The Art of Biblical Narrative (Alter)

Alter, Robert.  The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Within a few pages I knew I was in the presence of a master. Not only is Robert Alter in complete command of the Hebrew language, but he is second to none in English literature as well.  Both are obvious in this work.

Alter’s strength is in demonstrating the irreducible unity of the Hebrew narrative. I am perfectly willing to grant an editorial process to the Hebrew text.  I think that is common sense.  That, however, does not justify the multiple sub-authorships that critical scholars have posited.  And though Alter is no bible-thumping evangelical, his illustration of the remarkable textual unity and narrative in the Hebrew bible makes all older critical theories superfluous.  

The Hebrew text has a unity illustrated by “small verbal signals of continuity and lexical nuances” (Alter 11).  An example of this is the Judah and Tamar story of Genesis 38.  At first glance it has nothing to do with the Joseph narrative; in fact, it disrupts it.  What Alter demonstrates, however, is that there is a theme of “recognition” in play that factors in both the Tamar episode and in the later Joseph scene.

Dialogue: “Biblical narrative is laconic” (20). Dialogue is introduced at key junctures in the narrative.This “brings the speech-act into the foreground” (67). 

Nota bene: When the Hebrew uses “hinneh” (KJV: Behold), it often marks a shift in the narrative point of view from the third person omniscient to the character’s direct perception (54).

Pace older critics, the Hebrew text cannot be read as an epic.  Epic literature was locked in a pagan and cyclical worldview.  Hebrew prose narration, by contrast, moves in a different direction (25ff).

Biblical type scenes: The most famous type scene is the well = betrothal/proposal. Older critics saw multiple scenes as evidence that ancient Jews were too stupid to realize a copy (incidentally, much of historical criticism was viciously anti-Semitic). What Alter shows is that it isn’t wooden plagiarism, but brilliant narratology.

In the betrothal scene the hero would go down to the girl’s land and meet the girl (Heb. na’arah). Someone then draws (daloh/dalah) water, after which the girls rush home to tell the news.  A betrothal is then concluded (52).  If, however, something in this template weren’t followed, the reader would immediately guess that the marriage wouldn’t be happy.

Alter explains that in “reliable third-person narratives, such as in the Bible, there is a scale of means, in ascending order of strictness and certainty, for conveying information about the motives, the attitudes, the moral nature of characters” (116).  In other words, at the lower end we can only learn about the character through actions or appearance, meaning we have to infer everything else.  A middle category is direct speech, to which we must “weigh claims” (117). At the highest level we have explicit statements.

Narrative and Knowledge: “We learn through fiction because we encounter in it the translucent images the writer has cunningly projected out of an intuitively grasped fund of experience not dissimilar to our own” experiences (156). Fiction is a mode of knowledge “because it is a certain way of imagining characters and events in their shifting, elusive, and revelatory interconnections but also because it possesses a certain repertoire of techniques for telling a story.”

This is a benchmark in biblical studies.  Few people can read this work and hold to older, more wooden theories of higher criticism. To be sure, Alter is a Jewish scholar and makes some criticisms of “incarnational readings.”  He also entertains some critical editorial notions of the text.  With that said, this book deserves widest possible dissemination.


One thought on “The Art of Biblical Narrative (Alter)

  1. Pingback: Hebrew Language #2 The name “Hebrew” and Speech of Canaan | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

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