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Shapes of the Psalms

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A very brief introduction to some of the larger poetic structures used in the biblical psalms.

A very brief introduction to some of the larger poetic structures used in the biblical psalms.

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  • 1. S E AV E R C O L L E G E RELIGION DIVISION SHAPES OFTHE PSALMS Larger Structures in Biblical Poetry by Dr. Chris Heard
  • 2. The most basic buildingblock of a biblical poem is aparallelistic couplet, two linesthat go together as a unit.
  • 3. If you’re not familiar withparallelism, please viewmy presentation calledParallelism in BiblicalPoetry.
  • 4. Of course, biblicalpoets did more thanjust string coupletstogether.
  • 5. The biblical poets combinedparallelism with other, largerstructures to produce complexand beautiful poetry.
  • 6. This presentation introducesfour of the larger structuresthat biblical psalmists usedto shape their poems.
  • 7. Refrains or recurring versesare easy to spot. They’relike the choruses of modernsongs on the radio.
  • 8. Take a look at Psalm 46.Notice that verses 7 and 11are identical. That’s arefrain.
  • 9. Refrains don’t have to beprecisely identical, just likechoruses in modern songsdon’t have to be preciselyidentical.
  • 10. For example, Psalm 99:5and 99:9 seem to be arefrain, even though thewording changes slightly.
  • 11. A refrain that occursonly at the beginningand end of a poem orpoetic unit can be calledan inclusion or envelope.
  • 12. To see an inclusion orenvelope in action, checkout Psalm 8. Notice thatthe first and last versesare identical.
  • 13. Biblical poets sometimes wouldnest or embed envelopes withinenvelopes within envelopes …
  • 14. … a little bitlike a stackingmatryoshka.
  • 15. Nesting envelopes insideenvelopes produces aconcentric structure.
  • 16. Sometimes the concentricstructure has a centerpoint that stands alone.
  • 17. A How can you say to your brother or sister, “Let me take the splinter out of your eye,” B when there’s a log in your own eye? C You deceive yourself! B First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take theA splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye. — Matthew 7:4–5, CEB
  • 18. Sometimes the concentricstructure doesn’t have acentral pivot point.
  • 19. A The Sabbath was created B for humans; B humansA weren’t created for the Sabbath. — Mark 2:27, CEB
  • 20. These concentric structuresoften depend more oncorresponding ideas thanon repeated words.
  • 21. Please read Psalm 49before proceeding. Canyou perceive a concentricstructure in Psalm 49?
  • 22. A Don’t fear wealthy persecutors (49:5-9) B Both wise and foolish people die (49:10–13) B Fools die, but God will save the poet (49:14–15)A Don’t be intimidated by wealthy people (49:16–20)
  • 23. Some scholars prefer touse the word chiasm forconcentric structures …
  • 24. … because you can indentthe lines to look like half ofthe Greek letter chi, whichresembles an X.
  • 25. XA How can you say to your brother or sister, “Let me take the splinter out of your eye,” B when there’s a log in your own eye? C You deceive yourself! B First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take theA splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye. — Matthew 7:4–5, CEB
  • 26. XA The Sabbath was created B for humans; B humansA weren’t created for the Sabbath. — Mark 2:27, CEB
  • 27. Finally, let’s look at somethingdifferent: acrostic psalms.
  • 28. An acrostic poem is onewhere the first letter of eachline spells out something.
  • 29. Biblical psalmists likedalphabetic acrostics, as if thefirst five lines of their poemsstarted with A, B, C, D, and E.
  • 30. It’s pretty difficult to translate aHebrew alphabetic acrostic intoEnglish in a way that results inan English alphabetic acrostic,but some people have tried.
  • 31. Agree not to fret yourself because of the wicked, be not envious of wrongdoers!Be confident in the LORD, and do good; so you will dwell in the land, and enjoy security.Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act.Do not worry about the LORD’s deeds, but wait patiently for him. — Psalm 37:1a, 2–4, J. Hempel
  • 32. Unless you can readHebrew, you probablywon’t spot alphabeticacrostics in the psalms.
  • 33. But knowing about themhelps you understand thestructure of the longestpsalm, Psalm 119.
  • 34. In most Bibles, you’ll seethe name of a Hebrewletter before Psalm 119:1,9, 17, 25, and so on.
  • 35. Psalm 119 (CEB) ‫א‬    ALEF1 Those whose way is blameless— who walk in the LORD’s Instruction—are truly happy!2 Those who guard God’s laws are truly happy! They seek God with all their hearts … ‫ב‬   BET 9 How can young people keep their paths pure? By guarding them according to what you’ve said.10 I have sought you with all my heart. Don’t let me stray from any of your commandments!
  • 36. In Psalm 119, verses 1–8all start with the Hebrewletter alef, verses 9–16 allstart with bet, and so on.
  • 37. It’s sort of like analphabetic acrosticgone wild.
  • 38. And that’s whyPsalm 119 is so long: 22 letters × 8 verses per letter = 176 verses.
  • 39. Refrains, inclusions, concentricstructures, and alphabeticacrostics aren’t the only largerstructures that biblical poetsused.
  • 40. But they’re pretty easy tounderstand and spot (exceptalphabetic acrostics, unlessyou’re reading Hebrew) …
  • 41. … and learning about themcan help you better enjoy thebiblical psalms as poetry.
  • 42. For Further Study David L. Petersen Interpreting Hebrew Poetry Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992
  • 43. Credits Slideshow by Dr. Chris Heard of Pepperdine University. Supported by a Faculty Innovation in Technology and Learning Grant, 2009–10. “King David Playing the Harp” by Hendrick ter Brugghen, c. 1688. Oil on canvas. National Museum in Warsaw. Public domain due to age. Matryoshka doll photo by Wikimedia Commons user Fanghong, modified by Gnomz007. Used under a Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA) license. Hempel’s acrostic translation of Psalm 37 quoted from S.E. Gillingham, The Poems and Psalms of the Hebrew Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 196–197.