the chicken(poetry) or the egg(prose)?

Stephen Knapp sknapp at
Fri Sep 4 23:14:31 EDT 1998

Bryan Rocine wrote:
> For most of us prose is "regular talk"(however careful) and poetry is sort
> of a marked use of language, sometimes downright strange. 

Given the fact that throughout the Ancient Near East oracular
pronouncements were invariably cast in poetry, I believe there was a
mythos to the effect that poetry was the natural everyday speech of the
gods, just as human speech had a prosaic character.  When a prophet or
oracle waxed poetic it was because of an infusion of divine spirit. 
Poetry and its correlative, music, were conceived in Greek culture as
heavenly gifts, and I suspect (without proof) that they were not the
first to conceive of such a thought.  If mantic lunacy was perceived as
divine in some circles, then the elegant lunacy of poetic discourse was
also understood as "godtalk."

> Didn't the cultures surrounding Israel record
> their national literatures in poetry?  Aren't certain poems in the HB
> considered the oldest portions of the corpus?  And so, by recording their
> chronicle in prose, might we not infer that Israel actually
> (artificially?)created a fresh and therefore strong convention?  To the
> ancient's ear, might not the prose have been the more formal sounding?

Certainly the cultic literature which has survived is poetic, but there
are prose annals among some of the Assyrian inscriptions, for example. 
I think that the use of poetry in ancient literature cannot be divorced
from its divine associations.  In that regard I think Alter's point
about the intentional use of prose in the cultic literature of Israel
from the late monarchy and after, is well taken.  The use of prose may
indeed have served as another level of rejection of the religious forms
of the surrounding nations.  However, I do not believe we can draw any
conclusions from this about the relative antiquity of prose or poetry as
speech forms for everyday discourse.  On the other hand, the fact that
epistolary documents, wherever we have them, are invariably prosaic
would I think point to prose as the normal form of basic human discourse
in the greatest antiquity of which we have record.  The fact that the
contrivances of poetry require a comparatively high degree of mental
effort to create and comprehend, may be the precise reason it was the
language of choice for the discourse of the gods (so to speak).  Deity
is always higher than humanity.  

Stephen A. Knapp, sknapp at
PhD candidate, Old Testament Biblical Studies
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
Part time faculty: Department of Theology
Valparaiso University (Indiana)

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