Review: Gary Rendsburg’s “The Book of Genesis”

If I had my way, Dr. Gary Rendsburg’s course on “The Book of Genesis” would be mandatory for every Christian, Jew, historian, lover of language, and student of the human spirit. Let’s start this review by giving the course five stars.

(Just a note: The Teaching Company puts each course on sale once a year on a regular cycle. When this course is on sale, it’s about $50. Right now it’s listed at $250. Wait a while and it’ll drop in price. I may repost this review when I notice that’s happened.)

Background: I had the privilege of taking two courses with Dr. Rendsburg in Cornell University’s Near Eastern Studies department, and they were the best two classes I took in college. When this course became available through The Teaching Company, I made sure to snatch it up. It took a while to get to it after that, but I’m thrilled.

Overview: Dr. Rendsburg analyzes The Book of Genesis from a religious, literary, historical and sociological perspective. He draws on every tool for this analysis, including the archaeological record, other ancient texts, modern illustrative examples, and an encyclopedic understanding of the ancient world.

My only complaint: it’s too short. I would have the same complaint even if it were 48 one-hour lectures. Well, one more: during the first lecture he sounds a bit stilted and uncomfortable with the microphone. He warms up during the second lecture.

The good stuff: Everything!

Hah. Okay, first, he treats the Book of Genesis primarily as an academic text. He feels free to analyze every aspect of it, view it in the context of the time/place in which it was written and the people for whom it was intended, but at the same time is absolutely respectful of the religious value of the text. While he is himself Jewish, he does not disparage the Christian reading of the text nor does he force his religious views on the listeners. When he makes a point, he backs it up (often multiple ways) and presents the opposing viewpoint for controversial subjects (such as JEDP theory and the dating of the events in the Book of Genesis.)

I had forgotten until I listened that even more than an academic respect, Dr. Rendsburg has an actual love for the writing. He is actively delighted by the word play, the textual tricks, the parallels, the rich imagery and the wordcraft involved in the writing.

And perhaps because of this love of the text, he dives deep into the text to point out puns, the lyrical writing in the original Hebrew, and parallels that lie beneath the surface.

For example, Jacob deceives Isaac; later, Jacob is deceived by Judah (who lies about the death of Joseph) and then Judah is deceived by Tamar. All three of these deceptions use the same props and the same verbiage. I’d known these stories all my life, but I’d never made the connection. Then he moves beyond the literary to point out the theological subtext, that God has stepped in to exact justice.

I could write for hours about this, but really, don’t listen to me. Go pick up a copy of the course and listen for yourself to an amazing scholar analyzing an amazing book.


  1. ivyreisner

    It’s on my “must listen” list, but having just read the Inferno, I’m doing the class on the Divine Comedy next. Have you heard Professor Levine’s course on Tanach? Very good.

  2. philangelus

    Haven’t, no. My iPod and listening-while-driving time was dedicated to this. (And then that sad course-free time while my iPod was +dead+ and I waited to get a new one.)

    Right now I’m listening to Dr. Robert Greenberg’s “The Chamber Music of Mozart.” Which is quite a change of pace. For one thing, Dr. Rendsburg doesn’t play the piano during his classes. And he doesn’t speak with two exclamation points at the end of every sentence!! Although I do when I’m telling people to buy the course!! 🙂

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  4. Crln

    I think he takes too little time in setting out the many many many differences in the two creation stories. I’ve joined in on several classes about this subject and there is much to say about from different points of view, and their consequences, but he doesn’t do that.. pity.

    1. philangelus

      I would have loved if they’d doubled the number of lectures. He could easily have filled the time!

  5. mel

    hello! i am also delighted by the presentation of prof Rendsburg. Overally very informative and his linguistic analysis adds an extra taste of exquisite scholarship to the whole. his dating of Abraham though is somewhat unconvincing and his reasons to think that Abraham lived during the New Kingdom is settled too hastily by saying that most scholars think this way. Another thing to watch out for is his adamant insistence that the ancient hebrews did not believe in eternal life which is consistent with some liberal theologians but nevertheless debatable so he again just asserts it without elaborating as to why he is convinced this is the case.

    1. philangelus

      I guess I’m spoiled by having actually taken his classes in person. Over two semesters, all these points were indeed covered in detail.

  6. mel

    So can you, in a nutshell, clarify these problems by providing succintly his arguments you heard in person?

    Thanks buddy

    1. philangelus

      I took his classes in 1992 and 1993. So–no. 🙂 Sorry. But he has a website online and I’m sure you could email him through Rutgers University. He’s very personable.

      Oh, and he’s got another course out now too, on the Dead Sea Scrolls! We just got it a couple of weeks ago and we’re on lecture four. I’m loving it. 🙂

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