Acrostics and Other Techniques of Ancient Poetry

LAMENTATIONS 1 All poetry, except perhaps free verse, maintains some kind of repetition. Sometimes it is metrical, as in iambic pentameter; based on rhyme; or based on the number of syllables per line, as in Haiku. Biblical Hebrew poetry did not employ rhyme and, although there is some dispute about this issue, probably did not use meter or syllable counting. Long ago, however, scholars recognized that ancient Hebrew poetry often employed parallelism, which may be loosely described as "saying the same thing twice." Lamentations 2:7 illustrates the principle:

The Lord has rejected his altar

and abandoned his sanctuary.

Each line contains a subject,"Lord" (understood but not explicitly mentioned in line 2), a verb (has rejected/[has] abandoned) and a direct object (his altar/his sanctuary), and each direct object is composed of a pronoun and a noun. This is often called "synonymous parallelism." Yet Hebrew parallelism is often much more complex and subtle than the above example suggests (e.g., contrasting thoughts are often used as well, such as in Pr 22:12). Also, not all Hebrew poetry uses synonymous parallelism, nor is all synonymous parallelism poetry; it can occur as well in Hebrew prose.

Biblical Hebrew makes use of several other devices to establish the repetition poetry requires. Certain words may be repeated across several lines, or consecutive lines of poetry may begin with the same Hebrew letter. Another device is "inclusion," in which the first and last lines of a poem or strophe (also called "stanza," it refers to a major division in a poem) are identical, and the main topic is elaborated between them (e.g., Ps 8). Sometimes a Hebrew poem will repeat a full line at every other line, as in

Psalm 136. It appears that Hebrew poetry follows certain constraints regarding,for example, the number of verbs allowed per line; this, too, can create poetic symmetry.

Sometimes a Hebrew poem may be an acrostic: The first letters of each consecutive line or strophe, taken in total, list the Hebrew alphabet in order. For example,the first verse of Lamentations 1 begins with aleph (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet), the second verse with beth (the second letter of the alphabet), the third with gimel (the third letter), and so forth. Fundamentally, the acrostic is a type of repetition used in some Hebrew poetry.

Our understanding of Hebrew poetry is limited by the fact that no one living today has ever heard how it was originally sung. Sadly, much of the oral art of Hebrew poetry has been forever lost to us.

Ancient Near Eastern Laments

LAMENTATIONS 3 Mourning over calamities and deaths are common in human society, and both Israel and other ancient societies had ritualized means for expressing lamentation and grief.' A lament could be for a single person who had died or for an entire city that had met disaster. Both kinds of laments are well represented in the Bible.

    • For individuals:

A number of texts indicate mourning for soldiers and kings killed in combat. David composed a lament for Saul and Jonathan (2Sa 1).2 Second Chronicles 35:24 describes a national lamentation for Josiah after his death in battle, and David commanded respectful mourning for Abner (2Sa 3:31).

People naturally mourn the death of a loved one. Abraham grieved for Sarah (Ge 23:2), and David mourned excessively for Absalom (2Sa 18:33), considering the awkward circumstances with regard to his loyal troops. Luke 8:52-53 reflects the presence of professional mourners carrying out ritual lamentation for a deceased girl.

Job repeatedly bewailed the calamities that had befallen him (e.g., Job 3:1-26; 30:26-31). In his case personal disasters of several kinds (the deaths of loved ones, the loss of wealth and status, and personal sickness) were the occasions for his laments.

  • For cities and states:

The entire book of Lamentations is a series of lament songs for Jerusalem, which had been destroyed in 586 B.C.

Prophets often grieved for states and cities (Jer 6:26 [for Jerusalem]; Eze 27 [for Tyre]; Eze 32 [for Egypt]; and Mic 1:8-9 [for Jerusalem]).

The tradition of ritual mourning and the composition of lamentation texts is also found elsewhere in the ancient world.There are numerous examples of mourning over deceased individuals:

    • Egyptian funerary texts tend to focus on the afterlife, but Egyptian funerals were carried out with elaborate bereavement ceremonies.The Egyptian Song of the Harper, for example, alludes to such mourning.' Egyptian artwork contains depictions of weeping mourners in funeral processions.

    • In the Epic of Gilgamesh (from Mesopotamia)', the hero laments bitterly over the death of his friend, Enkidu.

    • A remarkable Akkadian poem bemoans a woman who had died in childbirth from the perspective of the deceased woman herself. She laments the fact that death has suddenly seized her and taken her away from her home, and she poignantly recalls how her husband grieved at her passing.

    • In the Greek world,dirges were sung over the dead and elaborate funerals were carried out, as is reflected in various passages in the Iliad and Odyssey, as well as in Greek tragedy.

    • Ritual mourning was a fixture in pagan religions that included a myth of a dying-and-rising god (such as Baal, Tammuz and Osiris). Worshipers would, in ritual fashion, lament the god's death.

Examples of mourning over a city occur in Sumerian literature. There we find lamentations for Ur, Sumer, Nippur, Eridu and Uruk, all dating from the Isin-Larsa period (c.1950-1700 B.c.). For example,after Ur was destroyed by Elamites, a mourner bemoaned the fall of the city in great detail and in a manner reminiscent of the Biblical book of Lamentations. Although he had pleaded with the gods for the safety of Ur, they had decreed that the city be destroyed.The song describes the warriors being struck down, citizens perishing by fire and hunger and even children expiring in their mothers' laps. Similarly, the Biblical book of Lamentations depicts Jerusalem's fall as being by the will of God and speaks at length of the suffering of the people. In spite of these similarities, however, direct linkage between Lamentations and the Sumerian texts is improbable. Both are part of a broad literary tradition, and both reflect the universal human response to calamity.

Calamity and Distress in Ipuwer

LAMENTATIONS 5 Composed between 2000 and 1800 B.C., the text known as The Admonitions of Ipuwer laments the state of affairs in Egypt. Although it is found in a single Egyptian manuscript from the Nineteenth Dynasty,the work was in all probability written much earlier. The sage Ipuwer recounted the calamities that had befallen the nation, as well as the distress of the people, livestock and even the land. Much of the discussion is couched in terms that demonstrate reversals of the normal state of affairs: Slaves had become masters; the rich were reduced to poverty; servant girls ruled households; foreigners assumed leading positions of state; kings once buried in great pyramids now lay exposed on bare ground. Ipuwer blamed these disasters on the sun god Ra (Re), who, the sage pointed out, did not differentiate between good and evil people and had been unable to perceive the evil brooding in the hearts of the violent. Although there are differing interpretations of the text, it appears that Ipuwer also criticized the ineptitude of the reigning king and looked forward to the arrival of a redemptive ruler who would restore order and peace.

The book of Lamentations, written between 586 and 516 B.C., also deals with the themes of national calamity and distress. Here we also see reversals of fortunes:Jeru-salem, once a queen, was now a slave (1:1), ruled by"slaves" (i.e., Babylonians; 5:8); gold and gems had lost their value (4:2); the rich sat in ash pits (4:5); and those who had been pure and polished in appearance were now so blackened with soot as to be unrecognizable (4:7-8). As in Ipuwer, foreigners had gained the upper hand (5:2), and princes and elders were being shown disrespect (v.12). Unlike Ipuwer, however, the author of Lamentations did not blame the disaster on God's passivity. Rather, he understood that the Lord was justly judging the sins of the people (1:5,8,18; 3:38 —42; 4:13). Although God was displaying his righteous anger (2:1-4;4:11), his love and compassion were ever near (3:21-26,31-32). The judgment on the sins of Judah was his means of refining and restoring a remnant to himself.

Apart from that issue, Ipuwer does have some striking parallels to other parts of the Bible. The author bemoaned a situation of social upheaval in Egypt in which criminals, lowlifes and slaves had become wealthy and powerful and even maidservants felt free to be impudent toward their mistresses.This is similar to Ecclesiastes 10:6-7: "Fools are put in many high positions, while the rich occupy the low ones. I have seen slaves on horseback, while princes go on foot like slaves." Also, Ipuwer contains a striking reference to the Nile being turned to blood.