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The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981)

by Robert Alter

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1,5111512,075 (4.14)31
From celebrated translator of the Hebrew Bible Robert Alter, the classic study of the Bible as literature, a winner of the National Jewish Book Award. Renowned critic and translator Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative has radically expanded our view of the Bible by recasting it as a work of literary art deserving studied criticism. In this seminal work, Alter describes how the Hebrew Bible's many authors used innovative literary styles and devices such as parallelism, contrastive dialogue, and narrative tempo to tell one of the most revolutionary stories of all time: the revelation of a single God. In so doing, Alter shows, these writers reshaped not only history, but also the art of storytelling itself. Robert Alter is Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a recipient of the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime contributions to American letters, he lives in Berkeley, California. Winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Thought "A groundbreaking study that encourages us to look beneath the theological surface of the biblical text to glimpse its beating heart."-Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times "[An] admirable book....It is truly extraordinary that such familiar tales as those of Joseph and David should acquire so much detail and color, as if perfectly restored."-The New York Times "The results of [Alter's] work give the Bible a fresh voice for a new generation of readers."-Christian Science Monitor "This clearly written book should please anyone interested in the fundamentals of storytelling."-The Washington Post.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
Although I have read similar ideas by others I am told he is the innovator of this approach to Biblical scholarship and for that, he is to be commended. However, he could have said what he had to say in 80 pages instead of 235. Mining out the gems and casting the slag aside was almost painful in this book. I can't even say I'm glad I read it. I'm not unhappy I read it but I really just don't care. I'm glad Biblical scholars have continued his work and presented it in more palatable ways.

I think what particularly annoyed me was his preface, in which he stated he was hoping to make the Bible more accessible to all people. He couldn't have selected more inaccessible vocabulary, nor could he have selected more elite literary references, making it a challenge. When he finally gets into some of his examples of Scripture, it comes alive and those nuggets are fabulous but too few.

If this is how the Bible is made more accessible no matter so few people pick it up. ( )
  M.J.Perry | Apr 21, 2022 |
A great surprise for me in this book was that it didn't just explain how the Biblical texts were written; it also explains what those texts were trying to say. Alter argues, for example, that many of the Biblical authors wrote in prose because it was a flexible medium that allowed them to explore the moral complexities of men and women. Prose gave them a way to delineate "the wayward paths of human freedom, the quirks and contradictions of men and women seen as moral agents and complex centers of motive and feeling." Not all of the Bible, of course, was written in prose, but by beginning to embrace that form of writing, the Bible moved away from myth and toward narrative -- toward the writing of both history and fiction. Here, writes Alter, you can even find "the first great anticipation of novelistic dialogue."

These prose narrations, Alter argues, are filled with a tension inherent in Biblical monotheism: a tension between "human imperfection and divine perfection." These are messy stories about human beings in relationship with the divine. In pagan myths, divinities were far from perfect, while mortals were sometimes semi-divine, so the space between mortal and immortal was not as wide as in monotheism, in which very flawed people are called to believe and to live by divinely given laws: and in that tension, we have the morally messy narratives of the Bible. Alter puts it much better: monotheism "repeatedly had to make sense of the intersection of incompatibles—the relative and the absolute, human imperfection and divine perfection, the brawling chaos of historical experience and God’s promise to fulfill a design in history."

That's the theme that comes out in Alter's close readings of narratives about compelling figures like Jacob, Joseph, King David. All the while, he's showing how meaning is attached to literary questions such as: why a person's inner thought should be reported as speech; why there is, to modern ears, a great deal of repetition in these stories; why some things are understated, or not reported at all, when we would expect them to be; how conventions like the betrothal-type scene are used, and deliberately varied or subverted, to produce different meanings; etc.

At times this can get a little technical and it does require some patience, but I found it accessible, and I have no formal literary training.

The chapter I found perhaps the most eye-opening and helpful was "The Techniques of Repetition." The one I found least persuasive was "Composite Artistry," which deals with the fact that the Bible was put together by more authors and editors than was traditionally believed: this means that one must be careful about attributing a single artistic vision to any particular text within the Bible. Alter addresses this, but one chapter is not quite enough to deal with such a large issue.

All in all, however, this is well worth reading for anyone interested in the Bible and it has things to say to virtually anyone interested in literature. ( )
  krosero | Feb 1, 2022 |
Robert Alter believes that employing the tools of literary analysis to the scriptures increases the reader’s enjoyment of them, leading to a deeper grasp of their theological and moral message. He demonstrates this by examining various episodes, many of them taken from the masterful story cycles centered on Jacob, Joseph, and David. Alter shows how careful attention to keywords, the alternation between dialogue and narration, and compression or expansion of the narrative pace can reveal insight into the character and motivation of those who appear.
This reading is enriched by the insights both of medieval commentators such as Abraham Ibn Ezra and Rashi and more recent proponents of the historical-critical method. These might seem opposing approaches since the medieval commentators seem the epitome of those who treat the scriptures as the unitary revelation of the divine word. At the same time, more recent scholars are often criticized for an approach that atomizes the text, breaking it into small units from disparate sources. Yet, both approaches can yield significant insights that inform and supplement what the careful reader finds.
In one instance, Alter surprised me with the explanatory power of his literary analysis. One stumbling block for modern readers of scriptures is that some incidents are told twice. For example, there are two contradictory accounts of how the young David came to the attention of King Saul. A common explanation for this is the redactor uses material from two sources that have not been fully integrated. This might be true as far as it goes, says Alter, but it doesn’t explain why a redactor, who shows his mastery and artistry in other ways, chose to present these accounts successively. He suggests the reason is to create a collage analogous to cubist painting. The result is to illuminate different aspects of David’s character and the manner of his election as king. Alter suggests the redactor is aware that he has thereby complicated his account, but then again, people and their motives are complicated.
By the end of the book, when Alter unequivocally characterizes Bible narrative as fiction, this in no way seems dismissive. On the contrary, he reckons with its full power to bring “us into an inner zone of complex knowledge about human nature, divine intentions, and the strong but sometimes confusing threads that bind the two.”
This book is densely written and, therefore, not an easy read, but it is accessible enough to repay attentive reading. ( )
  HenrySt123 | Dec 10, 2021 |
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 |
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From celebrated translator of the Hebrew Bible Robert Alter, the classic study of the Bible as literature, a winner of the National Jewish Book Award. Renowned critic and translator Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative has radically expanded our view of the Bible by recasting it as a work of literary art deserving studied criticism. In this seminal work, Alter describes how the Hebrew Bible's many authors used innovative literary styles and devices such as parallelism, contrastive dialogue, and narrative tempo to tell one of the most revolutionary stories of all time: the revelation of a single God. In so doing, Alter shows, these writers reshaped not only history, but also the art of storytelling itself. Robert Alter is Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a recipient of the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime contributions to American letters, he lives in Berkeley, California. Winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Thought "A groundbreaking study that encourages us to look beneath the theological surface of the biblical text to glimpse its beating heart."-Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times "[An] admirable book....It is truly extraordinary that such familiar tales as those of Joseph and David should acquire so much detail and color, as if perfectly restored."-The New York Times "The results of [Alter's] work give the Bible a fresh voice for a new generation of readers."-Christian Science Monitor "This clearly written book should please anyone interested in the fundamentals of storytelling."-The Washington Post.

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