Sunday, February 19, 2012

Bible Study Tips: Study Parallel Structures

One of the more difficult types of literature to study in the Bible is the wisdom literature. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the structure of the writing is quite different from the way modern writers communicate. Second, because of the way the “sayings” are structured people often break them up into individual units and disconnect them from the larger teaching of the particular passage in which they appear. For example, the book of Proverbs has an overall structure and outline that helps us to see the connection and flow between all of the individual proverbs. If we simply take them one by one we can miss the larger point that is being made by assembling all these little pieces of wisdom together.

Today’s Bible study tip is intended to help you make sense of these individual units. As I have already said, once you see the point of the individual units you still need to do the work of examining how they are organized and work together in a larger teaching segment. One of the characteristics of Hebrew wisdom writing is its parallel structure. These parallels are designed to convey an idea in coordination with or in contrast with a related idea thus forming the parallel. The ideas are often organized into couplets or sometimes three line sections. Even when there are more than two lines there is usually two parts to the parallel and the structure can be visualized as ____________/_______________//. There are a lot of technical subdivisions that scholars use to classify these parallels but generally they can be categorized as synthetic or antithetical.

Synthetic parallels are when the second line of the couplet is in “agreement” with or supports the idea of the first line. An example is Amos 1:7; “So I will send a fire upon the wall of Gaza, / and it shall devour her strongholds//. You notice that the second part of the statement is agreeing with the first. It is an amplification of the same idea. Often, just like we see here, the second statement takes the point further than the first to show emphasis. An antithetical structure is when the second line contrasts with the first. An example is Proverbs 29:18; “    Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, / but blessed is he who keeps the law//. Notice that in this case the second statement is the opposite of the first. The point of the first is emphasized by comparing it with its opposite. The implication is that those without prophetic vision are not blessed.

Understanding the use of these parallel structures is useful because this device is used often in both Testaments. In this tip, however, I would like to focus on a particular use of these kinds of parallels. The basic and most common literary unit used in Hebrew wisdom literature is the mashal. A mashal is a particular type of one-line two-part statement that was used for wisdom sayings. You could translate the word mashal as proverb; I am using the term mashal simply to avoid confusion between the type of statement and the book of Proverbs proper. In fact, the example above from Proverbs 29:18 is a mashal. While they are not technically riddles they are often enigmatic and their meaning is not always immediately obvious. I have found that people have a lot of confusion about what is being taught in many of these passages as the result of not understanding the structure of these wisdom statements.

They are not always easy but with a bit of thought most of them can be understood once you understand how they work. There are two major keys to understanding them. First, is that the two halves work together. They are not independent statements or teachings. There is often tension between the two statements but the key to understanding the point is to figure out how the two halves relate to one another. The second key is to realize that often rather than making a definite statement the writer will use the mashal to create a mental image that makes the point instead. You have to take the time first to understand the images and then take the time to see the connection between them.

Let’s walk through an example from the book of Ecclesiastes.

A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth.”     (Ecclesiastes 7:1 ESV)

The first step is to identify the two parts to the statement. Often there will be a clear indicator such as the words “but” or “and”. In this case the break-point is the word “and”.

A good name is better than precious ointment / and the day of death than the day of birth //

Next we examine each of the halves. It is often the case (just like in this example) that one half will be more obvious than the other. That is precisely why understanding the parallel structure is so valuable to interpretation. We can then use the more clear idea to help us understand the point of the less clear idea.

The first half, “a good name is better than precious ointment”, gives us a lot more to work with than the second half. We know that ointment was a valuable commodity in the ancient world. Indeed the text itself tells us that the ointment is precious. Anything highlighted is an important clue in these short statements. We know that prior to refrigeration, preservatives, and advanced medications things like herbs, salts, and oils/ointments played a very important part in people’s lives and were necessary and often valuable. We remember, for example, the story from John chapter 12 where the woman anointed Jesus with oil and Judas commented that it was valuable and could have been sold to help the poor.

In our example we have precious ointment which is a way of emphasizing the value. Any ointment would have been valuable but this ointment is not ordinary ointment, it is precious ointment. The text is highlighting the extraordinary value of a good name by emphasizing the value of the ointment which, though great, is of less value than a good name.

The second half is more difficult. It is not clear exactly what is meant by “the day of death [is better] than the day of birth”. Many commentators try to explain it by tying it in with some of the broader themes of the book of Ecclesiastes. They argue that this means that a funeral is better than a day of birth because it causes us to reflect upon our lives and put things into perspective etc. The problem with this interpretation is that it ignores the relationship of this statement to the previous one. The word “and” demonstrates that a comparison is in view. If we want to understand how or why the day of death is better than the day of birth we need to understand how that concept relates to the value of a good name being greater than precious ointment.

The primary emphasis of the first half is on the value of a good name so we can expect that this will be paralleled in the second half. Let’s think about the relationship between the images. What could a good name have to do with the day of death?

We realize that many people have a good name only to later have their reputation ruined. If, however, a person dies with a good name then they will keep it. If one has lived an honorable life to the end then they retain a good name as long as they are remembered. This is why the day of death is better than the day of birth. Starting with a good name does not guarantee that you will keep it. The verdict about reputation at death is lasting whereas at birth it is tenuous.

The second question though is how this relates to precious ointment? Here we see the power of the imagery to reinforce the point the author is making. Ointment just like a good name, though valuable, is easily corrupted. If it isn’t handled with care and the container is damaged it will lose its fragrance. If it becomes too cold or too hot it can become ruined. If it becomes contaminated it loses its value. A good name must be cultivated and protected throughout a person’s life. Just like precious ointment it is of great value but is also fragile and can easily become useless. To end your life with a good name, however, is of the greatest value because a good name in the final analysis… a good name at the day of one’s death is of the greatest and lasting value.

This type of mashal structure is quite frequent in the Bible, especially in the wisdom books and understanding how they function can be very helpful as we study. The key to interpreting them is to understand the way that the two halves work together. Take the time to think about how the image they create connects the ideas expressed. The second half often escalates the point made in the first either as a comparison or as a contrast. I pray that a careful analysis of these statements will enrich your Bible reading and study.

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