Misc notes on Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative

I just picked up the companion volume, The Art of Biblical Poetry, at the used bookstore. These notes are over 9 months old now though and I doubt I’ll ever get around to blogging more about them.

On how the Bible assumes that God’s purpose and the acts of men are tangled up throughout history.

The implicit theology of the Hebrew Bible dictates a complex moral and psychological realism in biblical narrative because God’s purposes are always entrammeled in history, dependent on the acts of individual men and women for their continuing realization.


On how the Bible explores what is going on inside of people’s heads way more than any other literature that came before. We discover the truth through that medium. This is old hat to our modern minds, but it was really out there with the OT was penned.

Indeed, an essential aim of the innovative technique of fiction worked out by the ancient Hebrew writers was to produce a certain indeterminacy of meaning, especially in regard to motive, moral character, and psychology. Meaning, perhaps for the first time in narrative literature, was conceived as a process, requiring continual revision – both in the ordinary sense and in the etymological sense of seeing-again – continual suspension of judgment, weighting of multiple possibilities, brooding over gaps in the information provided.


On the style of Hebrew scripture writing being intentionally over and against pagan mythology literature:

Shemaryahu Talmon says:

The ancient Hebrew writers purposefully nurtured and developed prose narration to take the place of the epic genre which by its content was intimately bound up with the world of paganism, and appears to have had a special standing in the polytheistic cults. The recitation of the epics was tantamount to an enactment of cosmic events in the manner of sympathetic magic. In the process of total rejection of the polytheistic religions and their ritual expressions in the cult, epic songs and also the epic genre were purged from the repertoire of the Hebrew authors.

What makes a novel good? Foreshadowing and reveal. The Bible does this really well all over the place! This stuff is no mistake, but a careful craft.

Much of art lies in the shifting aperture between te shadowy fore-image in the anticipating mind of the observer and the realized revelatory image in the work itself, and that is what we must learn to perceive more finely in the Bible.


On how the Bible goes out of it’s way so often to be verbal. Even general descriptions that may be handled by the narrator in other writings are instead put in the mouth of one of the characters.

Spoken language is the substratum of everything human and divine that transpires in the Bible, and the Hebrew tendency to transpose what is proverbial or nonverbal into speech is finally a technique for getting at the essence of things, for obtruding their substratum. In a mode of narration so dominated by speech, visual elements will necessarily be sparsely represented. And even in the exceptional case when a scene is conceived visually, the writer may contrive to report what is seen through what is spoken.

(See example of David talking with the watchmen looking out for Absolom’s forces.)


On how the Bible (compared to many other religious texts) has a very “untidy” view of God. Again is this idea of his purpose and promises being thickly integrated with human acts and history.

The monotheistic revolution of biblical Israel was a continuing and disquieting one. It left little margin for neat and confident views about God, the created world, history , and man as political animal or moral agent, for it repeatedly had to make sense of the intersection of incompatibles – the relative and the absolute, human imperfection and divine perfection, the brawling chaos of historical experience and God’s promise to fulfill a design in history. The biblical outlook is informed, I think, by a sense of stubborn contradiction, of a profound and ineradicable untidiness in the nature of things.


On how modern expectations are the primary obstacle to understanding really old writing. Loss of language nuance is not even a big of problem as this!

One might imagine the Bible as a rich and variegated landscape, perfectly accessible to the observer’s eye, but from which we now stand almost three millenia distant. Through the warp of all those intervening centuries, lines become blurred, contours are distorted, colors fade; for not only have we lost the precise shadings of implication of the original Hebrew words but we have also acquired quite different habits and expectations as readers.


On how much work good bible study is!

In has been my own experience in making a sustained effort to understand biblical narrative better that such learning is pleasurable rather than arduous.