User reviews

User Review - Flag as inappropriate

Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. Basic Books, 1983
Robert Alter is a professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, at Berkeley and author of the highly
praised biography of Stendhal, A Lion for Love (Basic Books, 1979).
Being a professional of the world literature, he has the background and eye to appreciate and analyze a narrative. As stated in the very first line of the preface, the book is intended to be a guide to the intelligent reading of biblical narrative. The major claim, which is to be supported and proved, is that biblical narratives are not facile stories, written by some primitive minds, but very sophisticated artwork, which, as all true art, have to be closely observed and requires a trained eye to unleash its full power of expression.
What he proposes is a literary approach to the Bible, that is – an idea also present, with more emphasis, at Fokkelman – to pay attention to the way the narrative is worked out, rather by what it is about. Thus can one unlock more of the meaning of the text, by looking of the literary techniques used in its composition.
The book is structured into nine chapters. He discuss in order the literary approach he proposes, the fictional character of the biblical narrative, the conventions and type-scenes, the dialogue/narrative sequences, the techniques of repetition, the methods of characterization, composite artistry, narration and knowledge.
Each chapter includes revelatory examples on which the author makes clear his approach. The book is easy to read in general, thanks to the actual analyses, although sometimes the technical stuff pops out.
Interesting enough is that Alter makes a fine critique of the biblical criticism, in the respect that it looked carefully to the bits and pieces, but not too carefully at the general picture. Although he is still very much embedded into the higher criticism, he focuses most on the final form of the Biblical text.
By literary analysis, Alter means “the manifold varieties of minutely discriminating attention to the artful use of language, to the shifting play of ideas, conventions, tone sound imagery, syntax, narrative viewpoint, compositional units and much else” (p 12).
An interesting feature he proposes for unlocking the meaning is the fixed pattern of certain stories, named type-scenes. The elements he finds (the annunciation, the encounter at the well, the epiphany in the field, the initial trial, danger in the desert, the discovery at the well and the testament of the dying hero) forms a pattern that can help understanding better the characters.
He makes a good point observing that by using a cluster of verbs in a row is always an indication about their subject (as for example Rebekah, which in four short verses is the subject of eleven verbs of action and one of speech).
The author proves to be a proficient in Hebrew way of expressing action, observing rightfully the laconic character of biblical narrative art. Whenever it appears a retardation in the narrative flow, this is a flag that something important takes place. This seems to be rather a principle Alter is inferring, that the exceptions from the general use (in syntax, in grammar, in number, order and frequency of words, in alternation of dialogue with narrative material etc), are hints that the narrator uses to convey meaning.
It was interesting to discover an instance when the result of the carefully literary analysis is about the same with what we read in Ellen White’s comments. This is the characterization of Esau (p 45), which is seen as not being spiritually fit to be the vehicle of divine covenant, his precipitous character and his contempt for his birthright in contrast with Jacob, who thinks about future etc.
However, there were many instances where, because of his rejection of the historicity of the text, he lets himself too much in interpretation of the details. While it is a wonderful world that opens before us through paying attention to these details, I believe every interpretation must be framed

User Review - Flag as inappropriate

love this book. I am only on page 40 but am really enjoying every bit of it. Anyone interested in the Bible should read this book or any books by Robert Alter. He illuminates subtle literary devises in the text that you wont find anywhere else in Biblical scholarship, except maybe if you were a Torah Scholar and studied the Midrash Tanchuma (Hebrew commentary on the 5 Books of Moses) and understood it completely. But then Professor Alter translates all this into understanding the structure of well-written prose or poetry. Anyone who writes plots or makes film, or is interested in Joseph Campbell will find this extremely rich in content. He suggests that the Bible is not fictionalized History, but historicized fiction, a proposal too blasphemes for most "believers" to entertain, yet in reading this book, we find that it is not so blasphemes at all. This book will push your study of ancient Hebrew texts to a new level. All educators should read and be familiar with Professor Alters work. I think he is a breath of fresh air that encourages, not dissuades, people from going deeper into study of the Bible, from the secular to the ultra orthodox. It is densely written so if you have trouble with big words or lofty word filled sentences, this might be a problem, but I found each sentence strangely palpable and easily digested even for the non-scholar, mostly illiterate-type like myself. The book is magical and I am ordering it for a few of my same-minded friends. 

User ratings

5 stars
4 stars
3 stars
2 stars
1 star

All reviews - 9
3 stars - 0
2 stars - 0
1 star - 0

All reviews - 9
Editorial reviews - 0

All reviews - 9