The Hebrew Bible as Literature

A Very Short Introduction

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Tod Linafelt
Very Short Introductions
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     160 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Hebrew Bible as Literature: A Very Short Introduction, Tod Linafelt has written an accessible and comprehensive introduction to reading the Hebrew Bible. He provides an engaging discussion that helps readers understand the narrative and poetic texts of the Hebrew Bible and the ways these texts interact with one another and the reader. Despite only being 116 pages, this book guides the reader through complex scholarly issues without oversimplifying discussions of individual texts.

Linafelt’s volume includes six chapters that help readers understand the complexity of the literature found in the diverse body of texts known as the Hebrew Bible. These chapters move in three basic segments. The book opens with two introductory chapters that contextualize the process of reading the Hebrew Bible. Next, Linafelt discusses the unique features of the narrative and poetic texts in the Hebrew Bible and their impact on how readers interact with these texts (chapters 2-3). Finally, the book concludes with chapters that help readers synthesize narrative and poetic texts and draw connections between texts within the Hebrew Bible (chapters 4-5).

The two introductory chapters set the stage for the subsequent examination of biblical narratives and poetic texts. In the first chapter, Linafelt argues that the Hebrew Bible can be read as a great work of literature, in contrast to alternative approaches, which primarily read this body of literature through a historical-critical lens or for spiritual insights (2-4). Thus, he approaches the Hebrew Bible as a “made thing” that is both imaginative and artistically crafted throughout this volume (6-8).

In the chapter “Biblical Literature and the Western Literary Tradition,” Linafelt argues that readers must take the unique narrative and poetic style in the Hebrew Bible seriously to better interpret these texts. He emphasizes the terse style of biblical narratives, which he describes as “fraught with background,” and the exciting interpretive capabilities that come from this economy of style, using the example of Jael from Judg 5:24-31 (11-20). The author also provides a helpful overview of problems associated with reading biblical poetry, which is based on parallelism, for modern readers who are accustomed to poetry based on rhyme or meter (25-26).

The next two chapters describe the most important issues that face modern readers who encounter the narratives and poetry within the Hebrew Bible. Linafelt begins the chapter “Reading Biblical Narrative” with a discussion about how fiction works. He emphasizes two important characteristics of good novels: (1) something literary critic James Woods calls “thisness” and (2) psychologically complex, “deep, self-divided characters” (29, 31). Biblical narratives lack the robust details of “thisness” found in modern novels, but, as the author demonstrates, this makes paying close attention to the presence of details in biblical texts even more important for modern readers.

Moreover, Linafelt acknowledges that biblical narratives lack details about the inner thoughts of characters, but he cautions readers against thinking biblical texts lack characters with depth by pointing to Abraham, Moses, and David as key examples. Linafelt further argues that the prevalence of longer blocks of prose material enables biblical narratives to highlight the long-term evolution of characters in ways that the poetic epics common in the surrounding ancient Near Eastern world cannot (39-45). He closes the chapter with a concise discussion of Hebrew short stories, primarily Ruth and Esther, which use suspense and plot arcs more than the longer narratives of the Hebrew Bible (45-49).

Linafelt turns to reading biblical poetry in the next chapter, which he acknowledges is, in some sense, an exercise in translation—reading Hebrew poetry in English further complicates this process for the reader. Biblical Hebrew poetry, in contrast to poetry in other languages, primarily occurs in lines that are doublets or triplets and relies on parallelism to construct images (54-57). Linafelt contrasts the concise nature of poetic texts, their lack of realism, and the use of figurative language with narrative texts.

Furthermore, Linafelt highlights the uses of biblical poetry, which is often used to construct utopian images of what Yahweh’s community will look like (e.g., Isa 11:6; 27:1) or to pass on pithy aphorisms about how to live as Yahweh’s community (e.g., Proverbs). Biblical poetic texts also use direct speech and descriptions of emotion in ways that allow authors or editors of texts to provide a deeper glimpse into the inner lives of characters (63-66).

The final two chapters build on the previous section and explore connections between texts within the Hebrew Bible. In the chapter “Narrative and Poetry Working Together,” Linafelt acknowledges that biblical narrative and poetic texts perform different functions and use different techniques to speak to the reader; yet, both forms of literature can work well together when it suits the author or editor of a text (69).

The author argues that narrative texts that include poetry often do so to mark important structural points in developing plots, both at the ending of important story arcs (e.g., Gen 49:2-27; Deut 33:2-29) and throughout the course of the story (e.g., Exod 15:1-18); to add weight to the speech of characters (e.g., Gen 2:23); or to intensify the description of a character’s inner life or emotions (e.g., Ruth 1:16-17, 20-21). Linafelt closes the chapter with a close reading of Job, a poetic text that reverses the typical pattern found throughout the Hebrew Bible and contains inserted narrative blocks (80-86).

The final chapter explores the self-referential nature of the Hebrew Bible, in which many texts quote or allude to other texts in the collection. As Linafelt notes, the self-referential nature of the Hebrew Bible attests to the complexity of interpreting texts within the collection. Texts can quote or allude to other texts to support their viewpoints, to argue against theological positions taken in other texts, or to adapt earlier sayings to meet the needs of a new cultural or political situation. To illustrate the complex web of textual relationships, Linafelt discusses the construction of creation imagery in Gen 1 and the book of Job’s response (88-96).

Linafelt synthesizes a good deal of scholarly research in an accessible fashion and provides the lay reader with a helpful introduction to reading the narrative and poetic texts of the Hebrew Bible. Students and interested laypersons in particular can profit from this volume, and scholars who teach can use this book to introduce their students to the tools necessary to read the Hebrew Bible as literature.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin Scott is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tod Linafelt is Professor of Biblical Literature in the Theology Department at Georgetown University. He teaches courses on biblical literature, the Bible in popular culture, and the Hebrew scriptures.


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