187 of 188 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A most fascinating introduction into how to read the Bible
Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative is the sort of book that comes around once in a generation. For the most part, modern Biblical scholars are divided into two camps - homileticists, who tend to reduce every story in the Bible to a moral, and source critics, who chop up the text into various sources. Alter goes a third way. Alter's thesis is that the...
Published on January 11, 2001 by Tupper
1 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Hard read
There are some word in this book I have never even heard of. Must have PHD and above to read. Very knowledgeable, but I disagree with his main point, because I am a southern baptist and He is a Jew.
Published 5 months ago by Alex Robertson
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187 of 188 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A most fascinating introduction into how to read the Bible,
Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative is the sort of book that comes around once in a generation. For the most part, modern Biblical scholars are divided into two camps - homileticists, who tend to reduce every story in the Bible to a moral, and source critics, who chop up the text into various sources. Alter goes a third way. Alter's thesis is that the literary quality of the Bible has been sadly overlooked. To atone, so to speak, for this glaring omission, Alter sets out to show how the narratives in the Bible, even if constituted from a redacted text, nevertheless exhibit exquisite literary qualities. Alter convincingly demonstrates that if we overlook the art of how the stories are told, then we miss much of their meaning.
Alter reveals various techniques used by the Biblical writers to make the stories so compelling. One technique is the reserve of the narrator who often leaves unspoken the motives of the characters, thereby drawing us into the story by compelling us to try to supply what the narrator has withheld. Wordplay, the skillful repetition of words and phrases - so often lost in translation, connects seemingly disparate narratives into a fascinating montage. Type scenes, similar settings and stories such as meeting a future spouse at a well, play off each other, inviting the reader to compare and contrast what happens in one scene with its counterpart and to find meaning in these similarities and differences. The often laconic and subtle remarks of the narrator tend to support or undermine the words spoken and poses struck by the characters, which most of us will miss unless we learn to read the stories closely.
Perhaps the most delicious part of Alter's book is his frequent recourse to the stories themselves in order to demonstrate his points. For example, Alter begins his book by examining the story of Judah and Tamar that falls in the middle of the Joseph story. Tamar, you will recall, was Judah's daughter-in-law. His son and her husband dies and the other brothers do not fulfill their obligation by levirate marriage to carry on the dead son's name by fathering children with Tamar. Tamar ultimately rights this wrong by seducing Judah and conceiving two children by him. Alter reads the story closely and convincingly argues that the story has been woven tightly into the Joseph story by various narrative techniques so that it becomes the fulcrum upon which the stories hinge, making Judah a different person in time for his momentous meeting with Joseph in Egypt. Alter's treatment of the Judah and Tamar story alone is worth the price of the book. Buy the book and read it, you'll never regret having done so. In fact, you'll find yourself rereading it over and over.
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Way to Read the Bible,
Modern Biblical scholarship has tended toward a process of atomization: how many editors were involved in the creation of the Bible? How many different strands of tradition can we find in a given story? Robert Alter's "The Art of Biblical Narrative" at once provides a corrective to this tendency, and a striking alternative way of understanding the Good Book.
Although recent scholarship has emphasized historical- and textual-critical methodologies, Alter chooses a literary-critical approach; that is, he asks how we should read the Bible first and foremost as literature. Ancient Hebrew storytelling conventions were often radically different from those we use today, so we must learn to be attuned to things like a character's silence, or minor, telling variations in a scene that is repeated several times. In this way, Alter takes much of what may make the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) seem "boring" today--its Spartan narrative style, the apparent redundancy of many of its stories--and shows how these elements are actually integral to how the Bible tells its story.
Alter's prose style is scholarly without being suffocating. It is, however, dense with ideas. I often found myself reading as little as five pages at a sitting, as each sentence seemed so full that it was all I could take in before I had to stop for a mental breather. (I recommend reading the Conclusion first, which ten pages provide an excellent summary of the book's main ideas and may make it easier to digest them as the author investigates each one in detail in the rest of the book.) His examples are profuse, and well-chosen to illustrate his points.
Alter mostly steers clear of ideological disputes about what the Bible is or isn't, sticking to his purely literary analysis of the text. He occasionally makes comments to the effect that he sees the stories of the Bible as "historicized fiction," but his approach can still fit into any faith framework; it is just as possible for a devout Christian and an atheist to read the Bible as literature. What's more, Christians will not only find an enriching way of appreciating their sacred text here, but may even gain comfort in the face of some scholars who seem to think that a Bible with editors is inherently an unreliable Bible. Alter, to the contrary, shows that the Biblical author-editors must have been very sophisticated storytellers, and that what are often taken for mere inconsistencies today may well represent a deeply thoughtful approach to depicting the moral and social ambiguities the authors saw in their world.
"The Art of Biblical Narrative" takes effort to read, but those willing to take the time to absorb it may find their understanding of the Bible enhanced, deepened, even changed.
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Artfulness of Hebrew Bible stories,
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This is a great book. I love how Alter points out the literary artfulness of some of the great stories of the Bible. He shows how the writers use symmetry, repetition, parallelism, wordplay, and tension to hold the interest of the reader. He begins with Genesis 38, the story of Judah and Tamar. Scholars have written this text off as a later insertion with little relevance to the Joseph narrative, but Alter shows how Judah's sexual indiscretion is perfectly and deliberately in contrast with Joseph's sexual purity. He notes how both narratives have themes of betrayal and deception (which is consistent with the rest of Genesis).
Alter also discusses stories from the life of David, how the extensive speech by David climaxes at the point of Saul's choked cry "Is that you, David, my son?"
Alter also points out names in the Hebrew Bible which carry meaning and significance for the meaning of certain narratives.
The book is an eye-opening look at the narrative art found on the pages of Holy Scripture. It is well written and holds your attention. Recommended.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth the journey...,
Robert Alter's "The Art of Biblical Narrative" was an assigned text for a Old Testament seminary course, and my initial impressions were not entirely positive. First, I was rather irritated by Alter's rather pretentious vocabulary. I don't mind looking up a word or two in the dictionary, but he used enough technical language and insider-speak to unnecessarily limit the accessibility of his work. I also found some of his conclusions to be rather forced and overreaching. He seemed to occasionally superimpose his assumptions about the complexity and brilliance of biblical narrative onto the text, thereby "discovering" significant meaning in very minute literary details where the author likely intended no such hidden meaning. And, finally, as an evangelical Christian, I found the way that he casually cast aside virtually every story and character in the Old Testament as probably fictional to be rather unsettling and unnecessary.
Having started with these initial impressions, I am extremely glad that I continued to plow through Alter's book. Though I still find his writing style to be cumbersome, some of his assumptions to be wishful thinking, and his theology to be occasionally irreverent and unnecessarily disparaging of the genuine historicity of the biblical texts, Alter has much to offer all of us who read the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible, to use his preferred language). What he powerfully offers us is a series of observations to help us better understand the richness of this collection of religious documents that were written in a different era, with different intentions, with a different style, using different conventions, and assuming different expectations of the reader from what we are familiar. There are a host of seemingly trivial patterns that emerge throughout the Old Testament biblical narrative that are easy to miss or simply ignore, and Alter offers some fascinating explanations for what those particular literary approaches were intended to communicate. He discusses type-scenes, dialogue, narration, and repetition, among other conventions, and helps the reader to use those techniques as a tool for not only appreciating but also better understanding and interpreting the biblical texts.
"The Art of Biblical Narrative" is not an easy read and has the capacity to frustrate some readers. But it is well worth thorough study and has helped to make me a better reader of the Old Testament narratives. Things that used to seem random or even sloppy now make more sense, and patterns that seemed ridiculous or even unintelligible now seem purposeful and even ingenious. To use Alter's words, if we use the information that Alter offers us in this book when we read the stories in the Old Testament, "we shall come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us about God, man, and the perilously momentous realm of history." That would serve any reader well.
21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The literary approach deepens our understanding of the Bible,
This is a pioneering work. Robert Alter uses the techniques of literary criticism to deepen our understanding of the Biblical text. He shows us methods and themes which illuminate the text in a way we have not seen before. This is not in my opinion a question of his having found the right interpretation, but rather of revealing yet another of the ' panem' the various faces, seventy, traditionally through which the Biblical text is interpreted.
Alter interprets the text in a clear non- jargoned language that is refreshing .
Here he explains something about his approach," This sort of critical discussion, I would contend far from neglecting the Bible's religious character, focuses attention on it in a more nuanced way. The implicit theology of the Hebrew Bible dictates a complex moral and psychological realism in biblical narrative because God's purposes are always entrammelled in history, dependent on the acts of individual men and women for their continuing realization. To scrutinize Biblical personages as fictional characters is to see them more sharply in the multi- faceted , contradictory aspects of their human individuality, whichis the biblical God's chosen medium for His experiment with Israel and history. Such scrutiny, however, as I hope I have shown , cannot be based merely on an imaginative impression fo the story but must be undertaken through minute critical attention to the biblical writer's articulations of narrative form. " p. 12
This work as Alter makes clear is intended for both students of narrative, and students of the Bible. There is much to learn here.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent introduction to literary criticism of the OT,
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This review is from: The Art of Biblical Narrative (Paperback)
This is absolutely necessary read for anyone who is interested in better understanding the OT, either at a layman's level or for someone who is interested in serious scholarship of the OT. I highly recommend it for anyone who is simply interested in better understanding the OT but does not have an extensive background in either biblical scholarship or literary criticism. For those who are interested in biblical scholarship this book provides an excellent starting point for understanding the dynamics of literary criticism as applied to the Bible.
A rough familiarity with the biblical stories is necessary, though he typically provides his own translation of those sections that he will look at in detail. A basic familiarity with the various approaches in biblical criticism would be extremely helpful for better understanding his goal in writing. A knowledge of Hebrew is not necessary as he always explains significant nuances of the language either in his translations or commentary (though it would, of course, be immensely helpful!).
The book is both a defense and demonstration of a literary approach to OT narrative. He provides a brief overview of the history of literary approaches to the Bible, showing how past interpreters of the OT (including sections in the Midrash) have on occasion made observations that approach literary criticism, but that a well-developed system of literary analysis has for the most part been lacking in most OT scholarship. He also theorizes about the reasons why the Hebrew authors should have utilized narrative (as opposed to, for instance, myth) in their theological writings.
Most of the book is composed of chapters that expound different techniques used by the biblical authors. After an explanation of the technique, he typically gives examples demonstrating how an understanding of the technique can aid in the interpretation of the text. What I found to be the most interesting parts of the book were his chapter conclusions, where he makes a few observations about the interplay between the theology of the authors and the reasons why they utilized that particular technique.
The reader need not agree with either his interpretations nor his assumptions about the origin of the text. In the final chapter he notes that a person can disagree with interpretations, and that his goal was not necessarily a full-fledged commentary on his sections, but merely a demonstration of a particular technique. As for his assumptions of the origin of the text, he makes no claim to his own religious devotion or beliefs. He assumes, for example multiple authors behind the Pentateuch (as most biblical scholars do). Even for a person who is committed to Mosaic authorship, this should not be reason to dismiss his observations about the literary quality of the text, as his primary concern in this book is always the final form of the text.
The only minor thing that I can think that MIGHT have made this book better is divisions within the chapter to help the reader better understand when he is transitioning.
In sum, this should introduces the student of the Bible to the various techniques used by the authors of the biblical narratives, and trains him/her to ask the right questions about the text when they arise.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not To Be Missed,
This review is from: The Art of Biblical Narrative (Paperback)
Robert Alter is Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley and is currently president of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. He won the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Thought for this book, and has been teaching at UC Berkeley since 1967.
His thesis is that the biblical writers employed subtle and powerful devices largely foreign to our experience to present a nuanced view of man's triumphs and failures in reflecting the image of a God who nevertheless accomplishes his purposes in history. Learning to detect and appreciate these devices results in a delight for the reader analogous to that of the writers as they exercised their craft.
Chapter One, "A Literary Approach to the Bible," urges us to recognize that the text of the Hebrew Bible employs sophisticated devices too often missed. Chapter Two, "Sacred History and the Beginnings of Prose Fiction," contends that, unlike the myths and sagas of other cultures, the Bible tends to do its conceptual heavy lifting through artistic narrative prose rather than defaulting to poetry, favoring allusion and subtlety, while preferring metonymy to metaphor, and parataxis (the placing of clauses or phrases one after another, without words to indicate coordination or subordination), over hypotaxis (the subordination of one clause to another). Therefore, the Bible tends to sketch character by reporting the words and actions of its characters rather than by the narrator making the connections for the reader through explaining motivations and the significance of actions. Ancient myth told and disclosed: biblical texts show and invite discovery. Ancient myths spoke out, biblical texts invite in. Biblical style preserves ambiguity because human behavior and motivation is often ambiguous.
Chapter Three explains type-scenes, a device discovered by Alter, a recurring artistic armature of standard set pieces familiar to the ancient readers/hearers, such as the hero coming to a new area, meeting women at a well, there disclosing his character in some way, and being shown hospitality in such a manner as will move the plot forward. With skill and subtlety, the biblical writers employed and played with this cultural convention so as to display character and advance plot. Recognizing and appreciating patterns like these requires our attentiveness to them and to how the text anticipates, varies, and interrupts them. Chapter Four, "Between Narrative and Dialogue," explores how biblical characters are revealed through their words (almost always direct discourse) and actions, with the narrator striving to be as undetected and unobtrusive as possible. The biblical narrator rarely does scene-setting or character analysis. Words and actions are left to speak for themselves.
Chapter Five examines "The Technique of Repetition," broad categories of repetition, all subtle and supple means toward crafting a nuanced message and portrait of character. Repetition is also a motif of biblical historiography, as "the constantly reiterated pattern . . . of command or prophecy closely followed by its verbatim fulfillment confirms an underlying view of historical causality; it translates into a central narrative device the unswerving authority of a monotheistic God manifesting Himself in language" (114). Leitworts (recurring significant terms), motifs, themes, sequences of action, and type-scenes all recur as instruments of narrative purpose. Chapter Six, "Characterization and the Art of Reticence," develops the interplay of the biblical view of man and the again, subtle devices used by biblical writers to portray human behavior in all of its complexity and ambiguity.
Chapter Seven, "Composite Artistry," examines some aspects of biblical narrative that are especially remote from what we are used to. Alter identifies three broad categories of such texts and shows how ancient authors honored different criteria for compositional unity than those we instinctively favor. For example, he confronts the phenomenon of duplicative but differing accounts, such as the two ways David enters the stage of holy history, as anointed by Samuel, or as the boy-hero who slays Goliath. Rather than seeing these as simply evidence for the splicing of sources or as evidence of compositional carelessness, he suggests that these "montages" (a term developed for cinema by Eisenstein) present a kind of Cubist view of characters and events, showing these simultaneously, and thereby more richly, from two different points of view.
Chapter Eight, "Narration and Knowledge," examines the interplay of the narrator's omniscience and the characters' ignorance, and the continuum of disclosure and hiddenness employed in narration, keeping us engrossed in a literary world which mirrors the epistemological uncertainties of life while yet claiming that the Divine purpose moves forward. In Chapter Eight, Alter summarizes key aspects of the book, and posit three pathways of literary criticism: elaboration of ornate formal systems of poetics seemingly unrelated to biblical works broadly considered, overly ornate diagrams of discrete works which fail to provide insight into biblical literature as a whole, and his preferred third path, which he describes in this fashion:
"(A cultivated sensitivity to) the complexly integrated ways in which the tale is told, giving special attention to what is distinctive in the artful procedures of biblical narrative, what requires us to learn new modes of attentiveness as readers. . . (rejecting) the contemporary agnosticism about all literary meaning. . . . It seems to me that we shall come much closer to the range of intended meanings--the theological, psychological, oral, or whatever--of the biblical tale by understanding precisely how it is told" (222).
This delightful book seems foundational to a properly aware and delightsome reading of the Hebrew Bible. It adds a layer of 21st century sensibility to a peshat approach to the text (interpreting the text in a direct manner) fully in keeping with the close reading approach exemplified by Nechama Leibowitz. The book serves well in accomplishing what she held to be the highest good in teaching her students: inspiring a love of Torah. It is neither written for the ivory-tower academic, nor is it likely to be found for sale at your supermarket counter. It requires a diligent reading by intelligent people prepared to be enamored of the sacred text, and to look up a half dozen words they have not run across before.
I found this work to be readable and without pretense, presenting textual examples illustrating well-considered theories in a thoroughly convincing manner, such that he accomplishes his goal stated in his preface: to provide "a guide in the intelligent reading of biblical narrative" (xiii). All who love the Bible or who wants to love it more should read this book, before getting back to their Bibles with renewed zeal and affection.
21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Eye Opening Approach,
I recently purchased Alter's Five Books of Moses, and decided to follow that up with some of his earlier works. The book was a real eye opener for me in the way it presented the use of various narrative and literary techniques in the Bible. I think this book will prove insightful for anyone looking to appreciate the Bible as something to be read, rather than merely as a "text" to be analyzed for historical layers. I'm not sure that higher criticism does much for the average person once you've seen it; a literary approach allows for modern scholarship to be applied in a meaningful way.
23 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Art of Biblical Narrative by Alter,
This work begins with connecting archaeological discoveries to
important biblical perspectives. It teaches that the Bible is
sacred history and that the 3rd person narrative is a bridge to
future meanings/interpretations. The author shows where there
is much verbatim repetition in Biblical stories/themes. The
book anticipates a more meaningful theological purpose with the
passage of time and experience with Biblical themes. This is
a wonderfful work for biblical scholars, theologians, historians
and a wide constituency of academicians of all faiths.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Must Read for Educated Christianity and Interested Parties,
As a Master of Theological Studies student, this book is a wonderful supplement to a class I am taking. It is wonderful as it fleshes out the narrative study of the biblical texts that is often glossed over in "technical" biblical study classes. The emphases on source and textual criticisms often remove the beauty of the biblical stories. Alter approaches the text from an academic view, but recaptures the beauty of the Hebrew Bible.
I personally have recommended this book to family and friends interested in Bible study from an academic or devotional perspective. It is a wonderful read and not so dense or academic elite that anyone couldn't understand where Alter is going.
I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more about the Bible and I would say that every Christian should read this to fully appreciate the Old Testament.
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The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter (Paperback - April 26, 2011)