The Bible and Poetry

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From The Paris Review:

We do not read the Bible as it is meant to be read. Theology always risks leading us astray by elaborating its own discourse, with the biblical texts merely as a point of departure. The presence of poetry in the Bible is the key to a more pertinent and more faithful reading.

There are many poems found in the Bible. We know this, vaguely and without giving it too much thought, but shouldn’t we be rather astonished by the role of poetry in a collection of books with such a pressing and salutary Word to express? And shouldn’t we ask ourselves if the presence of this writing—so much more self-conscious and desirous than is prose of a form it can make vibrate—affects the biblical “message” and changes its nature?

It is unsurprising that the Psalms are poems, given their liturgical purpose and the abyss of individual and collective emotion that they explore. At the heart of the Bible and yet also apart from it, they lay out, we might suppose, for both the individual and the community, the lived experience of religion that other biblical books have the task of defining. We can accept the Song of Songs as a love poem, Jeremiah’s Lamentations as a sequence of elegies, Job as a verse drama, and we discover without too much surprise a considerable number of poems in the historical books: the song of Moses and Miriam, for example, in Exodus 15; the canticle of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5; the lament of David for Saul and Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1. And yet when we think about the presence of all these poetic books in a work in which we expect to find doctrines, and about the turn to poetry in so many of the historical books of the Bible, it gives us reason to think again. And how should we react to Proverbs, in which wisdom itself is taught in a poetic form? Or to the prophetic books, where poetry is sovereign, where warnings of the greatest urgency, for us as well as for the writers’ contemporaries, come forth in verse?

Isn’t this curious? And poetry appears from the beginning. In the second chapter of Genesis (verse 23), Adam welcomes the creation of woman in this way:

Here at last the bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.
This one shall be called woman, for she was drawn forth from man.

These are the very first human words reported; it is tempting and perhaps legitimate to draw some conclusions. By this point Adam has already named the animals, but the author only indicates this, without recording the spoken words; in the world of the beginning, from which the author knows himself as well as his readers to be excluded, he probably recognized that there must have existed an intimate relationship between language and the real, between words and things, that we are incapable of regaining. But when Adam does speak for the first time, he is given an “Edenic” language, one which our fallen languages can still attain in certain moments: thus Adam literally draws woman, ishah, from man, ’ish. Hebrew, thanks to the pleasure it takes in wordplay—in the ludic and deeply serious harmonies between the sounds of words and the beings, objects, ideas, and emotions to which they open themselves—is a language particularly and providentially skillful at suggesting what would be a cordial relation between our language and our world, and a meaningful relation among the presences of the real. It is skillful in affirming the gravity of the lightest among the figures of rhetoric: the pun. Most importantly, as soon as the first man opens his mouth, he speaks in verse. Did the author think that in the world of primitive wonder language was naturally poetic? Is this why Adam, immediately after eating the forbidden fruit, responds to God in prose: “I heard your steps in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself” (Genesis 3:10)? We cannot know, but that first brief, spontaneous poem of Adam, which we seem to hear from so far away and from so close, solicits our attention and calls for our thought. If language before the Fall was poetic, or produced poems at moments charged with meaning, does poetry represent for us the apogee of our fallen speaking—its beginning and its end, its nostalgia and its hope?

In paging through Genesis, a book of history and not a collection of poetry, we encounter an impressive number of poems. It is in poetry that God gives the law on murder and its punishment (Genesis 9:6), that Rebecca’s family blesses her (24:60), that Isaac prophesies the future of Esau (27:39–40), and that Jacob blesses the twelve tribes of Israel (49:2–27). Given the occasional difficulty of identifying which passages are in verse, it may be that others will be discovered. The Bible de Jérusalem (I am reading from a 2009 edition) presents God as speaking in poetry several times in the first three chapters, beginning with the creation of man, as the Word of God gives birth to the only creature endowed with speech:

God created man in his image,
in the image of God he created him,
man and woman he created them.

In approaching the Bible’s beginning, we must often change our listening, our rhythm, our mode of attention and of being, in order to understand and receive a different language.

There are fewer poems in the New Testament, but they give even more food for thought. The Gospel of Luke introduces, from its first chapters, three poems: the canticles of Mary, Zachariah, and Simeon. Thus the Savior’s life begins under the sign of poetry. The book of Revelation, at the end of the Bible, contains additional canticles, as well as lamentations on Babylon, in poetry that appeals to the visionary imagination. In the name of Christianity, it returns to the extravagant poetry of the prophets. The first letter of John develops its thought with such felicity of rhythmic phrasing and close-crafted form that the Jerusalem Bible translates it completely in verse. These same translators have Paul’s letter to the Romans begin and end in verse, thus using poetry to frame a doctrinal exposition animated by an inflamed but in principle “prosaic” process of reflection, analysis, and synthesis.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

PG opines that the King James edition of the Bible is where you’ll find the best poetry.

2 thoughts on “The Bible and Poetry”

  1. That richness is why I chose only quotations from the KJV for my Pride’s Children epigraphs and chapter titles – the American Catholic bible translations seem to be purposely scoured of literary language. I understand wishing for accuracy in translations of religious material, but the KJV authors’ were successful, and I cringe at the ‘approved’ language I have to listen to. And which continues to change periodically in mystifying rewordings.

    A little archaic-ness is a good thing, when it leads to people over generations, countries, and centuries getting the same resonances.

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