• The Poetry of the Bible and Oral Cultures - There is none holy like the Lord

Fifteen Percent of the Bible is Poetry!

Not only in Kyrgyzstan, but across Central Asia and beyond we often note that poetic recitation inspires deep emotion and cultural identification with the biblical text, largely because it is a part of the still existing, oral tradition.

The presence of poetry in the Bible is not insignificant. Although most of the Bible, 75%, is narrative, a significant 15% is poetry. Some of this 15% is represented in SIU’s Poetry Collection which includes passages from Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Samuel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Micah, Habakkuk, Zechariah, and Zephaniah.

The Hebrew language is suited to poetic forms like repetition and parallelisms (parallel lines with a change in one or two words). Consequently, the poetry of the Bible has always been memorized and recited by those of the Jewish faith. It is precisely the rhythm, repetition and lyrical features of the text that lend it to memorization.  Additionally, some portions of Jesus’ sayings are poetic in form and, although lost in translation, most of the lines of His parables rhyme when spoken or read in the Aramaic language.

Poetry in Context

For millennia poetry has been recited, chanted, and sung in many cultures.  Consequently, Biblical poetry recitations have been some of the most striking and significant oral performances we have observed around the world.

  • In Pakistan believers find delight in the poetry of the Bible, which reminds them of Urdu and Arabic expressive forms. Their hands rise naturally in praise and supplication while performing a poem such as Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel:

“There is none holy like the Lord:
For there is none besides you;
There is no rock like our God…
For the Lord is a God of knowledge…”

  • In Uzbekistan some who speak Tajik find biblical poetry especially beautiful. The poetic song of Mary (known by many as the Magnificat) deeply motivated one breakout group. They not only recited the prayer-praise of Mary as poetry, but also created a dramatic reenactment of the meeting between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth and then performed a song-dance celebrating the Son of God, soon to be born.
  • For Quechua and Aymara Indian believers in faraway Bolivia, the art of poetry recitation is new but comes naturally. During performances of the Song of Solomon, we observe passion in their delivery; the poetic style clearly inspires and motivates them.
  • Among the Santali, a tribal group of northeastern India, it is the custom to chant a story or a poem in one of twelve prescribed rhythmic forms. Consequently, when memorizing biblical poetry, they simply choose from the twelve forms and proceed to chant long passages.
  • In the Muslim world it is effective to supplement and reinforce story with Biblical poetry. For example, certain Psalms of David (known as the prophet Daud) can be recited with his life stories taken from Kings or Samuel. David’s poetry is an esteemed part of Muslim culture and brings alive the emotions and reality of his relationship with God.

There are endless examples of poetic scripture that enhance and complement specific stories of the Bible. Poetry takes on greater meaning as oral learners discover this strategy.

Poetry Touches the Heart

The Word of God has so much richness and depth. The use of poetry is a major part of God’s way of touching the hearts and minds of people all around the world.

If you feel led to leave a response and comment here, please do so by replying and posting in this blog. We welcome your comments and interactions within a community of those seeking to further advance the Kingdom of God.

Read other posts in this series by SIU founders, Jim and Carla Bowman:

2 replies
  1. Dan Vannelli
    Dan Vannelli says:

    In the West, we most often miss out the the on simple joy and beauty of the Bible’s poetry. Many other cultures enjoy lingering over verses, repeating, singing them, chanting them, over and over. What a wonderful way to meditate, savor and appreciate God’s Word. This blog is an wonderful reminder that there is a much greater richness found in the Scriptures when we approach it in this way.


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