Thursday, December 2, 2010

how does a poem mean?

The intellectual highlight of my time at ETS/SBL in Atlanta was the Sunday morning session on the Theology of Hebrew Poetry.  An outstanding line-up of scholars presented papers and responses on the topic of how Hebrew poetry conveys theology. It's common, I think, to assume that we have to rely on the prosaic sections of Scripture for our theology (the Old Testament law, for example, or Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, or Paul's letter to the Romans).  This group of scholars explored the ways in which poetry makes a distinctive contribution to theology.

John Goldingay, of Fuller Theological Seminary, suggested that poetic metaphors make it possible to say things that are difficult to express otherwise.  He said, "Poetry makes it possible to describe the indescribable." At the same time, the genius of poetry is that it obscures things.  It makes people think and yield before they fully understand. Difficulties in the text are sometimes deliberate, requiring readers to wrestle with the message.

Andrea Weiss, from Hebrew-Union College, also talked about metaphors.  She focused on cases where mixed metaphors are used to describe God (for example, see Isa 42:13-14, where God is like a warrior and a woman in labor).  She concluded that no one metaphor alone can capture what needs to be communicated about God.  When metaphors are mixed, it sparks our attention and invites our consideration, delight, and surprise.

Julia O'Brien, from Lancaster Theological Seminary, gave the most thought-provoking address. She spoke about the poetry of the Old Testament prophets. The style itself is violent, disruptive and jarring, seeking to shock the reader into new insights about our inscrutable God. Poetry obscures reality, yet translators and commentators try to smooth out and soften it, making the text more coherent. O'Brien urged us to stop trying to tame the Bible, and to enter the fray and experience it the way it was written.  She says that the prophets, by jarring us from our complacency, show us the absolute power of Yahweh.

After a semester of translating Hebrew poetry, I can say that O'Brien is right. The poetry of the Old Testament is jarring.  Short, choppy lines with hardly any connecting words, bizarre metaphors and rapid changes of subject are the norm.  I have always loved the prophets for their boldness and willingness to say what is unpopular because the Spirit of Yahweh burns within them.  Perhaps we do a disservice to the readers of Scripture when we try to tame the text so it can be clearly understood.  We are meant to wrestle with its message, bitter though it may be, so that we can know the will of God.  He is serious about sin and not interested in mincing words.  God is love, but he is also holy, and we cannot have one without the other. 

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