The Art of Biblical Narrative

by Robert Alter

Book, 1981



Call number

002 ALT


[New York] : Basic Books, c1981.


From celebrated translator of the Hebrew Bible Robert Alter, the classic study of the Bible as literature, a winner of the National Jewish Book Award Renowned critic and translator Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative has radically expanded our view of the Bible by recasting it as a work of literary art deserving studied criticism. In this seminal work, Alter describes how the Hebrew Bible's many authors used innovative literary styles and devices such as parallelism, contrastive dialogue, and narrative tempo to tell one of the most revolutionary stories of all time: the revelation of a single God. In so doing, Alter shows, these writers reshaped not only history, but also the art of storytelling itself.

User reviews

LibraryThing member deusvitae
A book utilizing literary and rhetorical techniques to provide a better understanding of the great complexity and purposefulness present within Old Testament narrative.

While the author considers such "fiction," and holds to the documentary hypothesis, he nevertheless does show how the text of the
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Bible is not haphazard but often is quite intentional and purposeful in its presentation.

The author does very well at showing patterns and themes used in Biblical narrative. If the reader can wade through the advanced vocabulary of the author, he or she will gain a more nuanced understanding of the form and functions of Biblical narrative.
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LibraryThing member bjmjhunter
Alter's proposal of a literary analysis of the Hebrew Bible is wonderful. The benefit of his method can be seen by the wonderful observations he makes in his many examples. Especially good, are his observations in the narratives of Genesis and Samuel.

For anyone looking to get past, form or
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historical or source criticism, Alter's approach is a breath of fresh air.
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LibraryThing member Arctic-Stranger
"Bible stories" is a familiar concept for anyone who has ever attended sunday school, but here Alter takes us far beyond the "sandbox theology" of Bible stories, into the very heart of these stories. Alter shows us conventions and themes, narrative patterns, and ways of understanding that bring the
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text alive.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about the Old Testament. Alter is a Jewish scholar, and so does not give a Christian bent to the Hebrew Scriptures, but even so, anyone who wants to understand the Hebrew Bible will be richer for having read this book.
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LibraryThing member PastorBob
Alter is one of the leading academic voices when it comes to Old Testament scholarship. His understanding, and his expression, of the nuances of the Hebrew text can help bring our translations to life. his work is a must read for anyone working with or commenting on the Old Testament.
LibraryThing member M.J.Perry
Although I have read similar ideas by others I am told he is the innovator of this approach to Biblical scholarship and for that, he is to be commended. However, he could have said what he had to say in 80 pages instead of 235. Mining out the gems and casting the slag aside was almost painful in
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this book. I can't even say I'm glad I read it. I'm not unhappy I read it but I really just don't care. I'm glad Biblical scholars have continued his work and presented it in more palatable ways.

I think what particularly annoyed me was his preface, in which he stated he was hoping to make the Bible more accessible to all people. He couldn't have selected more inaccessible vocabulary, nor could he have selected more elite literary references, making it a challenge. When he finally gets into some of his examples of Scripture, it comes alive and those nuggets are fabulous but too few.

If this is how the Bible is made more accessible no matter so few people pick it up.
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LibraryThing member 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
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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
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LibraryThing member krosero
A great surprise for me in this book was that it didn't just explain how the Biblical texts were written; it also explains what those texts were trying to say. Alter argues, for example, that many of the Biblical authors wrote in prose because it was a flexible medium that allowed them to explore
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the moral complexities of men and women. Prose gave them a way to delineate "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." Not all of the Bible, of course, was written in prose, but by beginning to embrace that form of writing, the Bible moved away from myth and toward narrative -- toward the writing of both history and fiction. Here, writes Alter, you can even find "the first great anticipation of novelistic dialogue."

These prose narrations, Alter argues, are filled with a tension inherent in Biblical monotheism: a tension between "human imperfection and divine perfection." These are messy stories about human beings in relationship with the divine. In pagan myths, divinities were far from perfect, while mortals were sometimes semi-divine, so the space between mortal and immortal was not as wide as in monotheism, in which very flawed people are called to believe and to live by divinely given laws: and in that tension, we have the morally messy narratives of the Bible. Alter puts it much better: monotheism "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."

That's the theme that comes out in Alter's close readings of narratives about compelling figures like Jacob, Joseph, King David. All the while, he's showing how meaning is attached to literary questions such as: why a person's inner thought should be reported as speech; why there is, to modern ears, a great deal of repetition in these stories; why some things are understated, or not reported at all, when we would expect them to be; how conventions like the betrothal-type scene are used, and deliberately varied or subverted, to produce different meanings; etc.

At times this can get a little technical and it does require some patience, but I found it accessible, and I have no formal literary training.

The chapter I found perhaps the most eye-opening and helpful was "The Techniques of Repetition." The one I found least persuasive was "Composite Artistry," which deals with the fact that the Bible was put together by more authors and editors than was traditionally believed: this means that one must be careful about attributing a single artistic vision to any particular text within the Bible. Alter addresses this, but one chapter is not quite enough to deal with such a large issue.

All in all, however, this is well worth reading for anyone interested in the Bible and it has things to say to virtually anyone interested in literature.
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Original publication date



046500427X / 9780465004270
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