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.
Two of our editors, Jonathan Kline and Tirzah Frank, put together the following fourteen questions that Professor Rendsburg responded to! Read on to learn more about the book’s content, as well as some interesting background information on the formation of the book.
1. What initially drew you to the topic of how the Bible is written?
I was an English major as an undergraduate, plus I love language, so that throughout my career I have been naturally drawn to the nexus of language and literature: whether it be in Chaucer, in Shakespeare, in Tolkien, or in the Bible. Over the years I have published articles on such subjects as wordplay, alliteration, dialect representation, etc., until the time arrived, almost ten years ago, when I decided to write a sustained book on the subject, incorporating these and other features found in the biblical text.
2. When discussing literary devices, you point out that there are hundreds or thousands of examples of each type. How did you choose which ones to include?
Throughout the book, I attempted to use examples that would be familiar to readers. Thus most of the examples come from the narrative prose stories of Genesis, Exodus, Samuel, etc. At the same time, if a superb example of a literary device surveyed appears in, say, Ezekiel or Zechariah, I included that passage as well.
3. What do you hope readers who do not know Biblical Hebrew will take away from this book?
Clearly the Bible still inspires contemporary Jews and Christians, mainly due to its overarching message, theology, worldview, humanity, etc. But I also wanted modern readers of the Bible to appreciate the manner in which the ancient authors were able to convey these ideas. They were not just prophets and lawmakers and storytellers, seeking to guide the people of ancient Israel (and through them their religious heirs via the two streams of Judaism and Christianity), but they also were superb literati. The message is wonderful, but when it is conveyed via the wonder of literary delight and linguistic brilliance, the message is all the more enhanced.
4. Is there a specific literary device that you’re most excited for readers to learn about?
Am I permitted to respond, “All of them!”? Seriously, I continue to return to the two building blocks, to which the most chapters are devoted: (a) alliteration, and (b) repetition with variation. The former reminds us that the texts were intended to be heard aloud (from an epoch long before the advent of silent reading), with the sounds of the individual words echoing in one another. The latter is all the more remarkable, when one realizes that the listener to an orally presented text could not return to the first iteration when she heard the second one (as we are able to do on the written page), but rather simply had to train herself to apprehend these ever-so-slight alterations during the reading/listening process.
5. Now that this very large project is off your desk, what are you planning to write about next?
My major project is a commentary on the book of Samuel for a leading commentary series. The two books of Samuel together are enormous (31 chapters + 24 chapters), but I am making headway, slowly but surely.
6. How much of the literary artistry that you describe in your book was or could have been perceived by the original audiences of the writings that eventually came to be included in the Bible?
To my mind, and here I can answer seriously, “All of them!” If the authors of the biblical books incorporated these literary devices into their prose and poetry, the expectation must have been that a significant portion of their readers/audience would be able to appreciate the effort. Perhaps not everyone, and perhaps not on the first “go,” but over time, yes, people would perceive the literary artistry.
A modern analogy may help: the first time we view a film, we focus on the plot, and less so on the camera angles, etc.; the second time we view the film, since we already know the plotline, we are more likely to focus on camera angles and the like, which are the cinematic equivalents of the literary devices in a written text.
7. What is “confused language,” and how can an awareness of this phenomenon help us understand what may be going on in certain difficult passages?
“Confused language” refers to incorrect grammar or improper syntax, where the words often stumble over one another. Most scholars attribute such “mistakes” to errors during the scribal transmission process. But time and again I noticed that these so-called “mistakes” occur in specific moments, when the storyline includes confusion, excitement, bewilderment, etc., for example, when Reuben returns to the pit, now empty, with Joseph not there. His words, “The child is not, and I, to where shall I come?” (Genesis 37:30), reveal a staccato effect, as he trips over his words, in a fretful state, unable to produce a coherent sentence. Most telling is his use of the verb “come” at the end, since in all languages of the world (including English, Hebrew, etc.) the question “to where” must be followed by the verb “go”—except here!
8. What are the purposes for which the biblical authors used such literary techniques as alliteration, repetition with variation, and wordplay? Do these techniques often have interpretive value, or are they simply literary flourishes?
Generally they are literary flourishes, though at times they clearly have interpretive value. For example, in Ezekiel 37:16, God uses the standard Hebrew imperative form qaḥ “take” when he speaks to the prophet about Judah, but he then uses the northern Hebrew form ləqaḥ “take” when he turns the prophet’s attention to Israel (along with other variations within the repeated lines). The listener to this passage will realize that God indeed intends to reunite the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel, that he really knows what he is talking about in this prophecy, all through the use of the varied short words qaḥ and ləqaḥ.
9. Did the biblical authors invent any of the literary techniques you discuss in your book? How many of them did they learn from the literati of the surrounding cultures?
Many of these features appear in the cognate literature from surrounding peoples and cultures (Ugaritic, Egyptian, Akkadian, etc.). But to my mind the ancient Israelite literati took these techniques to a whole new height. We have a well-known instance of confused language in the Egyptian Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor (c. 1800 B.C.E.), at the moment when the ship breaks apart—but to the best of my knowledge, this is a singular instance of this device in all of ancient Egyptian prose storytelling.
10. In what ways are the literary techniques you discuss in your book unique to the literati of ancient Israel? In what ways have they been shared by other authors throughout history?
My book is peppered with parallels from English literature (both British and American) and indeed from cinema as well. Shakespeare did not know Hebrew, so he clearly did not employ alliteration because the biblical authors did—but there is something about the writerly craft which brings writers to employ such techniques during the authorial process.
The last page of the book is the Index of Medieval and Modern Literature, where the reader may gain a sense of the range of authors discussed in my book. The vast majority of my analogues are in English (Blake, Thoreau, Wordsworth, et al.), but I also include references to Ferdowsi, the Eddas, etc. In fact, while I am very proud of the book as a whole, I think I am most pleased by the manner in which I was able to incorporate all of these parallels.
11. You argue that much of the Torah was written during the time of King David. What is the main evidence for this hypothesis?
Numerous scholars have noticed the parallel motifs, plotlines, etc., between stories in Genesis and stories in Samuel. To cite one prime example: Rachel sits upon the teraphim, thereby deceiving her father Laban, in order to defend her husband Jacob (Genesis 31), just as Michal uses the teraphim to deceive her father Saul, in order to protect her husband David (1 Samuel 19).
I explain these parallels as follows: a writer, or more likely, a group of writers, active in Jerusalem in the 10th century B.C.E. wrote the book of Samuel to tell the story of the present and simultaneously wrote the book of Genesis to tell the story of the past, though refracted through the present. Compare Shakespeare’s Histories about earlier kings of England, which in truth are informed by the monarchy of his own day, or Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which tells the story of late 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts (just next to Peabody!), but which clearly reflects the present-day conditions of McCarthyism, of which Miller himself was a victim.
12. Are the literary techniques you describe present only in the narrative sections of the Torah, or are they also present in the legal-cultic material?
When I first commenced my research, I focused on the narrative portions of the Torah, where one will not be surprised to find the two main building blocks mentioned above: alliteration and repetition with variation. But I then began to notice the same two techniques in the legal-cultic portions of the Torah as well, and thus I have included this material in the book as well.
Again, a single example may suffice: The word qɛri “opposite, contrary” occurs 7x in Leviticus 26, and nowhere else in the Bible. In close proximity to this key word one hears the phrase la-riq “in vain” (2x) and the verb wahariqoti “empty, unsheathe.” The listener, accordingly, hears the q-r ~ r-q combination 10x in a matter of seconds. This section relates the punishments for disobedience to the Torah, and the point is driven home by the repeated sounds, as if the author wishes to state: pay attention!
13. How can modern cinematic techniques (such as the point-of-view shot) help us understand biblical narrative?
Several scholars, working independently of each other in the 1970s, discovered that the Hebrew word wə-hinne (the famous “and, behold,” though occasionally “and, lo,” of the King James Version) works precisely the same as the point-of-view shot in cinema. The change in camera angles allows the viewer to see the scene as the character sees the scene. This is what wə-hinne does in Biblical Hebrew prose. When we read in Genesis 8:11, “And the dove came to him, at evening time, and behold, an olive branch plucked in its mouth,” we experience the scene as Noah did. In the first half of this passage, Noah and the dove are in our view; but in the second half, we see only the dove, with the olive branch in its mouth, exactly as Noah saw.
More generally, note that cinematic storytelling is scenic, proceeding from one scene to the other, without the interconnections detailed. The standard novel interlaces each episode, so that much more is provided for the reader. The film jumps from scene to scene, and the viewer must make the leap concomitantly. Biblical narration is more like film, as opposed to the modern novel.
Again, an example: in Genesis 29:18-19, Jacob and Laban agree that the former will work seven years for the latter in order to marry Rachel; in v. 20, seven years pass; and in v. 21 we find ourselves seven years later, on the eve of the marriage. Did nothing interesting happen during the intervening seven years? We simply leap forward, from one scene to the next. Truth be told, though, there are other reasons for the seven years being narrated in a single verse (v. 20)—though I will direct the reader to the final chapter of my book to learn more.
14. Does the presence of the literary techniques you discuss in a given biblical narrative usually imply that one author wrote the narrative in question? Or can the presence of these techniques also be plausibly explained by models, such as the classic Documentary Hypothesis, that suggest that many of the biblical narratives are the product of a number of authors?
My inclination is to see unified stories, and not to divide them into separate sources (J, E, P, etc.). This can be demonstrated, to my mind, by the fact that the alliterative words frequently transcend reconstructed source divisions.
For example, in Genesis 21, Sarah uses the rare word millel ‘declare’ in the expression “Who would declare to Abraham (that) Sarah would nurse sons, that I would bear a son in his old-age” (v. 7)—the only attestation of this word in all of Biblical Hebrew prose (elsewhere, only in Psalms [1x] and Job [2x]).
Why did the author of Genesis 21 pluck this word from deep within the Hebrew lexis? The answer is to evoke alliteration with the common verbs nearby, the roots m-w-l ‘circumcise’ (v. 4) and g-m-l ‘wean’ (v. 8). And yet one of the standard treatments of the posited sources underlying Genesis would attribute each of these verses to a different source!—v. 3 to ‘P’, v. 7 to ‘J’, and v. 8 to ‘E’. Far better, in my opinion, to see a unified text here, which makes perfect sense as one proceeds through the account, without the need to sub-divide the material into microscopic components.
While I include this example of alliteration in the book, I actually do not discuss this particular passage in relationship to the Documentary Hypothesis. That said, to be sure, there is an entire chapter entitled “A Challenge to the Documentary Hypothesis,” in which I discuss other passages of a similar nature.
Gary A. Rendsburg is the Blanche and Irving Laurie Professor of Jewish History at Rutgers University. He is the author of six books, including The Redaction of Genesis and The Bible and the Ancient Near East (co-authored with Cyrus Gordon), and more than 170 articles.