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The Literary Structure of the Old Testament

A Commentary on Genesis–Malachi

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"Valuable as a one-volume resource for anyone attempting to analyze the structure of OT books."--Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

In modern writing, a variety of written markers--italics, bold type, punctuation, parentheses, and so forth--are used to indicate emphasis and clarify meaning. The authors of the Old Testament could not rely on such devices since their writings were originally composed for oral presentation. They instead used literary structure to highlight certain ideas and to convey meaning and emphasis accurately. Unfortunately, as we read the Old Testament we frequently overlook this inherent literary structure. What we need is a guide to help us see the literary structure that permeates the Old Testament and clarifies the meaning of each Old Testament book. David Dorsey has provided such a guide.

The author opens the book with a brief historical survey of the various approaches to understanding the structure of the Old Testament. He examines what is meant by the term literary structure and gives examples of how the structure of a given text illuminates the author's writing, meaning, and purpose.

Dorsey then proceeds book-by-book through the entire Old Testament identifying the structure and offering commentary as to how that structure clarifies the meaning of the text. He illuminates the big picture of each book, providing a framework for further study. No pastor, teacher, or student should embark upon the study of an Old Testament text without consulting this indispensable guide.


"Herman Gunkel and the form critics have taught us that the meaning of texts cannot be divorced from the literary genres and forms in which they are composed. More recently the symbiotic connections between meaning and literature on a more macro-structural level have come to be appreciated. David Dorsey has now carried this important insight logically forward in his brilliant analyses and syntheses of not only Old Testament passages but of whole books and collections of books. With intuitively artistic sensitivity to texts in their wholeness, Dorsey has provided for the scholar and layman alike a fresh way of reading the sacred literature. He avoids the twin pitfalls of not seeing the forest for the trees or failing to discover the trees because of a focus on the forest alone. The trees are here all clearly exposed but not in isolation--they exist in such patterns and relationships as to produce a forest of wondrous beauty. Bible study will never be the same again for anyone who takes advantage of the creative insights afforded in this remarkable volume."--Eugene H. Merrill, Distinguished Professor of OT Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary

"Understanding structure is pivotal to understanding the meaning of Scripture. David Dorsey ably guides us toward a better sense of the structure and style of the books of the Old Testament. This book will become a standard reference tool for all serious students of the Bible."--Tremper Longman III, Robert H. Gundry Professor of Religious Studies, Westmont College

"This is an unusual and fascinating book. It is the first comprehensive treatment of the native structure of the Old Testament books and its significance for their meaning and message. Expositors will find it of inestimable value for looking at the books in a way that is natural to the literary nature of the Old Testament itself and, at the same time, the theological significance of that structure."--Dr. Richard Averbeck, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

The Author

  1. David A. Dorsey

    David A. Dorsey

    David A. Dorsey (Ph.D., Dropsie College) is professor of Old Testament at the Evangelical School of Theology in Myerstown, Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Roads and Highways of Ancient Israel.

    Continue reading about David A. Dorsey


"The statement on the back of this helpful volume notes: 'In modern writing, various markers--italics, bold type, punctuation, parentheses, and so forth--are used to indicate emphasis and clarify meaning.' The authors of the Old Testament did not have or use such devices, writing out of an oral culture as they did. So what is the proper emphasis in certain texts? How do we understand the structure and style of certain Old Testament material? Dorsey, professor of Old Testament at Evangelical School of Theology in Myerstown, Pennsylvania, guides the reader into this subject with great care and sensitivity."--Reformation and Revival

"Serious Bible students will discover many insights in this valuable volume."--Robert D. Bell, Biblical Viewpoint

"This is an important book because it provides in a large format volume an introduction to the study of structure of the books of the Old Testament. . . . This is one of the earliest works in this newly developing field. I expect much good from it in the future."--The Presbyterian Banner

"Dorsey writes with a clear, uncomplicated prose that enhances the value of the book. The Hebrew forms, all transliterated and translated, are kept to a minimum. I would certainly recommend this for all Old Testament translators and anyone looking for a good introduction to issues of literary structures in the Bible."--Philip C. Stine, Bible Translator

"This book should be included in the library of all students of the Old Testament."--Won W. Lee, Review of Biblical Literature

"Dorsey's book would make a worthy tool in the library of any student or pastor. Whether one is considering the significance of literary structure for interpretation for the first time or is seeking to expand his knowledge of the topic, this book provides a helpful introduction and resource. Dorsey's presentation is concise and clear and his examples are informative."--Dr. Charles E. McLain, Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary Online Review

"This ambitious work seeks to fill a perceived gap in HB scholarship: the lack of a systematic study of literary (surface) structure of the HB. Dorsey begins with a few introductory chapters on methodology and implications, then launches into the study of literary structure, mainly within each book. . . . The project is admirable, not only for its goal, but for much of the content. . . . A useful and challenging work. For scholars, seminaries, and pastors."--Matthew A. Thomas, Religious Studies Review

"As far as I can determine, no other author has made an attempt to analyze the structures within every book of the OT. This alone makes the book valuable as a one-volume resource for anyone attempting to analyze the structure of OT books."--Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

"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. . . . Scholars, translators, and ministers can all benefit from this book."--Near East Archaeological Society Bulletin

"A wonderful and fairly concise resource (considering the range of the subject) regarding the Old Testament. . . A solid resource for any pastor, helping to preach sermons that communicate more clearly the author's message; for the missionary it will provide encouragement and clarity to God's desire for all people, everywhere; for the layperson it will provide training and clarity to the message of the Bible; for the scholar it will be helpful for understanding the Old Testament in a fresh and reviving way."--Bradley E. Kittle, Ashland Theological Journal

"Dorsey has set himself a challenging task: to survey the entire Hebrew Bible in order, book by book (deliberately foregoing depth analysis in favor of comprehensiveness), with the intention of exemplifying the connection between the literary structure of each biblical book and its primary message. After reading the book, I examined the list of recommendations on the dust jacket . . . and can do naught but add my voice to the enthusiastic reviews. . . . Anyone wishing to learn for oneself or to teach others about the moral and ethical significance of many Old Testament chapters will discover a new and surprising world through David Dorsey's analysis."--Amnon Shapira, Review of Biblical Literature

"This book is a useful contribution for students of the Bible. Dorsey has boldly outlined his views."--Joel H. Hunt, Asbury Theological Journal

"Dorsey pulls off a huge undertaking mapping out the literary structure of the entire Old Testament and commenting on each of these structures. . . . Dorsey does a masterful job of explaining how one does literary analysis. Throughout his introductory unit, Dorsey includes numerous examples so that the reader will be able to have a concrete and familiar example to help him understand the literary concept being discussed. This introduction to the mapping of literary structures not only helps one fully to understand and utilize the following material, but also serves as an informative introduction to those who wish to use literary structures in their biblical studies and writing. Literary Structure is also thoroughly researched. . . . Not only does Dorsey's scholarship show itself in his ability to handle the Hebrew text, Dorsey's scholarship also appears in his knowledge and consultation of the current, relevant research in the fields of discourse and literary analysis. Literary Structure is replete with citation and content footnotes (many of them quite long) which interact with scholarly works on the topic at hand. His bibliography lists the major players in the field of literary and discourse analysis. This bibliography is also helpful in locating sources for further study. . . . Literary Structure is a book that every pastor or biblical student should have on his shelf."--Matt Lytle, Faith & Mission