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Poetic License: In Defense of Taking Scripture Out of Context

By Deborah

This is the first in a series of guest posts by Deborah– a middle & high school English teacher, an amateur poet, and a blogger at Exponent II.

I WENT out to the hazel wood
Because a fire was in my head

I do not know the rest of the poem by heart. I do not know what hazel trees look like. For four years, these words hung above my bed on an “artistically” burnt piece of cardstock. I turned the words over like a smooth stone cooling the fire.

***

Best course in college:
A priest and a poet
explored the ineffable:
the experience of pain
the experience of God
and because it was ineffable
we kept returning to poetry

***

I am guilty, in moments of impatience (or worse), of willing my scriptures to open up to the “right” page. I am not looking for dictums, but for soothing sounds. And because I will it, I flip to Psalms, not Proverbs, over and over again:

O God of our Salvation which stilleth
the noise of the seas,
the noise of their waves, and
the tumult of the people. (65: 5-7)

Save me, O God:
for the waters are come in unto my soul.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no standing:
I am come into deep waters,
where the floods overflow me.
I am weary of my crying:
my throat is dried;
mine eyes fail while
I wait for my God.
Hear me, O Lord. (69: 1-3, 16)

***

I am grateful for teachers who know ancient languages and translations and context. I want these teachers. One such man is a scholar poet named David Rosenberg who translated “A Poet’s Bible.” His Psalm 23 begins:

The Lord is my shepherd
and keeps me from wanting
what I can’t have

 

lush green grass is set
around me and crystal water
to graze by

 

there I revive with my soul
find the way that love makes
for his name
and though I pass

 

through cities of pain, through death’s living shadow
I’m not afraid to touch
to known what I am

 

your shepherd’s staff is always there
to keep me calm
in my body

I do not know ancient languages, and (don’t tell) I sometimes flagrantly ignore context ”“ not in support of a pet doctrine, but because I like the way the words sound on my tongue and I do not want to tie them down. I know the history of Macbeth and the Bard, but sometimes I just like to say:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

***

Sometimes I take lines from different verses and weave them into a new poem.

How oft
have I gathered you
how oft
would I have gathered you
how oft
will I gather you
as a hen gathereth her chickens
under her wings? (3 Nephi 10)

Sometimes, the untouched verses are poetry:

Parables

One of the multitude answered and said
Master, I have brought my son
Which hath a dumb spirit

And wheresoever he taketh him,
He teareth him: and he foameth and
Gnasheth his teeth, and pineth away.

And they brought him unto Jesus
And straightaway the spirit tare him:
And he fell to the ground and wallowed

And Jesus asked his father:
How long is it ago since this came unto him?
And he said, “Of a child.”

And ofttimes it hath cast him into the fire
And into the waters to destroy him
But if thou canst do anything

Have compassion on us and help us
Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe
All things are possible to him that believeth

And straightway the father of the child
Cried out, and said with tears
Lord I believe: help thou mine unbelief

Lord (please)
Believe I believe
Help thou (help) mine unbelief

Sometimes I squeeze my own words between lines:

Judges 5

The inhabitants of Israel ceased, ceased
Until that I, Deborah, that I arose a Mother in Israel

Sarah was named mother of nations
You named yourself Mother in Israel

Of is distant:
pedigree charts, tributes, blown kisses

In is here:
calloused fingertips, whines, warring siblings

The Bible leaves things out
women make meaning in silence

Missing: your children’s names
(daughters and second born sons)

Missing: your husband
(floating among the lost wives)

When the armies marched, when the
highways lay unoccupied and afraid

You called Barak to save your children
yet decreed victory to a woman’s hand

a woman’s touch, and Barak sang
Barak almost wounded, almost whole

Awake, awake, Deborah
Awake, awake and utter a song

If I read simply for Plot, I would have given up on the scriptures long ago. But it’s not just Insight either. When I read for the sheer glory of words, I often find the Word.

***

Comment challenge: Share a line or verse of scripture that you love for the sound of it . . .

About Deborah

(Guest, August 2007) a middle & high school English teacher, an amateur poet, and a blogger at Exponent II.

16 thoughts on “Poetic License: In Defense of Taking Scripture Out of Context”

  1. Thanks, Deborah. I love this one:

    He was wounded
    for our transgressions
    He was bruised
    for our iniquities
    The chastisement of our peace
    was upon Him
    And with His stripes
    we are healed.

    Abinadi quoting Isaiah in Mosiah 14:5

    I love doing that, too: taking verses and rearranging them into lines. I used to study my scriptures more that way than I have been lately. I'm not so much into word sounds as I am into structure, though: I love the way that verse I quoted is structured, the parallelism of wounded and bruised (which also have that nice assonance going on. Is that the right word? All the fancy words I used to know to describe rhetorical figures have left me.).

    Teach them
    never to be weary
    of good works
    But to be meek and lowly
    in heart
    for such shall find
    rest
    to their souls.

    Alma 37:34

    I like structuring it that way, giving "rest" its own line, which lets you rest on the word rest.

    Reply
  2. I LOVE that chapter in Isaiah/Mosiah! Beyond psalms and Luke 7, no other chapter has held such sway on my heart and imagination. The repetition, the image of Jesus homely, wandering amongst us, and our turning away in discomfort. Pain, love, metaphor, poetry — it's all there. And may I suggest that this form of scriptue study — listening, rearranging, finding rhythm and patterns — is one way to pull out of scripture study duldrums that can creep upon us from time to time. Thank, Emily!

    Reply
  3. Deborah, that Psalm just floored me.

    And I got chills when I read this:

    Awake, awake, Deborah
    Awake, awake and utter a song

    Emily, that's my very favorite scriptural passage!

    Here's another favorite of mine:

    Come
    Let us reason together, saith
    The Lord.
    For although your sins be
    as scarlet
    they shall be white as snow; though they be red
    like crimson
    they shall be as wool.

    I once wrote an essay that used this technique a few times. Here are the scriptural passages from the essay:

    ***

    Man was also in the beginning with God.

    Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.

    All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself,

    as all intelligence also;

    otherwise there is no existence.

    ***

    bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light
    mourn with those that mourn
    comfort those that stand in need of comfort

    that ye may be redeemed of God
    and be numbered with those of the first resurrection
    that ye may have eternal life

    ***

    My daughter, peace be unto thy soul;
    thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be
    but for a small moment;

    and then, if thou endure it well,
    God shall exalt thee on high;
    thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.

    Thy friends do stand by thee,
    and they shall hail thee again
    with warm hearts and friendly hands.

    Thy friends do stand by thee.

    ***

    And he will take upon him death,
    that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people;
    and he will take upon him their infirmities,
    that his bowels may be filled with mercy,
    according to the flesh,
    that he may know according to the flesh
    how to succor his people according to their infirmities.

    Now the Spirit knoweth all things;
    nevertheless the Son of God suffereth
    according to the flesh
    that he might take upon him the sins of his people,
    that he might blot out their transgressions
    according to the power of his deliverance.

    (this is the essay, btw: https://segullah.org/spring2006/greatergood.html)

    Thank you, Deborah. What a great post.

    Reply
  4. I love the spacing on this one:

    bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light
    mourn with those that mourn
    comfort those that stand in need of comfort

    that ye may be redeemed of God
    and be numbered with those of the first resurrection
    that ye may have eternal life

    I think the density of type in our quad was often daunting to me as a kid. I think about that when I choose editions for my English classes. I rejected two publishers versions of Frederick Douglass' Autobiography because of tiny type and margins. It's a difficult text for 8th graders; bad fonts and lack of white space can create a visceral reaction. Seeing the baptisimal covenants spaced in this way? Gorgeous.

    Reply
  5. Deborah, this is a beautiful way to look at the scriptures. I am grateful for the new insight. I am trying to see how I could turn my favorite scriptures (Isaiah 61:1-3) into verse. Maybe you could do it for me.

    Reply
  6. c jane — the parallel infinitives (to bind, to proclaim, etc) lend themselves well to verse. I'd probably play around with indents, but here are some ideas for breaking the lines.

    The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me
    because the Lord hath anointed me
    to preach good tidings unto the meek

    he hath sent me
    to bind up the brokenhearted
    to proclaim liberty to the captives and
    the opening of the prison to them that are bound

    (he hath sent me)
    to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD and
    the day of vengeance of our God

    (he hath sent me)
    to comfort all that mourn
    to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion

    (he hath sent me)
    to give unto them
    beauty for ashes
    the oil of joy for mourning
    the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness

    that they might be called
    trees of righteousness
    the planting of the LORD

    that he might be glorified

    Reply
  7. BiV's poetic retelling of Isaiah 5:

    I will sing a song of the Lord above
    Of his vineyard and the fruit thereof;
    My love has a vineyard he watches well,
    My Lord has a garden in a fruitful hill.

    And he fenced his vineyard all around,
     And he gathered the stones from out of the ground,
       And he planted the choicest vine to be found,
        And he built a tower high on a mound,
         And he made a winepress, the fruit to impound.

    He looked for the grapes to be so fine,
    but the fruit was wild upon the vine.

    O men of Judah, judge, I pray.
    Jerusalem's people, what do you say?
    What more was there I could possibly do
    To make sure the fruit in my vineyard grew?

    I looked for the grapes that were rightfully mine
    But the fruit was wild upon the vine.

    I shall take the hedge from all around,
      I shall break down the wall and trod it down,
       I'll not prune, nor dig, I'll lay waste the ground,
        I'll put briars and thorns into the mound,
         I'll command the clouds that no rain shall be found.

    For the House of Israel is the vineyard he loves,
    And Judah the unfruitful vine spoken of.
    Where he watches for justice, the just's blood is shed,
    When he looks for compliance, complaining instead.

    Reply
  8. O God
    Where art thou?
    And where is the pavilion
    That covereth
    Thy hiding place?
    How long shall
    Thy hand be stayed
    And thine eye
    Yea thy pure eye
    Behold from the eternal heavens
    The wrongs of thy people
    And of thy servants
    And thine ear
    Be penetrated
    With their cries?

    ***
    lick up the dust of thy feet – Isaiah 49
    (I just love the way that sounds)

    Reply
  9. BiV: I love the cascading "And he"'s and "I"'s. When I get to heaven, I want to watch the movie of the King James translators at work. . .

    Carina (waving a vigorous hello!):
    Agreed

    Reply
  10. just a poetic proverb (because lately i've been consumed by proverbs):

    happy is the man that findeth widom,
    and the man that getteth understanding.
    for the merchandise of it is better
    than the merchandise of silver,
    and the gain thereof than fine gold.

    she is more precious than rubies:
    and all the things thou canst desire
    are not to be compared unto her.
    length of days is in her right hand;
    and in her left hand riches and honour.

    her ways are ways of pleasantness,
    and all her paths are peace.
    she is a tree of life to them
    that lay hold upon her.
    and happy is every one that retaineth her.

    the lord by wisdom hath founded the earth;
    by understanding hath he established the heavens.
    by his knowledge the depths are broken up,
    and the clouds drop down the dew.

    my son, let not them depart from thine eyes:
    keep sound wisdom and discretion:
    so shall they be life unto thy soul,
    and grace to thy neck.

    then shalth thou walk in thy way safely,
    and thy foot shall not stumble.
    when thou liest down, thou shalt not be afraid:
    yea, thou shalt lie down,
    and thy sleep shall be sweet.

    be not afraid of sudden fear,
    neither of the desolation of the wicked,
    when it cometh.
    for the lord shall be thy confidence,
    and shall keep thy foot from being taken.

    as i've read and re-read proverbs this summer, it's become more and more apparent that it functions on the level of metaphor and relies on theme and variation to illustrate its message–a message that is much less about chastity and faithful obedience (two themes often ascribed to proverbs) and much more about the mysterious and ineffable power of wisdom.

    Reply
  11. Caroline: It rocks! I found it in a used bookstore years ago. I hope it's still in print . . . though on Amazon, you can find anything.

    Amelia: I haven't seriously looked at Proverbs in, oh, a decade? I'm curious what prompted your interest. I love what you've posted here (especially: "be not afraid of sudden fear" — is that where FDR got his idea?).

    Reply
  12. i love the "be not afraid of sudden fear" line also. it reminds me of 2 tim. 1:7 "for god hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind." but i don't know if that's where FDR got his famous mantra about fear. another great scripture about fear (there are a lot of them) is moses 1:20, which, i think, illustrates FDR's point about fear.

    i turned to proverbs when i was thinking about confidence a month or so ago. these verses have some incredible beauty in them. i particularly like the references to feet and paths and ways (which are repeated throughout the book). when i've mulled over it all, i'll write about it again (i wrote about it once on my blog in the context of thinking about confidence).

    Reply

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