The Book of Psalms: Composition and Reception

By Peter W. Flint; Patrick D. Miller Jr. | Go to book overview

NON-ACROSTIC ALPHABETIC PSALMS

DAVID NOEL FREEDMAN AND DAVID MIANO


STRUCTURE OF THE ALPHABETIC PSALMS

One of the sad consequences of the long transmission of the Hebrew text is the loss of the original stichometry of its songs and poems. That much of the Bible's poetry was copied as if it were prose has resulted in the obscuration of the original arrangement of poetic lines. This has given analysts much over which to ruminate. Of all the types of poems in the Hebrew Bible, the alphabetic acrostic has a structure that is easiest to determine.1 Because the lines of these poems are organized and arranged by means of the normal sequence of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet, students can determine line and stanza length with a considerable degree of objectivity and accuracy. Although various methods of measuring quantity in line length are employed by scholars today, we find that no matter what system is used, there is variation in line and stanza length among the poems of this type. The basic pattern is a poem of 22 lines or bicolons with an average syllable count of 8 in each colon (8 + 8 = 16 syllables per bicolon) and 3 or 4 stresses per colon (3 + 3 = 6 stresses, or 4 + 4 = 8 stresses, per bicolon), if we use the usual (Ley-Budde-Sievers) method of counting stresses.2 However, the majority of the alphabetic acrostics in the Hebrew Bible deviates from this norm, exhibiting variations, adaptations, and elaborations of the basic structure. Some poems follow a 9-syllable/3- or 4-stress design, while others follow a lO-syllable/4-stress design. While some researchers prefer to emend the text so as to make these poems conform to the “ideal” paradigm, careful study has shown that such deviations are intentional and that the poets were not content to follow the simplest pattern so strictly.3

Alphabetic poems may be divided into the following classes:

1 For an introduction to acrostics, see W. G. E. Watson, Classical Hebrew Po-
etry: A Guide to Its Techniques
(Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1984) 190-200.

2 D. N. Freedman, “Acrostics and Metrics in Hebrew Poetry,” HTR 65 (1972)
367-92.

3 See D. N. Freedman and J. C. Geoghegan, “Alphabetic Acrostic Psalms” in
Psalm 119: The Exaltation ofTorah (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999) 1-23.

-87-

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