The Art of Biblical Narrative (Alter)

Having gone through the Bible, talked about how to read it, and moved our point of view back out to the history of the biblical period, you might like to focus in once again on a few biblical texts of more limited size. If you are interested in the reading the Bible as literature, Robert Alter is a worthy guide. (Stayed tuned for the “but.”)

Alter is a scholar of literature who knows Hebrew well and wrote two books on the Bible for a general readership: The Art of Biblical Narrative and its more-or-less sequel, The Art of Biblical Poetry. His intent was to show how (some parts of) the Bible can be read as literature, a claim that is by no means universally accepted. See Brettler, The Creation of History in Ancient Israel, 14-17, and James Kugel, “Apologetics and ‘Biblical Criticism Lite'” (available in PDF format on his How to Read the Bible web site).

Alter’s somewhat snide attitude toward biblical scholars of the historical-philological school can be irritating, and I will have something to say about his more recent publications in a moment. But I must agree with him that there are parts of the Bible, both prose and poetry, that were written (as near as I can judge) by writers who took pleasure in using words esthetically. More than this: In some cases, understanding how a text works from a literary (that is, esthetic) perspective is crucial to understanding the historical context in which it was written or the message it is trying to convey.

1 Samuel 1 — which I am about to begin teaching later this afternoon — is a fine example. If you read this chapter in Hebrew, it is clear that the theme root that is being used is שאל — the root not of Samuel’s name, but of Saul’s. This is the beginning of the story of the transition from the period of the Judges to that of David’s dynasty. What can the author mean by hinting so broadly at Saul’s name in the story of Samuel’s birth? With that technique in hand, this chapter simply cannot be solely informational. It must (contra Brettler and Kugel) be literary as well. If it has a religious or political purpose, one must understand the literary aspect of the text to understand the “spin.”

Alter is not merely a world-class scholar of literature; he is also, unlike many scholars, a fine writer. The Art of Biblical Narrative is a wonderful way to begin thinking about biblical texts as literature. Kugel points out — correctly — that there has been a major turn to literary study of the Bible by those who are trying to avoid the historical and linguistic discoveries about the Bible that conflict with some traditional religious beliefs. So I emphasize again, a literary approach to some biblical texts is crucial to understanding them correctly in their ancient context.

If you enjoy The Art of Biblical Narrative, you will find the sequel, The Art of Biblical Poetry, also of interest. (In my next “book” post, however, I’m going to suggest some difference resources for studying biblical poetry.) Since then, Alter has turned his biblical attention to translation and commentary — with less success. It works best, I think in The David Story, Alter’s translation of 1 and 2 Samuel. Most people, I believe, think they are relatively familiar with these stories — David & Goliath, David & Bathsheba — but they are rarely familiar with the actual biblical texts in which the stories occur. Alter is a fine guide to these books.

In The Five Books of Moses the same technique works reasonably well for the narrative portions (though most people will already be more familiar with these sections than with 1 and 2 Samuel). For other parts of the Torah, I would say you will learn more from something like the JPS Torah Commentary series. A good Torah commentary must balance a unified reading of the text with an understanding of how the text came to be — but Alter follows the model scoffed at by Kugel, an analysis that ignores the prehistory of the text:

The reader will … discover that this commentary refers only occasionally and obliquely to the source analysis of Genesis. For even where such analysis may be convincing, it seems to me a good deal less interesting than the subtle workings of the literary whole represented by the redacted text.

Alter says in his introduction (which is definitely worth reading) that he felt compelled to make a new translation because there is

something seriously wrong with all the familiar English translations, traditional and recent, of the Hebrew Bible.

But — though I was eager to read his translation of Genesis when it first appeared — my eagerness was quenched rather quickly. Despite Alter’s claims, I found it to be just another attempt at the impossible. The real solution is still to get several translations and read them in conjunction with each other: a free translation (say, the NJPS) that reads easily; a less free translation (say the OJPS or, even better, the King James version) that conveys some of the non-English flavor of the original; and supplement these with Everett Fox’s translations (where available) into a bizarre pseudo-English that will bring you as close as you can get to the Hebrew without actually going there.

I was most disappointed with Alter’s Book of Psalms — not because I was disappointed with the translation (I had no great hopes for it by then), but because Alter’s readings of some of the psalms I know well don’t really tell you what you need to know about them as poems. Kugel, too, has a Great Poems of the Bible with new translations, and this too does not do justice to the ones I have studied and taught.

The bottom line: Read The Art of Biblical Narrative and then turn to The David Story if you are attracted to Alter’s kind of reading.


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