Acrostics in the Hebrew Bible

One of the many interesting rhetorical features of the Hebrew Bible is its use of alphabetical acrostics. These acrostics are not "hidden codes" -- they are literary compositions in which the writer has used the letters of the Hebrew alphabet as the initial letters for a sequence of verses. J.A. Motyer describes this feature as "a poetic way of saying that a total coverage of the subject was being offered."

In the common form of acrostic found in Old Testament Poetry, each line or stanza begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order. This literary form may have been intended as an aid to memory, but more likely it was a poetic way of saying that a total coverage of the subject was being offered -- as we would say, 'from A to Z.' Acrostics occur in Psalms 111 and 112, where each letter begins a line; in Psalms 25, 34, and 145, where each letter begins a half-verse; in Psalm 37, Proverbs 31:10-31, and Lamentations 1, 2, and 4, where each letter begins a whole verse; and in Lamentations 3, where each letter begins three verses. Psalm 119 is the most elaborate demonstration of the acrostic method where, in each section of eight verses, the same opening letter is used, and the twenty-two sections of the psalm move through the Hebrew alphabet, letter after letter. --J.A. Motyer, "Acrostic," in The New International Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), p. 12.

We give below one example. In Proverbs 31:10-31 the initial letters of each verse go through the Hebrew alphabet in order. Hebrew is written from right to left, so the first letter on the right is the intial letter in each verse. (For correct display of the Hebrew text on this page you may need to download and install the SBL Hebrew font). In the English translation, we put in red the English word that represents the initial Hebrew word in each verse. Sometimes it is very helpful for the student to know that a certain word is used in the Hebrew text mainly for poetic reasons.

The Excellent Wife

אֵשֶׁת־חַיִל מִי יִמְצָא וְרָחֹק מִפְּנִינִים מִכְרָהּ׃10
A worthy woman who can find? For her price is far above rubies.
בָּטַח בָּהּ לֵב בַּעְלָהּ וְשָׁלָל לֹא יֶחְסָר׃11
The heart of her husband trusteth in her, And he shall have no lack of gain.
גְּמָלַתְהוּ טֹוב וְלֹא־רָע כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיה׃12
She doeth him good and not evil all the days of her life.
דָּרְשָׁה צֶמֶר וּפִשְׁתִּים וַתַּעַשׂ בְּחֵפֶץ כַּפֶּיהָ׃13
She seeketh wool and flax, And worketh willingly with her hands.
הָיְתָה כָּאֳנִיֹּות סֹוחֵר מִמֶּרְחָק תָּבִיא לַחְמָהּ׃14
She is like the merchant-ships; she bringeth her bread from afar.
וַתָּקָם בְּעֹוד לַיְלָה וַתִּתֵּן טֶרֶף לְבֵיתָהּ וְחֹק לְנַעֲרֹתֶיהָ׃15
She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth food to her household, and their task to her maidens.
זָמְמָה שָׂדֶה וַתִּקָּחֵהוּ מִפְּרִי כַפֶּיהָ נָטְעָ כָּרֶם׃16
She considereth a field, and buyeth it; with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.
חָגְרָה בְעֹוז מָתְנֶיהָ וַתְּאַמֵּץ זְרֹעֹותֶיהָ׃17
She girdeth her loins with strength, and maketh strong her arms.
טָעֲמָה כִּי־טֹוב סַחְרָהּ לֹא־יִכְבֶּה בַלַּיְלָ נֵרָהּ׃18
She perceiveth that her merchandise is profitable: her lamp goeth not out by night.
יָדֶיהָ שִׁלְּחָה בַכִּישֹׁור וְכַפֶּיהָ תָּמְכוּ פָלֶךְ׃19
She layeth her hands to the distaff, and her palms hold the spindle.
כַּפָּהּ פָּרְשָׂה לֶעָנִי וְיָדֶיהָ שִׁלְּחָה לָאֶבְיֹון׃20
She stretcheth out her palms to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.
לֹא־תִירָא לְבֵיתָהּ מִשָּׁלֶג כִּי כָל־בֵּיתָהּ לָבֻשׁ שָׁנִים׃21
She is not afraid of the snow for her household; for all her household are clothed with scarlet.
מַרְבַדִּים עָשְׂתָה־לָּהּ שֵׁשׁ וְאַרְגָּמָן לְבוּשָׁהּ׃22
She maketh for herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is fine linen and purple.
נֹודָע בַּשְּׁעָרִים בַּעְלָהּ בְּשִׁבְתֹּו עִם־זִקְנֵי־אָרֶץ׃23
Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.
סָדִין עָשְׂתָה וַתִּמְכֹּר וַחֲגֹור נָתְנָה לַכְּנַעֲנִי׃24
She maketh linen garments and selleth them, and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.
עֹז־וְהָדָר לְבוּשָׁהּ וַתִּשְׂחַק לְיֹום אַחֲרֹון׃25
Strength and dignity are her clothing; and she laugheth at the time to come.
פִּיהָ פָּתְחָה בְחָכְמָה וְתֹורַת־חֶסֶד עַל־לְשֹׁונָהּ׃26
She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and the law of kindness is on her tongue.
צֹופִיָּה הֲלִיכֹות בֵּיתָהּ וְלֶחֶם עַצְלוּת לֹא תֹאכֵל׃27
She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.
קָמוּ בָנֶיהָ וַיְאַשְּׁרוּהָ בַּעְלָהּ וַיְהַלְלָהּ׃28
Her children rise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her, saying:
רַבֹּות בָּנֹות עָשׂוּ חָיִל וְאַתְּ עָלִית עַל־כֻּלָּנָה׃29
Many daughters have done worthily, but thou excellest them all.
שֶׁקֶר הַחֵן וְהֶבֶל הַיֹּפִי אִשָּׁה יִרְאַת־יְהוָה הִיא תִתְהַלָּל׃30
Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman that feareth Jehovah, she shall be praised.
תְּנוּ־לָהּ מִפְּרִי יָדֶיהָ וִיהַלְלוּהָ בַשְּׁעָרִים מַעֲשֶׂיהָ׃31
Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her works praise her in the gates.