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A most fascinating introduction into how to read the Bible
on January 11, 2001
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.