Again: Is there poetry in the Old Testament?

UPDATE: Over at Choice in Dying, Eric MacDonald has his own take on the Bible as literature. He finds other passages of literary merit, but pronounced the book like a “curate’s egg,” i.e., good in parts. As a former Anglican priest, he is far more familiar with the Bad Book than I am, and his essay is worth reading.


I am pleased to announce that I am halfway through the King James version of the Bible: p. 554, which contains Psalm 76.  (I am painfully aware, as I slog through the text, how far I am from the end, and always have in mind that there are 1108 pages.)  Things have improved a bit, but I still don’t find it great literature: that is, if someone found this in a used bookstore as an undiscovered text, it would not be touted as a work of ineffable beauty.  To me, its significance rests almost entirely on its huge role in Western culture, not on the beauty of its prose.

That said, I have found bits that are stirring, but only bits. Here are a couple from Job:

  • “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” (Job 5:7)
  • Chapter 38 of Job, which includes “Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth. . . whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it has issued out of the womb?”
  • “Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox, Lo, now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly. He moveth his tail like a cedar; the sinews of his stones are wrapped together.” (Job 41:15-17).  [Note: the placement of italics in the Bible seems idiosyncratic to me, though I'm sure scholars have an explanation.]

But really, these are cherry-picked among a gazillion more dreadful verses, and aren’t all that lovely.  The tedious bits predominate.

I know that other readers have pointed out passages of “beauty” that I’ve ignored, and perhaps I can’t see that beauty in light of the dreadful message imbued in every book.  Job, for example, is a horrible chapter about how Satan gets God to test an upright man by killing his kids, taking his livestock, and then afflicting him with boils.  This is an abusive relationship between Job and God: a man is made to suffer for no reason other than to test his faith. What kind of God would do that? If anyone finds morality in that book, let her speak!

My point is that it’s hard to appreciate beauty imbued in such a horrible message, just as it would be harder to appreciate Shakespeare’s prose had he also written Mein Kampf. But maybe that’s only me.

And the Psalms are no better. With the exception of Psalm 23 (and I’m not sure I would have appreciated it had it not been the most familiar Psalm), they take the following form:

  1. Praise to God for his power and benevolence
  2. Affirmation that the psalmist is a sinner and a worthless worm
  3. Request that God smite and confound the psalmist’s enemies
  4. Request that God give favors to the psalmist
  5. More blessings to God and promises that the psalmist will be a good boy from now on.

Psalm after psalm after psalm—150 of the bloody things! I’m hoping matters will pick up when I get to Proverbs.

A week ago, Peter Mullen, and Anglican priest and rector of a church in London, wrote a piece in the Telegraph defending the beauty of the Old Testament: “The Old Testament isn’t hogwash, Jeremy Paxman. But Newsnight often is.” (It’s a response to a quote by Paxman that children were being indoctrinated by “religious hogwash,” even though Paxman was apparently goading Richard Dawkins to clarify his ideas.)  At any rate, Mullen defends the beauty and inspiration to be found in the OT:

No – the Old Testament is not all hogwash, religious or not. It is one of the greatest examples of human creativity and inspiration.

He then points out to Paxman some of its beauty:

But, come off it Jeremy, even such a sophisticated secularist as yourself must admit that there are whole sections of the OT possessed of a rare and strange beauty:

“And Adam heard the voice of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day….”

Not only is that not beautiful, but it’s grammatically incorrect.  There’s an unclear antecedent here: was God’s voice walking? The proper prose would be, “And Adam, walking in the garden in the cool of the day, heard God’s voice.”  Mullen goes on:

And passages of numinous spiritual insight, making the hairs stand out on the back of your neck:

“Take off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the ground whereon thou standest is holy ground…”

Mullen must have unusually erectile neck hairs. That’s supposed to be beautiful? Give me John Donne over that any day.  Mullen goes on:

And such combinations of pity and love as this:

“And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.”

That one is okay, though hardly world class prose.

Or visionary poetry:

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Then said I, Woe is me for I am undone, for I am a man of unclean lips and dwell among a people of unclean lips…”

That’s from Isaiah, and I haven’t gotten to it yet. It is okay, but again, only one sentence out of 845 pages.

There are boring bits. But there is the matchless musicality of the Psalms – “Like as the hart desireth the water brook” – and the erotic beauty of The Song of Songs . .

Again, I haven’t gotten to it, but I’m prepared to believe that the Song of Songs could be lovely. But if that’s the best one can glean out of the huge Old Testament, it doesn’t speak well for its beauty.  The Dead, by Joyce, contains far more beauty in a longish short story than I’ve read in the first half of the Bible.

At least regarding that half, then, I’ll have to disagree with Professor Dawkins that it is “a great work of literature.” Really, if this didn’t have iconic status in Western literature, would anybody pick it up at the bookstore?

h/t: Kevin


  1. MadScientist
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    John Donne? How could you compare him to the crap in the bible? One day I’ll manage to find my book of Donne’s poems – I’d almost forgotten about him (not my fault, there are many great poets who wrote in English).

    As for the choice of bible verses – #1 and #3 look like something a dope on acid would say/write. #2 is painfully ignorant of reality and not even tolerable fiction.

  2. Kevin
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Job, for example, is a horrible chapter

    I am reading a translation of The Histories, which the back cover describes as “the first great prose work in European literature”. Book One contains a horrible story. Croesus asks Solon, “Who is the happiest man you have ever seen?”.

    Solon informs Croesus that no man can be called “happy” until he is dead. As an example of “an enviable death” he gives the story of two men who died pulling their mother’s cart to the temple themselves because her oxen were late from the fields!

    Solon advises: “Look to the end, no matter what it is you are considering. Often enough God gives a man a glimpse of happiness, and then utterly ruins him”. Croesus’ son is later killed in an accident.

    The conversation with Solon is legendary rather than historical – and this is called a “classic”?

    Herodotus reads like Hitler!

    • Dermot C
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      Oh, come on Kevin! The very fact that it survives, as far as I recall, in its entirety, is a thing to be thankful for. There are some great stories in The Histories; please stick with it, you’ll love it. Don’t confuse the repulsive content of his anecdotes with his perspective.

      Wait until you get to the story of the Scythians and the Persian invasion – an absolute hoot about how to frustrate an invader; the narration on the Greco-Persian war is fascinating and genuinely moving; believe me, and I have no time for war stories.

      There is a genuine surprise and I’m sorry to write a spoiler but I was genuinely astonished when I read it; Herodotus alleges the first circumnavigstion of Africa around BCE 500.

      Give the man his due: it’s literature’s first stab at historical writing; he mixes legend with what he could verify, yes. Natheless, his early chapters, apparently anecdotal and disconnected, are there for a purpose, to inform the reader of the cultures of the nations he depicts. And to contrast them with that of the Greeks; ultimately to attempt to explain the Greek victory in the war. But, persevere; it gets better and better. I hope you enjoy it.


  3. ConradZaar
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Mullen makes a very poor case for the King James Bible’s literary merit: simply quoting passages and asserting that they are great is hardly literary criticism (particularly when he misquotes one of them). But then I’m not sure how Professor Coyne gesturing towards the Bible and asserting that it is bad is supposed to be any better. The only attempt at analysis comes in the grammatical complaint about Genesis 3:8, but it is hardly impressive, first because Coyne misuses the technical term “antecedent,” and second because the translators and compilers of the KJV really could compose coherent and grammatical sentences perfectly well without tips from 21st-century biologists. Mark Fuller Dillon’s comment about synecdoche is well-taken.

    I have resigned myself by now to the fact that people are apparently never going to get bored of atheists reading the Bible and pointing out for the fifty-thousandth time that (gasp! shock! horror!) God is not very nice; evidently there is an infinite appetite for this sort of thing. But I don’t see how this standard-issue dissaproval is even faintly relevant to the ostensible subject of the post.

    I feel a little bad that my first comment on this blog is a critical one; perhaps I am being ungracious. I look forward to more posts about biology, theology, and kitty-cats. But this series on the Bible as literature is really pretty shabby stuff. I shudder to think what a post on John Donne would look like.

    • Dermot C
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      Correction Alert!

      ‘…how Professor Coyne’s gesturing towards…’

      ‘…firstly because…and secondly because…’

      ‘…really could compose coherent and grammatically correct sentences…’

      ‘I have resigned myself by now to the fact that people are apparently never going to get bored of atheists reading the Bible and to pointing out…’

      ‘…disapproval…’ – OK, could be a simple typo.

      Must have been a nightmare, proof-reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves.


      • Dermot C
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

        Oops, my spellcheck corrected your typo, Conrad: ‘dissaproval’. Told you that proof-reading was a nightmare!


      • ConradZaar
        Posted August 9, 2012 at 6:46 am | Permalink

        I don’t know why you are replying with grammatical corrections. It might be because I commented on Professor Coyne’s use of “antecedent,” but that a complaint about terminology and analysis, not a complaint about grammar. As it happens, Professor Coyne’s writing is pretty much impeccable in that regard.

        But since it seems that you want to play The Pedant Game, I suppose I might as well play along.

        In the phrase “Professor Coyne’s gesturing” I use the genitive case because “gesturing” is here a gerund (i.e. it functions as a noun). Compare with the sentence, “Conrad Zaar’s excessive sweating bothers me.” Here “sweating” is a gerund, and can therefore follow a genitive noun.

        “First” and “second,” as I used them, are what linguists call “ordinal numbers” and are used to indicate the positions of items in a sequence. Grammar being an imperfect system, they are often lumped under the slightly unsatisfactory heading of “quasi-adverbs.” In any case, it is perfectly acceptable either to add the “-ly” suffix or not; both usages are correct. Omitting it is somewhat old-fashioned, but the last time I checked, being old-fashioned was not a crime (even for the grammar police).

        The word “grammatical” can mean “pertaining to grammar,” but it can also mean “conforming to the rules of grammar.” This meaning is perfectly standard and dates to eighteenth century.

        Your fourth correction indicates careless reading on your part. “Pointing out” is paired with “reading” and both refer to actions performed by “atheists.” Adding the preposition “to” changes the meaning of the sentence, making it say “I have resigned myself…to pointing out…” which is obviously incorrect. In the cited sentence, “pointing out” is not something I have resigned myself to doing, but something that atheists do.

        Finally, I must concede (with all due wailing and gnashing of teeth) that “dissapproval” was indeed a typo. Well done for spotting it.

        But…oh dear! You have only succeeded in scoring one point out of five. Nevertheless, thank you for playing The Pedant Game! Better luck next time.

        If anyone wants to say something that is actually relevant and interesting, I’m still around.

        • Dermot C
          Posted August 9, 2012 at 7:11 am | Permalink

          It may not be relevant, but it seems to have interested you!

          Cheers, Conrad.

          • ConradZaar
            Posted August 9, 2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink

            I have to admit that your cheerfulness is endearing.

            • Dermot C
              Posted August 9, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

              Conrad, have been dipping into Bierce’s ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’ recently, and love his sceptical misanthropy. Thought I’d have a go at a pastiche of some of his doggerel on words he doesn’t ‘define’. Came up with this about 2 weeks ago, on ‘grammar’.

              Pedantrix, pompously composed,
              Of campussed mien and Roman-nosed,
              Imperious, beyond advisors,
              Self-authorised to patronise us,
              Commanding monarch, mortals stammer
              And grovel ‘ere your gracious grammar.
              Oh, mighty Ozymandine gent,
              How great, how grand, omniscient!


    • Posted August 8, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      I may be going out on a limb here, but I’m hazarding a guess that you missed the orientation.

      • Dermot C
        Posted August 9, 2012 at 2:38 am | Permalink

        I don’t understand what you mean, Stephen.


      • ConradZaar
        Posted August 9, 2012 at 6:53 am | Permalink

        I must echo Dermot C’s uncomprehension. Could you please explain what you mean?

        • Dermot C
          Posted August 9, 2012 at 7:14 am | Permalink

          ‘Uncomprehension’, Conrad? Now that’s a wind-up!


  4. Steve in Oakland
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Pat Robertson used to do Monday morning quarterbacking about why this hurricane went thisaway, and that hurricane went thataway, with dire warnings to especially sinful cities to mend their wicked ways lest the next one come their way.

    Now he’s the poster boy for legalized marijuana in Colorado. He claims to have not smoked it himself, but that big wide grin gave him away a long time ago.

  5. Dermot C
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    No-one seems to have directly answered your closed question, Prof. Coyne: the answer’s ‘Yes!’

    Good luck slogging through the next half. Remember, it does have a happy ending (of sorts).

  6. Another Matt
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    On the other hand, I love the bible when it’s set by Brahms.

    (From the Four Serious Songs, Op. 121, from near the end of his life)

    His German Requiem, also taken from the Luther Bible, is indispensable.

  7. paul fauvet
    Posted August 9, 2012 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    I cannot understand the claim that the King James bible is a great work of English literature.

    To see how hollow that claim is, you just have to look at the work produced by a string of truly great English writers in the 16th and 17th centuries – such as Marlowe, Shakespeare or Middleton in drama, or Spenser, Donne and Milton in poetry.

    You want great religious poetry? You wan’t find it in the Bible, but you will in Milton. Take this poignant passage from “Samson Agonistes”:

    O loss of sight, of thee I most complain!
    Blind among enemies! O worse than chains,
    Dungeon, or beggary, or decrepit age!
    Light, the prime work of God, to me is extinct,
    And all her various objects of delight
    Annulled, which might in part my grief have eased.
    Inferior to the vilest now become
    Of man or worm, the vilest here excel me:
    They creep, yet see; I, dark in light, exposed
    To daily fraud, contempt, abuse and wrong,
    Within doors, or without, still as a fool,
    In power of others, never in my own—
    Scarce half I seem to live, dead more than half.
    O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
    Irrecoverábly dark, total eclipse
    Without all hope of day!
    O first-created Beam, and thou great Word,
    “Let there be light, and light was over all,”
    Why am I thus bereaved thy prime decree?
    The Sun to me is dark
    And silent as the Moon,
    When she deserts the night,
    Hid in her vacant interlunar cave.

    There’s nothing as powerful as this in the Bible.

    • Dermot C
      Posted August 9, 2012 at 7:20 am | Permalink

      You lit up my day, Paul, that’s lovely.

      • Posted August 15, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

        Agreed. This is lovely. I haven’t gotten to “Samson Agonistes” yet (still at the beginning of “Paradise Lost”) but now I can’t wait to read it.

  8. Dr. Jim
    Posted August 9, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Being an atheist Hebrew Bible scholar I’m rather enjoying this conversation. I don’t care much for the KJV although in parts it is pretty nice.
    The one thing you have to remember is that the Old Testament was not originally a book, but is a cobbled together collection of old scrolls, many of which show signs of sloppy transmission and considerable amounts of additions, glosses and errors.

    These diverse contents became “scripture” only long after the fact and a unifies “book” only after the invention of the codex (i.e., a book with pages bound in the middle) in the early centuries C.E.

    English poetry works on rather different principles than the Hebrew style often called “poetry”. Biblical Hebrew poetry is very difficult to translate and I really think it is next to impossible to appreciate in English. The “beauty” often lies in alliteration, double and triple entendres, and a particularly laconic way of saying things, not to mention the parallelism which involves saying things twice albeit with different words.

    Basically, by the time the KJV translators were
    woking, to a large extent reworking extant translations, the idea of the Bible as a single, inspired document was preeminent and there was a serious disconnect between their views on the meaning of the documents and their original role in religious thought. And so ideological systems of ritual purity and political genealogies become “scripture” to an audience that has no concept of these things in their original setting, and generations of readers look at it all as a “book” that is supposed to be beautiful literature.

    As I tell my classes, the framing mechanism of tradition that creates The Bible out of disparate writings needs to be penetrated before one can really appreciate the contents. A lot of them get a little miffed when I tell them that this amounts to (metaphorically) tearing the covers off the thing.

  9. Posted August 10, 2012 at 3:34 am | Permalink

    I like reading the Bible. I would not say that it contains great literature, it is more often than not, boring to the extreme and written like a child’s essay with all the grammatical qualities thereof. But, it does contain the occasional imagery that can make one’s mind wander. The story of Genesis is one, Noah’s ark is another, or Solomon’s temple, including the directions on how to smear blood just about everywhere…

    It is an extremely influential book, but beautyful? No, I do not think so.

  10. Posted August 14, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    I remember being surprised by the psalms, because Psalm 23 (the most well-known one, and one of the few I’d heard of prior to reading the Bible) really isn’t representative. That psalm sounds kind of nice (or nicer than the other ones, at least) because it’s praising God for sort of being a shelter for the person through difficult times, but so many of the psalms are very different in character. The proverbs are alright; like many other parts of the Bible, it’s a mix of good and bad advice. Proverbs 3:5 is one that is kind of infamous among critics of the Bible, because it says to trust God rather than relying on your own understanding. I’m quite partial to Proverbs chapter 8, myself.

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] of the Old Testament of the King James Bible, which he has undertaken to read straight through (the latest of which has just been posted). Here I have to digress for a moment into one of the peculiarities of Bible [...]

  2. [...] The Christian mantra, John 3:16, is part of the conversation. … Originally posted here: Again: Is there poetry in the Old Testament? « Why Evolution Is True ← The Questions Update: Did Death Occur Before the Fall? | BioLogos Mark Juergensmeyer [...]

  3. [...] he things of it so far.[2] Professor Coyne has since posted updates: one at the end of July[3] and one a couple of weeks ago.[4]  Eric MacDonald wrote about the Bible as literature in response to Coyne’s efforts.[5] Much [...]

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