A LONG TIME ago, I projected a book on biblical poetry that found its expression in The Root of the Thing: A Study of Job and the Song of Songs. Intermittently, I wrote about other parts of the Bible: about Pentateuchal narrative, briefly, in The Meaning of Fiction and about historiographic assumptions underlying biblical practice in History/Writing. Further, in "Prophecy and the Preconditions of Poetry" (in Soundings), I set the biblical practice of poetry into a larger context of comparable poetry with some religious orientation, while attempting some characterizations and drawing some distinctions. Here I turn, finally, to the tonic range of biblical prophecy and to its "burden," a word that has been adapted into English to mean the kind of message that the biblical prophet conceived himself to be uttering.
The biblical sense of "burden" is listed separately in the Oxford English Dictionary, but it is difficult for an English speaker to dissociate the word from most of the other senses: a load, a duty, a crop, a musical accompaniment, a refrain, a chief theme or idea, that which is borne in the womb, and even (the burden of) a proof. There are elements, situational and metaphorical, in prophetic utterance that would validate such extensions of the word. The Hebrew maśśā is used to mean the burden of an ass or a camel, though when it is derived from naśāh, "lift," it more strongly suggests a raising motion than does the English word "burden," which is derived from "bear." Gesenius, indeed, lists maśśā in the prophetic sense as a separate word, indicating that its main use is "utterance" or "oracle," an emphasis that the Septuagint translation reinforces by rendering it with the Greek words for "speech" and "oracle," rhēma and orama.1 It also renders the word, however, as "something received or taken up," lēmma. This lends support to the "burden" side of the Hebrew word and allows both senses -- that of a load and that of a raised voice -- to blend somewhat as they do in the English