The Old Testament was composed almost entirely in Hebrew. First and foremost, Hebrew is the language of Scripture. In other words, Hebrew is a language quite literally formed around its use in the composition of sacred writings.
This means that Hebrew has a unique structure and style. It is highly poetic, almost intentionally designed for uses that our own language struggles with. In English, poetry requires us to almost force the language into rhyme and rhythm. (Anyone who has had to try to compose a haiku in English knows that English is terrible for rhythmic poetry.)
In biblical Hebrew, words have specific syllabic structures and make different forms through somewhat complicated but almost ubiquitous rules. This means that rhythm and rhyme come quite naturally to the language.
As a result, the vast majority of the Old Testament is poetic in nature. It has to be because it is in Hebrew. This poetry is often lost in translation because English simply does not have the apparatus to express ideas the way Hebrew does. (In case you’re wondering, no English version does Hebrew poetry like the King James translation did. English was malleable enough at the time that the translators could bend it to conform to Hebrew. The same is not true of English today, which is why the King James translations often feel alien to us.)
Hebrew poetry employs a huge number of techniques, often rhyming ideas and cycling through images in ways we never would see in translation.
For example, consider the first chapter of Genesis. It is an intricate, carefully phrased poem. The author spins the entire poem around the number two. The entire thing is symmetrical. Watch:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1, 2 KJV)
In Hebrew, the word heaven is dual. English and most European languages lack this form, but it is used for things that are inherently two parts: like arms, eyes, legs, but also the “heavens”.
Think about all the ways that the “heavens” are dual in nature. There is a night sky and a day sky. There is a clear sky and a storm sky. There is the air we move through and the air “up there” where the birds fly. The depth of the simply grammatical form is tremendous.
Now, watch the dualities that emerge. The earth is “without form” and it is “void” – duality. There is “darkness” upon the face of the deep and the Spirit of God broods upon the face of the waters (also a dual form, by the way).
The author sets up a symmetry of duals and then he presents his narrative of the earth’s origin. At first glance, it looks like a linear narrative. God creates this on day one, then this on day two, etc. But look deeper.
DAY 1: Light and Dark Day 4: Sun, moon and stars
DAY 2: Separates the waters from the sky Day 5: Forms fish and birds
DAY 3: Forms dry land Day 6: Forms land creatures
See the dualities? In the first set of days he creates habitats. On the second set, he fills them with life. And even in that, there is a duality. You can spend hours, even days and weeks just marveling over how intricately constructed the poem is. (Trust me, I have.)
So much of the Hebrew Scriptures are written with this kind of artistic flair. It is dangerous to just read the Old Testament like it is a textbook. Poetry is not just limited to the Psalms and a few passages in Genesis either. Fully 2/3 of the Hebrew Scriptures are poetic. Whole books of the prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel are poems. Poetry was the height of Hebrew composition. If it wasn’t poetic, it wasn’t worth reading. Even the levitical law has a poetic sensibility.
This is why I recoil every time someone refers to the Bible as a “User’s Manual” or “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” It is nothing of the kind. Much of the Bible cannot be read like a manual or instructions. It would be like trying to form philosophy based on reading Shelley as if he were a commentary on politics or Dante as a geology text. It simply cannot be done.
One of the hallmarks of poetry is that the individual parts fall apart if you miss the main idea. If you read poetry line-by-line and try to analyze the lines in isolation, you entirely miss the point. Poetry is not about precision. It is about emotion and connection. It is relational language at its best.
How does one read Biblical poetry? How do you recognize it as what it is?
First, read the Scriptures in large pieces rather than in snippets.
Second, don’t analyze. Receive. Let the words resonate, bounce around in your head for awhile. Don’t be afraid to not understand what you read in the specifics.
Third, read in community. In the culture that gave us the Scriptures, reading was something you did together. You discussed the ideas; you let them stand up to communal scrutiny and appreciation.
One word of warning, however. Just because it is poetry, do not think that the Scriptures were not intended to be read literally. Poetry is often far more truthful than prose. There is often more fact of the human condition in the lines of a poem than there are in the sections of a textbook.