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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.


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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.

30 review for The Art of Biblical Narrative

  1. 5 out of 5

    Taylor Rollo

    In this short but dense work, Alter presents his case for the Bible, particularly the Old Testament (OT), as a piece of literature that can and should be examined with literary techniques. We found this book both very helpful and incredibly frustrating at times. It is helpful because Alter lays out useful techniques that help one examine the Bible as a piece of literature by paying attention to words, actions, dialogue, and narration. It is, however, frustrating because Alter is apparently unawa In this short but dense work, Alter presents his case for the Bible, particularly the Old Testament (OT), as a piece of literature that can and should be examined with literary techniques. We found this book both very helpful and incredibly frustrating at times. It is helpful because Alter lays out useful techniques that help one examine the Bible as a piece of literature by paying attention to words, actions, dialogue, and narration. It is, however, frustrating because Alter is apparently unaware of how his so-called higher-critical assumptions flatly contradict his goal to show the literary themes and connections that weave throughout the OT. This should become clear as we look at the first two chapters of this work. In chapter one, Alter lays the groundwork for approaching the Bible as a literary work. He states at the beginning of this chapter that the literary art shaping the Biblical narrative is “finely modulated from moment to moment, determining in most cases the minute choice of words and reported details, the pace of narration, the small movements of dialogue, and a whole network of ramified interconnections in the text.” He, however, does little in this chapter to actually prove his assertion that the Bible should be treated as a literary work. He cites examples in Scripture and other scholarly opinion that is moving his direction, but he does not actually argue that it is literature. Furthermore, he flatly states that the conservative view of the Bible as the “unitary source of divinely revealed truth” is one “obvious reason” that scholars did not look at the Bible as literature sooner. He, again, does not argue this point but assumes that it is axiomatic. It is not at all obvious to us that this is the case, especially considering as far back as Augustine the Bible has been viewed by many Christians as a literary work. In this chapter, his contradictory assumptions are evident. He holds to the higher-critical assumption that the OT is a “patchwork” text put together by redactors and that one cannot assume the redactors are “consummate literary artists,” but, at the same time, he argues for a unity of words, themes, repetitions, and type-scenes through large portions of the OT, like the Torah! One cannot say, on the one hand, that the Torah is a “patchwork” with seams showing evidence of JEDP sources and redactors and, on the other hand, that it shows great literary unity. If it is shows literary unity, then where is the evidence for the four sources of the Torah and redactors? If there are sources and redactors that are not “consummate literary artists,” then how can one assume unifying literary aspects? In chapter two, Alter addresses the question of what the narrative of the Bible is. Is it history? Is it prose fiction? He boldly asserts that Bible does not characterize its narrative as history and that treating it as such will rule out the ability to use the tools of literary analysis. He basically argues that since the OT shows literary artistry and since the writers would not have had any documentation for the stories they recorded, then it must not be history. However, he neither gives a cogent argument, evidence for this assertion, nor does he tell the reader why literary artistry and history should be seen as mutually exclusive. He then classifies the Bible as “historicized fiction,” which he does not really define but it appears that he believes there to be some kernel of historical fact or folklore behind most of the stories but all details and dialogue are completely “imagined” by the writers. He gives the reader examples of what he believes to be straight fiction and what he believes might have some historical basis. Again, he gives no evidence for why he gives a small amount of historical status to some and none to others. He just says that it is “obvious” and makes a few pejorative remarks about any who disagree with him. He concludes that, since “all fiction, including the Bible, is in some sense a form of play,” then while the Bible may have been written primarily to inform and instruct, rather than delight and entertain, it accomplishes this through a literary medium of story. If one can get through the higher-critical assumptions that contradict his entire thesis, his de jure statements about the fictional character of the OT, and the various subtle insults leveled at anyone who would hold an orthodox view of Scripture, then from chapter three on (with the exception of chapter seven) he gives some valuable insights into biblical interpretation. Contrary to Alter’s assumptions, one does not need to adopt his presuppositions in order to use his literary techniques. The Bible as history and a piece of literary masterpiece are not mutually exclusive qualities. In chapter three, Alter gives his first literary category for interpreting large sections of Scripture—the biblical “type-scene.” To his credit, he does not accept all of the higher-critical assumptions, as shown here by his rejection of the conclusion that repetitious stories are recreations of a single, initial story (though this is hardly helpful since he believes they are mostly imagined anyway). The type-scene is one in a “series of recurrent narrative episodes attached to the descriptions of biblical heroes… that… are dependent on the manipulation of a fixed constellation of predetermined motifs.” They occur at crucial junctures in the lives of heroes. He then goes on to list the type-scenes he sees in the OT and give an example of how to track one through the OT and use it as an interpretive tool. His example, “the betrothal,” contradicts, again, his view of a “patchwork” OT because it is a thread that runs from Genesis through the historical books. If the redactors were not “consummate literary artists,” how can he explain the presence of these threaded “type-scenes”? Contradiction aside, the technique is valid and fits nicely into a conservative, orthodox view of Scripture. In chapter four, Alter discusses the relationship between biblical narrative and dialogue. He shows that dialogue is the most important segment for communication because narrative is generally only a bridge between blocks of dialogue (though narrative sometimes gives helpful “omniscient” information). Character traits, thought, plot, etc. are all almost always rendered as direct speech, which is something unique to Hebrew narrative in its time. He uses a number of examples to show the variety of literary purposes for dialogue and what dialogue can express—importance (generally more important events are rendered with dialogue), critical junctures in the story, delineation of character qualities, contrast between characters, moral stance, social stance, political stance, plot, etc. In chapter five, Alter takes on the subject of repetition. In this chapter, like in three, Alter does not accept the higher-critical assumption that repetition is excessive. It looks most “primitive” to the modern reader but is actually “quite purposeful.” He believes it to be a literary technique: “In biblical prose, the reiteration… formalized into a prominent convention that is made to play a much more central role in the development of thematic argument than does the repetition of such key words in other narrative traditions.” He categorizes several types of repetition that authors used to make connections and theological points: leitwort, motif, theme, sequence of actions, and type-scene. Then he gives a number of examples of how to follow repetition and use it as another literary tool. In chapter six, Alter examines the topic of characterization. The key to a good story that draws readers in emotionally is characterization. One might think that giving as much description as possible would be ideal, but Alter argues that the key to good characterization is often the wise use of ambiguity with a character that leaves a reader seeking to know more about the person. Here, as in other chapters, his view of the Bible as “historicized fiction” comes out and can be a little frustrating to one who holds an orthodox view of Scripture, but his characterization techniques fit well within orthodox presuppositions. As with the other chapters, most of his teaching regarding characterize is by using examples. In chapter seven, Alter returns to his higher-critical assumptions and attempts to give an explanation for the contradiction of viewing the Bible as “patchwork” and as a literary unity. Since it would be “naive” to think the Bible is not a “patchwork” of sources, he has to attempt to give an explanation for his presupposition that the Bible has literary unity. His explanation is what he calls “composite artistry.” Basically, he posits that the writers and redactors had certain notions of unity that are different from ours which led “them at times to violate what a later age and culture would be disposed to think of as canons of unity and logical coherence,” so we cannot force our notions on them. While I agree that they may not have had the same notions of unity that we have, this is hardly a solution. If it is true, he is trying to argue for unity from diversity that makes his evidence for diversity moot. If they did have notions of unity as distinct from ours as his examples try to present, then why are the seams between sources even considered seams? On this assumption, the texts could just have easily been written that way as redacted to that form. It is our opinion that he still has not satisfactorily resolved his contradictions. Perhaps if one accepted his higher-criticism presuppositions this would seem reasonable, but we do not and see it as contradicting them. In chapter eight, Alter turns to the subject of the narrator. Since he acknowledges the theological purpose of the writers, he points out that in narrative the only way to write good dialogue and give the reader theological insights is to have the narrator be omniscient and able to give insight where necessary. This narrator omniscience is the forerunner of third-person omniscience in Western literature. He, of course, sees revelation as impossible de jure, so the narrator omniscience is his own imagination and opinion. Despite this, he gives some good examples of how to use attention to the details of the narrator’s omniscience to gain further insights into the story. We would, however, say that the narrator's omniscience comes from the revelation given by God's omniscient perspective. In the final chapter, Alter boils his points of literary study down to four things the Bible reader must pay attention to: words, actions, dialogue, and narration. By noticing continuity and discontinuities in these areas the reader can get deeper insight into the stories. This chapter is a good summary of the techniques he puts forward and is actually the best part of the book. We would recommend the reader read chapter nine first, then move back to one and forward. This will help the reader, at least readers that do not agree with his presuppositions, get a grasp on what he is trying to do without being bogged down by his higher-critical banter and assumptions. In the final analysis, we believe this book can be very helpful to the biblical exegete. Despite disagreeing with his presuppositions in many areas and his contradictory assumptions, we believe his general thesis that the Bible can be studied through literary techniques is correct and his techniques are helpful. As stated above, it is difficult for someone with an orthodox view of Scripture to get past the higher-critical presuppositions and the derogatory remarks he makes about those who disagree with what is “obvious” from them. It is only “obvious” because he has first ruled out revelation de jure and then attempted to interpret the Bible. However, if one can get past those frustrations, one can gain several helpful techniques and insights that will give him literary tools to use in biblical interpretation. We would not recommend this book to a reader who is not at least familiar with higher-criticism, documentary hypothesis, and their failings, otherwise Alter’s view of the orthodox view of Scripture as “naïve” may damage their confidence in God’s Word. If, however, one is set firmly in the authority of Scripture and can mentally debate Alter’s critical presuppositions, then one can gain insight into biblical interpretation from this book.

  2. 4 out of 5

    ἀρχαῖος (arkhaîos)(RK)

    The Art of Biblical Narrative is the best critical work I have read. It does more than just explain. It teaches. It encourages. It makes the reader want to read the [Hebrew] Bible for the pure pleasure of practicing what has been learned, to discover the literary secrets of the Bible and to enjoy anew the art of reading. I read the Bible, not as revelation nor as history, although I suppose that there is some history there. I read the Bible as literature and as a literary source of Western cultur The Art of Biblical Narrative is the best critical work I have read. It does more than just explain. It teaches. It encourages. It makes the reader want to read the [Hebrew] Bible for the pure pleasure of practicing what has been learned, to discover the literary secrets of the Bible and to enjoy anew the art of reading. I read the Bible, not as revelation nor as history, although I suppose that there is some history there. I read the Bible as literature and as a literary source of Western culture. Robert Alter, with an obvious passion for language, literature and the Hebrew Bible, takes the reader through a number of steps to recognize the literary richness of the text(s). Impressively, he takes us through uses of convention, repetition, narrative vs dialogue, characterization and more. Each topic is superbly exemplified, often with various examples to show different ways of doing the same thing. The reader cannot help but learn how to read with greater understanding and clarity. Indeed, this is not just learning how to read the Bible. These skills will assist the reader to better understand how to read with depth and understanding. The only weakness I found in the book was in the chapter called “Composite Artistry”. Here he attempts to explain those parts of the Bible where the same story is told twice but with different developments. Examples include: the creation of man and woman simultaneously in Genesis 1 by god simply with the power of his words while in Genesis 2 Adam is created from the soil and god blows life into him and then later creates woman from Adam’s rib. The two stories of creation are very different in many ways. Alter wants to give a literary gloss to such inconsistencies and, indeed, I would agree with him that these are not just slip ups on the part of the priestly redactors who brought the various stories together. Alter’s explanations remain weak here and he admits to it. I expect that these types of inconsistencies are more likely the result of editorial disputes that were resolved by keeping both stories. Woman was created twice (thus opening the door for Lilith); David was working as a shepherd for his father while moonlighting as court musician for the stressed out Saul who just didn't recognize David as his musician when David slew Goliath. These types of things occur with committees where some form of concession is needed to bring about agreement. The book is otherwise excellent and I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to understand with greater depth the meaning of the biblical stories or just wanting to read better. I would also recommend it to would be writers. As I have noted elsewhere in Goodreads, I see the influence of the Hebrew Bible in the works of Hemingway and McCarthy. I am certain to be seeing much more in the future. There is much to be learned here. Five big stars…and now on to reading Alter’s translation of “The Five Books of Moses” in order to try out all of these new skills.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jeff

    The author is a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature, not a theologian or “biblical scholar.” This is the basis for a perspective on the Old Testament to which most Christian readers do not have access. Consider, for example, the talking snake of Genesis 3; fictionalized prose or historically accurate? Most conservative Christians don’t want to go there. Might there be something to be gained by doing so?

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jacob Aitken

    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. 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 while 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. 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 while 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.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Bill

    Alter's description of the intricate details of OT narratives that usually escape modern readers is fantastic. His defence of the literary integrity of the OT narratives against the claims of source criticism is refreshing. He's ambivalent about the historicity of the events of the OT narratives. Alter writes from a Jewish viewpoint.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    So why are there two separate creation myths in Genesis? The story of God creating Adam and Eve simultaneously and the story of God creating Eve out of Adam’s rib? Source criticism would have us believe that the redactor was simply stitching together stories from two distinct oral traditions. Robert Alter would have us look at the Bible through the lens of literary criticism, to recognize and consider how and why the author (s) employed such literary devices as narration, dialogue, characterizat So why are there two separate creation myths in Genesis? The story of God creating Adam and Eve simultaneously and the story of God creating Eve out of Adam’s rib? Source criticism would have us believe that the redactor was simply stitching together stories from two distinct oral traditions. Robert Alter would have us look at the Bible through the lens of literary criticism, to recognize and consider how and why the author (s) employed such literary devices as narration, dialogue, characterization, dialogue, etc. What a paradigm shift for me. I can no longer be so dismissive of the Old Testament. Whereas once I saw only a haphazard assembly of stories, I now see the artistry of an intricately woven tapestry. About the those two creation myths, this is what Alter says, “If, however, we can escape the modern provincialism of assuming that ancient writers must be simple because they are ancient, it may be possible to see that the Genesis author chose to combine these two versions of creation precisely because he understood that his subject was essentially contradictory, essentially resistant to consistent linear formulation, and that this was his way of giving it the most adequate literary expression.” The Art of Biblical Narrative is resplendent with this kind of insight.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Nick

    I was a bit torn on how to rate this book. It dragged on a bit for me, but it was very rich with insights into Scripture. I love getting a Jewish perspective on Old Testament passages, because even if I don’t agree with the final outcome, it still makes me see things from a different perspective. I frequently had to stop reading this book and open my Bible to make notes and look at things for myself. That’s always a good thing. I can’t wait to dip into his second volume, The Art of Biblical Poet I was a bit torn on how to rate this book. It dragged on a bit for me, but it was very rich with insights into Scripture. I love getting a Jewish perspective on Old Testament passages, because even if I don’t agree with the final outcome, it still makes me see things from a different perspective. I frequently had to stop reading this book and open my Bible to make notes and look at things for myself. That’s always a good thing. I can’t wait to dip into his second volume, The Art of Biblical Poetry.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Nelson

    This is the first major book-length treatment of the Bible as literature, and was published in the 1980s. I especially enjoyed the chapter, "Composite Artistry." In that chapter Alter showed that contradictions in the Bible were due not to sloppiness by the unsophisticated ancients, was often assumed, but the deliberate thrust of a literary genius. Most memorable was the section on the 2 different creation accounts in Genesis. The (P) account (Gen. 1-2:4) presents an orderly narrative of the crea This is the first major book-length treatment of the Bible as literature, and was published in the 1980s. I especially enjoyed the chapter, "Composite Artistry." In that chapter Alter showed that contradictions in the Bible were due not to sloppiness by the unsophisticated ancients, was often assumed, but the deliberate thrust of a literary genius. Most memorable was the section on the 2 different creation accounts in Genesis. The (P) account (Gen. 1-2:4) presents an orderly narrative of the creation of the cosmos and mankind. The (J) account presents a more contingent, messy, and tragic narrative, meant to illustrate the consequences of human agency. Although Alter believes the narratives to be fictional, this book provides me with a great theodicy. As John Polkinghorne has said, it is much easier to see God in physics than in biology. Alter's analysis of Gen. 1-2 has just shown me why.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Christopher

    Definitely a mixed bag, but Alter makes his point well: the Bible is not a poorly written, sketchy book. It is, in fact, the most carefully written, well-thought out, systematic book you will ever read.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    A pleasure to read. Demonstrates very simply how masterful (even crafty!) the Scriptures are, with many practical tips on reading between the lines in the Bible.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Katie Stahl

    Brilliant. Robert Alter has changed the way I read the Bible. In this book he shows how the biblical stories are not crude and simple, but woven together with great literary imagination. To quote him, “The human figures that move through this landscape thus seem livelier, more complicated and various, than one’s preconceptions might have allowed.”

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jesse Rice

    Religious tradition pushes us to treat the Bible seriously, but the paradox may be that learning to enjoy the Bible as story May help us more clearly understand what it says about God, man, and existence. (189, paraphrase) Very good book. Should reread someday.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Justin

    Brilliant. As a former English Lit student who loves the Bible, an utter delight.

  14. 4 out of 5

    B. P. C.

    A pleasure to read. Despite his general acceptance of the psychotic consensus of source criticism, he is a very attentive reader and provides great insights. Christian readers would do well to follow his "method", which he summarizes in the Conclusion.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Aaron

    Not a casual read—each page weighs about twenty pounds. That being said, I loved Alter's breakdowns of biblical stories, especially his frequent reference to Joseph in Egypt.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Laurent Dv

    Good book that gives insights for interpreting biblical narratives (through repetition, narration, speechs, revelations, type-scenes etc), with a lot of examples (David's story, Joseph's). But written by (I think ?) a jewish scholar so it doesn't take Jesus and redemptive-history into account.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Mary Overton

    "The biblical tale, through the most rigorous economy of means, leads us again and again to ponder complexities of motive and ambiguities of character because these are essential aspects of its vision of man, created by God, enjoying or suffering all the consequences of human freedom.... Almost the whole range of biblical narrative ... embodies the basic perception that man must live before God, in the transforming medium of time, incessantly and perplexingly in relation with others." loc 473 "It "The biblical tale, through the most rigorous economy of means, leads us again and again to ponder complexities of motive and ambiguities of character because these are essential aspects of its vision of man, created by God, enjoying or suffering all the consequences of human freedom.... Almost the whole range of biblical narrative ... embodies the basic perception that man must live before God, in the transforming medium of time, incessantly and perplexingly in relation with others." loc 473 "It is peculiar and culturally significant, that among ancient peoples only Israel should have chosen to cast its sacred national traditions in prose. Among many hazily conceived literary terms applied to the Bible, scholars have often spoken of it as the 'national epic' of ancient Israel .... [W]hat by all appearances we have in the Bible is, quite to the contrary, a deliberate avoidance of epic .... Prose narration, affording writers a remarkable range and flexibility in the means of presentation, could be utilized to liberate fictional personages from the fixed choreography of timeless events and thus could transform storytelling from ritual rehearsal to the delineation of 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." loc 517-532 "The tale of Judah and his offspring, like the whole Joseph story, and indeed like the entire Book of Genesis, is about the reversal of the iron law of primogeniture, about the election through some devious twist of destiny of a younger son to carry on the line.... the firstborn very often seem to be losers in Genesis by the very condition of their birth ... while an inscrutable, unpredictable principle of election other than the 'natural' one works itself out." loc 147 & 158

  18. 4 out of 5

    Koen Crolla

    Alter is deeply, almost aggressively ignorant of the history of both the Hebrew Bible itself and the region in which its stories take place, but doesn't let that stop him from delineating historical fact and fancy, and projecting, evidence-free, scores of motives onto both the writers of the Bible and their original target audience, usually in exactly the smug and self-indulgent way his stereotype as a literary analyst demands. If his point is that Hebrew Bible's legendary dullness is mostly a co Alter is deeply, almost aggressively ignorant of the history of both the Hebrew Bible itself and the region in which its stories take place, but doesn't let that stop him from delineating historical fact and fancy, and projecting, evidence-free, scores of motives onto both the writers of the Bible and their original target audience, usually in exactly the smug and self-indulgent way his stereotype as a literary analyst demands. If his point is that Hebrew Bible's legendary dullness is mostly a consequence of poor translation and that its original writers were human beings, not just rigidly theocratic robots, then it is both uncontroversial and far from novel; even I have known more than one Orthodox rabbi (predating Alter) who has taught exactly that. It is admittedly uncommon among Christian biblical ``scholars'', so if those are your main point of exposure, you may find value in this perspective. Just don't expect it to be any less sloppy than theirs. (The New Testament, incidentally, is still trash even in its source text, closer to the Book of Mormon in both quality and honesty than either is to the Hebrew Bible.)

  19. 5 out of 5

    Graham Heslop

    “Religious tradition has by and large encouraged us to take the Bible seriously rather than enjoy it, but the paradoxical truth of the matter may well be that by learning to enjoy the biblical stories more fully as stories, we shall also come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us about God, man, and the perilously momentous realm of history”. So ends Robert Alter’s seminal contribution to biblical literary criticism. I am convinced that any serious biblical scholar, and not only Old Test “Religious tradition has by and large encouraged us to take the Bible seriously rather than enjoy it, but the paradoxical truth of the matter may well be that by learning to enjoy the biblical stories more fully as stories, we shall also come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us about God, man, and the perilously momentous realm of history”. So ends Robert Alter’s seminal contribution to biblical literary criticism. I am convinced that any serious biblical scholar, and not only Old Testament scholars, should read this book for its invaluable insights. I have written two blog posts reviewing Alter's work: the first highlights a selection of impotent points Alter makes with regards to how we: read biblical narrative while navigating theories of modern textual criticism; and the second brings out some of the rich theological observations made in Alter's approach to narrative

  20. 5 out of 5

    James

    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, ec 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.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Peter

    "The monotheistic revolution of biblical Israel was a continuing and disquieting one. It left little margin for neat and confident views about God, the created world, history, and man as a political animal or moral agent, for it 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. The biblical outlook is informed, I t "The monotheistic revolution of biblical Israel was a continuing and disquieting one. It left little margin for neat and confident views about God, the created world, history, and man as a political animal or moral agent, for it 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. The biblical outlook is informed, I think, by a sense of stubborn contradiction, of a profound and ineradicable untidiness in the nature of things, and it is toward the expression of such a sense of moral and historical reality that the composite artistry of the Bible is directed" (192).

  22. 4 out of 5

    Sue

    I did try with this. It's written from a Jewish perspective, supposedly showing how the Old Testament is written with various literary styles, and the significance of them. It sounded interesting, and was one of the required books for a theology course my son took. Unfortunately, it was verbose and rather tedious, at least in the first couple of chapters. Worse, it spent far too long criticising many other writers who had written on similar topics. Perhaps the criticisms were valid, but they didn I did try with this. It's written from a Jewish perspective, supposedly showing how the Old Testament is written with various literary styles, and the significance of them. It sounded interesting, and was one of the required books for a theology course my son took. Unfortunately, it was verbose and rather tedious, at least in the first couple of chapters. Worse, it spent far too long criticising many other writers who had written on similar topics. Perhaps the criticisms were valid, but they didn't add anything to the text of the book, and simply gave the impression of an author who wasn't very sure of his topic. I gave up in utter boredom after about 25 pages.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Andy Oram

    Alter turns the gem we've inherited in the form of the Jewish Bible to a new facet and shows that the unknown authors of these texts used considerable skill--perhaps inventing a narrative style that never before existed--to leave the reader with philosophical and moral complexities as sophisticated as anything we'll find in modern literature. I don't believe that reading this book is enough to turn the average American into a literary analyst of the Bible, because a sense of narrative has to be Alter turns the gem we've inherited in the form of the Jewish Bible to a new facet and shows that the unknown authors of these texts used considerable skill--perhaps inventing a narrative style that never before existed--to leave the reader with philosophical and moral complexities as sophisticated as anything we'll find in modern literature. I don't believe that reading this book is enough to turn the average American into a literary analyst of the Bible, because a sense of narrative has to be combined with considerable knowledge of Hebrew and historical background to reach what Alter has achieved. But it's wonderful to have another form of Bible commentary at hand.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    This is a very insightful piece on how to read the Bible as narrative. So 4+ stars for moments of insight but dips here and there due to the secular Jewish perspective of Alter. However, really worthwhile all the way through.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Wright

    If you read this book, you may well get bogged down in the dryness of the prose several times. On the other hand, if you read this book, you will certainly never read the Old Testament in the same way again.

  26. 5 out of 5

    John Sims

    Fantastic analysis of the Hebrew text from a secular literary perspective. Alter is a genius at bringing the stories of the bible into beautiful detail, and he gives the reader the tools to do the same. I would recommend this to anyone who has ever seen the bible as being "crudely written".

  27. 4 out of 5

    Sung Min

    Watershed of literary criticism of the Scripture. Classic. Read over and over again.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Devries

    Robert Alter has penned a book that is compelling, remarkable, and momentous. His words provoke a considered reply, impel deeper reflection, and treat a weighty topic with due care and (albeit trammeled) reverence. I do not accept every premise he puts forth, but I am glad to have read his book and I am better for having done so. Alter sets the groundwork by making a case for a literary approach to Biblical interpretation and a view of the Hebrew Bible as “historicized prose fiction” or “fictiona Robert Alter has penned a book that is compelling, remarkable, and momentous. His words provoke a considered reply, impel deeper reflection, and treat a weighty topic with due care and (albeit trammeled) reverence. I do not accept every premise he puts forth, but I am glad to have read his book and I am better for having done so. Alter sets the groundwork by making a case for a literary approach to Biblical interpretation and a view of the Hebrew Bible as “historicized prose fiction” or “fictionalized history” (27). In literary terms, he reasons that the Hebrew authors used prose fiction techniques to articulate their vision of a monotheistic deity acting through complex and flawed history-bound human beings in sometimes baffling ways. The writers’ and redactors’ penchant for a “certain indeterminacy of meaning,” a “complex moral and psychological realism,” and “a deliberate avoidance of epic” marked a studied departure from the “old cosmic hierarchies” that characterized the mythological prose of their ancient Near Eastern peers. In historical terms, Alter importantly notes that the narrative techniques he unveils are a literary medium through which the spiritual lessons of the Bible must be deciphered to be more richly understood. He asserts that the often deliberately sparse prose of the Bible (often mistaken as primitive or simplistic) artfully uses these sophisticated techniques to approximate the confounding human experience of seeking to understand the ways of an otherwise unknowable God as He acts at crucial junctures in the timebound lives of ceaselessly variegated and multifaceted individuals. At times, these narratives rise higher still to transcend and deconstruct prevailing socioeconomic norms (like primogeniture). A few things struck me about this book. First, I recognize that many Christians will be wary of its conclusions in light of Atler’s assumption that the Hebrew Bible is fiction and that its narrative prose must be understood on its own terms and not as a mere palimpsest to the New Testament. I think it is important to acknowledge that Atler recognizes that the purpose behind authors’ literary techniques was in the service of spiritual conviction, though he evinces skepticism of the historicity of the prose through which that freight of religious meaning is conveyed. It does strike me that the fact that such techniques have been used in fiction prose does not necessarily mean that the authors intended for their work not to be taken as historical fact. It seems unlikely that these authors had the same conception of fiction that we have as modern readers, and it seems plausible at least that such malleable practices could be used to compose prose that may be meant to be both factual and artful. At the least, it seems overly preemptive to dismiss out of hand such a possibility without greater evidence. But at the same time Alter does offer a critique that Christians would do well to heed. It is easy to think of the Hebrew Scriptures as the imprimatured, canonical work we read in a leather-bound NIV, but this format elides the documented historical and textual evidence of the Scriptures’ composite, multi-genre rendering. Christians who are serious about understanding what the Bible means would do well to make ample use of the techniques Alter describes. Literary techniques like type-scene, Leitwort, and the varied, inventive use of dialogue could still offer much in the way of Biblical understanding even if one does not take their purveyor’s claims of fictionalized history at face value. To give just one practical example, Alter’s explanation of type-scenes and the thematic commentary that the contrasts between different iterations imply suggests the need for believers in the pews and in the pulpit to not divorce chunks of Scripture from the broader textual context in which they are received. In short, the book pressed me to think anew about the nature of the Scriptures, and my understanding of the text itself and the spiritual meaning it embodies is both better for it.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Bill Hooten

    This is a very difficult book for me to rate, and review. Let me give you a few reasons why: (1) I have always loved to read! BUT, I always loved to read what I wanted to read; and to some degree, I am still that way. I have always loved western novels (Louis L'Amour), sports biographies, historical biographies, mysteries (particularly criminal investigation mysteries), and those that would be called action adventure. (2) I always did poorly in literature classes. For a couple of reasons: (1) I This is a very difficult book for me to rate, and review. Let me give you a few reasons why: (1) I have always loved to read! BUT, I always loved to read what I wanted to read; and to some degree, I am still that way. I have always loved western novels (Louis L'Amour), sports biographies, historical biographies, mysteries (particularly criminal investigation mysteries), and those that would be called action adventure. (2) I always did poorly in literature classes. For a couple of reasons: (1) I always despised being told what I had to read; and (2) I read to lose myself in the story, and not to try and figure out what the subliminal message was that the author was trying to get across. (3) A couple of years ago, I attended an expository preaching seminar taught by Steven Lawson. During that seminar, Dr. Lawson mentioned several well-known expository preachers that had undergraduate majors in Literature, or some with minors. For some reason, I struggled to make the connection that was being made. (4) Recently, I was asked to do a major effort on preaching the historical books of the Old Testament. In reading for the task, I read a couple of books on the "how's" of preaching Old Testament historical (or narrative) books, and they both talked about the value of this book. So I bought it and read it. I did read the book, and it was a very difficult read for me. The technical language of reading and interpreting narrative, and discussion of the various methods that authors would use -- left me in a daze. They made me wish that I had paid more attention to some of the things that the literature teachers had been saying. I probably needed to read this book at my desk, with a dictionary open to be used repeatedly; instead of sitting in my reading chair, by the back window, with an early morning cup of coffee. The book was fascinating, and I did gain some knowledge that I believe will help me in the approaching task. The more interesting points to me were when Alter interacted with the stories of Scripture, and pointed out things that I had never seen, or thought of (although that probably was not that difficult. Secondly, it became immediately obvious that I have a "higher" view, or more respect for inspiration, than he does -- although, I would not want to be the one to argue with him about it. I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to preach expository sermons on the OT historical books. BUT, I would hope that you are more prepared to understand some of the technical things that he says, more than I was; and to know that his language referring to Scripture may be things that you have not heard.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Keith

    What are we to make of the astringent, crabbed and cryptic prose of the Old Testament? There is a quality to hearing it spoken, but reading it just seems dismal. Details are left out, as well as motivations. Stories jump from one incident to another without rhyme or reason. It is an extremely cold style, with little emotion, warmth or compassion, and practically no humor or joy. Alter does better than most (all?) in showing the genius of the Old Testament writers. Alter highlights four literary What are we to make of the astringent, crabbed and cryptic prose of the Old Testament? There is a quality to hearing it spoken, but reading it just seems dismal. Details are left out, as well as motivations. Stories jump from one incident to another without rhyme or reason. It is an extremely cold style, with little emotion, warmth or compassion, and practically no humor or joy. Alter does better than most (all?) in showing the genius of the Old Testament writers. Alter highlights four literary techniques used by the ancient artists: Leitwort (repeated word), actions (reoccurrences, parallels, analogy), dialogue (usually highlighting important info), narration (laconic nature vs. omniscience). Overall, it is remarkable for its negative style – for what’s not there. And there’s a lot not there. Their there has very little there there. Stories are pared down to their minimum. What’s not said is as remarkable as what’s said. It certainly takes skill to do something like this, but is it worth it in the end? The repetition, at times word for word, I can understand on some level. Alter does an excellent job displaying the skill of the OT authors. The cryptic narrative style I just can’t enjoy. I understand it, and Alter highlights their mastery of this style. But why would anyone want to read this? If not for a fluke in history, would this book be read any more closely than the various Books of the Dead, Gilgamesh or the other near eastern ancient texts? Does the Old Testament have within the limits of its text enough artistry to be worthy of its fame? I’ll leave that for each reader to decide. Overall, this is a great book. It reads a lot better than his The Art of Biblical Poetry, though I think his ideas in that book are more profound. For some reason, that book is much more dry. Whatever your belief system – from evangelical literalist to atheist – you will gain much more from the Old Testament after reading this wonderful book.

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