In the Hebrew Bible, prophecy is closely connected with poetry. Most of the prophets’ words were recited and recorded in the form of poems and songs. This way the “prophet” – or more literally “spokesperson” (נביא navi for a man or נביאה neviah for a woman) – could convey the message of the Eternal One with linguistic beauty and emotional force. Communicating in poetry also made it easier for people to memorize and recall the lines.
The book of Isaiah (ישעיהו Yeshayahu) contains some of the most striking poetic prophecy ever written. Here is one famous passage:
“And one of the seraphim flew down to me,
in his hand a glowing coal in tongs that he had taken from the altar.
And he touched my mouth and said,
‘Look, this has touched your lips,
and your crime is gone, your offense shall be atoned.’
And I heard the voice of the Master saying,
‘Whom shall I send,
and who will go for us?’
And I said, ‘Here I am, send me.’” (Isaiah 6:6-8; trans. Alter)
Poetry cannot be reproduced very well in another language, but it can inspire other poet-prophets. The most famous Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, was one of those who gave voice to his interpretation of this ancient Biblical passage. Here is my own translation of Pushkin’s poem Prorok (“The Prophet”):
“Parched with a spiritual thirst,
I dragged myself across the gloomy desert.
And at the crossroads there appeared to me
a seraph of six wings.
With fingers light as a dream
he touched my pupils.
The prophetic pupils opened wide
like those of a frightened eagless.
He touched my ears,
and filled them with clamor and pealing:
and I heard the shudder of heaven,
and the heavenly flight of angels,
and the underwater course of sea monsters,
and the vegetation of earthly vines.
And he pressed my lips,
and tore out my tongue of sin
and idle talk and deceit.
And with a bloody right hand,
he placed into my frozen lips
the sting of a wise serpent.
And with a sword he cut open my breast,
and extracted the trembling heart,
and pushed a coal, blazing with fire,
into my open breast.
I lay in the desert like a corpse.
And the voice of God called out to me:
‘Arise, prophet; and see, and hearken!
Fulfill My will –
and, traversing sea and land,
burn people’s hearts with the Word.”
To understand the Bible as it was written, we must try to grasp its poetic force. Why was Hebrew prophecy written as poetry? Perhaps there was no other way to express such raw emotion and deep truths.