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By Jeff A. Benner
Just as it is important to understand how the Hebrews thought and spoke, it is just as important to know how they wrote. Their style of writing is different than what we are used to, yet we attempt to read the ancient Hebrew texts as if it was written by one of our contemporary writers. This will again cause a mistranslation as well as misinterpretations of the text. Therefore, it is essential to learn the unique styles of writing employed by the Hebrews in order to read the texts correctly.
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 these passages.
Parallelism is most commonly found in the book of Psalms and Proverbs but is found throughout the whole of the Hebrew Bible. Parallelism is the expression of one idea in two or more different ways.
The above example of a simple parallel and can be written in this manner;
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.
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.
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.
Another common form of parallelism is the use of negatives where two opposing ideas are stated as we see in Proverbs 11:19.
In Genesis 12:1 we can see the poetry of God's command to Abraham to leave his hometown in three different ways.
In the Western style of writing, an account is broken up into sentences. Each thought is written and closed with a period. The Eastern style of writing on the other hand continues a sentence dividing each thought with the word "and". Below is a translation of Genesis 1:3-8 retaining the "and" as found in the Hebrew.
The use of the word "and" within the text must be kept in mind when reading Biblical accounts as it may influence the interpretation of the story. For example, in Exodus 17:7 we read;
In most translations this verse ends the paragraph and a new paragraph begins with verse 8.
The format of these two passages implies two separate events. But, if the word "and", as found in the Hebrew, is inserted between the two, the passages become related, as we see here.
When read the passage in this manner, it appears that Amalek came and attacked as a result of their "chiding" and "tempting" of God.
The use of the word "and" between "Cherubims" and "a flaming sword" suggest two objects guarding the tree of life. Hebrew, on the other hand, will frequently use the word "and" between two identifiers of the same thing such as in the following passages.
In this passage, the words "king" and "God" are two names for one person. In the same manner the words "Cherubim" and "flaming sword" are two words for the same thing. It should also be noted that the Hebrew for Cherubim and sword are almost identical. This use of the word "and" will be discussed further in the section "Hebrew Poetry".
A Western writer records his story or account in a chronological fashion where time is always viewed as a series of consecutive events that occur one after the other. This style of writing is called "step logic" as events are recorded step by step.
The story traces the events of the day from morning to evening in a chronological order. We have no difficulty reading or comprehending this style of logic as we use it every day.
The first thing we notice in this story is that we cannot determine the chronology of each event and our minds are attempting to do this as we read it. But the author is not trying to place the events in a "step by step" chronology but instead grouping all like events in a series of related "blocks". The first block of events is those that occurred at home. The second block describe the actions of reading and working while the third are those events that involve driving.
If God created light to separate light and darkness on the first day, why do we read of the creation of light to separate day and on the fourth day?
Another example of block logic is the different Creation stories recorded in the first two chapters of Genesis. The first block (Genesis 1:1-2:3) describes the "Creation" of the skies and the land, of which the creation of man is only mentioned. The second block (Genesis 2:4-25) describes the "Creation" of man, of which the creation of the skies and land are only mentioned. In essence, these two different stories are of the same event but from differing perspectives.
Word Parallels - puns
In our modern style of writing, we would never write something like, "The painter painted a painting," or "The painter fainted from the pain." However, in the Ancient Hebrew style of writing, this is the exact style of phrasing an author looks for. Here are just a few examples of word puns that can found in the book of Genesis.