Helpful Hints for Reading the Poetical Books or “Writings”

What we are calling the poetical books (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes,Song of Solomon and Lamentations) are part of the Hebrew bible called “Writings”. The Hebrew Scriptures are divided into three parts, the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon and Lamentations are part of the Writings, along with Ruth, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and 1 and 2 Chronicles.( We read Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles as part of the historical books and Ruth, Esther and Daniel with the prophets.)

These books are unlike other books of scripture. They are not a tidy “set”, like Torah or the prophets. They are quite diverse.  They are mostly poetry. They are a result of Israel’s intellectual, ethical thought and Israel’s worship.

The poetical books are not concerned with the history of Israel. They are difficult to date with much certainty. There is little discussion of the major themes of the Old Testament, covenant, Exodus,and God’s actions in history. The poetical books are more concerned with individuals rather than community. They are a reflection on life and how to live it well. Many of these books grew over time and thus reflect  changing social circumstances.

The wisdom tradition in ancient Israel began before the time of the prophets and lasted until after the prophets. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job are a type of literature called wisdom literature. The search for wisdom was something all peoples did and Jewish wisdom literature was influenced by the wisdom literature of the cultures around them. The wisdom books focus on different aspects of wisdom. The wisdom books fall generally into two types, “prudential literature” which is practical advise on how to live a successful and good life. The second general type is the “reflective literature” which considers the meaning of life and suffering.

As we read, we will find that sometimes a book is in “disagreement” with itself and with other books. For example, Proverbs often suggests that the righteous are rewarded and do not suffer. The book of Job presents a different view. Ecclesiastics, a wisdom text, has negative things to say about the value of wisdom.  The books are complex and diverse.

As the biblical tradition developed, Torah was attributed to Moses, the Psalms to David, and wisdom texts with Solomon. While scholars believe these attributions are not entirely historically accurate, this tradition does honor the role and memory of Israel’s great leaders.

Because of the diversity of the poetical books, each book will need to be introduced individually and we will do that as we come to each book. But a word about poetry is appropriate at this point.

Ancient poetry may sound odd to modern people. It does not rhyme or have a fixed meter. You will notice that Hebrew poetry does have a feature called parallelism. Often the poems we read will have paired lines, and occasionally three. In a couplet the second line intensifies, modifies or in some way finished the idea of the first line. Sometimes there are word plays and alliteration.

Sometimes words are repeated:

The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty,                                                                  The Lord is robed, he is girded with strength.  (Ps 93:1)

Sometimes ideas are contrasted:

The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life,                                                  but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence  (Prov 10:11)

The poetical books also use metaphor and simile and figures of speach.

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The following are several good general reference works to aid your reading of the Torah.

Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, “Understanding the Old Testament” Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.

Keck, Leander E., ed. “The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume lll and lV. (Nashville”Abingdon Press) 1994.

Mays, James L. ed. “HarperCollins Bible Commentary” (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.

Metzger, Bruce M., Roland E. Murphy, eds. “The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books” (New York: Oxford University Press) 1994.