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The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis–Malachi

The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis–Malachi, by David A. Dorsey, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999. 330pp.

     Methodology, analysis, and explanation are some of the trademarks of this exceptional commentary on the Old Testament. While the initial impression is that many people will have difficulty both understanding the concepts and finding utility from the analysis of the scripture, as the reader progresses through the book it soon becomes evident that the author has made an effort to fully engage the reader with the methodology. Once this methodology is understood the reader begins to eagerly look forward to specific analysis of Old Testament passages, especially those that have always been troublesome. Dorsey has worked hard at developing this commentary in a manner that is easily readable, yet retains the exactness and discipline required by the prescribed literary-structure methodology. Finally, within the analysis section, the organization of the book lends itself to the rapid recovery of thoughts and ideas. Thus, the reader moves from a certain level of trepidation to one of anticipation as he moves from the introductory to the analytical chapters.

     The methodology utilized is based upon the fairly simple concept of understanding the inherent literary structure of units. The Old Testament, however, does not easily reveal the underlying literary structure, since the visual indicators of structure found in English or other modern languages are missing. Instead Old Testament literary analysis relies upon verbal indicators of structure, such as time shifts, repetition of words, titles, superscriptions, and other cues, to mark beginnings, endings, and even dictate the overall cohesiveness of the passage under analysis. Therefore, the analyst must learn to visually listen for these indicators in order to properly group verses into distinct units for analysis. The author facilitates this by fully describing the three markers used to bind a unit into a whole and then discusses the various indicators that could be used by the analyst to properly analyze the passage. Dorsey brings to the book an understanding of the imbedded units used in the Hebrew of the Old Testament and describes the various arrangements that are possible within each bounded unit. His analysis of methodological errors, some of which he admits he has committed in the past, is refreshing, yet at the same time stresses the inherent subjectivity of the methodology being espoused within the book. Finally, Dorsey discusses how the Hebrew writers used the overall structure of the language, structured repetition, and positions of prominence to align the observed structures in the units to assist in communicating and maintaining the validity of the divine message. All of the above is just a prologue to the true meat of the book, the analysis of the Old Testament, which rightfully occupies the majority of the pages.

     While some might disagree with the various bounds of the units that Dorsey has chosen, these are analyzed within the constraints of the proposed methodology. When Dorsey captures the ideas within a passage, the reader can come to a better understanding of the big picture being developed in the unit. Dorsey's modus operandi is to start each analysis with an overall outline for the section, and then dissect its component parts, each capable of standing by itself as a separate unit. His analysis thus opens up the passage to a better understanding of underlying meanings and thoughts. The possible plethora of meaning and thoughts described in his commentary thus opens up a multitude of study arenas. For instance, during a study of the final years of Judah, Dorsey's analysis of the idiosyncrasies and comparison of thoughts within 2 Kings 18–25 assists in obtaining a better understanding of how God was dealing with the Judahite kings. Dorsey's analysis dramatically demonstrated the thought that God had reached the limit of His patience concerning the Judahite kingdom and as such, had basically turned away from Judah. While this concept is not a new idea, the analysis points out how the passage accurately reflects the evolving situation. Another area where Dorsey's book should provide tremendous impact is in the terms of translation. As translators are performing the research to translate the Bible into a native ethnic language, they should be using this book as a cornerstone for that development. By adapting the analysis performed by Dorsey and applying the analytical techniques to their work, the translation would more completely match the subtle nuances written into the text by the original authors. Searching out comparative structures in the native language, translation teams can ensure that their translation captures the true meaning of the original and ensure that what is presented to the ethnic group reflects the total revelation as provided by God.

     Finally, this commentary should be of tremendous benefit to preachers. In the bounding of the text with the presented analysis, the preacher has available an initial outline upon which to base exposition. By consulting the analysis in the book, the preacher can better understand the boundaries of the selected portions used for a sermon and can understand the subtle nuances within the section and take that information into account when preparing the sermon. Thus, scholars, translators, and ministers can all benefit from this book.

Donald C. McNeeley, Church and Biblical Research Group