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What Is Synthetic Parallelism in Hebrew Poetry?

The Lord not only gave us His Word to follow; He made it beautiful in a way that we could revisit the same passages time and again and continue to glean new things with each reading.

Poems, tea, and flowers on a blanket

When a book is translated into a new language, some of the nuances of the original are inevitably lost.

I’m reminded of reading The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, a book that was originally written in French. In one scene, one character asks another, “Why do you address me so distantly?”

As an English reader, I was confused. The character didn’t appear to address her in a manner differently than usual.

However, a footnote explained that in the original French, the character addressed her using the formal French “you” rather than the familiar French “you.”

Though there is only one word in English for “you,” there is more than one in French.

The Bible was not originally written in English. Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. And just like a classic novel, the Bible was not written only as a divine work, but also as a work of literature.

Also just like any other work of literature, we gain a greater understanding when we know about literary devices and how the author is using them to emphasize or expand on an idea.

Large portions of the Old Testament are poetry. As such, they use poetic devices, just like poetry in our language. One of those devices is synthetic parallelism.

What Do the Literary Terms Mean?

To set the stage for this discussion, let’s make sure we define a few key terms.

A literary device is a structure that helps a writer convey his or her message in a simpler, more compelling way. Examples include metaphor, simile, alliteration, hyperbole, or allegory.

A poetic device is a literary device that is specific to poetry, used to create rhythm, enhance meaning, or intensify atmosphere/mood.

A couplet is two back-to-back lines that are joined via rhyme, meter, and/or idea to form a complete thought. This is important, as synthetic parallelism often occurs in couplets.

Parallelism means using elements in sentences or lines that are grammatically or conceptually similar, whether in structure, sound, meaning, or meter. Parallelism in English poetry is often achieved through the poetic device of rhyme.

What Does Synthetic Parallelism Mean?

There are many kinds of parallelism in the Bible. Besides synthetic parallelism, Hebrew poetry uses antithetical parallelism, emblematic parallelism, and synonymous parallelism.

To understand synthetic parallelism, it’s almost easier to define what it isn’t.

In antithetical parallelism, the idea on the second line is opposite the idea on the first line, to create a contrast or antithesis.

In emblematic parallelism, similes or metaphors are used to compare things to one another.

In synonymous parallelism, the second line is a restatement of the first line in a slightly different way — a synonym.

So, what is synthetic parallelism?

You might say synthetic parallelism is any parallelism that doesn’t fit into any of the above categories.

Basically, synthetic parallelism brings together ideas to show that they are related in some way, whether to compare, contrast, or correlate them.

In synthetic parallelism, the second line often repeats the sentiment of the first line, then adds something to it.

There are a few different kinds of synthetic parallelism, which we’ll look at below.

Examples of Synthetic Parallelism in the Bible

One kind of synthetic parallelism is an argument from lesser to greater. Examples are Proverbs 15:11 and Proverbs 21:27.

Death and Destruction lie open before the Lord — how much more do human hearts! (Proverbs 15:11).

The sacrifice of the wicked is detestable — how much more so when brought with evil intent! (Proverbs 21:27).

Another type of synthetic parallelism is an argument of better this than that:

It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person than to listen to the song of fools (Ecclesiastes 7:5).

How much better to get wisdom than gold, to get insight rather than silver! (Proverbs 16:16).

Other forms of synthetic parallelism simply classify, typically using “is” and “are”:

Whoever robs their father and drives out their mother is a child who brings shame and disgrace (Proverbs 19:26).

Yet another form might be explained as statement and application.

Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out (Proverbs 17:14).

A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid anyone who talks too much (Proverbs 20:19).

There are other types of synthetic parallelism, but these are some of the most commonly seen forms.

What Can We Learn from Synthetic Parallelism?

Synthetic parallelism can help us understand an idea more deeply. It expands on a subject to give it context and clarify meaning.

Parallelism can also give us a deeper appreciation for the Bible as a work of finely crafted literature.

The Lord not only gave us His Word to follow; He made it beautiful in a way that we could revisit the same passages time and again and continue to glean new things with each reading.

For further reading:

What Is Synonymous Parallelism in Hebrew Poetry?

What Is Antithetical Parallelism in Hebrew Poetry?

Why Are There So Many English Translations of the Bible?

Does the Bible Contain Allegory?

Are Christ Figures in Literature Biblical?

What Is the Literary Device of Emblematic Parallelism Used in Hebrew Poetry?

Why Is Reading the Bible in Context Important?

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Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. She is the co-author of Dear Hero and has 200+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.