Isaiah’s Literary Style

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The language of Isaiah was Hebrew, which belongs to the same family of Semitic languages that includes Arabic. Each has its unique alphabet and is read from right to left. When Isaiah wrote Hebrew, it contained no punctuation or capitalization. It would appear to us to be one long sentence, similar to the manuscript of the Book of Mormon that Joseph Smith dictated.

The book of Isaiah is written almost entirely in poetic form, as are most of the prophecies in the Old Testament, in what Nephi calls “the manner of prophesying among the Jews” (2 Ne 25:1).

Parallelism is the method used to produce poetry in Hebrew. Parallelism compares a keyword or idea in a first line that repeats in the second line. Sometimes the idea repeats over several lines. Learning to read in two-line sequences is a great help in understanding Isaiah’s writings. Some translations are formatted to show the short lines of poetry in Isaiah in order to make this process easier. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is one of these.

In the following example, notice that the King James Version (KJV) does not show the poetic lines, but the NRSV does.

The poetic rendering of the verse in the NRSV makes it easier to recognize that the ox and the donkey are parallel, as are the owner and the master. Similar parallels are more easily recognizable in the next two poetic lines, the second half of the verse. Studying Isaiah in poetic form, one can readily see the stacked words’ relationship.

In English poetry, the last words in a line are often rhymed. In Hebrew poetry, “idea rhymes” are used instead, while the words themselves seldom rhyme.

Types of Parallelism

  1. Comparison—Often the second line will help explain the first.
    Example: NRSV Isa 1:31

    xxx31 The strong shall become like tinder,
    xxxxxxxxxand their work like a spark;
    xxxxxxthey and their work shall burn together,
    xxxxxxxxxwith no one to quench them.
  2. Comparison—Ideas are compared by means of simile or metaphor.
    Example: NRSV Isa 1:18

    xxx18 Come now, let us argue it out
    xxxxxxxxxsays the LORD:
    xxxxxxthough your sins are like scarlet,
    xxxxxxxxxthey shall be like snow;
    xxxxxxthough they are red like crimson,
    xxxxxxxxxthey shall become like wool.
  3. Contrast—The second line clarifies both ideas, like the color black next to white.
    Example: NRSV Isa 1:19–20

    xxx19 If you are willing and obedient,
    xxxxxxxxxyou shall eat the good of the land;
    xxx20 but if you refuse and rebel,
    xxxxxxxxxyou shall be devoured by the sword;
    xxxxxxxxxfor the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

  4. Completion—The second line completes the first, in the form of
    Question–Answer, or
    Situation–Consequence, or
    Proposition–Conclusion.

    Example: NRSV Isa 1:19

    xxx19 If you are willing and obedient,
    xxxxxxxxxyou shall eat the good of the land;

5. Chiasmus—This word comes from Greek letter Χ (chi), which is the form it describes.   xxxThe second line of the parallel is inverted.
xxx(Note: Often a chiasmus has many more than four lines.)

Example:
xxxA) Old King Cole
xxxxxxB) Was a merry old soul
xxxxxxB ́) A merry old soul
xxxA ́) Was he.

Example: NIV Isa 11:1
xxxA) A shoot will come up
xxxxxxB) from the stump of Jesse;
xxxxxxB ́) from his roots
xxxA ́) a Branch will bear fruit.

Ann Madsen and Shon Hopkin shared this information in the introduction to their Opening Isaiah—a Harmony

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Shon D. Hopkin is an assistant professor of ancient scripture at BYU. Shon Hopkin received a PhD in Hebrew studies from the University of Texas at Austin with an emphasis on medieval literature. His course work focused on Hebrew, Arabic, and Spanish literature from medieval Spain. Shon has published and presented papers on the Jewish concept of a premortal life and the Jewish longing for Zion, the Dead Sea Scrolls and Psalm 22, ordinance and ritual in the law of Moses and in the book of Isaiah, and the connections between Jewish and LDS beliefs and viewpoints. He is currently engaged in research on attitudes toward women in the law of Moses, on discovering Christ in the book of Leviticus, on Psalm 22, and on the multiple voices of the Book of Mormon. Shon also has a strong interest in interfaith outreach, understanding, and cooperation and served as president of the University of Texas Interfaith Council while at UT. His interfaith experiences include an interfaith trip to Turkey and a summer-long visit to Damascus, Syria. Before coming to BYU, Shon worked for fourteen years as a seminary and institute instructor. He lives in Orem with his wife, Jennifer, and four children.

1 COMMENT

  1. I have found that most of the short books of The Old Testament are written in a pervasive parallelism. If the parallelism that structures the book is found correctly even the “maverick themes” that don’t make structure will match other maverick themes so that all ideas have their match. The ancient Hebrews bothered to create Acrostic patterns of little poetic value hidden in thier written words so why not paralellistic patterns as well for simply the purpose of creating a stamp of antiquity for us to discover. I have done many of the O T books this way. Most short psalms and probably more lengthy ones are also done in this manner.

    I think it was a command from God given to ancient scribes of holy script to write their thoughts in parallels that God might reveal this strange grammar for strategic reasons in our day. I wrote a paper indicating evidence for the thesis of a God given, kosher as it were, way of writing for holy scripture. If you have any interest in discussing the presence of a pervasive parallelism in ancient Hebrew scripture let me know.

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