Biblical Poetry and the Art of Close Reading

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J. Blake Couey, Elaine T. James
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , August
     360 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


J. Blake Couey and Elaine T. James’s Biblical Poetry and the Art of Close Reading is a collection of essays on the idea that our understanding of poetry depends upon our ability to slow down enough to attend in sustained ways “to the body of the poem itself … to the text and its distinctly poetic features” (1). Our concern should not merely be with what poetic texts in the Hebrew Bible (HB) mean but with how they mean. Rather than presenting theoretical arguments involving the value of close readings or regarding methodology, the essays model close readings of poetic biblical texts from the Psalms, wisdom literature, the Song of Songs, prophetic books, and prose narratives.

As Couey and James acknowledge in their introduction, close reading is an orientation rather than a method, and “readings will always be as diverse as readers” (7). The essays in this volume reflect this diversity. Three essays on the Psalter examine how attention to textual features such as poetic structures, devices, pronoun usage, shifts in verbal aspect, and narrativity contribute to the meaning(s) of individual psalms. Carolyn J. Sharp approaches Ps 50 from five linguistic and semantic vantage points to explore how the psalm teaches readers about the divine-human covenant relationship (15–31). Elaine T. James attends to the nature of speech and silence in Ps 65 (32–48), and Robert Alter examines Ps 104 to understand the monotheistic reshaping of ancient Near Eastern (ANE) creation myths (49–60).

At the start of her chapter on Proverbs, Anne W. Stewart observes that wisdom poetry strives to teach its readers not through “narrative progression or propositional argumentation” but by “saturat[ing] the thinking process with vivid imagery, complex metaphors, and a cacophony of speaking voices” (80). The three essays on the wisdom literature reflect the respective authors’ understandings of this dynamic as they attend to the poetic texts: Edward L. Greenstein on Bildad’s proverb- and imagery-driven argument in Job 8 (63–79), Stewart on the pedagogical strategy of Prov 5 (80–92), and Simeon Chavel on Qohelet’s pointed mimicry of proverbial poetry in Eccl 3:1–8 (93–110). In the next division of the volume, Tod Linafelt’s close reading of Song 1 focuses particularly on the structure, sound, and sense of the poetry (113–30), and Sarah Zhang’s reading of Song 4:1–7 on how sensibility and emotion are necessary alongside the rationality scholars typically bring to the text for understanding the poem (131–46).

The largest section of the book comprises close readings of prophetic texts. Perhaps somewhat disproportionately, three of these texts come from Isaiah (though the Isaianic poetry is certainly worthy of many close readings): F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp applies his understanding of lyricism to the love song in Isa 5:1–7, its ANE background, and its relationship to themes of justice and righteousness (147–66); J. Blake Couey explores how Isa 18:1–6 showcases the power of language and creative diction (in this case, gesturing toward the sound of Egyptian speech) to political ends (167–83); and Katie M. Heffelfinger focuses on the lyric juxtaposition of Lady Zion’s, the servant’s, and YHWH’s voices in Isa 49:1–13 and the way this juxtaposition invites readers to evaluate their own circumstances (184–98). Sean Burt turns to the use of genre in Ezek 19 and explores how the text’s insistence that it is a lamentation—and then departs from the expected conventions of that genre—influences the way readers engage with it (199–215). In something of a departure from the focus of other essays in this volume, Julia M. O’Brien examines the poetry of Zeph 1 in conversation with later Christian texts (specifically, the Dies Irea and Sib. Or. 8) to show how the doom-laden content and poetic style of Zephaniah’s prophecy encouraged associations with the Last Judgment tradition (216–34).

The collection ends with two chapters on poetic texts embedded in prose narratives. In the first, Brent A. Strawn explores the Gnadenformel, YHWH’s brief poem in Exod 34:6b–7, and the lyric tension it establishes between YHWH’s mercy and judgment (237–56). Steven Weitzman focuses on the emotion in David’s lament over Jonathan and Saul in 2 Sam 1 and the way feelings such as sorrow or—in the context of ANE warfare—shame influences form (257–74).

While diverse, the chapters in this volume share overarching concerns related to the art of close reading. They include helpful discussions of the nature of poetry and the distinctions between poetic and prose texts within the HB; how various literary devices such as repetitions, poetic structures, wordplays and soundplays, and allusion function in relationship to readers and the construction of meaning; and the importance of considering how emotion shapes and is shaped by engagement with the text. Scholars working on particular texts will benefit from the careful analyses presented here. Furthermore, the volume offers (in accordance with the editors’ expressed hope) models for students—graduate students and perhaps even upper-level undergraduates—who are honing skills in reading biblical poetry.

As befits a book about reading poetry, these essays are beautifully written and invite one to linger over the biblical texts alongside the contributing authors. Couey and James astutely observe that lingering in this focused way “constitutes a decidedly counter-cultural activity in our present cultural moment” that values multi-tasking and speed reading (11). In particular, readers accustomed to skimming articles and books for their line of argumentation may initially be frustrated with this volume because the contributing authors are generally less interested in making a single specific argument (though numerous key insights emerge from their studies, and many of the chapters do defend a particular thesis) than they are with demonstrating how close readings are the foundation for our engagement with, appreciation for, and deepened understanding of biblical Hebrew poetry. Those willing to linger with these texts will readily see the fruit of such a project.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca W. Poe Hays is Project Coordinator at the Institute for Faith and Learning at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
February 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

J. Blake Couey is Associate Professor of Religion at Gustavus Adolphus College, Minnesota. He is the author of Reading the Poetry of First Isaiah: The Most Perfect Model of the Prophetic Poetry (2015), and he is currently working on a commentary on Isaiah 1–39.

Elaine T. James is Assistant Professor of Theology at St Catherine University, Minnesota. She is the author of Landscapes of the Song of Songs: Poetry and Place (2017), and is currently working on a handbook on biblical poetry, and a book on biblical aesthetics.



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