Write the Bible: Poetic Parallelism

In an earlier post, I suggested an opportunity for students to “write the Bible.” This is another one, stolen from…er, inspired by, a friend.

Teaching biblical poetry to her students, my friend (who sometimes comments here as HebProf [whups: HBprof]) came up with a cool exercise: she gave them the first of a pair of parallel lines from a biblical poetic text. The students would then write a second line such that it is parallel to the first. For example, she might give them the first part of Psa 102:6 (English verse numbering; Hebrew Psa 102:7)

I am like a barred owl of the wilderness

The students would then each write a line they propose to be parallel to that first line. After comparing suggestions, they are shown the biblical parallel line, here

I have become as a screech owl of the wastes.

My own learners will be M.Div students reading the texts in English translation, and while there are more sophisticated ways of understanding Hebrew poetic parallelism, I think that Robert Lowth’s old “synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic parallelism” is a good place to begin. Given opportunity, I would look for ways to talk further with introductory students about “seconding” and “stair-case parallelism,” and only in a seminar setting get into ideas of grammatical, morphological, and semantic parallelism.[FOOTNOTE]

So, for example, the biblical line is clearly meant to be “synonymous” parallelism. By having students produce a range of alternatives, it can be made clear that “synonymous” embraces a wide range of possibilities to answer Psa 102:6a, such as:

I am adrift on the sea alone. Or,

I am a beat cop at midnight on a street corner.

A student trying to create an “antithetically” parallel line for Psa 102:6a might offer the following:

But you are like a new bride among the village women. Or,

But I will become like a crow among the flock.

For a “synthetically” parallel line, she might try:

with no cloud for shade. Or,

Who will tend me?. Or,

A raptor snapping at mice.

The difficulty that students would have grasping the nebulous category of “synthetic” parallelism would, I think, provide a wonderful jumping-off place into the more recent descriptions of poetic parallelism with their clearer engagement of grammar and linguistics.

What do you think of such an exercise? Do you have suggestions for improvement? Are there other exercises by which you have your students “write the Bible”?

BACK TO POST I am glancing at David L. Petersen and Kent Harold Richards, Interpreting Hebrew Poetry (Guides to Biblical Scholarship, Old Testament Series; Gene M. Tucker, ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), chapter two. I think that this resource would be a great choice for a class of mostly English-language exegetes with a handful of students who have taken Hebrew as an elective.

[Write the Bible: Poetic Parallelism was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/03/11. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

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Write the Bible

Or supplement it, anyway.

In my niece’s middle-school, the kids first read some book or series of their choice; then, they get to write an extra chapter, either within a book, or between two books of a series, or as a prequel or sequel to a book.

I am thinking of adapting this to a discussion-board assignment. I would give them a notably thorny or confusing biblical text, and the students would get to write some additional material (just several lines of dialogue, exposition, whatever). They would then also be asked to explain what “goods” are offered by their own additions, and to comment on one another’s work: Does it alleviate some moral problem in the text?  Does it help explain some character’s behavior (including God’s) that is otherwise hard to understand in the text at hand? Does it cause two adjacent narrative elements to better cohere together, and if so, how?

In choosing a text, I would like it to be 1) narrative, and 2) somewhat off the beaten track while not so obscure as to feel irrelevant (not, say, Gen 3, yet not unexplained corpse of Deut 21 either). Aaron and the golden calf is a possibility; or the dismembered concubine; or David and Bathsheba; or an epilogue to Jonah; or Job 1–2.

What text would you consider for such an assignment, and why? What do you think of the possibilities for such an assignment?