Poetry

Almost all extant Hebrew poetry is religious, and most is probably liturgical (see above). Some fragmentary poems in the Hebrew Bible, however, look as though they originally had a secular setting: take, for example, Numbers 21:14, 15, 17-18, 27-30. There are funeral dirges (2 Sam. 1:19-27; cf. Jer. 22:18-19), and we know from texts in the prophets that Israelite society had professional lament-singers who could be employed to use such poems on behalf of the mourners (see Jer. 9:17-22, and cf. 2 Chr. 35:25). Like wisdom, of course, songs go deep into any nation's soil, and it is hard to imagine a culture without them. Perhaps the most surprising large-scale evidence for secular songs in Israel is the Song of Songs, which may be an epithalamion (song for a marriage), though marriage is never mentioned in it, and its extended treatment of sexual intimacy is perhaps too explicit for public marriage celebrations. Its importance for the historian of Hebrew literature is that it clearly demonstrates the existence of sophisticated non-liturgical and non-sacred poetry. When textbooks class it with the wisdom literature, this is sometimes merely a counsel of despair, trying to avoid treating it as unclassifiable; but at the same time the circles that could produce such a work must surely be close to those that could produce the nicely turned epigrams of Proverbs or the clever dialogues of Job. At this point, therefore, wisdom and poetry do meet.

The setting of the great bulk of Hebrew poetry remains the liturgy, first of the Temple (Solomon's and its post-exilic successor), then of the synagogue. Form critics have suggested likely occasions for the various types of Psalm in the biblical Psalter (Mowinckel 1962; cf. Day 1990). Anyone can see that some of these suggestions are likely to be correct: for example, Psalm 65 is obviously a harvest thanksgiving psalm, Psalm 21 a psalm for some celebration in time of war, Psalm 114 for a festival commemorating the Exodus (probably the Passover), and so on. Just how the Psalms were used in practice is harder to decide—we ought not to assume that they were sung congregationally in unison, like hymns in a modern Western church. Once again, our evidence is nearly all circumstantial—it consists of the texts of the Psalms themselves. Nowhere is their use described in detail—the nearest to this is 1 Chronicles 16.

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