By Tirzah Frank, Assistant Editor
In How the Bible Is Written, Gary Rendsburg unpacks the literary devices behind the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. the Old Testament). He delves into how the ancient Israelite literati (to borrow his term) used alliteration, wordplay, repetition with variation, style-switching, and other devices to deliver the biblical narrative in effective and beautiful ways. For readers who’ve typically approached the Bible for its moral teachings and historical information rather than its artistry, Rendsburg provides an exciting new lens for better understanding and appreciating the Old Testament.
Why It’s Easy to Overlook the Literary Nature of the Bible
I never thought very much about how the Bible is written. Why and when, sure. And I’ve studied the overarching narrative structure and the connections between the Old and New Testaments, because those aspects come through in an English translation. But I was never exposed to the specific literary devices that the ancient Israelite literati used to make the Hebrew Bible a pleasure to read and hear. I didn’t really think of the Bible as a literary work with creative people behind it—certainly not people who cared about how their words sounded as much as what they meant.
My ignorance stemmed from two issues:
- It’s easy to get wrapped up in how the Bible is the authoritative word of God, and to forget everything else it is. I know that it’s also literature, but that has never been my focus.
- A lot of the artistry in the Hebrew Bible is inaccessible in translation. Many of the literary devices Rendsburg highlights are difficult or downright impossible for English readers to see—most notably alliteration and wordplay. Some of Rendsburg’s other topics, such as repetition with variation and confused language, come through (or don’t) at the will of the translator. I don’t know Hebrew, so there was no way for me to see these devices in action. Until now.
In How the Bible Is Written, Gary Rendsburg offers a technical, scholarly text that deals with the literary nuances of Hebrew, liberally excerpting the Hebrew text. But that’s not all. Each Hebrew phrase comes with a transliteration and translation, so people who don’t know any Hebrew can follow Rendsburg’s arguments. He also compares Hebrew devices to English ones, drawing from both literature and film, so English readers are never far from the familiar. And his deep, infectious enthusiasm for both English and Hebrew literature comes through on every page.
As a former English major, used to examining and appreciating the tools of English authors’ trade, I’m grateful for this book. For me, it opened up a whole new arena for appreciating the Bible by allowing me to see the care and the artistry that went into its creation. I was never going to notice these aspects of the Old Testament by myself; I don’t have the tools. But Rendsburg does, and in this book, he shares them not only with scholars who study the Bible for a living but also everyday Bible readers who want a deeper understanding of the text.
It’s a long book, but don’t let that intimidate you. In his introduction, Rendsburg recommends “that the reader of this work gain from it what he or she may gain, and disregard anything that he or she finds too technical.” (Do you hear that? That’s permission to skip things, direct from the author. What luxury!)
The Bottom Line
If you’re interested in the Bible and you enjoy studying literature, I cannot recommend this book enough. It will give you new appreciation for the richness of the biblical text and the artistry of those who produced it, even if you read selectively. (My personal recommendation? Don’t skip Chapter 19.) The Bible is the word of God, and it’s also a beautiful and cleverly constructed piece of literature. How the Bible Is Written will help you enjoy both aspects.
Tirzah Frank is an Assistant Editor at Hendrickson Publishers. She has a BA in English from Salem State University. In her spare time, she studies genocide and memorialization and eats an alarming number of dark chocolate peanut butter cups.
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