Review of A. Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism (Revised and expanded edition)

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Adele Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism (Revised and expanded edition, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008). Pp. xxiv+200. Paper US$21.00. ISBN 987-0-8028-0397-9.

The book is a volume of the Biblical Resource Series, and is a revised edition of the first edition (1985). The new edition contains an unpublished article by Russian linguist Lida Knorina, “The Range of Biblical Metaphors in Smikhut.” In the introduction (iv-xxii), the author gives a brief review on the scholarship of biblical poetry, especially on the study of parallelism. From both linguistic and non-linguistic perspectives, the author summarizes her own thinking about parallelism, with the application of Jakobson's theory and criticism of Alter and Kugel's work. The introduction ends with a list of papers on parallelism published since 1985. The book consists of six chapters.

The first chapter (1-17), “Parallelism and Poetry,” starts with a summary of the development of the definition of parallelism. The author evaluates the original definition of parallelism given by Lowth, and points out that the three types classified by Lowth cannot cover the subject thoroughly. Parallelism as a linguistic phenomenon has a much broader scope of relationship between the equivalent elements. The author proposes a fresh approach to the study of parallelism, and she introduces the development and the current situation of research on parallelism in both biblical and linguistic studies. The author also evaluates the theories of Jakobson, Kugel, Werth and Waugh, and shows that biblicists usually equate poetry with parallelism on the basis of style and characteristics, although they may be aware of the fact that correspondences also involve a deeper grammatical level. The linguistic study of parallelism and poetry analyzes the relationship between equivalences and gives a better explanation of the phenomenon on the basis of the grammar and the deep structure of the parallel lines. The author concludes the chapter by examining the significance of the study of parallelism for understanding the meaning of poetry.

The second chapter (18-30), “The Linguistic Study of Biblical Parallelism,” discusses what has been involved in the analysis of the linguistic features of parallelism in biblical poetry. The analysis of syntax from the surface structure, major syntactic components, and the deep structure shows that parallelism can be defined by syntactic matching. The author evaluates the theories proposed by both linguists and biblicists, and summarizes her own approach as well. Collins' theory of “basic sentences” shows the patterns of parallelism between lines. He maintains that parallelism is a semantic phenomenon and therefore fails to analyze the grammatical aspect of the syntactic constituents. On the basis of Collins' work, Geller's theory moves to the deeper grammatical level. His idea of the “reconstructed sentence” underlines the grammatical structures of the sentences. Greenstein's work also takes the grammatical approach, and uses grammar to define parallelism. His analysis shows that parallel sentences in fact have the same deep structures. O'Connor's work also uses grammar to define parallelism. He makes grammar both the criterion for identifying parallelism and the basis for describing biblical poetry. The author remarks that the complexity of parallelism can be described from various perspectives, even within the linguistic perspective. The correspondence or contrast within equivalences is not limited to grammatical or syntactic facets, it also involves lexical, semantic and phonological aspects, and the goal of the book is to present an integrated, linguistically based description of biblical parallelism.

Chapter III (31-63), “The Grammatical Aspect,” explores this fundamental aspect of biblical parallelism. The author introduces two subdivisions of grammatical parallelism: morphological parallelism and syntactic parallelism. The author gives many good examples to show that morphologic pairs are not necessarily from the same word class but, on the contrary, can be from different word classes presenting contrast in person, number, gender, conjugation, tense, case and definiteness, etc. Morphological parallelism only involves correspondence in the surface structure. Syntactic parallelism involves syntactic equivalences presenting nominal/verbal, positive/negative, subject/object transformations and contrasts in grammatical mood. Syntactic parallelism shows that inconsistent grammar does not necessarily present any problem in unity or structure but is sometimes just the result of the poetic function of the parallelism. The chapter ends with an emphasis on the importance of grammatical parallelism to enable better reading of poetic texts.

Chapter IV (64-102), “The Lexical and Semantic Aspects,” starts with an evaluation of Lowth's contribution regarding the semantic aspect of parallelism. The author explains that the relationship between equivalents also involves word-level and line-level correspondences; at the word-level, parallelism activates the lexical aspect of the language and at the line-level, the semantic aspect. The author mentions that fixed word pairs exist in Ugaritic poetry and also in biblical poetry. This suggests that fixed word pairs exist in the literary tradition of ancient Israel and Canaan. She also mentions the theory of oral composition and the existence of non-fixed word pairs, trying to show the function of the equivalent formulae. She further introduces two sets of rules for word association: the paradigmatic rules and the syntagmatic rules. The paradigmatic rules govern word associations similar to antonyms and synonyms. These word associations present minimal contrast, particularization of minimal contrast, feature deletion and addition, and category preservation. The syntagmatic rules are more complicated to characterize. They govern word associations containing selection feature realization or idiom completion. In any case, word associations only involve lexical items. The author further gives other types of syntagmatic pairings in Hebrew: conventionalized coordinates, binomination and normal syntagmatic combinations. The author highlights that word pairs between the parallel lines reflect the same linguistic phenomenon as do the other equivalents. This leads to the conclusion that “it is not that the word pairs create parallelism, it is that parallelism activates the word pairs” (79). The author continues to show the relationship between the lexical and the semantic aspects. Words with lexical association do not necessarily involve semantic equivalences. The function of lexical parallelism can be summarized in the statement: “lexical associations promote the perception of parallelism when grammatical or semantic equivalences are absent, and reinforce it when they are present” (83).  The patterning for lexical, semantic and grammatical elements can be generalized as AABB, ABAB, and ABBA. The patterns may be different but they all enhance the effect of parallelism. The last topic treated in this chapter is the semantic aspect, that is, the relationship between the meanings of the parallel lines. The author shows that the relationships categorized by Lowth (synonymous, antithetic, or synthetic) have limitations, and she further introduces Van Dijk's theory, which justifies syntagmatic equivalence. The author discusses the relevance of Van Dijk's thesis concerning the semantic aspect of parallelism and concludes that the semantic functions of parallelism are disambiguation and ambiguity, and the metaphoric function. She also explains how these semantic functions affect interpretation.

Chapter V (103-126), “The Phonologic Aspect: Sound Pairs,” introduces the definition of sound pair and its function. The author shows that parallelism also activates the phonological aspect of the language, and in biblical poetry phonological correspondence can be found in the repetition and contrast of the same or similar consonants in lines within close proximity. Normally the sound pair also involves lexical and semantic correspondences, though in some cases it only has sound correspondence, enhancing the effect of contrast or the perception of correspondence between the lines. The author also gives the patterning of the sound pairs occurring in biblical poetry, demonstrating that AABB, ABAB, ABBA patterns together with multiple sound pairs are all involved in sound correspondence. The author further underscores the significance of sound pairs in linguistic equivalence and the place of phonological correspondence in biblical parallelism. The chapter ends with an appendix of sound pairs in A Midsummer Night's Dream, trying to show that sound pairing is not limited to biblical poetry or Hebrew language.

Chapter VI (127-141), “Parallelism and the Text,” starts with a summary of the varieties of parallelism. The author shows that, in most cases, parallelism is a combination of the four aspects treated in the previous chapters. By giving eleven illustrations from the Psalter the author concludes that parallelism is of enormous linguistic complexity rather than being a simple linguistic formula. The author further points out that, although parallelism can be found almost everywhere in biblical poetry, it is not perceptible to everyone. Four principles are given to make parallelism easier to recognize: proximity of the linguistic equivalences, the similarity of their surface structures, the number of linguistic equivalences involved, and the expectation of equivalence. The author also emphasizes that the effects of parallelism are various depending on the forms. These striking effects show that parallelism is the “constructive device” of poetry, and the poetic function of the parallelism is the “most effective way to give heightened awareness of the message to its receivers” (140). The end of the chapter is a summary of what has been shown in these six chapters. The author concludes that biblical parallelism combines various aspects of the language to reinforce a powerful communication in biblical poetry.

In a book in which complex linguistic phenomenon is treated with complicated terms and concepts, the author's lucid presentation with plenty of good illustrations is a great asset. In her linguistically based description of biblical parallelism, the author uses an inductive method to present the various aspects of language that parallelism activates. She also explains why the linguistic study of parallelism will help biblicists to understand biblical poetry. In the introduction the author mentions that the subject of her discourse is parallelism rather than poetry, and indeed her presentation focuses on the function and effect of parallelism in making biblical poetry more poetic. However, her treatment on the definition of parallelism seems to be insufficient. From the definitions she has shown, she points out the limitations of the classic definition given by Lowth. She also critiques Kugel's definition and points out that his definition reduces parallelism to semantic correspondence. Her own approach is to define parallelism as a linguistic phenomenon, and she also points out that the essence of parallelism is the correspondence between equivalences, and “it is these linguistic equivalences…[that] constitute the phenomenon called parallelism"(3). She describes parallelism by its broad linguistic attributes and its functions but she does not explain the cause of the phenomenon. In her discussion about parallelism and poetry in linguistic study, she treats parallelism as one of the functions of language itself, and she agrees with Waugh that parallelism exists in both prose and poetry, the only difference being that, “in prose, parallelisms do not constitute the constructive device of the text as they do in poetry” (10).  Her own opinion is that, “poetry uses parallelism as its constitutive or constructive device, while non-poetry, though it contains parallelism, does not structure its message on a systematic use of parallelism” (16).  In either case, parallelism is considered both a characteristic of poetic language and a device. The cause of the phenomenon is far beyond my territory of research, but it seems to me that in order to classify or define this linguistic phenomenon more clearly, we would have to explore several issues. First, what governs the psycholinguistic process of word association? Second, as an artifice of composition, does it reflect the function of Hebrew language or an oral mindset instead? Does poetic design or compositional technique necessitate rhetoric? Third, if stylistic structure is part of the rhetoric of the language, at least some aspects that parallelism activates should belong to this category. Another point I would like to mention is the author's argument about the effect of parallelism. The author mentions that the dominance of poetic function is the common feature of the poetic texts, and all of these texts use this constructive device to heighten their messages. It seems that repetition of any stylistic structures or phrases as equivalences within close proximity is a method used to catch the attention of the reader or to highlight the message. In this way, parallelism is just like any other device of composition or rhetoric of language, regardless of the genre of the text or of the language. I agree that the effect of parallelism depends on the forms of the parallelism but it is my feeling that the author's argument on this topic does not manifest the unique feature of the effect of biblical parallelism.

In spite of these latent weak points, the book contributes through its thorough analysis of the numerous aspects that are activated by biblical parallelism and its fresh approach to the study of parallelism from both biblical and linguistic perspectives. The book is recommended to students of biblical poetry at all levels.

Mary Wang, University of Leiden