Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter
A Critical Book Review
The Art of Biblical Narrative, by Robert Alter, presents us with an introduction to a literary approach to the Bible. Specifically, he treats the prose of the Bible as highly sophisticated fictional narrative for the purposes of literary and analysis, countering notions that the often bewildering features encountered in it are a result of primitive writing technique or confused synthesis of varied sources. After opening with an introductory example and a survey of the current state of the literary study of the Bible (as of 31 years ago at least), he moves on to the core of his argument. He begins by discussing prose fiction and sacred narrative in general, and then moves on to discuss the use of convention within Biblical narratives. Next is the function of, and relationship between, narration and dialogue in the Bible. Next is the Biblically ubiquitous rhetorical device of repetition. Next he discusses the way the Bible deliberately leaves out details where our modern ears would expect them. After that, he analyzes the multi-sourced aspect of the Bible. Finally, he restates and expands the earlier discussion of the purpose and value of fiction and why it appears as it does in the Bible. First I will distill the gist of his theses, and then I will offer my own commentary.
Alter’s first and central thesis, that, in terms of literary genre, the Biblical narratives are prose fiction, specifically, vacillating between historicized prose fiction and fictionalized prose history. Some important explanation: First, this terminology is primarily meant to indicate the literary sophistication of the narratives in contrast to the terms commonly given to them, legend, folklore, fairy tales, sagas, anecdotes, etc. The stories are not primitively inferior, as our modern ears are apt to hear many of the foreign literary devices, but rather, understood in their context, they are meticulously crafted and compiled stories by master storytellers. Next, the prose of the Bible stands in direct and stark contrast with the epic poetry of its pagan neighbors. The very usage of prose instead of poetry constituted a worldview rebellion from the powers of the time; prose was invented by the Hebrews as a new, counter-culture way of talking about the nature of the world. Prose depicted the universe more, well, prosaically, while epic poetry imparted a cosmic ritual-ness to the story-tellers and their story. The difference between the prose and the epic poetry is almost perfectly analogous to the differences of theology and worldview between the biblical authors and their contemporaries. The grammar was permitted to be looser, and significantly more ambiguity was allowed, in prose than in ANE epic poetry; the worldview of the Bible presents a much more (almost explicitly) nuanced, indeterminate understanding of man’s place in the world than the fixed, eternally subservient office of man in ANE epic poetry. Those sacred narratives were characteristically cyclic, focusing upon the unchanging, timeless events bound by the poetry, whereas the Bible offers a fixed beginning and unpredictable characters. The Bible doesn’t provide us with the fixed characters of myth and legend. It always gives us complex, nuanced characters as a challenge to the surrounding worldview.
Three quotes serve to elucidate the way Alter sees the relationship between this literary conception of the Bible and its historical nature. First, “The point is that fiction was the principal means which the biblical authors had at their disposal for realizing history.” [p32] Second,
“The author of the David stories stands in basically the same relation to Israelite history as Shakespeare stands to English history in his history plays. Shakespeare was obviously not free to have Henry V lose the battle of Agincourt, or to allow someone else to lead the English forces there, but working from the...
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