Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

J. P. Fokkelman, Major Poems of the Hebrew Bible. At the Interface of Prosody and Structural Analysis. Volume IV: Job 15 – 42 (Studia Semitica Neerlandica, vol. 47; Assen, The Netherlands: Royal Van Gorcum, 2004). Pp. 466. Cloth, €109.50. ISBN 90-232-4072-3.

This book is the final volume in the series on the major poems of the Hebrew Bible and is the sequel to volume two, which deals with Job 4-14. In a time when scholars tend to focus on one or two aspects of poetic analysis or devote energy on one or two poems, Fokkelman’s study is a delight to read.

His method has been explained in previous volumes or in a more popular format in Reading Biblical Poetry (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001). Since poetry is the most compact and concentrated form of speech possible, to read a poem, or better, to find the poet in the words requires cautiously tackling complexity. Fokkelman offers a guide. First, one needs to probe each and every layer of syllables and words, cola and verses, strophes and stanzas and the whole poem to unfold the artistic design. To undertake this task, discovering all that is available in language and style is crucial. In this volume, Fokkelman notes, to name only a few, the pattern of vowels, word meanings, rhyme, distribution of conjugation, symmetrical distribution of the suffix, repetition of the verbal root, the use of preposition, the use and non-use of waw, chiasm, inclusio, etc.  His close reading of the text brings out many insightful observations.

Secondly, in the process of reading poetry, one needs to pay much attention to length of cola and verse, according to Fokkelman. This is perhaps the most distinctive part in his methodology. His observation (and calculation) of what he calls ‘numerical perfection’ can be found in every chapter of the book, covering every combination and level possible. A few examples may illustrate the point.

(1) Taking all the poems into consideration, the total number of strophes in the book of Job is 412. Job speaks 206 of these, exactly half of the total number. The remaining half is shared by the three friends, Elihu and God (p. 333). Moreover, in the 206 strophes, Job speaks 103 short and 103 long strophes.

(2) On the level of sections (Job 3-14, 15-27, 28-31), the numbers of short strophe and long strophe are: 28-48, 49-28, 25-25, forming a kind of chiasm (p. 334).

(3) On the level of chapter, intriguing patterns are easily found too. In Job 15, Eliphaz speaks 14 strophes totaled 557 syllables. Job speaks exactly the same number of strophes and syllables (p. 21). In Job 31, taking the repetition of a nominal sentence as a clue to delimit the units, Fokkelman comes up with 3 sections of the pattern of 2 + 3, 2 + 2 + 2, 3 + 2, and the numbers of cola are: 26, 32, 26 (p. 190).

A third approach one can employ in understanding poetry, according to Fokkelman’s contribution, is detecting the tension between sentence and verse structure. M. P. O’Connor in Hebrew Verse Structure (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1980) has argued that the poetic line is limited in length by syntactical constraints. Fokkelman takes the discussion to the higher level. He believes that a syntactic feature of the stanza as a whole is that in principle clause and colon coincide (p. 91). Based on this, he argues that the first three words of Job 31:12 constitute a nominal sentence and make a colon (p. 189). 

A few times though his decision seems disputable. In the discussion on Lamentations 5, Fokkelman argues that v. 21 should be analyzed as a tricolon rather than a bicolon (p. 14). But this delimitation requires reading אֵלֶיךָ וְֽנָשׁוּבָ in colon B, which is syntactically unlikely, if not impossible. Another case concerns Job 20. Fokkelman argues that we have to view v. 6 as the ending of strophe 2 rather than a conditional protasis of strophe 3 and v. 7 (p. 79). Surprisingly, no ancient versions support his view.

This brings us to a deeper question. Since many textual issues and almost all the demarcation of strophe and stanza will affect the numerical analysis, how well is Fokkelman’s numerical perfection established? On the one hand, it seems, there is no doubt that Fokkelman’s extraordinary literary sense and meticulous examination have yielded fresh insights, although, perhaps because space is limited, not enough details are given. On the other hand, even if the picture needs to be adjusted somehow, Fokkelman’s modest request that we allow the possibility that the figures or dimensions of various textual levels are crucial (p. 344) should still be granted.

All in all, this is an excellent book on the structural analysis of Hebrew poetry. For those who persevere to the end, the debate will only enrich their understanding.

Wesley Hu
Wycliffe College and China Evangelical Seminary