The Conventions of Biblical Poetry

A brief introduction to the devices and characteristics of in this biblical genre.

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  • Processionals (Song 3:9-11),

  • Songs for the bride's preparation: sacrifices; haircut, ritual bath, adornment (Song 4:1-7),

  • Epithalamiums outside the wedding chamber (Psalm 127),

  • Dawn songs greeting newlyweds after the wedding night (Song 6:9-10),

  • Blessings (Psalm 128).

Notable events:

  • Songs of victory (Judges 5),

  • Dirges mourning someone's death (II Samuel 1:19-27) or destruction of a city (Lamentations 1),

  • Death-bed testaments of leaders (Genesis 49).

Three Poetic Books

Psalms, Lamentations, and the Song of Songs are sets of poems divided into five parts. All were composed for the three-times-a-year Israelite pilgrimage festival ancestral to the Jewish High Holidays. (The festival ritual as reflected in Psalms is discussed by Sigmund Mowinkel in The Psalms in Israel's Worship (1962) and Michael Goulder, The Psalms of the Sons of Korah (1982); The Psalms of Asaph and the Pentateuch (1996)).The order of the festival, reflected in Psalms and Lamentations, was:

1.      The pilgrimage (Psalm 84; Lamentations 1), with selichot (penitential hymns also introducing our prepatory period to the High Holidays) sung at night (Psalm 3), ending with entrance to the shrine (Psalm 24).

2.      Weddings (Psalm 45) and the enthronement of God and king (Psalms 29,95-100; Lamentations 2). Rituals included sacrifices, prostration, shofar-blowing, and dancing, with women circling and young men leaping.

3.      The atonement ritual. Major themes include sickness, mistreatment, silent suffering, and confinement in a watery pit or grave (Psalm 69; Lamentations 3).

4.      The banquet (Psalms 81; Lamentations 4) at which hymns were sung (Psalm 104), and songs teaching wisdom and traditions of Israel (Psalm 105).

5.      God's final judgment (Psalm 50) and pleas for deliverance (Psalm 83; Lamentations 5).

Psalms contains 150 liturgical songs composed for the Jerusalem temple; or for Bethel or Dan and subsequently altered for use in Jerusalem (see the Goulder books referenced above; not all scholars agree with this position). Each section contains one or more series of psalms following the order of the pilgrimage festival; all told, a dozen. The individual psalms and series range widely in their date of composition.

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Jennifer T. Parkhurst received her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently enrolled as a graduate student in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.