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5.0 out of 5 stars A convocation and a castigation, 20 July 2006
By 
Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
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There are few voices in the arena of biblical studies who command the respect due Robert Alter. After a long career in biblical scholarship, he recently issued a new translation of the Hebrew Bible to wide acclaim. This little book is, in several ways, a precursor to that momentous effort. Viewing the Hebrew Bible as a literary effort, instead of a legal or evangelical one, was gaining wide acceptance when this book was published. "The World" here is the collection of academic views expressed over the previous two decades. Alter reviews the efforts of previous scholars in addressing literary forms present in the bible and what those might indicate about the ancient authors. Essentially an extended bibliographic essay, this book is an excellent starting point for understanding the secular view of the Bible.

Reading any of the multitude of bibles as literature isn't a common approach. Yet, the ongoing success of the Bible must lie in part to its authors' narrative talents. Alter opens his survey with a mild chastisement of critics who have viewed the biblical tales in piecemeal. He voices regret that literary "reductionism" has obscured the larger picture. While he acknowledges the religious import of biblical narratives, he wants more recognition of the literary aspects than these stories have been given. The "Literary Play" in the second chapter's title conveys the tone admirably. As his concluding chapter notes, failure to understand the literary structures and illustrations of biblical stories reflects failure to understand much of Western European literature in general.

In one sense, this book is a challenge to other scholars, both past and future. Alters poses questions he feels need addressing, and when material is available, explains how others have responded. He gives the interpretations and conclusions of other scholars clearly and succinctly. Nothing appears out of context nor adjusted to an improbable world view. Alter is keen to show where literary analysis of the Hebrew Bible stands, where gains have been made and where greater attention should be given. His view is balanced and his analyses thorough.

Although he makes his preferences clear without engaging in summary judgments, Alter's devastating dismemberment of Harold Bloom's infamous analysis is worthy of a close look. When text analysts - the "document" school - revealed that the Hebrew Bible was penned by no fewer than four authors plus a "Redactor", some scholars struggled to give an identity to them. Harold Bloom, leaping on the postmodernist bandwagon, came to the conclusion that one of major biblical authors, of "The Book Of J" was actually a woman. That this thesis was lustily applauded by his American feminist audience obscured the poor translations Bloom had done. Alter gently, but firmly, examines Bloom's thesis and effectively bins much of it. In some ways, it's the highlight of the book, although Alter never loses his academic detachment in dealing with this bizarre proposal.

As an academic survey, Alter's text is clearly presented and a comfortable read. Biblical scholars may, as in any field, quibble with particular details. That's welcome, since evoking such comment is precisely Alter's purpose in producing it. What is does best is in posing the issues and how scholars have dealt with them so far. Try this for an enjoyable entry into the world of biblical literature. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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The World of Biblical Literature
The World of Biblical Literature by Robert Alter (Hardcover - 26 Feb. 1992)
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