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Parallelism in Hebrew Writing

Dennis Bratcher

A common literary feature of Hebrew poetry in the Old Testament is called parallelism, in which the words of two or more lines of text are directly related in some way.  This feature can be found in any poetic passage, and sometimes even in narrative, although it is more common in the Psalms and Proverbs.

Recognizing parallelism as a poetic feature can sometimes aid in understanding or interpreting a passage.  For example, the use of parallelism usually means that the message of the text is in the larger passage and its overall point or impact rather than individual words or single lines.  Also, specific words that may be ambiguous or used in unusual ways can be clarified or more narrowly defined by seeing them in the context of a parallel structure.

The following types of parallel structure are attempts to organize this feature of Hebrew poetic writing as an aid to reading and study.  It should be kept in mind that Old Testament writers were very creative, and a great number of variations and combinations of these basic types occur in the biblical text.

I. Synonymous-the second line repeats the first in different words having the same meaning.

Psalm 19:1-2

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
    and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
} Synonymous
Day to day pours forth speech,
    and night to night declares knowledge.
} Synonymous

II. Synthetic- the second line (or following lines) adds to the first

Psalm 24:3-4

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
    And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
    who does not lift up his soul to what is false,
        and does not swear deceitfully.
} Synthetic

III. Antithetic- the second line contrasts with the first.

Psalm 73:26

My flesh and my heart may fail,
   but God is the strength of my heart
       and my portion for ever.
} Antithetic

IV. Climactic- successive lines build to a climax or summary.

Habakkuk 3:17-18

Though the fig trees do not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines,
        the produce of the olive fail
            and the fields yield no food,
                the flock be cut off from the fold
                    and there be no herd in the stalls,
} Building
Yet I will rejoice in the LORD
    I will joy in the God of my salvation.
    GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
} Climax/Summary

V. Eclectic- combination of different types interwoven.

Habakkuk 1:2

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
    and you will not hear
}  Synthetic }  Synonymous
Or cry to you "Violence!"
    and you will not save?
}  Synthetic

VI. Emphatic - synonymous words used for emphasis

Deuteronomy 6:5

You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. } Emphatic

Another feature that is sometimes included within the idea of parallelism is the use of several words or a series of words to refer to the same thing for emphasis. In Deuteronomy 6:5, the terms heart, soul, and might do not refer to separate parts of a person, but are actually synonymous referring simply to the person (see Body and Soul: Greek and Hebraic Tensions in Scripture). 

This also exhibits another poetic feature of Hebrew literature in which references to a single part of something represents the whole. For example, "from Dan to Beersheba " in 1 Sam 3:20 means the whole country of Israel, from north to south. In Deuteronomy 6:5, the three emphatic synonymous terms referring to the whole person place the emphasis on loving God totally and fully.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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