3. Recognize the significance of poetic parallelism in Proverbs.
The dominant characteristic of poetry in the Old Testament is Hebrew parallelism in which one line corresponds with the other. There are four main types of poetic parallelism used in the book of Proverbs—synonymous parallelism, antithetical parallelism, emblematic parallelism, and synthetic parallelism.
a. Synonymous Parallelism: In synonymous parallelism, the second line of the pair repeats the idea of the first line without making any significant addition or subtraction. This often includes the use of a strict grammatical parallel between the two lines:
As Osborne notes, “The interpreter in some instances should not read too much into the semantic variation between the two lines, for that could be intended more as a stylistic change for effect” (Osborne 1991: 176). In other words, the student of Proverbs should guard against the common error of seeing anything more than a subtle difference in meaning between two words being used as synonyms. In addition, when the interpreter encounters synonymous parallelism and comes to an obscure Hebrew word whose definition is unclear, comparing it to its synonymous counterpart will usually shed light on its meaning.
b. Antithetic Parallelism: In antithetic parallelism—the most common form in Proverbs—the second line is set in contrast to the idea of the first line, and usually by means of the adversative conjunction “but.” This often consists of a restatement of the idea of the first line by asserting its opposite (i.e., both lines state the same idea but in antithetical ways):
According to Allen Ross, this type of parallelism emphasizes the importance of choosing the way of wisdom and avoiding the fate of a fool by setting “before the reader the choice between the wise and profitable way versus the foolish and disastrous way” (Ross 1991: 888). When encountering this form of parallelism, the interpreter is aided in determining the meaning of certain key words by comparing them to their antonyms.
c. Emblematic Parallelism: In emblematic parallelism, one line is figurative and the other is literal, and together they form a simile with the word “like” or “as” introducing one of the lines (usually the figurative one):
The fundamental question for the interpreter is: How is A like B? In answering this question, he must determine the common denominators in the comparison as well as the overall point being made by the proverb (Parsons 1995: 155-56).
d. Synthetic Parallelism: Synthetic parallelism is a form of synonymous parallelism in which the second line completes, advances, or develops the thought of the first line by supplying additional ideas. If the second line provides no further clarification of the first, the parallelism should be classified as synonymous, but if it does bring forth clarification or expansion, it is synthetic.
The goal of the interpreter is to determine the contribution of that second line, as well as the point of the two statements taken together as a whole. Because synthetic parallelism usually takes the form of a wisdom saying (see 2b in part 1), the interpreter will need to determine the unstated exhortation implied by the proverb by wrestling with the question: How am I to live in light of this truth? To fail to take this extra step is to miss the point of the verse.
Look for part 3 on Wednesday.