Vertical Grammar of Parallelism in Hebrew Poetry*

The following which may be of general interest are extracts from

“Vertical Grammar of Parallelism in Hebrew Poetry”, David Toshio Tsumura, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 128, No. 1 (Spring, 2009), pp. 167-181.

In Hebrew poetic parallelism, two lines often constitute a compound sentence, with the syntactical images of two lines being perfectly superimposed.

For example, Ps 24:3:

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?

The syntactical structure of the first colon and that of the second are exactly same … In this synonymous parallelistic structure, two colons of the same syntactical image are superimposed on each other and express the meaning, “Who shall ascend the hill of Yahweh and stand in his holy place?”

In contrast, antithetic parallelism, in which two contrastive elements are dealt with is an example of superimposition of the opposite sides of the same coin, not of two contradictory thoughts.

For example, Prov 15:8:

The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord,
but the prayer of the upright is his delight.

Such “superimposition” of the syntactical image of two lines can be realized also even if there is a gapping of element in one of the parallel lines.

For example, in Prov 5:15 a verb is missing from the second line and a “ballast variant” (lit., “from the midst of your well”) compensates for it.

Drink waters from your own cistern,
flowing from your own well

… Hence, “Drink flowing waters from your own cistern, namely, from your own well”, not, “Drink water from your own cistern, / [drink] flowing water from your own well,”

Further, in Ps 47:6, the lack of a verb in the second line is stylistically balanced by a “ballast variant” in the first line.

God has gone up with shouts of joy,
Yahweh, with the sound of a trumpet.

… Since the two subjects in Ps 47:6, God and Yahweh, are co-referential, the second line is grammatically dependent on the first. It is reasonable, therefore, to think that the subject “Yahweh” and the verb also have a vertical grammatical relation. Thus, the parallelism as a whole means, “God Yahweh has gone up with shouts of joy and the sound of a trumpet,” not, “God has gone up with shouts of joy, [while] Yahweh has gone up with the sound of a trumpet.” Here too, therefore, it is evident that parallelism is the device of expressing one thought through two lines…

In the Hebrew parallel structure, this phenomenon of vertical grammar is recognizable in texts such as Prov 3:6:

In all your ways acknowledge him,
who makes straight your paths.

Grammatically speaking, the second line depends vertically on the first line, while the word pair ways and paths, corresponding to each other paradigmatically in parallelism, conveys a sense of unity, expressing one sentence through two lines. In this example, a complex sentence (“In all your ways acknowledge him, who makes straight your paths”).

One of the typical examples of the vertical grammatical relation between two parallel lines is the breakup of a construct chain into two parallel lines.

Isaiah 64:9b:

Zion has become a wilderness,
Jerusalem, a desolation.

In this text, the construct chain “desolate wilderness” (lit. “wilderness of desolation”; Jer 12:10, Joel 2:3; 3:19) is split into two parts, one in the first line, the other in the second. Thus, these two words are vertically related grammatically. Hence, the meaning is, “Zion Jerusalem has become a desolate wilderness,” not “Zion has become a wilderness, while Jerusalem [has become] a desolation.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.