The books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes are of course part of the Hebrew Bible. This means that biblical wisdom is not in any simple sense a timeless philosophy of how to live well. It is instead a way of living well rooted in both Israelite culture and the Hebrew language. This is the organic particularity of all Hebrew and Christian Scripture. For this reason attention to the Hebrew nature of the wisdom material is necessary in order to appreciate it. This post will examine just a single facet of this Hebrew dynamic, a feature know as parallelism.
Parallelism is the name given to the widespread feature of biblical Hebrew whereby the written material can be seen to contain statements that are closely related. It is especially dominant in those parts of the Hebrew Bible that are identified as poetic.
It was Robert Lowth who famously laid the foundations of the modern understanding of parallelism in biblical Hebrew in the eighteenth century. He coined the term parallelism and identified three distinct forms, know as synonymous parallelism, antithetic parallelism and synthetic parallelism. Although this simple threefold classification has been shown to be a gross oversimplification of the riches of this literary phenomena, these three categories are still helpfully instructive as an introduction to parallelism.
In synonymous parallelism, two statements are made which have the same meaning. The following is an example from the Book of Proverbs:
Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice. Proverbs 1:20 (NRSV)
Antithetic parallelism is very widespread in the Book of Proverbs and can often be recognised by the use of the word ‘but’. The two parts of the proverb have the same meaning but they are stated as opposites, as for example here:
The thoughts of the righteous are just;
the advice of the wicked is treacherous. Proverbs 12:5 (NRSV)
In synthetic parallelism a second statement in some way advances or develops the first. A good example of this is:
Commit your work to the Lord,
and your plans will be established. Proverbs 16:3 (NRSV)
Paying attention to these three types of parallelism will soon reveal that it is not always easy to distinguish between synonymous and synthetic parallelism—how much development demarcates the two? Adele Berlin in her monograph titled The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism has shown that parallelism is a far richer linguistic characteristic than the threefold categorisation indicates. I would strongly recommend this book although it assumes a high level of familiarity with complex linguistics and grammatical terms.
Parallelism goes beyond simply the occurrence of paired statement. It can follow a threefold or even longer set of statements. Its ubiquity invites us to see the common use of the inclusio as an extension of this manner of organising ideas and thoughts. On the larger scale it is echoed in the narratives of the Bible which seem to parallel one other. On a larger scale it can be seen in the rich intertextuality so important to both the first and second testaments of the Christian Bible. In this sense parallelism operates over the same three scales recognised in earlier posts on the Book of Psalms: microstructure (neighbouring lines), mesostructure (use of the inclusio) and macrostructure (intertextuality).
The ubiquitous presence of parallelism becomes a way of thinking and capturing reality, in other words its implications go beyond linguistic convention and the wisdom writings.
Adele Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, revised and expanded edition, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.