Syracuse University
Fall, 2008

The Bible As Literature

Time: MW 12:45-2:05
Place: HL 101

Instructor:   JIM WATTS (PhD) 
Office:  Hall of Languages 505 
Office Hours: M 11-12; 3:45-4:45 & by appointment 
E-mailjwwatts at syr.edu
Phone:  443-5713

Teaching Assistant: Wilson Dickinson
Office Hours: W 10:30-12:00 in HL 514
and by appointment
E-mail: twdickin at syr.edu

Course Description: The Bible is famous for its religious and cultural significance, but it also contains great literature that has wielded huge influence over later writers and readers. This course examines the narratives (stories) of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) from a literary perspective. It addresses the distinctive form and ideology of biblical stories, as well as the feature they have in common with other ancient Near Eastern literatures. It raises the problem of conflicting interpretations and the degree to which literary methods can settle such disputes. And it explores the elusive boundaries between history, fiction and religion.

Course Objectives: The goals of this course goals are to have students:

  1. gain an understanding of the contents and nature of biblical narrative;
  2. develop competence in using a variety of literary approaches to the interpretation of biblical literature;
  3. use the narrative literature of the Hebrew Bible to think both critically and imaginatively about the nature of religion as a basic response to and expression of the human condition;
  4. develop an understanding of biblical narrative as a key instance in the diversity of human religious phenomena, and achieve a fluency in interpreting and describing it.

Course Requirements:
The course consists of class discussions, lectures, student projects, and, most of all, readings. This course is a reading course, and students' completion of all reading assignments is essential for their success. Assignments, discussions, lectures and tests all presuppose that students have read carefully and on schedule the assigned readings. 

Attendance at lectures and participation in discussions is expected of all students and will influence evaluation of their work (5%), which will also be based on a group reading (15%), and their individual written work in the form of four 5-6 page papers (20% each for first two and last papers, 10% for the third paper) and reading responses (50-150 word; 10% total), due by 12 noon on the day of each class with reading assignments. 

Academic Integrity:
Complete academic honesty is expected of all students. Any incidence of academic dishonesty, as defined by the SU Academic Integrity Policy (see the Academic Integrity Policy and Procedures) will result in both course sanctions and formal notification of the College of Arts & Sciences. In this course, students are allowed and strongly encouraged to study together, but written assignments must represent the work of the individual student. See the paper instructions for details about how to credit and cite sources you might use.

Disability Policy:
Any students that need accommodation because of disability should discuss it with the professor or T.A. during office hours or by appointment and provide documentation to the Office of Disability Services (ext. 4498 or 1371).

Required Textbooks (available at the campus bookstore in Schine Student Center): 

  • Yairah Amit, Reading Biblical Narratives: Literary Criticism and the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) = RBN
  • Gale Yee, Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies (2nd ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007) = J&M
  • Collins, John J. A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007) = SIHB

Recommended:  New Oxford Annotated Bible (New Revised Standard Version) or The Jewish Study Bible (Tanakh/New Jewish Publication Society Version)

Topics & Assignments: Readings from textbooks appear by abbreviated title and page or chapter numbers, readings from biblical books appear as book title and chapters/verses. Readings on the web are underlined and marked (WWW). Readings posted electronically on Blackboard are marked (BB). Further readings on literary approaches to reading the Bible can be found in the Supplemental Bibliography below. Further resources for biblical studies and religion may be found by at http://web.syr.edu/~jwwatts/UsefulLinks.htm.




Assignment (due by class on date listed)

M Aug 25


Judges 16:1-3

Reading Hebrew Narratives

W Aug 27

Readers & the Bible 2 Samuel 11-12; SIHB pp. 1-14; RBN chaps. 1-2
M Sep 1 Labor Day No Class

W Sep 3

Close Reading # 1 2 Samuel 13-20; SIHB pp. 116-30; RBN pp. 126-32, 138-40

M Sep 8

Close Reading # 2 1 Kings 16:29--2 Kings 2:18; SIHB pp. 131-52; RBN pp. 132-37, 141-43
W Sep 10 Comparison Reading # 1 SIHB pp. 15-27; King Keret / Kirta (BB)

M Sep 15

Text & History Judges 8, 1 Samuel 1:1-2:11; SIHB pp. 94-107; RBN chap. 3
W Sep 17 No Class First Paper Due, 4 p.m., in HL 501 (paper instructions)

M Sep 22

Beginnings & Endings Genesis 1:1-3:24; 22:1-19; SIHB pp. 36-43; RBN chap. 4
W Sep 24 Plot & Structure Genesis 11:1-9; 12:1-9; 23:1-20; Exodus 3:1-4:17; Judg 3:12-30; 16:4-21; SIHB pp. 44-54; RBN chap. 5

M Sep 29

Joseph in Time Genesis 37, 39-50 (Joseph); RBN chap. 8

W Oct 1

Comparison Reading # 2 Sinuhe (WWW)

M Oct 6

The Importance of Place Genesis 28:10-22; Exodus 25-26; 35-36; SIHB pp. 74-83; RBN chap. 9

W Oct 8

What Characters! 1 Samuel 25; 2 Samuel 1; Genesis 38; RBN chap. 6 & pp. 143-47

M Oct 13

No Class Second Paper Due, 4 p.m., 501 HL (paper instructions)

Authors, Narrators & Readers

W Oct 15

Narrators & Authors 1 Samuel 31; 1 Chronicles 10; SIHB pp. 229-35; RBN chap. 7

M Oct 20

Origins of History Piye inscription (WWW); Amit, H&I chaps. 1-2 (BB)

W Oct 22

Group Readings: Introduction 2 Kings 22-23; Nehemiah 8; SIHB pp. 220-28

M Oct 27

Group Reading & Case Study: Judges

Judges 1-2, 4-5; J&M pp. 30-44

W Oct 29

Group Reading & Case Study: Judges Judges 8:29-9:57; J&M chaps. 1, 3

M Nov 3

Group Reading & Case Study: Judges Judges 4-5; 11; J&M chap. 4, 9

W Nov 5

Group Reading & Case Study: Judges Judges 1:11-15; 3:27-29; 7:24-8:3, 12:1-6; J&M chaps. 5-6

M Nov 10

Group Reading & Case Study: Judges Judges 17-21; J&M chap. 7
Nov 10 2:15 Guest lecture by Nathan MacDonald (University of Saint Andrews), "Everything Out of Place: The Disorderliness of the Book of Judges," in HL 114 for 5% Extra Credit with written critical evaluation (400-500 words) due Nov 12
Nov 11 12:30 Alternative guest lecture by Corrine Dempsey (UWI Stevens Point, SU PhD 1996), "Reading and Writing (to) the Devi: Reflections on Unanticipated Ritualized Ethnography," in Eggers 341
W Nov 12 Group Reading & Case Study: Conquest Joshua 1:1-10:28; SIHB pp. 94-107; J&M chap. 8.

M Nov 17

Group Reading & Case Study: Religious Stories 1 Deuteronomy 4; 2 Kings 21; SIHB pp. 84-93

W Nov 19

Group Reading & Case Study: Religious Stories 2 Judges 11:; J&M chap. 10
M Nov 24 No Class Third Paper Due, 4 p.m., 501 HL (paper instructions)
W Nov 26 Thanksgiving Break No Class

Ideology, Rhetoric & Scripture

M Dec 1

Stories of Victory Exodus 10-15; SIHB pp. 55-63; Pixley (BB); Levenson (BB)

W Dec 3

Hi-story, Ideology, Religion 2 Samuel 6:1-11; 1 Chronicles 13; 1 Kings 15:1-8; 2 Chronicles 13; Amit, H&I chaps. 9-11 (BB)

F Dec 12


Final Paper Due, 4:45 p.m., 501 HL (paper instructions)


Supplemental Readings:

  • A.K.M. Adams, Postmodern Interpretation of the Bible (St. Louis: Chalice, 2001)
  • Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic, 1981)
  • Robert Alter& Frank Kermode, The Literary Guide to the Bible (Cambridge, MA: Harvard/Belknap, 1987)
  • Erich Auerback, Mimesis (Garden City: Doubleday, 1957)
  • Mieke Bal, Death and dissymmetry: the politics of coherence in the Book of Judges (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988)
  • Kenneth M. Craig, Jr., Reading Esther: A Case for the Literary Carnivalesque (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995)
  • David M. Gunn and Danna Nolan Fewell, Narrative in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford, 1993)
  • Tamara C. Eskenazi, In an Age of Prose: A Literary Approach to Ezra-Nehemiah (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988)
  • Carol A. Newsom, “Bakhtin, the Bible, and Dialogic Truth,” Journal of Religion 76/2 (1996) 290-306.
  • Simon Parker, Stories in Scripture and Inscriptions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)
  • Robert Polzin, Samuel and the Deuteronomist (New York: Seabury, 1988)
  • R. S. Sugirtharajah, The Postcolonial Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998)
  • R. S. Sugirtharajah, The Bible and Empire: Postcolonial Explorations (Cambridge, 2005)
  • Suzanne Scholz, Biblical Studies Alternatively: An Introductory Reader (Prentice Hall, 2003)
  • Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985)
  • Phyllis Trible, Rhetorical Criticism: Context, Method, and the Book of Jonah (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994)