It is now generally conceded that parallelism is the fundamental law, not only of the poetical, but even of the rhetorical and therefore of higher style in general in the Old Testament. By parallelism in this connection is understood the regularly recurring juxtaposition of symmetrically constructed sentences. The symmetry is carried out in the substance as well as in the form, and lies chiefly in the relation of the expression to the thought. The same idea is expressed in its full import—that is, in its various aspects and turns—not in a continuous, uninterrupted sentence, but in several corresponding clauses or members with different words. Hencethe name "parallelismus membrorum" or "sententiarum." It has also been aptly called "sinnrhythmus" (Ewald). For the parallel members are related to each other as rhythmical protasis and apodosis, as προῳδός and ἐπῳδός.


The first to see this law clearly and to distinguish between its basic forms was the Anglican bishop Robert Lowth ("De Sacra Poesi Hebræorum Prælectiones," 1753, Lecture xix.; and "Preliminary Dissertation to Isaiah," 1778, pp. 12-26). Unknown to him Christian Schoettgen referred to this principle in a general way ("Horæ Hebr." 1733; comp. Diss. vi., "De Exergasia Sacra," pp. 1249-1263: "exergasia quid sit, omnes Rhetorum libelli docent, conjunctio scilicet integrarum sententiarum idem significantium"). But even before that Ibn Ezra and Ḳimḥi had characterized this feature of Hebrew poetry by the expression "kaful" ("doubling") or, more fully, "kefel 'inyan be-millot shonot" ("doubling of the thought with other words"). Both, however, regarded it merely as an elegant form of expression ("derek ẓaḥot"). On Abu al-Walid see Bacher, "Aus der Schrifterklärung des Abulwalid," p. 39.

According to the logical interrelation of the members there are distinguished three kinds of parallelism:

  • (1) The synonymous, in which the same sentiment is repeated in different but equivalent words:(Ps. xxv. 5; comp. ib. exiv.; Num. xxiii. 7-10; Isa. lx. 1-3; etc.). "Shew me thy ways, O Lord; Teach me thy paths"Frequently the second line not merely repeats but also reenforces or diversifies the idea:(Prov. i. 31);"They shall eat of the fruit of their own way, And be filled with their own devices"(I Sam. xviii. 7; comp. Isa. xiii. 7, lv. 6 et seq.; Ps. xcv. 2). "Saul hath slain his thousands, And David his ten thousands"
  • (2) The antithetical, in which the parallel members express the opposite sides of the same thought:(Prov. xi. 3; comp. ib. x. 1 et seq.; Isa. liv. 7 et seq.; Ps. xx. 8, xxx. 6). "The integrity of the upright shall guide them, But the perversity of the treacherous shall destroy them"Frequently there are one or more synonymous elements in both members, thus making the contrast more emphatic:(Prov. xxix. 27; comp. ib. x. 5, xvi. 9, xxvii. 2). "An unjust man is an abomination to the righteous, And he that is upright in the way is an abomination to the wicked"
  • (3) The synthetical (called also constructive and epithetical), in which the two members contain two disparate ideas, which, however, are connected by a certain affinity between them:(Prov. i. 7; comp. ib. iii. 5, 7; Isa. l. 4; Ps. i. 3, xv. 4)."The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: But the foolish despise wisdom and instruction"
Kinds of Parallelism.

Lowth observes of these three fundamental kinds of parallelism ("Preliminary Dissertation," p. 26): "Synonymous parallels have the appearance of art and concinnity and a studied elegance; they prevail chiefly in shorter poems, in many of the Psalms, in Balaam's prophecies, in many of those of Isaiah, which are most of them distinct poems of no great length. Antithetical parallelism gives an acuteness and force to adages and moral sentences, and therefore abounds in Solomon's Proverbs, but elsewhere is not often to be met with. The poem of Job, being on a large plan and in a high tragic style, though very exact in the division of the lines and the parallelism, and affording many fine examples of the synonymous kind, yet consists chiefly of the constructive."

Other distinctions which refer rather to the structure and form of the verses than to the nature of parallelism are:

The introverted parallelism (Jebb, "Sacred Literature," 1820, § iv., p. 53), in which the hemistichs of the parallel members are chiastically arranged after the scheme ab-ba:

(Prov. xxiii. 23 et seq., Hebr.; comp. ib. x. 4, 12; xiii. 24; xxi. 17; Ps. li. 4).

"My son, if thine heart be wise, My heart shall be glad, even mine; Yea, my veins shall rejoice, When thy lips speak right things"

The palillogical parallelism, in which one or more words of the first line are taken up, like an echo or the canon in music, in the second:

(Nah. i. 2; comp. Judges v. 3, 6, 7, 11, 12, 15, 16, 23, 27; Isa. ii. 7, xxiv. 5; Hos. vi. 4; Ps. lxxii. 2, 12, 17; cxxi.; cxxiv.; cxxvi.).

"The Lord is a jealous God and avengeth; The Lord avengeth and is full of wrath; The Lord taketh vengeance on his adversaries, And he reserveth wrath for his enemies"

Perfect and imperfect parallelism, according to the equality or inequality of the number of words in each line.

Sometimes a distich does not contain the logical development or repetition of the thought as in the instances quoted above; but the thought goes forward through both lines, either because one line was not sufficient to express it or because the second line supplements the first in the form of a relative, final, causative, or consecutive clause.

There is also that parallelism which is called (e.g., by De Wette and Delitzsch) the rhythmical:

(Ps. cxxxviii. 4);

"All the kings of the earth shall give thee thanks, O Lord, For they have heard the words of thy mouth"

(Prov. xv. 3; comp. ib. xvi. 7, 10; xvii. 13, 15; xix. 20; xxi. 23, 25).

"The eyes of the Lord are in every place, Keeping watch over the evil and the good"

Number of Parallel Members.

The simplest and most frequent form is the distich, in which two lines balance each other in thought and expression. But the parallelism may extend to several lines with the same variety of relations as in the distich.

The tristich may consist either of three synonymous lines, as in Ps. i. 1; Num. vi. 25; Lam. i. 1; Isa. xlvii. 11; Mic. vi. 15; or of a distich with an introductory or a concluding line, as in Isa. xliii. 5; Ps. cxxiii. 2.

The tetrastich may comprise four synonymous lines (Num. xxiv. 6; Isa. i. 4, lviii. 6), or may consist of two distichs balanced against each other (Gen. xxv. 23; Isa. xliii. 2, 6), or, more elegantly, the lines of the distichs may be arranged crosswise after the scheme ac-bd (Ps. xxxiii. 13 et seq.; Isa. xlix. 2), or acdb (II Sam. iii. 23 et seq.), or while the pairs are synonymous within themselves they may be antithetic with reference to each other (Isa. liv. 10, lxv. 21 et seq.; Ps. xxxvii. 10 et seq.). Examples ofantithesis within the two distichs are Ps. xxx. 6, and xx. 8 et seq.

The pentastich is either a combination of a distich and tristich (Zech. ix. 5) or of two distichs and a single verse (Num. xxiv. 3 et seq.; Josh. x. 12 et seq.; I Chron. xii. 19).

The hexastich is formed either of three distichs (Num. xxiv. 17; Isa. ii. 7 et seq.; Hab. iii. 17) or of a distich and a tetrastich (Gen. xxvii. 29; Cant. iv. 8). Such combinations are rare in lyrics, but more frequent in the prophetical writings.

The strophes are subject to the same law of parallelism as the lines themselves. Thus Num. xxiv. 39 is composed of five strophes of 5, 6, 4, 5, and 4 lines respectively. Job iii., after the introit in verse 3, can be divided into seven strophes with 6, 10, 6, 8, 6, 8, and 6 lines respectively, balanced against one another in thought (e.g., cursing of day and night; the enviable condition of the still-born and those in the grave; and the pain of those tired of life). So also Ps. lxii. 2-5, 6-9, and 10-12; ib. ii. 1-3 and 4-6, which form two antithetical strophes.

—In Post-Biblical Literature:

In the oldest post-Biblical Hebrew poetic productions extant, that is, the liturgy, the principle of parallelism is existent, though not exhibiting the regularity and symmetry of the Biblical poetry. It is sufficient here to refer to such prayers as "Le-El Baruk," "Ahabah Rabbah," "'Ezrat Abotenu," and the "Shemoneh 'Esreh." Parallelism is also discernible in the few poetic remnants preserved in the Talmud. So, for instance, in the elegy on R. Ḥanin, who, when a child came to him late in life died on the day of its birth:


(Ket. 104a).

"Gladness turned into sadness, Joy and grief met together, His joy was mingled with sighing, Grace reached him only to depart"

With the adoption of rime and meter in the Spanish period the parallelism fell into decay, though it maintained itself in the liturgy. Occasionally it breaks through in other poetical productions of that period, as in the complaint of Abraham ibn Ezra:


"I strive to succeed, but without avail—for my horoscope was unlucky; Were I trader of death-shrouds, none would die while I lived; The cycle of planets in their position took a wrong course at my birth; Were candles my wares, the sun would not set before my death."

Likewise in Judah al-Ḥarizi's maḳamah of the "Unhappy Marriage":


"Blessed He who preserved me on the day of distress And in His mercy showed me grace. My inclination sold me into the hand of my folly, But the Rock in His compassion delivered me; After I had already entered the chambers of hell, He opened the belly of hell and brought me up."

The same may be noticed in modern Hebrew poetry. So, for instance, in N. H. Wessely's elegy on the death of Moses Mendelssohn:


"Death! thou hast hewn off the tree, but left its fruit; Not the whole hast thou destroyed, but a small part. The sum of his wisdom is engraved on the tablet, Still is he discussing with his friends letters and science; Not with lips of flesh, dust, and ashes, Not in words and sounds, but in the spirit."

Exegetical Importance.

The importance of parallelism as an aid in determining text-critical and lexicographical questions, thus affording the key to the correct interpretation of many passages in the Bible, is evident. From an esthetical point of view the parallelism may be termed the rhythm of nature. Paralleliśm is not an exclusive peculiarity of Hebrew. It is met with not only in Assyrian (A. Jeremias, "Die Babyl.-Assyr. Vorstellung vom Leben nach dem Tode," p. 91, Leipsic, 1878; E. Schrader, in "Jahrbücher für Protestantische Theologie," i. 122) and in Egyptian (Georg Ebers, "Nord und Süd," i. 1; J. H. Breasted, in "The Biblical World," i. 55), but is also characteristic of Finnish song, especially the "Kalevala" (D. Comparetti, "Der Kalevala," Halle, 1892; J. C. Brown, "People of Finland," p. 280, London, 1892). A. Wuttke ("Der Deutsche Volksaberglaube der Gegenwart," p. 157, Berlin, 1869) and Eduard Norden ("Die Antike Kunstprosa," ii. 813, Leipsic, 1898) consider parallelism as the most ancient and the original form of poetry, as "perhaps the most important formal ethnic thought ["formale Völkergedanke"] in existence." But it is best adapted to the genius of the Hebrew language with its wealth of synonymous expressions which enables the poet or the prophet to dwell upon a theme with an almost inexhaustible variety of expression and coloring. The parallelism is so inwrought in the nature of Hebrew poetry that it can not be lost in translation; and to this fact is perhaps due not in a small measure the fact that the poetry of the Old Testament has become the common property of mankind.

  • Besides the works cited in the article, Lor. O. Leforn, De Parallelismo Sententiarum, Abo, 1774;
  • Gbr. Hern, De Parallelismo Membrorum, Abo, 1812;
  • T. P. Kaiser, De Parallelismi in Sancta Hebrœorum Poesi Natura et Generibus, Erlangen, 1839;
  • E. du Méril, Essai Philosophique sur le Principe et les Formes de la Versification, pp. 47 et seq., Paris, 1841;
  • Ewald, Die Poetischen Bücher des Alten Bundes, i. 57-92, Göttingen, 1835-39;
  • Die Dichter des Alten Bundes, 2d ed., pp. 91 et seq., ib. 1866. On the parallelism of strophes: Köster, in Theologische Studien und Kritiken, 1831, pp. 40-114.
E. C. I. M. C.
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