Introduction to narrative :: Ruth :: Jonah

Hebrew narrative: Ruth and Jonah by Tim Bulkeley


Prose and Poetry

Under this heading we will address a number of related issues. First the difference between the two forms of speech as they are present in the Bible, and the tendency of narrative writers to make speech more poetic when it is formal or of greater importance. Then the significance of two issues in the relationship of biblical narrative and poetry:

How prose and poetry differ in the Bible

There are biblical scholars who deny that there is a hard distinction which allows us to identify some books or passages in the Bible as poetry. One of the most powerful markers of the distinction in the print age has been how the words are disposed on the page. Poetry is written in discrete lines. In the manuscript tradition of the Bible poetry is not marked that way. However, in the system of marking the stressed syllables and giving indications of how the text should be sung in synagogue (which dates back to 500-700AD, but was based on already ancient practice) the books of Psalms, Job and Proverbs use different accents from the other books. Which suggests that these books were felt to be different from the others.

In practice while a neat and absolute distinction is hard to substantiate for biblical Hebrew there do seem to be clear differences on a scale with texts like most psalms at one end, and obviously prosaic texts like the sermons of Deuteronomy or the narratives of Kings at the other. The "poetry" is terse, comprised of very short lines (2-4 words in Hebrew) that echo each other as well as building. The prose is more wordy, sense units are of varied length, and echoing seems less powerful. In between lies speech which is between these two poles, which like much of the preaching of the prophets is fairly terse, with often identifiable short lines and fairly strong echoing.

As well as these differences of form poetry and prose in the Old Testament "work" differently. As we have seen, while prose narrative has an identifiable narrator, biblical narrators are distant and do not strongly mark their presence on the text. By contrast the "Is" (or sometimes "we") who speak in biblical poetry are strongly identified and make no secret of their attitudes, hopes and fears. Narrative has a strong "plot" and sequence (even non-narrative prose tends to a sequential storylike organisation) while poetry (even when it does "tell a story") is organised more around attitudes and emotions, it celebrates or laments more than it recounts.

When speech goes "poetic"

Biblical narrative presents the speech of characters in ways that help us build up a picture of what they "are like", so their speeches reflect this, a pompous person sounds pompous, a proud one sounds proud... For example the fragments stumbling and leaping over each other in the girls response to Saul's simple question "Is the seer here?" in 1 Sam 9:12-13 gives a vivid impression of their excitement and the desire of each of them not to be left silent faced with the tall handsome young stranger!

Tissot's picture of Sarah laughing when the birth of Isaac was announced to Abraham (from CTS)

Yes, there he is just ahead of you. Hurry; he has come just now to the town, because the people have a sacrifice today at the shrine. As soon as you enter the town, you will find him, before he goes up to the shrine to eat. For the people will not eat until he comes, since he must bless the sacrifice; afterward those eat who are invited. Now go up, for you will meet him immediately.

Consequently, when a character speaks of important or portentous matters their speech often goes "poetic" coming close to the rhythmic brevity of a poem. Similarly the narrator's own speech can take on such formal tones. Fokkelmann (176-7) illustrates this in the scene where the birth of Isaac (the long hoped-for bearer of the ancestral promise) is announced:

3    The LORD dealt with Sarah
2       as he had said,
3    and the LORD did for Sarah
2       as he had promised.
3    Sarah conceived and bore
      Abraham a son in his old age,
4       at the time of which God had spoken to him. (Genesis 21:1-2)

This is extremely close to the strictest poetic diction, notice the rhythmic repetition of line lengths (measured in word units) and how the final line is marked by being longer, the terse short lines, and the parallel structures. This speech is very different from the girl's burbling.

Prose Epic

The Deluge tablet of the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian (from Wikipedia)

We now know several "epics" from other Ancient Near Eastern cultures, some of begin with stories similar to those in Genesis 1-11. Others tell the tales of great heroes. All of them are in poetry. Ancient Greece too had epic poems, but Israel's stories are told in prose. With the exception of fragments - like Lamech's taunting song (Gen 4:23-4) - and the occasional longer poem interspersed in a prose frame - like Ex 15:1-18 (cf. the fragment or refrain in v.21) - biblical epic though it stretches from Creation to Exile (Gen - 2 Kings) or to the Persian period (1 & 2 Chron, whether or not we include Ezra & Nehemiah) is told in prose.

While Europeans trained in the classical tradition were inclined to see this as a sign of unsophisticated - simple rather than literary - style, today we are more inclined to notice the skill and artistry of the telling.

Since the late seventies scholars (at first predominantly Israeli and Jewish, but later a consensus) have recognised also a theological motive for this genre choice, as this quote from Shemaryahu Talmon already made clear:

The ancient Hebrew writers purposefully nurtured and developed prose narration to take the place of the epic genre which by its content was intimately bound up with the world of paganism, and appears to have had a special standing in the polytheistic cults. The recitation of the epics was tantamount to an enactment of cosmic events in the manner of sympathetic magic. In the process of total rejection of the polytheistic religions and their ritual expressions in the cult, epic songs and also the epic genre were purged from the repertoire of the Hebrew authors. (Talmon, 354)

Robert Alter (quote from p.25 but see the whole chapter) citing Talmon claimed that "It is peculiar, and culturally significant, that among the ancient peoples only Israel should have chosen to cast its sacred national traditions in prose" and developed this insight to deepen our understanding of the functioning of biblical narrative.

The ancient Hebrew writers, as I have already intimated, seek through the process of narrative realization to reveal the enactment of God's purposes in historical events. This enactment, however, is continuously complicated by perception of two, approximately parallel, dialectical tensions. One is a tension between the divine plan and the disorderly character of actual historical events, or, to translate this opposition into specifically biblical terms, between the divine promise and it's ostensible failure to be fulfilled; the other is a tension between God's will, His providential guidance, and human freedom, the refractory nature of man. (Alter, 33)

When we have both prosaic and poetic accounts of the same events it is interesting to compare the two, and notice what each style achieves best.

Poetry embedded in prose

The fragments of poetry, like other "embedded genres", in prose narrative serve to make the account lively and lifelike. In this case the poetry is often sharply distinct. Embedded songs and poems also allow the prose narrative to "borrow" some of the emotive power of the poetic form. So in Genesis 4 the genealogy in verses 17ff. shows the close relation of this form with narrative proper as it continually "breaks into" narrative:

Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock. (Genesis 4:20)

This often happens in genealogy, since genealogies are a sort of compressed narrative where generations of lives are recounted in moments. Even more interesting though is the way a few verses later the list breaks into song:

Lamech said to his wives:
     "Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
         you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
    I have killed a man for wounding me,
         a young man for striking me.
    If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
         truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold." (Genesis 4:23-24)

The poetic form carries the tone of Lamech's boast powerfully, and so shockingly brings home to us what humanity has become through the seemingly simple (and almost innocent according to some readers) disobedience of Eve and Adam in chapter 3.

Sometimes the biblical narrative contains two (juxtaposed) versions of the same event, with the prose recounting of the affair followed by a song celebrating its significance. In some cases the song does not even come close to recounting events, as in Exodus 15 it is difficult to match the descriptions in the song to the events of the previous chapter(s), though it gives a powerful impression of what these events meant for Israel! In Judges 4-5 by contrast the song comes much closer to narration, and is as close as the Bible really gets to epic poetry. Judges 5 gives vivid pictures of the characters involved, which can be compared with the pictures provided in the prose account in chapter 4.

It is an interesting exercise to read both chapters closely with an eye to questions of characterisation, point of view etc. and to compare their tellings of this story.


© Tim Bulkeley, 2008