Book Review

J. P. Fokkelman. Reading Biblical Poetry: An Introductory Guide. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. 243 pp. Paper. ISBN: 0-664-22439-3. $24.95.

When Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to its Techniques by Wilfred G. E. Watson appeared in 1984 (revised editions 1986 and 1995), we had a handbook for unpacking Biblical poetry. Watson gave us the basic tool for understanding Hebrew poetic idiom. Beyond the standard parallelism (pioneered by Robert Lowth in 1753), Watson taught us to look for patterns—poetic patterns, but nonetheless Semitic patterning in Biblical poetry. Those who neglected or ignored Watson's work impoverished themselves and their audiences. Ignorance is no excuse for eisegesis!

Now J. P. Fokkelman has pushed the envelope even further—leaving us even more inexcusable!! Oh, there are some silly passé critical-fundamentalist expressions in Fokkelman's book, but he will grow up (hopefully); the text will compel him to even greater maturity in due time. And if not him, some orthodox student of the Word of God committed to concrete revelation—God does speak from heaven (eschatological vector) to men and women (horizontal vector) and the Holy Spirit does insure that what they write is "carried along" as theopneustos ("God-breathed") Scripture—some orthodox student of divinely-inspired Hebrew poetry will correct Fokkelman's infelicities—yeah! his foolishnesses. But while we await this improvement, Fokkelman overwhelms us with a fresh approach to the poetry of the Bible—an approach which will repay study over and over of this foundational volume and leave us salivating (if not temporarily the poorer, financially) for his major 3-volume treatment of Hebrew poetry. The first of the latter volumes was released in 1998 (Major Poems of the Hebrew Bible) and covers The Song of the Sea (Ex. 15), The Song of Moses (Dt. 32) and Job's complaint (chapter 3) (price: ca. $70.00). Volume 2 (Major Poems of the Hebrew Bible, 2000) analyzes the prosody (textual rhythm and quantity) of 85 Psalms (not in order, i.e., Pss. 1-85) and Job 4-14 (price: ca. $100). Volume 3 (Major Poems of the Hebrew Bible) is in preparation and will complete Fokkelman's stunning analysis of the remaining 65 Psalms (it too will, undoubtedly, be pricey). (NB: Fokkelman's work will need to be compared to that of Marc Girard. His 3-volume masterpiece began with the title Les Psaumes: analyse structurelle et interpretation [Pss. 1-50]; it was continued under the title Les Psaumes Redecouverts: de la structure au sens [v. 2, Pss. 51-100; v. 3, Pss. 101-150]. This is a massive and meticulous examination of the structure of all 150 Psalms. While written in French, the English-only reader may benefit from the structural outlines which accompany the analysis of each Psalm.)

The present volume is required reading for any pastor or teacher picking up the Psalter, not to mention Job, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Lamentations and Ecclesiastes. But the reader of the Hebrew Bible will be keenly aware of the poetic idiom in the Pentateuch, the Historical Books and the Prophets. As Fokkelman points out, 37% of the Old Testament is poetry—more than 1/3 of the Tanakh. That is a major genre to master for any student of God's Word.

And how rich is that genre! If our devotional experience has been deepened by the poems of the Old Testament, Fokkelman's book will make that experience even more wonderful. If our identification with the mind and heart of the Biblical poet has caught us up into the text itself, Fokkelman's book will make that reading sweeter and more concrete. And if our Lord Jesus has been the Eschatological Poet who sings the songs of Zion over his sons and daughters (—over us!), Fokkelman's book will display the artistry, the symmetry, the mirror-imagery of those redemptive-historical intonations.

Fokkelman takes us on a tour of how to read Biblical poetry. He does this, in the main, non-technically (a glossary of necessary technical terms is included for the uninitiated, pp. 225-28). The average college student (and beyond) will not be daunted by his prose. "This book is intended for those who do not read Hebrew but have to rely on a translation of the Bible. I have tried to put myself in their position as much as possible . . . " ("Preface"). Using a building-block approach, Fokkelman disassembles and assembles select Hebrew poems from cola and verses (chapter 4, pp. 61-86), to strophes (chapter 5, pp. 87-115), to stanzas (chapter 6, pp. 117-40), to the poem as a whole (chapter 7, pp. 141-57). Along the way, he illustrates each stage with copious examples from the Bible (a full Scripture index appears on pp. 237-43). Especially helpful is an appendix in which he provides strophic and (often) stanza analysis of all 150 Psalms, Lamentations, Job, Proverbs and the Song of Solomon (pp. 211-24).

Having mentioned Robert Lowth above, it is important to describe Fokkelman's revision of Lowth's famous parallelismus membrorum ("parallelism of the members", i.e., of lines of the Psalms especially). Fokkelman is not denying parallelism in Hebrew poetry, but unlike Lowth he is extending it beyond a single verse, forcing the interpreter to follow the pattern of similarity (and parallelism) wherever they occur in the text. In addition, Fokkelman points out that rigid application of Lowth's principle eliminates nuanced differences in poetic strophes. The second element of the "parallel" may, in fact, be expanding on a difference in imagery, so that a broader facet of the imagery is contained in the subsequent line. Psalm 3:4 will suffice to whet our readers's appetites. "I was crying to the Lord with my voice, and he answered me from his holy mountain." The Psalmist and the Lord are parallel (actually chiastic—"I"/"Lord": "he"[Lord]/"me"), but "holy mountain" expands the image of the arena from which the Lord hears and answers. Parallel lines add to one another—they do not merely duplicate one another.

Fokkelman is a critical scholar. Hence critical-fundamentalist positions appear in the book: Deutero-Isaiah, the Cyrus oracle of Isaiah 45 post eventum ("after the event," i.e., after 539 B.C.), "for the Israelites there was no life after death" (p. 161). These dutiful genuflections to the critical-fundamentalist guild are to be expected. They are minor irritants in a provocative and helpful study.

But there is a major irritant from his critical fundamentalism which I cannot ignore. Fokkelman regards the Song of Solomon as a "free love" tract from ancient Israel (pp. 189-206). The anachronism apparent here is that Fokkelman has spent 180 pages urging us to read the text as it stands. He then reads Solomon's Song like a pornographer. We have become accustomed to this since Marvin Pope's perverse Anchor Bible commentary of the Song. And like Pope, Fokkelman seems bent on telling us more about his own sexual mores (and preferences) than Solomon's text. Like other "modern" commentators on the Song (Othmar Keel and Tremper Longman), the Song of Solomon is regarded as a collection of erotic love poems with no revelatory vector at all. The poetry is horizontal, only horizontal, nothing but horizontal, i.e. "horizontal" love between a man and a woman. In fact, any attempt to discover a vertical or a revelatory or an eschatological aspect in the Song is ridiculed as "allegorization" (Fokkelman's term) or spiritualization. Fokkelman even suggests Nietzsche (a paragon of Christ-like love, of course!) as providing the hermeneutical key to the Song: "love beyond good and evil" (p. 191).

I begin to smell something rotten in Leiden. Our post-Enlightenment professor of Hebrew Literature seems duty bound to display his elitist and modernist sexually liberated libido in a rant against the prude's view of Solomon's Song. So the lovers in the Song become an extension of the love-making mores of Fokkelman and his Dutch peers. In other words, in a book in which we have been urged to look at the text and allow the text to speak for itself, Fokkelman uses the text of Solomon's Song to parade his own modern sexual tastes. Undoubtedly, many will welcome this, but I must protest. Fokkelman on the Song of Solomon reads more like a page from the Woodstock generation than Solomon's sublime love for his Shulamite—and the Lord's sublime love for his children (see my "What Should I Read on the Song of Solomon?" Kerux: A Journal of Biblical-Theological Preaching 8/2 [September 1993]: 35-41, available on

Still, the book is a must. Any preacher working on the Psalms who ignores this book is a "fool", i.e., one who stubbornly resists any new insights into the Hebrew text, even if they arise from meticulous study of the God-inspired Hebrew texts themselves (cf. Prov. 18:2).

James T. Dennison