Sjolander Road Fellowship

Declaring the God of Unconditional Love

bible poetry revisited



When one considers the literary style of the Bible it is necessary to deal with the fact that much of its text is written poetically. In fact, the ancient Hebrew Bible was divided by the Hebrew scholars into the three categories of law, prophecy, and poetry. Furthermore, most Hebrew scholars recognize poetic elements within the books of law and prophecy.


In noting the poetic nature of much scripture, one naturally comes to define what poetry entails. A concise definition of poetry is difficult, but certain literary devices prevail within writings that are generally identified as poetic. Rhyming of words is perhaps the best known of these devices, but much that is seen as poetry does not use rhyming. Other devices like symbolic language and the repetition of certain letters and sounds at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of words within the same sentence or phrase often identify the writing as poetic. Additional signs of poetry include layered or multiple levels of understanding and enigmatic or contradictory wording. All of the above, especially the major use of symbolism, make poetic writing amenable to a varied interpretation.


For many, the poetic writing style seems strange. Those of us who are right brained are much more comfortable with straightforward, concise language whose meaning is easily grasped. We are much more attuned with prose than poetry and deal with poetic writings as a frustrating exercise in confusion. I suspect many can relate to this based on high school literary classes where we were asked to interpret poetry.


The right brained approach to understanding is much promoted by modernisms reliance on the scientific method and its insistence on linear reasoning, The scientific and technological revolution of the past 100-150 years has thus predisposed many to the more prosaic forms of literature.


Despite that fact, all who deal with the full scope of the Bible must address its poetic nature. Nonetheless, many supposed exegetes insist on what they term a literal biblical interpretative scheme, trying to understand the text without allowing symbolism and other poetic devices to create room for multiple interpretations. This is not at all surprising since Orthodox Christian theology demands one true biblical interpretation. The very existence of poetic devices within the Bible is problematic for such theology.


The above group will have to admit to some poetic elements in the Bible, but they certainly seek to limit the scope of that poetry. In that regard, they attempt to literalize portions of scripture which contain obvious attributes of poetry. Especially within the prophetic books we thus hear bizarre interpretative schemes which focus on cataclysmic events whose descriptions, when literalized, are physically impossible, logically unreasonable, and ethically abhorrent. Reaching such conclusions through a forced literal interpretation should raise immediate questions about the appropriateness of such a methodology; but, as noted before, much of Christianity is boxed in by their perceived need to have one true Bible interpretation.


Needless to say the application of literary analysis to the scriptures is anathema to many within Christian Orthodoxy. Such reasoned evaluation is just too challenging to long held beliefs. It has therefore been much easier to dismiss those who raise this point than to deal with the issues raised by them. Name calling and culmination have generally been all that was necessary to sidetrack the general church member from considering any observations by literary scholars.


A belief system which promotes faith as a blind adherence to traditional beliefs has a built in mechanism for deflecting questions, and the church makes ready use of that fact. No one need care about the details of the Bible. This is what we have always believed. It served in the past, and there is no need to change now. The church establishes what the Bible means and doesn't need outside advice or inside advice either, if any member is so bold as to question its theology.