The Art of Biblical Narrative

Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic, 1981. Print.

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I am currently reading¬†The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter. This work is a good introduction to the narrative language of the Hebrew Scriptures. Type-scenes are analyzed linguistically to reveal the tensions and ambiguities of the stories. Alter argues that scholars need to carefully study the language of the Biblical stories to understand their content. Alter pulls no punches in his criticism of much of the Biblical scholarship of his day. Repetition is dismissed as scribal error, and over-emphasis of the composite nature of the stories has downplayed their unifying themes. Alter’s work has definitely motivated me to reread Biblical stories that I thought I understood or that I considered trivial.

In the following passage at the end of chapter five, Alter describes the role the Biblical authors give to language in their vision of the world:

Language in the biblical stories is never conceived as a transparent envelope of the narrated events or an aesthetic embellishment of them but as an integral and dynamic component – an insistent dimension – of what is being narrated. With language God creates the world; through language He reveals His design in history to men. There is a supreme confidence in an ultimate coherence of meaning through language that informs the biblical vision. When the action and speech of men and women, always seen in some fateful course of convergence with or divergence from divine instruction, are reported to us in biblical narrative, repetition continually sets their lives into an intricate patterning of words. Again and again, we become aware of the power of words to make things happen. God or one of His intermediaries or a purely human authority speaks: man may repeat and fulfill the words of revelation, repeat and delete, repeat and transform; but always there is the original urgent message to contend with, a message which in the potency of its concrete verbal formulation does not allow itself to be forgotten or ignored. On the human plane, a master speaks (for spiritual and social hierarchy is implicit in this patterning), his servant is called upon to repeat through enactment; and, most frequent of all, an action is reported by the narrator, then its protagonist recounts the action in virtually the same terms, the discrepancy between “virtually” and “exactly” providing the finely calibrated measure of the character’s problematic subjective viewpoint. As human actors reshape recurrence in language along the biases of their own intentions or misconceptions, we see how language can be an instrument of masking or deception as well as of revelation; yet even in such deflected form we witness language repeatedly evincing the power to translate itself into history; a history whose very substance seems sometimes men and their actions, sometimes the language they use (p.112).

Repetition, far from being a scribal error, is a deliberate device employed by Biblical authors to reveal and conceal important information about the characters in the story. I highly recommend The Art of Biblical Narrative.


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