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Poetry in the Hebrew Bible
By Jeff A. Benner


Hebrew Parallelism (Chiasmus)
The Chiastic Structure of Genesis 1:1 to 2:3
The Poetry of Genesis Chapter One
Poetical Translation of Genesis Chapter One




Hebrew Parallelism (Chiasmus)

As Hebrew poetry is written much differently than our own Western style of poetry, many do not recognize the poetry which can cause problems when translating or interpreting passages written in poetry.

Approximately 75% of the Hebrew Bible is poetry. All of Psalms and Proverbs are Hebrew poetry and many other books, such as the book of Genesis, are filled with poetry. The reason much of the Bible was written in poetry is that it was originally sung and stories that are sung are much easier to memorize that when simply spoken. There is much more poetry in the Bible than most realize because most people do not understand it.

The most common form of poetry in the Hebrew Bible is parallelisms, which is the expression of one idea in two or more different ways.

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. (Psalms 119:105)

The above example of a simple parallel and can be written in this manner;

Your word is;
   1. a lamp to my feet
   2. a light for my path

Here we see that the words "lamp" and "light" are paralleled as well as the words "my feet" and "my path". Below is another example of this style of poetry.

My son, my teachings you shall not forget and my commands your heart shall guard. (Proverbs 3:1)

In this verse the words "my teachings" is paralleled with "my commands" and "you shall not forget" is paralleled with "your heart shall guard" and can be written as follows.

My son;
   1. my teachings you shall not forget
   2. my commands your heart shall guard

Below is Psalm 15:1-3 broken down into its poetic sequences. In this example each thought is represented by the letters A, B, C and D. Each expression of a thought is represented by the numbers 1 and 2.

A1. Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary?
A2. Who may live on your holy hill?

B1. He whose walk is blameless
B2. and who does what is righteous.

C1. who speaks the truth from his heart
C2. and has no slander on his tongue.

D1. who does his neighbor no wrong
D2. and casts no slur on his fellow man.

While the book of Psalms and Proverbs are the most recognized as being poetical in nature, it is found throughout the whole of the Hebrew Bible.

Lamech said to his wives, "Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me and a young man for injuring me." (Genesis 4:23)

Let's break down what Lamech says. First he says; "Adah and Zillah, listen to me." This sentence is a paralleled with the following sentence; wives of Lamech, hear my words. Then he says that he has killed; a man for wounding me, which is paralled with; a young man for injuring me. Lamech did not wound one person and injure another, he killed one person and says it two different ways.

Isaiah 6:10
A. Make the heart of this people fat,
B. and make their ears heavy,
C. and shut their eyes;
C1. lest they see with their eyes,
B1. and hear with their ears,
A1. and understand with their heart, and return, and be healed.".

Another common form of parallelism is the use of negatives, where two opposing ideas are stated as we see in Proverbs 11:19-20.

A1. Righteousness brings one to life
B1. Pursuit of evil brings one to his death
B2. a twisted heart is an abomination of YHWH
A2. a mature path is his pleasure




The Chiastic Structure of Genesis 1:1 to 2:3


A. Elohiym filled the sky and the land because it was empty and it was all in chaos so the wind of Elohiym settled upon the water (1:1 to 1:2)
A1. Day 1 - Elohiym separates (1:3 to 1:5, Day one)
a. light
b. dark
A2. Day 2 - Elohiym separates (1:6 to 1:8, Day two)
a. water
b. sky
A3. Day 3 - Elohiym separates(1:9 to 1:13, Day three
a. land
b. Plants spring up from the land

B1. Day 4 - Elohiym fills (1:14 to 1:19, Day four)
a. the light with the sun
b. the dark with the moon
B2. Day 5 - Elohiym fills (1:20 to 1:23, Day five)
a. fills the water with fish
b. fills the sky with birds
B3. Day 6 - Elohiym fills (1:24 to 1:31, Day six)
a. the land with animals and man
b. Plants are given as food

B. Elohiym Finishes his separating and filling of the sky and the land and respects the seventh day because in it he did his occupation (2:1 to 2:3, Day seven)




The Poetry of Genesis Chapter One

When we read Genesis chapter one we usually see only one story there, but there are actually many stories. Why don't we see these multiple stories? Because we read the Hebrew Bible from a Modern Western thinkers point of view and not from an Ancient Eastern thinkers view like the Hebrews who wrote it. The Hebrews style of writing is prolific with a style of poetry unfamiliar to most readers of the Bible. This poetry is nothing like the poetry we are used to reading today and therefore it is invisible to us.

Often we overlook what the Bible is telling us because we are not recognizing what the poetry of a passage is attempting to convey. For example look at Psalms 40:8; "I desire to do your will, O my God; your Torah is within my heart" Here we see that doing the will of God is the same thing as having the Torah within your heart.

It must be remembered that modern western thinkers view events in step logic. This is the idea that each event comes after the previous forming a series of events in a linear timeline. But, the Hebrews did not think in step logic but in block logic. This is the grouping together of similar ideas together and not in chronological order. Most people read Genesis chapter one from a step logic perspective or chronological, rather than from the block logic so prevalent in Hebrew poetry.

Now let us look at the Creation story Parallels of Genesis chapter one.

Creation Story Number 1

The first story is found in Genesis 1.1 "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The Hebrew word "bara" is a verb and is usually translated as "create". To really understand what this word means let us look at another passage where this word is used.

1 Samuel 2.29 - Why do you scorn my sacrifice and offering that I prescribed for my dwelling? Why do you honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?' The word "fattening" in the passage above is the Hebrew word "bara". The noun form of this verb is "beriya" and can be found in Genesis 41.4 - "And the cows that were ugly and gaunt ate up the seven sleek, fat cows." The word "fat" is the Hebrew word "beriya".

The word "bara" does not mean, "create" (Hebrew actually has no word that means "create" in the sense of something out of nothing) but "to fatten". If we take the literal definition of "bara" in Genesis 1.1 we have - In the beginning God fattened the heavens and the earth. What does this fattening of the heavens and earth mean? This verse is not showing the creation of the heaven and earth, but rather the fattening or filling up of it. Therefore, Genesis 1.1 is a condensed version of the whole creation story.

Creation Story Number 2

The second creation story paralleling Genesis 1.1 is Genesis 1.2 - "and the earth was unfilled and empty and darkness was over the face of the deep, and the Wind of God was hovering over the waters." In this passage we see that the earth was formless and empty before it was filled up, then the Wind of God hovers over the waters of the earth. This hovering would be the action of the Wind of god filling up the earth.

The use of the word "and" at the beginning of this verse may cause some confusion due to an understanding of how this word is used in Hebrew. In English the word "and" in between verses one and two means that what happens in verse two occurs after what happens in verse one. In Hebrew, the word "and" is used in standard Hebrew poetry to link two statements as one. In other words, verse one is the same thing as verse two.

Creation Story Number 3

The third story is found in Genesis 1.3-5. "And God said, 'Let there be light', and there was light and God saw that the light was good and he separated the light from the darkness and God called the light 'day', and the darkness he called 'night' and there was evening, and there was morning, the first day".

Hebrew, like English, has a word for one and a different word for first. The same is true for the words two and second, three and third, etc. As an example the Hebrew word for "three" is "shelosh", and the Hebrew word for "third" is "sheliyshiy". Days 2 - 7 use the Hebrew word for second, third, fourth, etc. We would assume that the "first" day would use the Hebrew word "reshon" meaning "first" in order to be consistent with the other six days, but instead we have the word "echad" meaning "one" or " in unity". The author is making a parallel with the "first" day and with all the days of creation. I believe this is because all seven days of the fattening of the earth are being united in this verse. The first day of creation is also a parallel with the whole of creation as the earth was in darkness and the act of filling the earth brought light to the earth.

Creation Story Number 4

The fourth creation story is found in Genesis 1.3-13. In these passages we have the first three days of creation. These are the days of separating. On the first day God separated light and darkness. On the second day God separated the waters above from the waters below forming the sky and the seas. On the third day God separated the land from the water forming dry land.

Creation Story Number 5

The fifth creation story is found in Genesis 1.14-31. In these passages we have the second set of three days of creation. On the fourth day God filled the light with the sun and the darkness with the moon and stars. On the fifth day God filled the sky with the birds and the sea with the fish. On the sixth day God filled the dry land with the animals and man. Notice the correlation between the first set of three days of separation with the second set of three days of filling.

Creation Story Number 6

The sixth story is the whole of Genesis chapter one. Though we have looked at five different stories of creation, they are all combined together to form one complete story of creation.





Poetical Translation of Genesis Chapter One

Filling the Void

1 In the beginning the Mighty One filled the skies and the land 2 because the world existed devoid and void. A chaotic void was over the face of the deep then the creative breath of the Mighty One hovered over the face of the water.

The Making of Light (Order out of Chaos)

3 The Mighty One said "let order exist" and order came into existence. 4 The Mighty One saw that the order was beautiful. The Mighty One made a separation between the order and the chaos. 5 The Mighty One called the order day and the chaos night. There was an evening and there was a morning, a unified day.

The Making of the Waters and the Skies

6 The Mighty One said "there will be a sheet between the water to separate the waters". 7 Then the Mighty One placed the sheet separating the waters under the sheet from the waters over the sheet and it was established. 8 The Mighty One called the sheet, skies. There was an evening and there was a morning, a second day.

The Making of the Land

9 The Mighty One said "the waters under the skies will gather toward one place" and dry ground appeared and it was established. 10 and the Mighty One called the dry ground, land and the collection waters he called, seas. The Mighty One saw that it was beautiful. 11 The Mighty One said "the land will sprout grass sprouts and seed fruit seeds, each to its own kind whose seed is in them all over the land" and it was established. 12 The land brought out grass sprouts and sowing seeds each to its own kind and fruit trees whose seeds are in them, each to their own kind. The Mighty One saw that it was beautiful. 13 There was an evening and there was a morning, a third day.

The Filling of the Light

14 The Mighty One said "bodies of light will exist in the sheet of the skies to separate between the day and the night and they will exist for signs and appointments, for days and years. 15 They will exist for lights in the sheet of the skies to give light over the land, and it was established". 16 The Mighty One made the two large bodies of light. The large body of light to rule the day and the small body of light luminary to rule the night and the stars. 17 and the Mighty One placed them in the sheet of the skies to give light over the land 18 to rule the day and the night and to separate the order and the chaos. The Mighty One saw that it was beautiful. 19 There was an evening and there was a morning, a fourth day.

The Filling of the Water and Skies

20 The Mighty One said "the waters will swarm with living swarms and flyers will fly over the land and over the face of the sheet of the skies". 21 The Mighty One filled the great monsters and all the living things, the crawling ones that swarm in the waters, each to their own kind and all the flyers with wings each to their own kind. The Mighty One saw that it was beautiful. 22 The Mighty One knelt before at them to say "they will yield and increase and fill the waters in the seas and the flyers will increase on the land. 23 There was an evening and there was a morning, a fifth day.

The Filling of the Land

24 and the Mighty One said "the land bring forth the living souls, each to her own kind, creatures and crawlers and the living ones of the land; each to her own kind, and it was established. 25 The Mighty One made the living ones of the land, each to their own kind and the creatures, to their own kind and all the crawlers of the ground to their own kind. The Mighty One saw that it was beautiful. 26 The Mighty One said "we will make man in our shadow, like our shape and they will subdue the fish of the sea and he flyers of the skies and the creatures and all the land and all the crawlers crawling over the land. 27 The Mighty One filled the man with his shadow; in the shadow of the Mighty One he filled him, male and female he filled them. 28 and the Mighty One knelt before them and the Mighty One said to them "they will yield and increase and fill the land and subjugate it and they will subdue the fish of the sea and the flyers of the skies and all the lives of the crawlers over the land" 29 The Mighty One said "look, I give you all the grass sowing seeds that is over the face of the whole land and all the trees which have fruit sowing seeds, these exist are for you as food. 30 All the living ones of the land and the flyers of the skies and the crawling ones over the land which have a living soul in them have all the green grass for food and it was established. 31 The Mighty One saw that all he had made and behold, it is very beautiful. There was an evening and there was a morning, a sixth day.







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