BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 68, 2020

GARY A. RENDSBURG, How the Bible is Written (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2019). Pp. xvi + 640. Hardcover. US$59.95.

In How the Bible is Written, Gary Rendsburg explores the literary artistry of the Bible. Rendsburg’s primary (but not sole) concern is with stylistics—to be able to apply close reading to the biblical text in the way that a student of English literature might for Shakespeare or Hemingway. In that sense, the book functions as a manual of technique, which provides the readers with new tools to analyse the Bible. To this end, Rensburg offers many examples. It is especially valuable because there has not been enough systematic work in biblical stylistics. A number of chapters in this book have previously appeared in print, though have been adapted to fit the context of this book.

The book has been written to appeal to both scholars and “educated lay people” (1). This is a difficult balance to maintain, but one that Rendsburg has managed. It does, nonetheless, have consequences for the book’s presentation and content.

The majority of the book deals with the central question of how biblical authors manipulated the Hebrew language for stylistic or literary effect. Chapter 1 presents an initial analysis of Genesis 1, in which Rendsburg introduces one of the key concepts of the book, namely, “Repetition with Variation,” or “polyprosopon”—the idea that, whether to maintain interest or for art’s sake, the biblical authors typically do not repeat words exactly, but instead with some kind of variation. The effect is that the text presents many different faces (hence, “polyprosopon”) of the same phrase. Chapters 2–4, 9, 12 and 15 further develop this concept, and apply it to several different books. The idea of repetition with variation is not in itself new (cf. M. Sternberg, “The Structure of Repetition: Strategies of Informational Redundancy,” in The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading [Indiana: Indiana University, 1985] 365–440). Due, perhaps, to the intended audience, the book does not contain lengthy discussions of methodology and other scholarship on stylistics or narrative at the outset. The value of these chapters lies, rather, in the extent to which Rendsburg has applied the concept of polyprosopon, and the range of texts considered. Through the breadth of examples, Rendsburg demonstrates the extreme utility of this single criterion, beyond what other scholars have done. At the same time, more could be said to delimit this criterion: for example, the concept of polyprosopon could have been nuanced by considering how slight the variation can be, or how much variation can be tolerated before there is no true repetition. Another way in which Rendsburg extends work previously done on repetition is found in Chapters 13 and 14, where he profitably combines his thought with Mirsky’s (Aharon Mirsky, “Stylistic Device for Conclusion in Hebrew,” Semitics 5 [1977] 5–23) to explore the possibility of repetition with variation being used as a device for marking closure.

Chapters 5–7, 10–11 and 16 address alliteration. Again, the recognition of alliteration in Hebrew is not new, but Rendsburg excels in taking this concept to new places, such as the analysis of Micah 1 as alliteration rather than as wordplay. In Chapters 23–25, those familiar with Rendsburg’s work will be unsurprised to find a discussion of Israelian Hebrew, Style-Switching and Addressee-Switching, in which he appropriates the linguistic concept of ‘code-switching’ and applies it to Hebrew literature. The remaining chapters deal with a variety of less pervasive stylistic techniques (e.g. wordplay and the use of wə-hinne to mark perspectival shifts).

Two chapters differ in approach to the rest and will probably prove the most controversial, namely Chapter 21, “When Was All This Written?” and Chapter 22, “A Challenge to the Documentary Hypothesis.” In these chapters, Rendsburg critiques certain assumptions of the Documentary Hypothesis, especially the division of narratives into different sources (e.g. the flood, or the plagues). He does so by arguing for the literary unity of these narratives, with reference to the stylistic features discussed in the rest of the book. Though his observations are interesting, Documentary scholars may explain these phenomena as products of the final redactor. Although further elaboration of Rendsburg’s position would be desirable, the technical depth required would not be compatible with the book’s lay readership.

Conceivably, there are two main ways in which this book could be used. On the one hand, a scholar might read the book from left to right, to gain a sense of the developing argument. There is value to this, especially in understanding the versatility of these stylistic techniques. However, because the examples are so many and well-documented in the index, the book can also be used profitably as a stylistic commentary, especially on the Pentateuch. This book is a thought-provoking read, which offers new insights for the analysis of the style of the Bible. It will be useful for anyone working with the Hebrew Bible as literature.

Review by
Jonathan Thambyrajah
Broken Bay Institute, Pennant Hills
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