Monday, June 16, 2008

Poetry in the Bible

The imagery of Biblical poetry is so different from what we are used to in Western, classically influenced verse. Our imaginations, like those in ancient Greeks, are largely visual. We orient ourselves to our environment and to other people by the sense of sight, so we expect our literature to tell us what the characters look like and to enable us to "visualize" the setting. The ancient Hebrews, on the other hand were leery of visual images. Their pagan neighbors could see their gods,who supposedly manifested themselves by means of "graven images".

The God of Abraham and Isaac, however, reveals Himself not by sight but through hearing, by the proclamation and reading of His Word.The Hebrew prohibition of images manifests itself throughout their language and art. The Bible never describes, for instance, what Jesus or any other Biblical characters looked like. The writings of the ancient Greeks, on the other hand, are full of visual descriptions of the characters and their settings, and our Western literature follows them in insisting upon a panorama of visual detail. The Bible often employs imagery, but instead of being visual, it draws on the other senses and the whole range of associations the image suggests.

Consider the lush poetry of the Song of Solomon. What are we to make of these images? Cheeks like pomegranates, a fruit with hundreds of seeds imbedded in little red cells? Does this mean that the Shulamite had acne? Hair like goats? What do these mean?How are we supposed to picture her?

The difficulties disappear and the greatness of the poetry emerges when we stop trying to interpret these images visually and interpret them according to our senses. The woman's cheeks do not look like pomegranates; this is a description of their fragrance and perhaps, even more sensuously, of their taste. Hebrew imagery is also associative, drawing on the various connotations of the image. Thus, the hair like goats is another tactile image. It also conjures up images of prosperity and well-being for a culture of shepherds.

The result is to experience a poem of the very highest order, a love poem.


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