Canon - Study Guide - The Art of Biblical Narrative

The Art of Biblical Narrative
Robert Alter

"The narrative art of the Bible, then, is more than an aesthetic enterprise, and learning to read its fine calibrations may bring us closer than the broad-gauge concepts of intellectual history and comparative religion to a structure of imagination in whose shadow we still stand."1

In The Art of Biblical Narrative, Robert Alter argues that the Hebrew Bible is a largely cohesive literary text to be read with finely tuned literary eyes. For millennia the Western tradition has looked toward the Bible as a work of sacred history-the foundational account of the nascent development of the Jewish people. While Alter does not completely dismiss the historicity of the Bible, he sees it as secondary; rather, in Alter's view, the authors of the Bible developed a form of prose fiction in order to tell the revolutionary tale of monotheistic revelation contained within its pages. Chapter by chapter Alter elucidates the various literary methods and techniques employed by the Biblical authors, including repetition, direct dialogue, narration, parallelism, and analogy. By learning to uncover the inherently literary nature of the Bible, Alter hopes to reach a more nuanced understanding of Biblical narrative, and, in turn, the theology of Biblical Judaism.

Alter's thesis amounts to a radical departure from both the traditional Jewish understanding of the Bible and the dominant theories of Biblical criticism. In The Art of Biblical Narrative Alter offers a "third way" with which the modern reader can relate to the Bible, and by extension, Judaism. One need not recognize the Bible's narrative thrust as either Divine or as an amalgam of numerous myths, folktales, and epics. Instead, a modern interpreter of the Bible has the option of seeing it as a rich and multilayered piece of historicized fiction; as a written actualization of the monotheistic idea; and as an exploration of the contested relationship between an omniscient creator and free-willed humans.

The questions put forth in this brief study guide are meant to help direct your reading. This is not a summary of each chapter or an explanation of key concepts. Instead, questions are posed that will aid you, the reader, in thinking about the larger significance of The Art of Biblical Narrative. The questions will be divided thematically, and are open-ended, intended as an intellectual cradle in which to ponder Alter's groundbreaking work on the literary nature of the Bible.

Theme 1: A Literary Approach to the Bible - A Focus on Chapter One
Theme 2: The Idea of a Literary Bible
Theme 3: Literary Technique
Theme 4: Convention and Translation
Theme 5: Theology
Theme 6: History and Tradition
Theme 7: Impact and Significance

Theme 1: A Literary Approach to the Bible - A Focus on Chapter One

Alter argues that one can see the limits of conventional Biblical scholarship in its failure to connect the three narratives of Joseph's sale into slavery (Genesis 37), Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38), and the incident between Joseph and Potiphar's wife (Genesis 39). The following questions call attention to the essential tenets of Alter's literary reading of these Biblical passages. Keep them in mind as you read Chapter One.

1. What is significant about the repetition of the Hebrew root yrd (descent) and the Hebrew phrase haker-na (recognize) in Genesis 37, 38, and 39? How does the literary technique of repetition carry thematic implications for these seemingly disparate narratives?

2. Alter asserts that in Biblical narrative, parallel acts and scenes within the Bible comment upon one another. Therefore, it is useful to compare Jacob's ritual of mourning for the perceived death of his beloved Joseph to Judah's ritual of mourning for the death of his sons, Er and Onan. What do these comparative responses to the death of a child teach us about the character of Jacob and Judah respectively?

3. What does the juxtaposition of these three stories teach the reader about the deceiver and the deceived, primogeniture, and sexual (in)discretion? Could one draw these lessons without a literary approach to the text?

Theme 2: The Idea of a Literary Bible

Alter reworks the conventional understanding of the Hebrew Bible by stressing its literary elements. The very words and passages that Biblical scholars tend to see as inconsistent and problematic Alter sees as potently meaningful and instructive literary devices. Yet reading the Bible as a literary work-and as a work of prose fiction-raises a number of questions.

Do we read the Bible differently if our focus is on its literary elements? As a reader, is the experience of reading or hearing the Bible altered by a literary perspective?

Alter argues that the Biblical authors created the prose fiction of the Bible in order to best convey the idea of monotheistic revelation. What are the ways in which a literary approach to the Bible, a theological treatise, reflect or incorporate the idea of monotheism?

Alter suggests that fiction itself has the capacity to make new knowledge possible. Is that true?

Is there a distinction between story and literature? If so, what are the differences between seeing the Bible as a set of stories, and seeing it as a work of literature?

Do you agree with Alter's assertion that the writers of the Bible are interested in "play" as are authors of other works of fiction? What are the implications of this idea? Can the Bible be a sacred text if "play" is at work?

Theme 3: Literary Technique

Recognizing the literary techniques utilized in the Bible is the essential tool for understanding the literary thrust of the Biblical narrative.

Alter refers to various type-scenes in the Bible (e.g., a future spouse identified at a well, an epiphany in the field, annunciation, etc.). What is the import of type-scenes as literary units? How can we better notice the fine calibrations in order to derive meaning from the type-scenes? How can we look at these familiar Biblical passages anew?

Alter writes, "In the biblical view words underlie reality."2 How are words and speech significant in the Bible? Moreover, what does Alter see as the connection between speech and Godliness?

How does the literary technique of contrastive dialogue (different styles of speech relaying different intentions) enhance the readers understanding of Biblical characters?

If, as Alter asserts, the Bible does not utilize the modes of characterization prevalent in Western literature (established in Greek epics and romances) how are deeply felt characters-and not merely archetypes-developed? For instance, what narrative techniques do the Biblical authors use to differentiate the personalities of the forefathers?

Theme 4: Convention and Translation

Alter's literary reading of the Bible stems from an ancient Hebrew text. As twenty-first century (and primarily English-reading) readers we are familiar with neither ancient literary convention, nor Biblical grammar. So much of the depth in literature relies upon syntax, sound, and rhythm for meaning. Can we read the Bible as a literary text at such a long historical distance, and without real knowledge of ancient convention?

The whole of The Art of Biblical Narrative is based upon Alter's identification of literary techniques in the Bible. Do you think that Alter's extrapolation of ancient literary conventions is accurate, or superimposed onto the Biblical text?

Are we lost in translation when it comes to reading the Bible as literature? Does the fact that we are reading the Bible in English, as opposed to the original Biblical Hebrew, hamper our ability to recognize and understand the literary elements?

Theme 5: Theology

If, as Alter argues, the Bible is first and foremost a literary tract, Jewish religious thinking must certainly be affected. For millennia Jews have understood the Bible as a sacred history, as the unquestionable cornerstone of faith. Yet Alter calls into question the entire premise of the Biblical enterprise. Can Jewish theology coexist with a literary Bible?

What are the theological implications if the Bible is not based in history and covenant, but rather in literature? Can the Bible be both a work of literature and also a religious document?

Can one take a historicist or fundamentalist approach to the Bible and also a literary approach? Can one view the Bible as divinely inspired and also as literature?

Does a literary Bible have any serious ramifications for Jewish theology, Jewish ritual observance, or conceptions of the Jewish past?

Theme 6: Tradition and History

Is the Bible an organic whole? Can it contain a coherent literary vision if it was assembled by various contributors over the course of centuries?

Alter writes that "history is far more intimately related to fiction than we have been accustomed to assume."3 What do you think of Alter's assertion that the Bible is a work of historicized fiction?

Does a literary Bible fly in the face of the Documentary Hypothesis, or can there be a symbiosis between these two readings? Is Alter's attempt to marry the two sufficient?

Does Alter's explanation of the two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis reinforce the theories of Biblical criticism, or deem them irrelevant?

Theme 7: Impact and Significance

Is the Bible really a revolutionary text, as Alter suggests? Does a literary approach to Biblical narrative aptly convey this revolutionary idea?

Given the fact that the Bible occupies a central place in the cannon of Western literature we moderns do not see the Bible as revolutionary. How does this shape our ability to see the Bible for what Alter insists it was conceived to be?

Is Jewish self conception altered by the concept of a literary Bible?

Does it really matter that the Bible is a literary work? Is this just an issue of scholarly significance, or does is it truly alter the impact of the Bible for a wider audience?


1 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981), p. 130.
2 Ibid, p.69.
3 Ibid, p. 24.


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