Harvard Theological Review

Research Article

Acrostics and Metrics in Hebrew Poetry

David Noel Freedmana1

a1 Studies in Religion, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104

In his search for the key to Hebrew metrics, George Buchanan Gray devoted considerable attention to the acrostic poems of the Old Testament. Since they are by no means typical of Hebrew poetry generally, it may be doubted whether they provide a suitable base on which to formulate principles governing the nature of the metrical systems employed by the biblical poets. Furthermore, the fact that acrostic poems have a rather rigid structure may have encouraged greater independence on the part of the poet in working out internal configurations so that a wider range of variation results, partly from the desire to avoid monotony, than would otherwise be the case. The great virtue of acrostic poems is that lines or stanzas are regularly marked off by words beginning with successive letters of the alphabet. Thus in the Book of Lamentations, the first four chapters are regular acrostics, while the fifth chapter follows the same pattern but without making use of the alphabetic device itself. In the first three chapters, three-line stanzas are the rule; in chapters one and two each stanza begins with a successive letter of the alphabet, whereas in chapter three, each of the three lines of the stanza begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Thus the first word of the first stanza of each of the poems begins with the letter 'ālef; in the case of chapter three, the second and third lines of the stanza also begin with 'ālef. The first word of the second stanza begins with bēt; again in chapter three, the second and third lines also begin with bēt. Chapter four follows the same pattern as chapters one and two, except that the stanzas have two lines instead of three.