Why Are Parallelisms Sometimes Difficult to Recognize?

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Hebrew Bible displaying the parallelism in the book of Isaiah

In his book, Isaiah: Prophet Seer and Poet, Victor Ludlow answers this question. However, if you don’t understand parallelism as a Semitic writing form, you may want to read one of these posts first:

Dr. Ludlow, who received a Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Harvard and Brandeis Universities, points out that, “Hebrew poetic parallelisms, as they are found in the English translations of the Bible, are often hard to identify and understand”. Then he lists six reasons for this difficulty:

  1. English readers are often unfamiliar with the forms of speech and symbolism used by the biblical authors.
  2. The cultural settings differ so much between ancient and modern times that the context and original application of the messages are sometimes unclear to contemporary readers.
  3. Poets and prophets do not usually explain everything in clear, black-and-white terms, and they often use imagery and symbols to convey complex ideas. They purposefully leave the clarification and applications of their messages up to us, the readers, as they apparently want us to study and ponder their words before we can say that we understand them.
  4. Whenever a message is delivered in highly structured patterns, (such as in chiastic parallelism) it may lose its clarity and power as concepts and words are stretched and forced by the author to fit the pattern. Thus, the message may be stilted or awkward even though it is presented in an organized and polished poetic form.
  5. Sometimes a reader misinterprets some words or reads more into the passage than the author originally intended. The reader then becomes confused and frustrated at what, to him, appears to be a difficult part of the work.
  6. Any new field of learning is difficult at first. For example, American teenagers are usually confused in their high school English classes as they are initially introduced to the sonnet, with its characteristic fourteen lines which are, on the one hand, “made up of an octave and a sestet embodying the statement and the resolution of a single theme” (American Heritage Dictionary, p. 1232), but on the other hand contain “typically five-foot iambics rhyming according to a prescribed scheme” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary,p. 2173). However, with patience, through careful explanations, and after studying many examples, the students can understand the sonnet as a form of poetry. Soon many of them begin to appreciate how the sonnet is used, and some may even try their hand at writing one.Likewise, these patterns of parallelism described earlier are difficult to recognize and understand—especially at first. Be patient, for as you study this poetic form and see examples of it scattered throughout the scriptures, you will appreciate the beauty and power it gives to the inspired words of the prophets and poets.

In summary, he writes, “For the people of Old Testament times, parallelism served not only as an oral memory device, but it also enriched the messages of the prophets. Today, an awareness of parallelism aids the reader in his comprehension of vague and repetitive biblical passages. Although one should not attempt to rigidly identify each Bible verse as an example of parallelism, an understanding of this poetic style can increase one’s appreciation of the literary qualities and religious messages to be found in the scriptures.”

You can, of course, get a much deeper understanding of this writing style by reading this chapter “Parallelsim in Old Testament Poetry and Prophecy” in hisbook, Isaiah: Prophet Seer and Poet.

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Dr. Victor L. Ludlow is a scholar of Isaiah and Judaism. He graduated with high honors from BYU and was a Danforth Fellow at Harvard and Brandeis Universities, where he received a Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. Professor Ludlow's scholarship explores the areas of Bible studies, the Middle East, Jewish history and theology, and comparative Latter-day Saint theology. He has authored numerous articles and the books: Unlocking the Old Testament; Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet; Principles and Practices of the Restored Gospel; and Unlocking Isaiah in the Book of Mormon. His most recent audio lecture is “Latter-day Insights: The Middle East.” Courses Taught: Writings of Isaiah, Judaism and the Gospel, Book of Mormon, Old Testament Areas of Expertise: Professor Ludlow's scholarship explores the areas of Bible studies, the Middle East, Jewish history and theology, and comparative Latter-day Saint theology, with a special emphasis upon covenants. Areas of Research: Isaiah, Covenants, Judaism, History of the House of Israel, Agency, Gospel Principles Languages: German (fluent), Hebrew (reading), some Arabic, French, and Latin

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