Eliott Rabin, Understanding the Hebrew Bible: A Reader’s Guide
(Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, 2006). Pp.xv+250. Paper, US$18.95. ISBN: 0-88125-871-7.
Reviewed by Shaul Bar
University of Memphis

Most introductions to the Bible are written as a book by book analysis, or focus on one genre—usually history—at the expense of the rest (p. xii). The Hebrew Bible contains six major genres: story telling, law, history, prophecy, wisdom, and poetry with their own style reflecting different groups within Israel. It is the author’s aim to explore each of these genres and to find what makes each of them “tick.” This guide, according to Rabin, will help the reader to open the Bible and not feel lost. The reader will recognize the different styles of writings which will help him to know when the book was written. Finally, according to the author: “The approach in this book offers the best method not only to understand the Bible, but also to read it with pleasure.” (p. xii)

To achieve his goal Rabin starts with an explanation that ‘There’s More than One way to Read the Bible,’ which is the subject of Chapter One (pp. 1–18). Thus he tells us that the Bible speaks to each person differently. Most of the Bible is easy to read but overall patterns and historical background are often not apparent. The Bible is not a book that has to be read linearly. Therefore, he suggests that we need to read the Bible with a different logic. Some can read the stories first, others try a literary reading, some will find interest in legal passages and some will read the prophets.

Storytelling in the Bible is the Subject of Chapter Two (pp. 19–47). The stories are rich in ambiguity, allusion, irony, narrative patterns, and openness to multiple interpretations. He points to the laconic nature of the Biblical story which leaves many gaps in the story and it is up to the reader to find the gaps and to fill them (p. 47).

Biblical Law is the subject of Chapter 3 (pp. 49–74). According to Rabin if the reader wants to understand the Bible he cannot ignore the law. Biblical stories are inseparable from legal passages. To comprehend the relevance of particular laws there is a need to understand the idea of a covenant that provides a framework for those laws. In addition, the author examines the Biblical law in comparison to the other Ancient Near Eastern law codes.

In Chapter Four the author gives us a survey of the History in the Bible (pp. 75–109). Since not all biblical stories can be verified there are some scholars who maintained that the Bible is a collection of ancient tales united by theological perspectives. On the other hand, there are scholars who claim that the stories can be verified through ancient documents and archeological findings. In this chapter the author goes back and forth between the biblical story and the historical reality.

History of the Bible is the subject of Chapter Five (pp. 111–141). Authorship of the Biblical books remains a mystery. Therefore, in this chapter Rabin gives us a survey of the different theories regarding the Bible composition.

In Chapter Six Rabin deals with the subject of Prophecy (pp. 143–173). The author points to different aspects of prophecy and the different styles of delivery. He divides the Prophets into several categories: Prophets who served as leaders, Prophets who were God’s channel, and the literary Prophets.

The subject of Chapter Seven is Wisdom (pp. 175–201). In this chapter the books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes are examined. The three books are different in their message and world view. What makes these books unique is that in contrast to the other biblical genres of writing, in the Wisdom Literature the power to find direction and achievement in life is in every ones hands.

In Chapter Eight the author examined biblical poetry (pp. 203–227). The author looked into Psalms and the Book of Song of Songs. He points to some of the unique characteristics of biblical poetry such as terseness and parallelism in the text and the usage of similes and metaphor.

Chapter Nine (pp. 229–231) serves as the conclusion. The author completes the picture of the major kinds of writing in the Bible which he did not mention, such as Tale, Dirge, and Apocalypse. Thus, we really don’t have a conclusion. He ends his book by saying that the more knowledge the readers will bring the greater their understanding of the Bible.

The Bible did not grow in a vacuum and many people and cultures influenced the writing of the Hebrew Bible. It is my contention that a more rigorous comparative approach in some of the chapters is needed. In addition, the author should emphasize more the literary aspects of each genre, such as typical vocabulary, phraseology, and stylistic style. This kind of approach will enhance the findings of the author and ultimately will point to the uniqueness of the Hebrew Bible.

When dealing with the subject of Poetry, some comparison to the Ugaritic literature can be very useful since there is a great affinity to Biblical Hebrew, especially the poetic books of Psalms and Song of Songs. Notable are the contacts in the areas of phraseology, imagery and prosody. The feature of rhymed verses is a good example (Song of Songs 4:8; 7:1 compare to UT 68, 8–9; 1 Aqhat, VI, 26–28). See also the concept of hendiadys (hands, fingers, Song of Songs 5:5; Keret, 158–159).

While dealing with Wisdom a closer look could be given to the affinities between Job and the Keret epic and the “Babylonian Job.” More importantly to the Hebrew Bible, since Job was influenced by Biblical materials, it is also possible that the Bible and Job derived their literary tradition from the same source. In Job we find narrative, dialogue, hymn lament, and proverb oracle. Part of the Job discourse is to be classified as lament. The lament was integral part of Mesopotamia literature where the sick asked for forgiveness. The lament is found many times in the book of Psalms (for example, 22:2–19; 38). Some of Job’s speeches and his comforters include proverbial wisdom (4:8–11; 5:1–7). More could be said about the proverbs and other genres of wisdom, for example the development of the proverb speeches and dialogues (Proverbs 24:19–20; 30–34).

On the subject of Prophecy more is needed in the area of genres of Prophetic Speech, such as language and style, the Divine Word and Prophetic speech (‘Thus says the Lord’). Furthermore, the use of similes and metaphor in prophecy requires more attention, as does the social function of the prophets, such as the prophet versus the king and war which leads us to the prophecies against the nations. Finally, something could be said about Prophecy versus Apocalyptic.

The book does not include footnotes. Therefore the reader who wants to learn more about the historicity (or lack of historicity) of the Bible and about the archeological findings that are mentioned in the book is left with no direction to turn. The footnotes are as important as the main body of the book.

Still, there are many interesting topics in this book. Chapter Two, which deals with the storytelling, was a pleasure to read and arouses curiosity. Chapter Three about the law was informative and educational. Chapter Four, dealing with the History of the Bible, can be a very useful guide to readers who are interested in the reality of Biblical stories. In chapter Five we have also a good summery of different theories about the composition of the Bible. This book may be helpful as a reader’s guide that deals with the different genres of the Hebrew Bible. This book can be used as one of the first steps for a better understanding of the Hebrew Bible. The book will be a useful tool to the general public.