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

Rolf Furuli furuli at
Sun Sep 6 12:16:06 EDT 1998

Bryan rocine wrote:

>waddaya think?
>For most of us prose is "regular talk"(however careful) and poetry is sort
>of a marked use of language, sometimes downright strange.  We learn prose
>first and read it most.  We think of poetry as the more formal and special.
> Might
>the opposite be in some ways true in the language of the Hebrew Bible?  I
>know poetry has the rhythm and the heavier concentration of the clever
>devices of parallelism, terracing, inclusio, etc.  But it has the freer
>variation in use of verb forms.  It has the more abbreviated style of
>colloquial speech.  Prose is the more
>"convention-driven" when it comes to the arrangement and function of clause
>types.  Poetry probably came first, right?  And then came prose as a new
>special literary dialect.  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?

Dear Bryan,

I do not think it is possible to answer the question: "Which came first?" I
am not even sure that the question is necessary. The reason for this is
that while we find poetic texts in the Bible, being somewhat different from
prose texts, many texts are in between. And given the universal linguistic
capacity of humans (with our two brain halves), why should not both prose
and poetry have been used from the beginning?

In his book "Verbform und Funktion, wayyiqtol fur die Gegenwart, 1976, p 4,
W. Gross speaks of "einen Trick deutscher und vegleichbarer Ubersetzungen:
*die Flucht ins Prasens* (my emphasis)."  I think we, about discussions of
Hebrew verbs, could construct a similar sentence with "Poesie" as a
substitute for "Prasens" and speak of "the escape to poertry".  I often
find that poetry is used as an excuse when one cannot explain naomalous
verb forms. When I, several years ago looked at all the wayyiqtols in the
Bible and produced long lists of examples with non-past meaning, one
reaction was: "You don`t find such examples in narratives, and  poetry (and
other genres) do not count." But this is to beg the question! Yes, I would
turn the argument upside down, and say that narrative texts do not count
because (1) they occur by definition in past settings so we will not expect
to find non-past verbs there, and (2) there was a strict convention for the
use of verbs in such texts.  Therefore, it is difficult either by induction
or deduction to learn the true nature of verbs by only studying narrative
texts.  The "rules" of poetry, on the other hand, are not so strict, and in
other non-narrative texts the conventions are quite loose. A study of verbs
in such texts will, from one point of view, be more benefitting than the
study of narratives. This was the standpoint of D. Michel, and the reason
why he chose the Psalms in his study of verbs  (D. Michel, 1960, "Tempora
und Satxztellung in den Psalmen".

My view, therefore, is that we cannot use the genre of a text to explain
away enigmatic data.  We cannot argue that the verbs of a particular text
is not representative for Hebrew because the text belongs to a particular
genre. We must demonstrate that particular verbs are exceptional, not
assume it!  So I do not see the need, on a *general*  basis, to
differentiate between prose and poetry in studies of  Hebrew grammar.  The
same is true regarding other Semitic languages. Our Accadian group in Oslo
is at present reading  Enuma Elish, the Babylonian story of creation, and
it adequately illustrates my point above, as far as Accadian is concerned:
The original poem is metric, but I have never seen anybody argue that this
affects the meaning of the verbs. You find an English translation of the
poem in J.B. Prichard, 1969, "Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the
Old Testament", from p 60. It is too much "conventional thinking" in
studies of Hebrew grammar!


Rolf Furuli
Lecturer in Semitic languages
University of Oslo

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