty. It could mean only to keep a lookout but not actually do anything about what is seen. Similarly “guard” can mean to actively protect something without necessarily conveying the idea of being actively watchful. By the hendiadys, pairing these words, we can understand that we are command to be watchful for the purpose of guarding (protecting) something. (Both of these verbs in 1 Cor 16:13 are in the imperative mood, meaning commands of us).