Relating Hebrew Poetry to a Visual Audience
Have you ever wondered why many Christians today have a hard time relating to the Old Testament? Its pages are filled with exquisite poetry, and yet a growing majority of Bible readers overlook its wisdom because the truths of the New Testament seem more “practical” and “easier to grasp.”
But why is this?
The answer: we’re a visual culture. We immediately relate to the New Testament because it was written in Greek, and Ancient Greece possessed an extremely visual culture which paved the way for the classical western culture most of us grow up in today. The New Testament uses vivid descriptions which paint a picture in our minds, and we find ourselves going back to it again and again.
Think back to high school English – isn’t that what makes a poem magnificent – to use words to paint a picture in the minds of your readers?
Not if you were an Ancient Hebrew. In a time where paper was rare and few knew how to write anyway, the Ancient Israelites were not nearly as obsessed with mental pictures as we are today. Instead, they were an auditory culture. Words held great meaning, and history was passed down from one generation to another through the memorization and retelling of stories.
The result is poetry like the following, taken from Solomon’s Song of Songs, which has been hailed as one of the greatest love poems of all time:
How beautiful you are, my darling,
How beautiful you are!
Your eyes are like doves behind your veil;
Your hair is like a flock of goats
That have descended from Mount Gilead.
“Your teeth are like a flock of newly shorn ewes
Which have come up from their washing,
All of which bear twins,
And not one among them has lost her young.
~ Song of Solomon 4:1-2
Uhh… okay. Solomon might have been the wisest man who ever lived, but he’s starting to lose us, right? I mean, if I told my wife her hair looked like a tangled mess of wild goats I don’t think it would go over too well!
But there I go again, thinking in visual terms. For the Ancient Hebrews, poetry was not about painting a mental picture, but about creating a feeling or emotion.
Imagine the pride you would feel as a shepherd after you successfully herded an entire flock of goats down a mountain without a single injury. You’d be pretty happy with yourself, wouldn’t you? That is the kind of pride Solomon says he feels when he sees her beautiful hair and shows up to dinner with this woman on his arm.
Or imagine how clean a flock of lambs must feel after their dirty wool has been shaved off, leaving them white and bare. Imagine how strong these lambs must feel if they all bear twins and not a single one has lost a little one. That is how strong, how clean, and how beautiful this woman’s smile is to Solomon.
As you read Old Testament poetry, concentrate on the rich feelings being painted and not on the visual, and you’ll find deep meaning in these passages that you never knew before. Explain it this way to your visual audience, and they’ll begin to “get” the Old Testament more than they thought possible.
They might even find that they enjoy reading it.