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The Art of Biblical Narrative 2nd Edition

4.6 out of 5 stars 49 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0465022557
ISBN-10: 0465022553
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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Robert Alter is a Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a recipient of the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime contributions to American letters, he lives in Berkeley, California.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 2nd edition (April 26, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465022553
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465022557
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.6 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #79,652 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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