Rutgers prof plumbs Bible’s literary artistry, linguistic virtuosity

Rutgers prof plumbs Bible’s literary artistry, linguistic virtuosity

Rutgers professor Dr. Gary Rendsburg said the Bible has a deliberate “literary artistry and linguistic virtuosity.”
Rutgers professor Dr. Gary Rendsburg said the Bible has a deliberate “literary artistry and linguistic virtuosity.”

While most people know the story of the Creation or how Rebecca came to be the wife of Isaac, or how Noah came to build the ark, few realize there is a deliberate inventive pattern of how and why the stories are written the way they are.

In the latest of his six books, “How the Bible Is Written,” Dr. Gary Rendsburg focuses on this “nexus between language and literature.”

“This book was literally about 20 years in the making,” Rendsburg told NJJN in a phone interview from his office at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, where he holds the title of distinguished professor and the Blanche and Irving Laurie Chair of Jewish History.

During three programs over Shabbat, Nov. 22-23, Rendsburg, a Highland Park resident, will serve as the Rabbi Gerald L. Zelizer Scholar-in-Residence at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen.

“Most books about the Bible tell about its contents and history,” said Rendsburg, but he focused on the question: “How do the writers of the Bible express all those contents through language?” To answer, Rendsburg delves into the use of linguistic devices like wordplay and alliteration, repetition with variation, marking closure, intentionally confused wording, and dialect representation.

The goal of “How the Bible Is Written,” said Rendsburg, “is to bring interested readers, scholars, and lay people closer to the original text of the Hebrew Bible in order to provide them with a greater appreciation of its literary artistry and linguistic virtuosity.” Chapters include those devoted to how and when the Bible’s “unique narrative prose style” may have developed.

“The Bible wasn’t read in ancient times like you and I would read the text,” he explained. “It was ‘read’ orally everywhere in the world.”

Because of that, it makes use of “style switching” or “style shifting,” where a listener would understand the meaning of a text, even if the words were unclear.

“It’s like when you’re watching a war movie, and the German soldier says ‘Achtung,’” said Rendsburg. “It’s not English, but you understand enough to know what he meant.”

The Bible employs word repetition with variation throughout its passages — for example, rain is mentioned numerous times — “but you almost never get verbatim repetition.” Its authors had a simple reason for doing that, said Rendsburg. “You’re supposed to attune your listening antenna to the words and not space out for a moment, because you might miss out on the variation,” he said. “It’s also the author’s way of demonstrating his linguistic virtuosity, so it’s filled with linguistic maneuvers. Even in mundane references, you can’t wander from what the author is trying to say.”

Alliteration — the use of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent words in a passage — was employed to increase the text’s poetic storytelling appeal, Rendsburg said; grammatical errors in Hebrew seem to be used to highlight confusing or stressful situations.

Rendsburg said he sticks to well-known stories to demonstrate his ideas because these are passages “people already know, even if they are not well-versed in the Bible.”

To that end, on Friday at Neve Shalom, Rendsburg will focus on the story of Creation; on Saturday morning, he will deliver a dvar Torah on the weekly Torah portion, Chayei Sarah; and following lunch, he will speak about the story of Jacob and Rachel.

The meeting of that couple is interesting in that it has elements that are repeated in the prior meeting of Isaac and Rebecca, and later of Moses and his wife, Zipporah, said Rendsburg. All these encounters take place at a well in a foreign land with a young woman watering the flocks or putting water in jugs.

Even that is purposeful in creating a familiar expectation, said Rendsburg. He cited the analogy of a Western movie where the villain strolls into the saloon, creating fear; soon a bar fight breaks out, resulting in a lot of upturned tables and broken glass, and ends with a shootout on Main Street.

“Everyone knows what’s going to happen when he walks in,” Rendsburg said. In the Bible, “there is also an expectation of a future bride and groom meeting over and over again because of a well in a foreign land.” 

If you go

Who: Dr. Gary Rendsburg, scholar in residence
What: “How the Bible Was Written: Reading Creation”
Where: Congregation Neve Shalom, Metuchen
When: Friday, Nov. 22, after 7:40 p.m. services; Saturday, Nov. 23,
during 9:30 a.m. services and again after lunch
Cost: Free
Contact: Hazzan Sheldon Levin, 732-548-2238, ext. 14,

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