Major Poems of the Hebrew Bible — at the Interface of Hermeneutics and Structural Analysis, Volume I: Ex. 15, Deut. 32, and Job 3

By J.P. Fokkelman

It was reading the afterword in De Psalmen that made me order this book through inter-library loan. Of course, like a fool, I started with Volume I, which is not about the psalms; I should have ordered Volume III. Still, I’m very glad I’ve dipped into this book.

  • Author: J.P. Fokkelman
  • Title: Major Poems of the Hebrew Bible — at the Interface of Hermeneutics and Structural Analysis, Volume I: Ex. 15, Deut. 32, and Job 3
  • Pages: 206
  • Published: 1998
  • Publisher: Studia Semitica Neerlandica (Van Gorcum)
  • ISBN: 90-232-3367-0

Only dipped, because it is way out of my league. I’m an innocent linguist, not a biblical scholar. My Hebrew doesn’t reach much further than recognizing the glyph for Aleph. And most of the Hebrew in this volume is given untransliterated, untranslated, unglossed. The very good translations of the three subject poems at the start of each chapter by the Jewish Publication Society of America do help, but not with the discussion itself. Of course, this book was not written for people like me, but rather for the small group of scholars in Fokkelman’s field — a pity, because his enthusiasm is infective, and I think their would be a quite wide audience for this work.

But perhaps, and I have not investigated this, Fokkelman has published more generally accessible books on this topic. Amazon lists twelve books, the most popular of which is Reading Biblical Narrative, An Introductory Guide. Hm. I’ll be ordering this next.

In any case, unable as I am to say anything worthwile about the present volume, I’m going to record my notes anyway…

When I had read the first six or so pages of the introduction, I
had the impression that the author was perhaps a bit too skilled at
what the Dutch call ‘inlegkunde’ — the ability to see meaning,
plot, intent and whatever where there is nothing much really except
accident. In the case of literary works, this danger is ever prevalent
because authors don’t, in my experience, conciously shape their work
to conform to numerical, structural designs. Sentences happen, and
that they show up in a pattern is because the human mind works
unconciously in patterns.

Then, from page seven or eight, when the author started giving
actual examples, I was grabbed. Fokkelman had convinced me by then,
mostly through his incredibly infective enthusiasm. Here is a scholar
who manages even when being engaged in the most strenuous
syllable-counting never to lose sight of the literary quality of the
work he is working on; he keeps his sense of awe throughout. Dash it,
I want to learn Hebrew just to read these poems in the original
language. But they are difficult, as Fokkelman acknowledges, and
Teach Yourself Biblical Hebrew only gives the student the
rudiments of biblical prose. So that’s a wash-out, probably.

It’s a book for dipping into, not reading straight from beginning to end; the extended arguments and analyses are beyond me, but even I recognize that they are engaging and cogent.