How the Bible is Written

Hendrickson sent a copy of this volume, for review, without any expectation of that review being positive, negative, or neutral.


Readers typically approach the Bible (and specifically, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament) primarily for its moral teachings, theological insights, historical information, and the like, without giving much or even any consideration to the literary aspects of the text. The result is that while the Bible’s contents are well known, the careful and often sophisticated manner in which those contents have been crafted is usually poorly understood. As a result, readers frequently miss out on a great deal of the richness the Bible has to offer. The goal of How the Bible Is Written is to bring interested readers—scholars and laypeople alike—closer to the original text of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and to provide them with a greater appreciation of its literary artistry and linguistic virtuosity. In short, this book focuses not so much on what the Bible says as how the Bible says it.

Specific topics treated in this book include wordplay, wordplay with proper names, alliteration, repetition with variation, dialect representation, intentionally confused language, marking closure, and more. Readers of this book will gain a profound appreciation for the artistry and genius of the biblical authors and will better appreciate how understanding the way in which the Bible is written contributes to a deeper and fuller understanding of what it says.

Many years ago I had the distinct privilege of reading Michael Fishbane’s ‘Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel’.  I have read many hundreds (thousands) of books since then, but my memory of that volume is quite vivid because it made a very great impression on me.  Indeed, few volumes have been so important for my understanding of the literature of the Hebrew Bible.

I mention Fishbane’s brilliant work because Gary Rendsburg’s new work is almost as good and equally memorable.  That is not to say that I agree with all of Rendsburg’s conclusions.  Indeed, I cannot follow him in his dismissal of the documentary hypothesis.  Sure, it has its problems, but it is still the best explanation for what we have and Rendsburg’s attempt to dislodge it from my ancient heart failed.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed Gary’s book immensely and I shall be returning to it frequently.

The volume presently under consideration is a series of 29 chapters, 8 of which have appeared in print previously to their inclusion here.  Rendsburg weaves them into the fabric of the present volume seamlessly, so without the notice on the opening pages that they belong elsewhere no one would be the wiser.

The purpose of this book is to show readers, even if they do not read Hebrew (though it will certainly help if they do, there’s Hebrew [translated too] everywhere), how the writers of the Hebrew Bible used their language to communicate superbly.  As R. remarks

To repeat the comment from the Introduction: there are lots of books on what the Bible says; this is a book about how the Bible says it.

Following the canonical order of things, Rendsburg spends the rest of his time illustrating that claim.  Along the way R. offers asides hither and yon that are worth spending time with:

Important Digression: By this point, you may be wondering whether it was indeed possible for the ancient reader of Genesis 1 to apprehend all of the literary devices inherent in the text, as delineated herein.

That is a relevant observation, to say the least.  R. answers it with aplomb.

Proceeding through the volume, readers are treated to really insightful readings of some of the Bible’s most interesting alliterative material.  By the time we arrive at chapter 21, though, we have left aside, for the most part, the exegetical portion of the volume and we find ourselves in the more speculative segment.  Accordingly, in chapter twenty one, R. asks and answers ‘When was All this Written?’  His answer for the Torah?  Around the 10th century BCE.  That’s a bit too early for my tastes, but R. has his reasons and not all of them are awful.

Chapter twenty two is R’s challenge to the documentary hypothesis.  He is right to observe

The main point is: we know absolutely nothing about the prehistory of the biblical text, for all we posses is the text in its final form.

And that, to be sure, is true.  But there are clearly different sources in that final form.  That, it seems to me, is beyond refutation.  From this point on to the end Rendsburg offers evidence for his understanding of the final form’s appearance.  And it isn’t terrible.  Nonetheless, for the present reviewer, it isn’t persuasive.

But maybe I’m just old and set in my ways and others will find it very persuasive.  It is certainly worth considering even if one does weigh it in the balances and find it wanting.

The present volume is a delight to read.  It is intelligently written and accessible even to non experts.  It is insightful and informative.  It would be ideal in a class on Hebrew poetry or in an introduction to Hebrew exegesis.  And it would also not be out of place in an Introduction to the Bible course.  Not to mention its usefulness just as a pleasure read.

I heartily and happily recommend it.

2 thoughts on “How the Bible is Written

  1. Ben A. Brown (@brwnbn) 29 Mar 2019 at 12:52 pm

    Looking forward to hearing more about this. Or if you want to just mail the book to me once you are done with it, that would be fine with me.

    Like

    • Jim 29 Mar 2019 at 1:15 pm

      😉

      Like

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