In this edition of From the Shelf I’ll be taking a look at Robert Alter’s The Art Biblical Narrative, an interesting an influential little book on the narrative techniques of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).
Originally published in 1981, Alter’s little tome was a bit of a watershed moment in Old Testament studies, exerting an influence that is still felt today. In this work, Alter takes an approach to the text of Scripture, that for a non-evangelical (or non-conservative Jewish) scholar was rather radical: that the books of the Hebrew Bible ought to be viewed as carefully and skillfully composed texts, as opposed to simply a patchwork of contradicting ancient sources, which were haphazardly thrown together. In this regard, this book has greatly shaped literary approaches to and studies of the Bible.
Thus, Alter employs his skills as a literary critic and Hebrew scholar to explore the various techniques that the Hebrew authors used to convey their message in Scripture. Persoanlly, I found chapter 5 on repetition and chapter 8 on the omnipotent narrator to be the most helpful and insightful. Especially intriguing is Alter’s discussion of how the slightest change of a word or phrase in otherwise verbatim repetition carries with it some shade of meaning. These two chapters alone are worth the price of the book. Further, his critiques of the shortcomings of historical-critical scholarship are accurate and valuable, especially coming from a non-evangelical scholar.
While I appreciate Atler’s respect for the texts of the Old Testament as unified, purposeful documents, his careful reading of those texts, and keen eye for detail, there are a number of issues where I disagree with him. Primarily, Alter and I disagree on our foundational presupposition of the text. I clearly view the text of Scripture as the inspired, inerrant, Word of God. Dr. Alter, on the other hand, approaches the text as merely the creation of men, containing irreconcilable contradictions, and oscillating between being either “fictionalized history” or “historicised fiction.” He does, however, insist that these texts convey the theology and worldview of ancient Israel, so hold value for reader today, and can give insight and meaning into life. This, however, proved to be a valuable exercise on my behalf, because it forced me to critically ask myself, “If I agree with Alter about a certain technique, how do I reframe my understanding or articulation of that point so that it agrees with my view of Scripture.”
Overall, if you’re interested in learning more about how OT narrative “works” to convey its message, I would commend this work to you. The authors of the OT were brilliant writers and masters of their language, and Alter really brings out that point. While I don’t agree with everything Alter says or his fundamental view of Scripture, on the whole his book encourages us to be more careful readers of the text of Scripture, and that is never a bad thing.