The Art of Biblical Narrative Paperback – 13 Jul 1983
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In what is both a radical approach to the Bible , and a fundamental return to its narrative prose, Robert Alter reads the Old Testament with new eyesthe eyes of a literary critic. Alter takes the old yet simple step of reading the Bible as a literary creation.
About the Author
Robert Alter is professor of hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of, most recently, the highly praised biography of Stendhal, A Lion for Love (Basic Books, 1979).
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He identifies the narrative techniques preferred by the Bible authors - dialogue, repetition, special words - and shows how they work. I love the richness of the Hebrew Bible stories, and Alter offers a fresh and stimulating way to look at the texts.
What was really helpful was how the author doesn't take away from the 'divine inspiration' of the scripture but also doesn't shy away from the human input of authorship.
Great book and really opens your eyes and introduces you to the subject of literary art form combined with prose writing.
The basic premise of the book is that the biblical writers should not be assumed to be any different from modern fictional/historical authors. Such authors enjoy using thought provoking metaphors, and linguistic skills to make their work more enjoyable to the reader, and in the process more enjoyable to themselves to create (due to the creative process).
To show how this works he first talks about Prose Narrative and how all historical documents are fictional to a degree e.g. scribes did not follow King David on his journey's dictating the chronology or words he said, nor does this occur today with our world presidents. As such all narrated points should not be considered factual, but should instead be consider historical-theological - or history told to make a point.
He then suggests that the bible has type-casts in it, e.g. image of a cow boy reaching for a gun tells you you're watching a western film. He suggests that this can help understand the imagery in the bible itself.
Going back to the premise on Prose Narrative he talks about how dialogue in the bible was attempting to convey emotions and motives. A discussion is given on the historical use of repetition and why it occurs so much in the bible. Consideration is given to the characteristic denoters included within the text and what theological ideas they were trying to convey at an artistic level.
Perhaps the most important chapter is the chapter on `composite artistry' and how this worked in the bible itself. It's worth buying the book just for this chapter. The modern charge is that the bible is full of contradictions. Alter suggests that these contradictions are so obvious that they can hardly be considered neglectful chance. He suggests that each reading is meant to give you an alternative understanding of a theological point, through the eyes of a narrated history. He suggests that it is the theological point which is of importance, not keeping the events 100% accurate in their factual routes. In this respect his premise perfectly fits in with the artistic composition of books from the bible's time period, remembering that books in their modern form containing pure literal facts are a relatively new convention.
The final chapter is on how the biblical author assumed the guise of god in their narrative composition.
In total a lot can be learnt from this book. You can see why it won the National Jewish Book Award. It would greatly enhance anyone's readings of these texts and help the average reader enjoy the biblical texts from a literally artistic perspective.
In total a brilliant book for the person interested in artistic composition within the biblical narrative itself.
I would personally recommend this text to all students of the Old Testament, as well as intellectually serious believers, at least to dip into, if not to enjoy in its entirety.
Robert Alter is a great help to a non-Hebrew reader, shewin how words with the same root are patterned in the stories so as to get a message across withoout moralising.
And now I see similar techniques and patterns in the Gospels.