Interpreting Hebrew Poetry -- By: Jeffrey G. Audirsch

Journal: Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry
Volume: JBTM 13:2 (Fall 2016)
Article: Interpreting Hebrew Poetry
Author: Jeffrey G. Audirsch


Interpreting Hebrew Poetry

Jeffrey G. Audirsch

Jeffrey G. Audirsch is Associate Professor of Christian Studies at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia.

Roughly one-third of the Old Testament is poetic in form.1 Given the prevalence of poetry in the Old Testament identifying and grasping some general principles of interpretation is of utmost importance. This is further underscored by the fact that poetry is found in almost every book of the Old Testament.2 Several books are completely poetic—Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Amos, Obadiah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. Similarly, other books contain large portions of poetry: Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and Joel. That poetry is intertwined with biblical narratives (e.g., Exod 15; Deut 32; Judg 5; and 2 Sam 22:1-23:7), prophetic texts (e.g., Jer 1:4-10) and wisdom literature (Eccl 3:1-8) only compounds our task. Thus, creating a universal list of principles for interpreting poetry across genre lines seems difficult if not impossible. In this essay, I will discuss a variety issues related to interpreting poetry in the Old Testament. Since this edition of the Journal of Baptist Theology & Ministry is on expository preaching from the Old Testament, the main thrust of the essay will be on interpretive principles that do not necessitate a thoroughgoing knowledge of biblical Hebrew, especially the nuances of Hebrew poetry.3

Before beginning, it is important to distinguish between exegesis and hermeneutics. All interpreters use exegesis and hermeneutics, which are two sides of the same coin.4 First, the interpreter must exegete the biblical text. Exegesis is the attempt to extract the original and/or intended meaning of a text. This process is multifaceted and involves linguistic analysis and contextual analysis (i.e., literary, historical, and cultural).5 Second, once the exegetical work is done satisfactorily, the interpreter moves into the hermeneutical, or interpretive, stage. Hermeneutics utilizes exegetical work. This process can be overly simplified into key questions: Who was the author? Who was the audience? What is the purpose of the text within its original contex...

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