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The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert…
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The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981)

by Robert Alter

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I really enjoyed this book. Alter walks through the literary features of the Hebrew Bible (within the narrative accounts). There are so many great insights in this book.

While Alter identifies the historical impulse behind the biblical text, he doesn't hold up the historicity of everything in the biblical account which I would. However his attention to the literary artistry and examination of the Hebrew idiom and literary conventions (i.e. repetition of key words, variations in repeated words, economic prose, type scenes, etc.) provides great exegetical insights. This is not at all antagonistic to historical and theological reading of the text (in principle, though possible in particulars). The value of this book is that it argues persuasively for a close reading of the biblical text. ( )
  Jamichuk | May 22, 2017 |
Now having just reread my old copy, I realize that Alter has recently put out a revised edition. It would, of course, be interesting to read that, but certainly the original has held up well over three decades, much better than most books of that era. It is still exciting, and I look forward to reading more of his books. ( )
  MarthaJeanne | Dec 31, 2013 |
Exciting stuff! ( )
  TanteLeonie | Mar 31, 2013 |
51. [The Art of Biblical Narrative (Revised and Updated)] by Robert Alter (1981, revised and updated in 2011, 248 pages, read Aug 14 – Sept 11)

lilbrattyteen has a spectacular review of this book posted on the LibraryThing.com work page, and manages to highlight all the main points. The main thing I have to add is that this was quite fascinating, but also difficult to read. Robert Alter is thoroughly precise in everything he says, but part of what results are numerous convoluted sentences filled with adverbs and adjectives and multiple comparisons. Sometimes I had to read a sentence of a few times to get the grasp of it.

The basic premise is that the bible has rich assortment of literary elements that get lost when it is evaluated primarily in a spiritual, theologically critical, source critical or historical way - the main ways the bible is evaluated. He then goes through the historical books and Job highlighting numerous fundamental literary aspects.

I'll try to briefly highlight three of them...or maybe just quote Alter.

On the key tensions in the narrative. This serves both to make a thought-provoking point and to highlight the difficulty in reading Alter. (i.e. good luck)

The ancient Hebrew writers...seek through the process of narrative realization to reveal the enactment of God's purposes in historical events. This enactment, however, is continuously complicated by a perception of two, approximately parallel, dialectical tensions. One is the tension between the divine plan and the disorderly character of actual historical events, to translate this opposition into specifically biblical terms, between the divine promise and its ostensible failure to be fulfilled; the other is a tension between God's will, His providential guidance, and human freedom, the refractory nature of man

On the intimate link between the language and meaning:

Language in the biblical stories is never conceived as a transparent envelope of the narrated events or an aesthetic embellishment of them but as an integral and dynamic component—an insistent dimension—of what is being narrated. With language God creates the world; through language He reveals his design in history to men.
The most interesting chapter for me may have been on the art of reticence; on how the bible can bring out complex meaning and striking characters through a laconic language and skeletal narration. How does the Bible manage to evoke such a sense of depth and complexity in its representation of character with what would seem to be such sparse , even rudimentary means? Biblical narrative offers us, after all, nothing in the way of minute analysis of motives or detailed rendering of mental processes; whatever indications we may be vouchsafed of feeling, attitude, or intention are rather minimal; and we are given only the barest hints about the physical appearance, the tics and gestures, the dress and implements of the characters, the material milieu in which they enact their destinies. In short, all the indicators of nuanced individuality to which the Western literary tradition has accustomed us—preeminently in the novel, but ultimately going back to the Greek epics and romances—would appear to be absent from the Bible.

... skipping to the end of chapter...

But the underlying biblical conception of character as often unpredictable, in some ways impenetrable, constantly emerging from and slipping back into a penumbra of ambiguity, in fact has greater affinity with dominant modern notions than do the habits of conceiving character typical of the Greek epics.


What really stands out to me here is that not only does the Bible have literary elements that can only be observed when looking at in a literary way, but that efforts of decomposing these elements in a literature so different from what we are used to enlightens us in the nature of all literature.
2 vote dchaikin | Nov 19, 2012 |
When I was a freshman in high school, my English teacher quipped that [[Edith Hamilton]] was the goddess of Greek mythology. If every pantheon has a scholar that is the god of it, then Robert Alter is the God of the Hebrew Bible. After creating and popularizing literary approaches to the Bible in this book and [The Art of Biblical Poetry], he began his brilliant translations of the Torah, Psalms, Wisdom books, and the one my group read is doing now, [The David Story].

Alter's main point in this careful polemic is that historical-critical scholarship, which dominated biblical scholarship in most of the twentieth century, is unimaginative. It places too much emphasis on the fragmented nature of the Biblical texts, and in doing so overlooks the nuances of language and story that unify the tomes. When it sees two different writing styles, it automatically assumes that there are multiple sources at work, rather than that one author or authorial school intentionally changed voices. The closest it ever got to literary criticism, form criticism, only created categories to place different texts in, without exploring the dynamics of how the author employed or refused to employ the genre. By assuming that the text is fragmentary and often not well-wrought, it denigrates the text.

Alter seeks to restore the genius of the writers of the Hebrew Bible not from an a priori religious framework of inspiration, but by close readings of pericopes demonstrating the subtleties of the Biblical tales that previous scholarship, done by historians and archaeologists rather than literary critics, did not pick up on. Alter situates his analysis of the literary techniques and forms of the Hebrew Bible in the overarching theological problematic of the monotheistic revolution: how do God and man interact? The Bible everywhere explores the tension between God's perfect plan and man's uncertain agency, between God's certain knowledge and man's chaotic uncertainty, between the seeming contradiction of a Godly determinism and the basic human impulse to free will. The Bible explores this not just in its content, but in its use of narrative style, dialogue, repetition, and type-scenes.

In chapter two, Alter begins his scrutiny of narrative by looking at the difference between ancient polytheistic myth and the Bible. The difference is that the pagan world of myth had a stable closure, and stories were tied to orality, to repetition, to ritual. Hebrew narrative has an indeterminacy to it, as the stories are ambiguous, leave things unsaid, and leave the reader with multiple meanings available. (This underdetermined nature of Biblical narrative was likely what led to later midrashic traditions.) He compares the creation narrative of J starting in Genesis 2:4 with the Enuma Elish, and finds that humanity in Genesis has a "morally problematic interiority," made in the image of God but also autonomous, that is not in the Babylonian creation myth. This indeterminacy and element of the chaotic humanness (which the reader always lives in) plays out in the Bible's depiction of history, which oscillates between God's hand being clearly at work (Esther) and human drama taking the spotlight (Deueteronomistic history), with no book being completely at one extreme or the other. The Hebrews were writing neither history nor fiction, but "fictionalized history" with conscious artistic intent. This fiction written in order to explore history plays out most fully in the David saga, which Alter compares to Shakespeare's fictionalized versions of English history. In its deep characterization and portrayal of the human, Alter sees in the Bible a possible birth of fiction.

The third chapter moves onto type-scenes, archetypal repetitions of events that formed part of the unspoken artistic conventions of Biblical narrative. Since we don't know of any ancient Hebrew literary theory, we can only guess what these conventions might be. These type-scenes, such as the hero's betrothal played out in Moses, Jacob, and Samson, are consciously varied to let the reader infer aspects of the particular hero of that story. For example, whereas Moses' betrothal begins with him defending helpless women and properly meeting the bride's father, Samson bluntly desires a foreign woman and simply demands his parents secure her. Moses' near-perfect morality contrasts with Samson's hot-headed and cocky swag, both here and everywhere else in their stories. These repeated type-scenes capture the cyclical rhythm of God's activity in history - the saga of human life, of following and forgetting God, of birth and death.

In chapter four, Alter makes a fascinating assertion about Biblical narration: it is scant. The reader learns far more about characters through dialogue and reported action than through an omniscient narrator's epithetic labeling. This is unique to the Bible; Homer has long monologue rather than dialogue. By focusing the reader on dialogue, the emphasis becomes characters' reactions to events rather than the events themselves. And not knowing about a character's interior motives leaves us wondering about them, leaves us in the human's-eye view of uncertainty rather than the God's-eye view of omniscience about the character. This emphasis on the spoken word even evokes the theology that as God creates and reveals with words, so God-imaged humanity reveals and creates with words. The reader of Biblical narrative is advised to look closely at the dialogue. Does a character speak in lofty near-verse or in brief, slangy utterances? When does the narrator transition between his voice and the dialogue, what is being emphasized in doing so? The narrator's hands-off treatment, prefiguring modern novels, lets human agency express itself in the midst of a God-driven world.

But not only are type-scenes repeated. Repetition moves up a scale, from words, motifs, themes, and sequences of actions, up to type-scenes. As Biblical narrative moves on, it adds new connotations and meanings to repeated units, as they evoke their past instantiations. Just as God's orderly pattern of words created an orderly universe, so God's word is repeated and made sense of in the context of Biblical narrative. For example, the motif of water repeats in Moses' life, from the water he was put in at birth to the water he draws from the stone in the desert. Elsewhere in the Bible, water will evoke Moses and how water both let them escape from Egypt and prevented them from entering Canaan. Not only is repetition key in the Bible, but so is lack of repetition - say a type-scene of a hero is omitted from one hero's story - or difference from the usual way of repeating a unit. Dialogues can be repeated by characters saying the same words but with different intentions. As Alter says, the Biblical narratives are not merely conveying information, they are using language - the vehicle of the story - as an intrinsic part of what is being narrated.

Despite the fact that little explicit characterization is done in the Bible (remember: dialogue-focused), characters still seem fully fleshed out. How? Alter explores this in the sixth chapter. Though the Biblical narrator is almost always omniscient, we only see glimpses of this, and are instead given information about a character indirectly through actions and words. Looking at when a narrator chooses to reveal their knowledge can tell us a lot about the content. For example, when David is coming to power, we only hear his public speeches and actions. Yet the narrator reveals Saul's internal motives and crazed thoughts. Only later in the David saga do we see the complex man behind the public image. This reticence to share leaves the reader both wondering about the characters (remember: human's-eye view) and allows the characters to develop. There are no Homeric epithets in the Bible.

Alter then returns to the historical-critical scholars for the seventh chapter, on "composite artistry." What is a "book" in the Bible? Can any one book be set apart from the others, or are the boundaries too porous? Is any book unified, or is it a patchwork of different authors? In what I consider the most brilliant chapter of the book, Alter finds a middle road: yes, there are differing voices and styles in the Bible, and there is a multiplicity. But the final redactors also used literary genius in bringing these different accounts together. For example, the surface contradiction between the Priestly creation's simultanous creation of man and woman and the Yahwist's creation of woman from man are in fact complementary. The Yahwist perspective coming from sexism paints women as inferior, as helpers for the men who do the important things in society. The Priestly account recognizes that women are mens' equal in morality, in strength, in intelligence. Together these provide two contrasting and complementary perspectives that can both be found elsewhere in the Bible. Same with the tension between P's rhymic, orderly, rational creation emphasizing God and J's chaotic creation emphasizing man and his free will. What seems like a contradiction - or elsewhere in the Bible, seems like sloppy editing - is only so due to the reader's inability to read literary nuances. Narrative structure allows for these "montage of views arranged in sequence" concerning God's agency vs. humanity's, the universe's chaos and its order, and the messy human drama of history and God's divine plan. Literature is paradoxical as is human life.

Last but not least, Alter examines how Biblical narrative is a form of knowledge. It reveals a fund of experience, of human life, that is both the same and wildly different from the 21st-century North American reader's. The narrator only lets us learn what he wants us to learn. The narrator's relation to the reader is like God's relation to humanity - only allowing the recipient to have some knowledge, but also forcing them to think things out for themselves. Alter looks at the scenes where Joseph re-encounters his brothers, showing his Joseph's motives are both clear and unclear. The reader, putting herself in this story and all the others of the Bible, begins to see how to relate to God in her human uncertainty and chaos. The Bible's artistry, first seen as a rejection of a purely didactic purpose, turns out to have theological import.

This multiplicity of meanings, this ongoing human saga, is what attracts me to the Bible. The Hebrew Bible far more than the New Testament contains a complete portrait of a human society, of people experiencing human dramas, of the mundane aspects of life apart from the specifically religious. Alter's book hit me like dynamite opening new caves to explore in my ongoing quest to dive into sacred texts. His ability to convey literary nuances while not expecting the reader to know Hebrew is even more amazing. My only complaint is that the book is a bit dated. The second edition only updated a few things here and there, and did not take into account all the scholarship in literary criticism and the Bible that has happened in the thirty years since Alter published his book. Still, this book is worth its weight in gold, and belongs on every literature lover's shelf. ( )
6 vote JDHomrighausen | Jul 23, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 046500427X, Paperback)

In what is both a radical approach to the Bible, and a fundamental return to its narrative prose, Robert Alter reads the Old Testament with new eyes—the eyes of a literary critic. Alter takes the old yet simple step of reading the Bible as a literary creation.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:30 -0400)

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