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The Art Of Biblical Poetry

4.09  ·  Rating Details ·  191 Ratings  ·  20 Reviews
Continuing his exploration of the art of the "Bible," Robert Alter provides a fresh interpretation of the poetry of the Old Testament and a lucid, original account of how biblical poetry works.
Paperback, 228 pages
Published June 1st 1987 by Basic Books (first published 1985)
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Jul 20, 2014 Melissa rated it really liked it
Shelves: literature, theology
Most of Alter's work can be summed up like this: What at first appears simple, even mechanical, is in fact a work of highly skilled artistry.

This book, on poetry, seemed like a bit of a slog when I was reading it; having read it I find myself noticing biblical poetry and paying more attention to the finer details that I might otherwise have missed. Alter spends the first three chapters explaining how poetry works in the Bible, especially the relationship between the smaller units that make up a
Oct 30, 2014 E rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Perhaps not as rich as his previous volume on Biblical narrative, which I read earlier in the year, but this work still punches above its weight (don't you hate stupid cliches?). Understanding Hebrew poetry is primarily about understanding how parallelism works. If something is repeated in a parallel line, there is ALWAYS a reason. And it's not merely to "fill out the line" or "keep the meter right," as some have supposed. Even "synonymous" parallelism has a purpose. When reading Hebrew poetry, ...more
Jul 31, 2013 Brian rated it it was amazing
Shelves: re-read
Post-script: I really love this book and hopefully I'll be able to use it in re-reading various parts of the Bible. No question, Alter makes one realize that the Bible was a radical book including poetry to put the most subversive freeverse poet to shame. My favorite chapter remains the one on Job. After reading Nietzsche, it is especially good. My only complaint is I wish there had been a chapter on Ecclesiastes. This is the sort of poetry that Christians should begin any poetic education with. ...more
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Apr 12, 2014 Keith rated it really liked it
It wasn’t until the mid-18th century, after thousands of years of readership and study, that Bishop Robert Lowth clearly identified parallelism as the structural foundation of Hebrew poetry in the Old Testament. Yet it took another 250 years for this idea to receive a thorough and thoughtful study with this book by Robert Alter.

It’s a remarkable book, and anyone who has read Alter’s translation of the Psalms and the Book of Job can testify to his deep and aesthetic understanding of Old Testamen
B. Hawk
Following on his work in The Art of Biblical Narrative, Alter turns his criticism to Hebrew poetry, using the same techniques of "literary" scholarship for analysis. In my mind, this book, unfortunately, is less successful than its predecessor. There are, of course, moments where the book is helpful. These come out most in the analyses of specific passages, when Alter is able to hone his generalities into particular literary exegesis. For students seeking to work on biblical poetry, these moment ...more
David Clark
Aug 26, 2012 David Clark rated it it was amazing
Two dear friends and trusted bibliophiles (Brian Volk and Leslie Leyland Fields) recently commented in these Goodreads electronic annals concerning Robert Alter's poetic translations of the Psalms. I have little to add to their thoughtful words except to concur that Alter's singing translation are wonderful. Once getting over my lifetime of familiarity with the King James Version, I have come to treasure Alter's translation.

I recently taught a short course on the Psalms and found the difference
Apr 19, 2016 Gina rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
This is an enjoyable introduction to Biblical poetry, particularly Job, Proverbs, Palms, Song of Songs and passages from the Prophets. The focus is on the poetic device "semantic parrallelism" (identified by Robert Lowth in 1753), which is not thoroughly/explicitly defined but adequately exhibited. What I find most pleasing is that Robert Alter writes not only to convey what he understands or knows but also what he feels for (and believes about) the poetic texts and, indeed, for the poetic langu ...more
Jesse Broussard
Jun 22, 2015 Jesse Broussard rated it really liked it
Astonishingly, I wasn't quite as taken with this as I was with his Art of Biblical Narrative (an easy five star book, and one of my favourites of all time). I assumed, thinking trochee's and speaking in dactylls as I do (you try to fit "iambic" into an iamb without rewriting that sentence), that I would gravitate to the poetry. But I've read that one book (you know, that one with the blue cover...), I think it's "The Structure of Biblical Language" or something close to that a solid half-dozen t ...more
CJ Bowen
Alter is tremendously helpful, and has an excellent poetic ear and metaphorical imagination. His treatments of the major works of Hebrew poetry found in the OT provide stimulating and original commentary on these difficult works.

No poet myself, I stare at Alter's work with the same expression on my face as when I watch an auto mechanic, but at the end, I have a better grasp of how biblical poetry works, centered around the intensified imagery of semantic parallelism. Alter's closing words on how
Oct 03, 2012 Daniel rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A useful guide to the essentials of biblical poetic structure and form, laying out the general principles of parallelism and intensification and looking at the specific structures of the different poetic books. However, although supposedly intended for a general readership (and hence not featuring the Hebrew originals alongside the translations, which I found frustrating), there was considerable use of technical literary-analytical terms which I found confusing, as if this were intended more for ...more
Isaac Barton
While this isn't the most exciting reading imaginable, and I certainly have more than a few quibbles with the author concerning the nature of the Bible, Alter's perspective is something more than just valuable. I feel like I leave this book understanding biblical poetry a bit better. Many of the principles from this book will be scribbled nearby as I read biblical poetry for, I predict, years to come. When I put this book down I felt compelled to go back to the Psalms and read them again. That's ...more
Feb 01, 2017 Josh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: scripture, literature
As an evangelical pastor, I have very different conceptions of what Scripture actually is - a divine revelation, verbally and infallibly inspired by God himself- than Robert Alter. That said, Alter's work here, and on biblical narrative, has been a great help to me in learning to pay careful attention to the text. I found this volume not quite as thought provoking as "The Art of Biblical Narrative," but still one that changes the way I read biblical poetry.
Apr 23, 2010 Dustin rated it it was amazing
Shelves: owned, nonfiction
Fantastic book to read. Alter is a genius in his field. Allows one to experience the beauty and wonder of biblical poetry. His insights into the different genres of biblical poetry allow one to read the biblical text confidently without needing a commentary in the other hand. Good for those with or without a Biblical Hebrew background.
Joshua Booher
Aug 16, 2016 Joshua Booher rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: theology, efm-year-1
This book was much more technical than The Art of Biblical Narrative. I repeatedly had to turn to the dictionary to understand the poetic terms he was referring to. In the end, though, I gained a lot from the book. I am glad I read it.
Aug 31, 2014 Jo rated it really liked it
Shelves: hermeneutics
As with the "Narrative" counterpart, while the author clearly has a secular approach to the text evangelical students should still read this book. Alter provides Semitic literary guidance not commonly available in our seminaries.
Jan 03, 2016 Josh rated it it was ok
Offers some good insights, but I feel that his writing can also be hopelessly dense and convoluted.
Tsun Lu
May 09, 2012 Tsun Lu rated it really liked it
I am blown away by R. Alter's literary observations and sharp sensitivity. The print text is too small for natural eyes.
Nov 19, 2011 Heather rated it it was amazing
I read most of this book and used it for a paper on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. It is a fantastic book on Biblical poetry and has blessed my understanding of Hebrew poetry.
Barbara rated it it was amazing
Jan 16, 2009
Mu-tien Chiou
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May 31, 2012
Bradley rated it it was amazing
May 02, 2014
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Nov 08, 2012
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Jun 19, 2011
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Jonathon Riley rated it it was amazing
Sep 04, 2015
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Jan 22, 2017
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Aug 14, 2013
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  • The Prophets
  • Biblical Exegesis: A Beginner's Handbook
  • Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible
  • Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar
  • Is There a Meaning in This Text?
  • Sinai and Zion
  • Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction
  • Message of the Psalms
  • Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia
  • The Chumash: The Stone Edition, Full Size (ArtScroll) (English and Hebrew Edition) The Torah: Haftaros and Five Megillos with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings
  • Old Testament Exegesis (3rd Edition)
  • An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach
  • A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew
  • Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi
  • Jesus: A Very Short Introduction
  • How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now
  • A Survey of the Old Testament
  • The Great Code: The Bible and Literature
Robert Bernard Alter (b. 1935) was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Lifetime Achievement and the PEN Center Literary Award for Translation. He is the Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and has published many acclaimed works on the Bible, literary modernism, and contemporary Hebrew literature.
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