Book Review – The Literary Structure of the Old Testament (David A. Dorsey)

The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis – Malachi, David A. Dorsey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999) 328 pages.

I find out about books in a variety of ways – I belong to a book club, I read blogs, I follow Twitter accounts of fellow ministers who drop hints occasionally. I discovered the above book (now getting a little long of tooth) in the process of researching a lesson on Jonah. I came across an old outline from a good friend, and he referenced this book (snarky aside – imagine that, a minister who actually gives credit for someone else’s work!!) The insight my friend gave me made me purchase this book. I am so grateful!

First, let me note that the book is both accurately and inaccurately titled. It clearly is a study in the literary structure of each of the books of the Old Testament, but it is not a study of the literary structure of the Old Testament in its entirety. And, the subtitle should note that it is primarily a commentary on the literary structures found in the books of Genesis-Malachi. The author does include sections on the meaning that is conveyed by these structures, but the book is not a verse-by-verse study, as is commonly understood by the word “commentary.” Very small quibble, to be sure, but the title could potentially be misleading.

We twenty-first century, western, technological and linear thinking Americans tend to read Scripture in twenty-first century, western, technological and linear ways of thinking. We want our stories to begin, continue, and end in a very definite format – as in a straight line. Thus, our minds tend to latch onto narrative sections of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, the books of Samuel – Chronicles, the gospels, Acts) and we tend to struggle with or dismiss non-narrative sections (the law codes, the poetic sections, we do a very, very poor job with the prophets!) What this book does is to illuminate how the ancient authors may (and I emphasize that word) have structured their writings to appeal to their audiences (non-western, non-technological, non-linear, and definitely not 21st century!).

The first five chapters of the book are worth the purchase price alone – Dorsey explains his thesis and further explains the value of literary structural analysis. For someone who really struggles with understanding the Old Testament, those chapters are a great eye-opener – there actually IS a method to the overall structure of each book, and of the Old Testament in general.

The remainder of the book (a total of 39 chapters) is devoted to an examination of the various books of the Old Testament, through chapter 38, and then a concluding chapter. A concept that might be of interest to some is that Dorsey does not believe the traditional division of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and then followed by Joshua and Judges to be structurally correct. He sees the “Book of the Law” continuing through Joshua 24. His defense of this suggestion is interesting, to say the least, and definitely has merit.

I read the book cover-to-cover without stopping to examine each chapter carefully against the text. This process has its advantages, but also comes with some drawbacks. On the one hand, it is fascinating to see how certain structures are repeated throughout the Old Testament. On the other hand, the book does tend to get ponderously repetitive, and I found myself skimming some sections because it seemed that the author was just repeating himself too much.

However, and I must stress this emphatically (not to be redundant), I am a much more careful reader of the Old Testament texts now after having read this book. Books, or sections of books, that made no sense to me at all now have come to life. Whether Dorsey is 100% correct in his analysis or not, I now see with my spectacles just a little cleaner. For what it is worth, I think Dorsey is spot-on correct in some of his work (the aforementioned analysis of Jonah just makes the book leap out of the binding!). Some of his work is highly speculative – and to Dorsey’s unending credit – he actually points out when he feels his analysis is speculative! When I read an author say, “this is what I think, but I could be wrong, and more study needs to be done here” his credibility level goes through the roof with me.

As I mentioned, Dorsey’s fascination with some structures can become monotonous – get ready for a lot of sevens! At a number of places in the book I found myself wondering if the biblical authors could have possible been aware of the intricate structures that Dorsey identifies – and then Dorsey himself asked that question in the conclusion (another tip of the ol’ Fedora to the author). As a neophyte in this field, I am just not educated enough to decide how correct Dorsey is in all of his conclusions, but this I will say with no hesitation whatsoever – I am deeply indebted to his study, and I feel that I am a better reader of the Old Testament for having read through this book.

Ultimately, this is a book that must be studied in conjunction with the biblical text (something I did not originally do), and, as with every commentary ever written, the reader must hold the author’s conclusions in suspension pending further study and personal research.

Bottom line – two thumbs up and five gold stars!

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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