Principles For Reading Hebrew Parallelism in English

In my last post, I argued for the value of reading Hebrew poetry, especially that found in the Prophets, for the modern believer. In this post, I want to talk about how a modern reader of the English Bible can read Hebrew parallelistic poetry closely, gleaning every bit of good from it and perceiving the emotional and spiritual life that sits (sometimes concealed by translation) within it. I could have broken this down into any number of principles, but I have chosen three. When reading Hebrew parallelism: (1) look for subtle comparison and contrast, not bland repetition; (2) look for layered parallels; (3) look for movement in the parallels.

Look For Subtle Comparison and Contrast, Not Bland Repetition

Pay close attention to what, precisely, is being compared via parallel juxtaposition. Contrary to the perennial criticism one hears that the Old Testament is repetitive, Hebrew parallelism is not mere repetition (neither, might I add, is Hebrew narrative filled with unnecessary repetition). Something interesting and dynamic is going on in the apparent repetition, if one has the patience and intelligence to discern it. Even if the two phrases are more or less synonymous, by the very act of rephrasing the first half of a couplet, some aspect of the phrase’s meaning is altered, emphasized, or refined. Take, for example, Joel 1:6b (NASB):

Its teeth are the teeth of a lion, / And it has the fangs of a lioness.

The two parts of this parallel are “teeth/fangs” and “lion/lioness”, and both halves say virtually the same thing. Now, it is worth observing that the second half of the couplet didn’t have to be so close to the first. We wouldn’t have thought twice if the second half had mentioned a different anatomical feature than “teeth” or a different species than “lion”. It could have said, “Its teeth are the teeth of a lion, and it has the claws of a wolf [or bear]”, and we would have understood that the locusts are being compared to dangerous predatory animals. So what is the effect of not alternating in this way? The teeth or fangs specifically are highlighted, and this focuses our attention on the eating of the locusts as the threatening action. Also, by using two different words for “lion”, we see that it is not just predatory animals in general that the locusts are likened to, but to the very epitome of predatory animals. In the ANE, the lion was the archetypal image of the threatening power of nature. Assyrian kings were routinely depicted going on lion hunts. Through this hunt, the king expressed his power and authority over the forces of nature. English translations tend to translate the second word as “lioness” just to distinguish it from the first, since we don’t have more than one word for “lion”, but the second word doesn’t necessarily connote a female of the species. So, interestingly, in Joel 1:6b the more or less exact synonymity of the two lines refines and specifies the meaning: it isn’t simply saying that the locusts are dangerous or predatory, but that they are supremely dangerous, specifically like a lion (the epitome of the dangerous wild animal), and that they are dangerous in their consuming (their teeth).

On the other hand, the very next couplet, 1:7a, moves away from strict synonymity:

It has made my vine a waste / And my fig tree splinters.

Here the variation moves us away from the specificity of metaphor to the general representativeness of metonym. By varying between “vine” and “fig tree” the couplet communicates that what has been affected by the locusts is not just one part of Israel’s agricultural scene (e.g., just the vines, as important as they were). This variation is important coming after verse 5, which, although it does not focus exclusively on the grapevine (“drunkards” etymologically may refer to drinkers of all kinds of alcohol, perhaps especially beers and ciders), does focus our attention pretty strongly on the grapevine. Verse 7 is the first time we see clearly that this is not just a disaster for the Israelite grape industry, but for all Israelite agriculture. Moreover, the effect of the locusts is not mild. It is total devastation. The vines have been rendered a total waste, and the fig trees are so devastated that they are somehow splintered (the devouring rage of the locust swarm appears to have been particularly intense). Their fruit and the their foliage are completely gone, and based on details later in the chapter, the locust plague appears either to coincide with or even cause a disruption of the general ecosystem (1:19-20 seems to speak literally of drying up of streams and fires in fields). Taken together, these two parallel clauses communicate total agricultural devastation by mentioning not just one crop, but two representative crops that stand for the entire Israelite agricultural economy. So the parallelism in Joel 1:7a expands meaning rather than refines or emphasizes it the way the parallelism in 1:6b does.

Look For Layered Parallels

Look for layers in Hebrew parallelism. Joel 1:2 is made up of two couplets, each of which are made up of two parallel phrases, and these couplets are, moreover, parallel with one another in different ways. The NASB translates this verse well:

Hear THIS, O elders,
And listen, all inhabitants of the land.
Has anything like THIS happened in your days
Or in your fathers’ days?

Both couplets are made up of two-part clauses. In the first couplet, “Hear this” and “listen” (the ESV translates even more literally “Give ear”) we might label A and A’ respectively. They are synonymous. “O elders” and “all inhabitants of the land” we could likewise label B and B’. They are synonymous, as well, except that the second phrase is substantially more expansive than the first. Not every word-for-word translation preserves this aspect of the Hebrew, but note the word “this” in the NASB translation of this verse.

Moving on to the second half of the verse, it too is made up of two bipartite clauses (even though the two-part aspect of the second clause is less obvious in English than it is in Hebrew). “Has anything like this happened” and “or” are A and A’ respectively (“or” is a fine translation of the nevertheless more substantial Hebrew wəʾim, which is a light interrogative particle for which there is not really a better English word; I might would choose to translate a little more substantially, as with “Or did it”, just to show the syntactical balance in the clauses). Likewise, “in your days” and “in your father’s days” could be labeled B and B’, respectively. Again, just like in the B segments of the preceding couplet, B’ represents an expansion of B, this time in chronological terms – “fathers” refers to more than just the one immediately preceding generation. Multiple past generations are vaguely summed up in “fathers”. Also again, note the word “this” in element A. The NASB does well to include the word “this” in its translation, because the Hebrew word for “this” (zoʾt) is a parallel element tying the two A elements together. So not only are the two couplets of Joel 1:2 parallel in themselves, they are also structurally parallel to each other (this additional parallelism is more obvious when reading in Hebrew).

Now, I should point out that you cannot necessarily give the word “or” the kind of weight I have given it in Joel 1:2 anytime you see the word “or” in the Old Testament. Sometimes “or” is simply a translation of the conjunction w (which is a very light conjunction that is prefixed to words and that often does not need to be translated). It just so happens that in Joel 1:2, the word “or” is more than just the word “or”, but you obviously cannot know that from the English translation without reference to an interlinear Bible or something. That’s okay, though. I just want to point out how the Hebrew parallelism is working so that you can have some idea of what is going on behind the English translations and can approach those translations a little more discerningly.

Now in addition to the parallelism we see within each of the two couplets of verse 2 and between those couplets with each other, we can also see parallels between verses 2 and 3 – not on a syntactic or metrical level, but on a rhetorical level. In the NASB, verse 3 reads:

Tell your sons about it,
And let your sons tell their sons,
And their sons the next generation.

Joel 1:2a has to do with listening, and 1:2b focuses on the past. Joel 1:3, on the other hand, has to do with telling and focuses on the future. Chronologically, again we see an expansion. Verse 2 mentions two generations (your days and your fathers’ days), although, as we have observed, it encompasses the indefinite past. Verse 3 mentions three generations (sons, grandsons, next generation), although, again, it should be understood to encompass the indefinite future. So there exists a poetic parallel relationship not only within the couplets of verse 2, and not only between the couplets of verse 2, but also between verses 2 and 3.

Finally, if we look at verse 4, we can see one last detail that ties verse 3 to verse 4 poetically and that, as a result, ties the whole group of verses together as a thematic introduction to the book of Joel. Verse 3, unlike verse 2, is made up of three parallel clauses (a triplet). Despite the fact that four kinds of locust are mentioned in verse 4, it is actually made up of only three parallel clauses – a triplet, just like verse 3. The NASB reads:

What the gnawing locust has left, the swarming locust has eaten;
And what the swarming locust has left, the creeping locust has eaten;
And what the creeping locust has left, the stripping locust has eaten.

I would wager that a lot of readers of this verse in English will see a set of four here, rather than a set of three, because of the four kinds of locusts. It’s a little asymmetrical (four nouns in three clauses) and so kind of misleading if we aren’t reading carefully. But when we see it, all of a sudden we can see a rhetorical structure taking shape in the poetry of Joel 1. As a rule, triplets in Hebrew poetry are less common than doublets, so when they happen they are often worth taking special notice of. Here, I feel the effect is a kind of rhythmic disruption that sets off verses 2-4 from what comes after.

This kind of layering of parallelistic relationships is not unique to Joel. It happens all the time in Hebrew poetry, and quite often it can be discerned even in English translation.

Look For Movement in the Parallels

Pay attention to subtleties in direction and space. Look for alternations between up and down, in and out, forward and backward (spatially and chronologically). We’ve already seen in the examples from Joel how a parallel can move from specific to general, from two to three, and from past to future. These kinds of subtle movements in the parallels are very important if you want to get every little bit of good out of the sayings in Proverbs. As just one example, Proverbs 10:11 says (again, using the NASB):

The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life,
But the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.

This proverb is especially useful for our present purpose because it compares mouth to mouth (the word is the same in Hebrew, too – ), so we can focus on the differences in the second halves of the two clauses. The difference between the mouth of a righteous person and the mouth of a wicked person is that the former “is a fountain of life”, while the latter “conceals violence”. First, we can observe that “violence” is an interesting contrast to “life”. It is associated with “death” but not exactly identical to it. Nevertheless, there is a life/death contrast going on here. Second, we have the contrast between a fountain and the act of concealing. What does a fountain do? It brings out into the open that which was concealed – water from some subterranean water system (a spring, for example). It brings life (in the form of water) out into the open for public benefit, and that is what, the proverb says, the mouth of the righteous person is like. On the other hand, the mouth of the wicked person attempts either to bring wicked things that are out in the open into secrecy or it attempts to keep wicked things secret. These wicked things are called “violence”, meaning they do the opposite of a fountain. They take life rather than give it, and they do it by concealing and hiding rather than by bringing that which is concealed out into the open. This sort of opposition of direction (inward vs. outward) is very common in Hebrew poetry, especially in the book of Proverbs.


These are just a couple of ways to pay closer attention to the details of Hebrew parallelism in English translation. Hebrew poetry is, admittedly, among the more difficult things a modern English speaker might read on any given day. However, like I said in the last post, the way to overcome the difficulty of the text is not by retreating from it by reading cursorily, or by relying overmuch on commentaries, or (worse) by not reading at all. Rather by going the other direction, by paying very close attention to the details of the OT’s poetic texts, you may find that these texts open up for you and start to compel your interest even without the help of commentaries.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s