Bible as Literature: Lecture 1
Overview of Hebrew Bible (Old Testament, Tanak)
There are standard methods we use to approach literature that we shall apply to the Bible.
Among them, we need to determine the setting, the historical context, the major characters,
author style, and theme. The Hebrew Bible itself possesses a range of literary genres that begin
with ancient hymns, as the Song of Deborah (Judg. 5:1-31), and end (according to scholarly
opinion in terms of dating), with Daniel’s Apocalypse (c. 165 BC). Between these bookends we
can identify Historical narratives, Geneologies, Short Stories, Wisdom and Poetry (including
Erotic Poetry as in Song of Songs, 1:1-8:14), and Prophetic Oracles. A legitimate question might
be “how are genealogies literature?”. The answer, insofar as this course is concerned, is that the
canonized scripture fulfills our initial definition of literature as something that is the expression
of human interaction with the world, for the purpose of entertaining, enlightening, or instructing
its readers. We can look at genealogies (
) or divine commands as a particular (literary)
motif for fulfilling our definition. Such repetitive constructions (the famous “begetting of so and
so”) need not be reduced to dry reporting of someone’s pedigree, but include the sounds and
rhythms of names, and patterns as would be appreciated by a culture steeped in oral tradition.
One of the challenges of reading the Bible as literature is reading—“hearing” the words for what
they originally intended. If we impose too much of our own history and bias upon the text, we
will no doubt complicate our analysis and appreciation of the text. We are at a disadvantage
already, because we have not the author’s original text, or early copies. What we do have are
extant copies, which we can compare, and by a discipline known as textual criticism, we can
make significant assumptions about what changes were made. In the case of the Hebrew Bible,
we are talking about a one-thousand year compilation of what was later translated into the
Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.
Our first readings begin with Genesis.
The first book of the Torah, along with Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, is
traditionally attributed to Moses. But other scholars have proposed that the Pentateuch was
composed over a several centuries by a variety of different authors. This is what is known as the
Documentary Hypothesis, which, basically, identifies different strands of narrative that have
distinct differences between them.
As we engage our literary approach of the Bible, we can pay particular attention to the narrative
voice: first person versus third. For instance, in Exodus through Numbers, Moses appears in the
third person, while in Deuteronomy Moses functions more as an author. Genesis is a sort of
primordial history that explains the origins of the universe and man; there are two accounts of
creation, and our first literary analysis will compare the two versions. It will become apparent