Isaiah’s Literary Style

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Isaiah’s Literary Style displayed through modern day writing of pen and notebook

“The language of Isaiah was Hebrew, which belongs to the same family of Semitic languages that includes Arabic,” explained Shon Hopkin and Ann Madsen, in their new collaborative harmony of the Book of Isaiah, “Opening Isaiah

“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,” explained Madsen.

Types of Parallelism

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

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

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

    19 If you are willing and obedient,
    you shall eat the good of the land;
    20 but if you refuse and rebel,
    you shall be devoured by the sword;
    for the mouth of the LORD has spoken

  4. Synthetic or Completion—The second line completes the first, like a belt and buckle, in the form of
    Question–Answer, or
    Situation–Consequence, or
    Proposition–Conclusion.

    Example: NRSV Isa 1:19

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

 

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

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

6. Composite—each word or phrase (usually three or more) presents or expands upon a common theme, like spokes in a wheel.

Example: NSRV Isa 1:4
4 Ah, sinful nation,
people laden with iniquity,
offspring who do evil,
children who deal corruptly,
who have forsaken the LORD,
who have despised the Holy One of Israel,
who are utterly estranged!

7. Climatic— Part of one line is treated in subsequent lines, culminating (or sometimes beginning) with the main point.

Example A (ending with the main point): NSRV Isa 1:7
7 Your country lies desolate,
your cities are burned with fire;
in your very presence
aliens devour your land;
it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners.

Example B (beginning with the main point): NSRV Isa 1:8
8. And daughter Zion is left
like a booth in a vineyard,
like a shelter in a cucumber field,
like a besieged city.

In the concluding paragraphs, Madsen and Hopkin, explain some of the symbolic images he paints for his readers, how our modern chapters chop up some of the continuity of his messages, and how some of his prophetic “present tense” and “past tense” that might describe past, present (in his time), and future events, even as he describes them as having already occurred. Finally, they recommend that we “be patient and be preparee to put in effort in order to “search” and understand Isaiah’s words.

Ann Madsen and Shon Hopkin shared this information in the introduction to their Opening Isaiah—a Harmony, and is used with Madsen’s permission.

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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. Paul Bee Simmons

    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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