In seminary, we read parts of J. P. Fokkelman on biblical narrative and biblical poetry. Recently, while studying the Shirat ha-Yam (the Song at the Sea) in Ex 15, I read parts of Fokkelman on poetry again to review several aspects. I realize there are several different approaches to biblical poetry; I need to read some of M. O’Connor’s Hebrew Verse Structure sooner than later, but Fokkelman should be on your shelf if you’re studying Hebrew poetry. Even if you disagree with some of his conclusions, there are good insights there.
Here’s what he says about poetry, which he later applies to biblical poetry.
“What a poet undertakes does have a lot to do with creating ‘density.’ Poetry is the most compact and concentrated form of speech possible. By making the most of his or her linguistic tools, the poet creates an immense richness of meaning, and this richness becomes available if we as readers know how to handle the density: how we can cautiously tackle complexity, probe the various layers one by one, and unfold them. The poet creates this abundance of meanings by visiting all the nooks and crannies of the language, and by being an expert at it” (p. 14).
This is true – I counted around 160 Hebrew words in the Song of the Sea in Ex 15; most English translations have around 430 or so. Also, there are “layers” in the Song of the Sea – we have to recognize metaphor, simile, onomatopoeia, anthropomorphism, and so on. In the Song of the Sea Yahweh is over the forces of creation, anti-creation, enemies, the sea-monster, false gods, yet in all this he is for the people he covenantally owns. I like Fokkelman’s “nooks and crannies” and “abundance of meanings” – it is not a flat text, but a “3-D” one, if you will. Not surprisingly, many scholars disagree on the divisions of the song in Ex 15. Perhaps it is anachronistic to want to split up Hebrew poetry like we do our poems.
Fokkelman defines Hebrew poetry this way:
“A poem is the result of (on the one hand) an artistic handling of language, style, and structure and (on the other hand) applying prescribed proportions to all levels of the text, so that a controlled combination of language and number is created” (p. 35).
Sasson, from a different perspective, gave an alternative yet parallel explanation: the essence of Hebrew poetry is a departure from the constraints of prose (unfortunately, I cannot find the reference to this phrase, since I wrote it in the margins of Fokkelman’s book. Any help here?).
In summary, Hebrew poetry is a different world than Hebrew prose. It takes somewhat different interpretive rules and translating techniques, which of course affect the homiletical act of preaching poetry. Fokkelman doesn’t talk about preaching a poem, but in my opinion, biblical poems scream out “preach me!” Understanding that a poem is “thick” demands a different pulpit approach than does a narrative. Consequently, preaching a poem is difficult – often like describing Van Gogh to a mathematician.
A final note: one way to think about biblical poetry couched in narrative (like Ex 15) is comparing it to a picture in the middle of a story book. Pictures create a world synonymous to the text, adding depth – Ricoeur should be consulted here as well. Poetry-pictures are meant for both sides of the brain, and it needs to come out in homiletics.