Biblical Narrative

1 January 2017

The Art of Biblical Narrative, by Robert Alter, presents us with an introduction to a literary approach to the Bible. Specifically, he treats the prose of the Bible as highly sophisticated fictional narrative for the purposes of literary and analysis, countering notions that the often bewildering features encountered in it are a result of primitive writing technique or confused synthesis of varied sources.

After opening with an introductory example and a survey of the current state of the literary study of the Bible (as of 31 years ago at least), he moves on to the core of his argument. He begins by discussing prose fiction and sacred narrative in general, and then moves on to discuss the use of convention within Biblical narratives. Next is the function of, and relationship between, narration and dialogue in the Bible. Next is the Biblically ubiquitous rhetorical device of repetition. Next he discusses the way the Bible deliberately leaves out details where our modern ears would expect them.

Biblical Narrative Essay Example

After that, he analyzes the multi-sourced aspect of the Bible. Finally, he restates and expands the earlier discussion of the purpose and value of fiction and why it appears as it does in the Bible. First I will distill the gist of his theses, and then I will offer my own commentary. Alter’s first and central thesis, that, in terms of literary genre, the Biblical narratives are prose fiction, specifically, vacillating between historicized prose fiction and fictionalized prose history.

Some important explanation: First, this terminology is primarily meant to indicate the literary sophistication of the narratives in contrast to the terms commonly given to them, legend, folklore, fairy tales, sagas, anecdotes, etc. The stories are not primitively inferior, as our modern ears are apt to hear many of the foreign literary devices, but rather, understood in their context, they are meticulously crafted and compiled stories by master storytellers. Next, the prose of the Bible stands in direct and stark contrast with the epic poetry of its pagan neighbors.

The very usage of prose instead of poetry constituted a worldview rebellion from the powers of the time; prose was invented by the Hebrews as a new, counter-culture way of talking about the nature of the world. Prose depicted the universe more, well, prosaically, while epic poetry imparted a cosmic ritual-ness to the story-tellers and their story. The difference between the prose and the epic poetry is almost perfectly analogous to the differences of theology and worldview between the biblical authors and their contemporaries.

The grammar was permitted to be looser, and significantly more ambiguity was allowed, in prose than in ANE epic poetry; the worldview of the Bible presents a much more (almost explicitly) nuanced, indeterminate understanding of man’s place in the world than the fixed, eternally subservient office of man in ANE epic poetry. Those sacred narratives were characteristically cyclic, focusing upon the unchanging, timeless events bound by the poetry, whereas the Bible offers a fixed beginning and unpredictable characters. The Bible doesn’t provide us with the fixed characters of myth and legend.

It always gives us complex, nuanced characters as a challenge to the surrounding worldview. Three quotes serve to elucidate the way Alter sees the relationship between this literary conception of the Bible and its historical nature. First, “The point is that fiction was the principal means which the biblical authors had at their disposal for realizing history. ” [p32] Second, “The author of the David stories stands in basically the same relation to Israelite history as Shakespeare stands to English history in his history plays.

Shakespeare was obviously not free to have Henry V lose the battle of Agincourt, or to allow someone else to lead the English forces there, but working from the hints of historical tradition, he could invent a kind of … [coming-of-age story] for the young Prince Hal… ” [p36] And third, commenting on the story of Ehud and Elgon, “It is perhaps less historicized fiction than fictionalized history — history in which the feeling and the meaning of events are concretely realized through the technical resources of prose fiction” [p41 emphasis mine].

Finally, a key point about the nature of prose fiction is the artistic enjoyment in crafting a compelling story, and the enjoyment of the listeners/readers when encountering those stories. There was a serious distinction between prose and poetry in the types enjoyment to be had, both in weaving the story and hearing it. The authors used their artistic license to tell the story in a meaningful way, but in a way that was enjoyable to create and to experience.

Observing the essentially aesthetic nature (as distinct from the informational or confessional natures) of the Bible’s composition is crucial to grasping what it is trying to express. “[S]erious playfulness… can crystallize subtle and abiding truths of experience in amusing or arresting or gratifying ways,” [p46] and this is one more reason why prose fiction was immeasurably more suited to expressing the truths of God than the standard ANE epic poetry. After his introduction to the function and value of prose fiction in the Bible, Alter discusses convention.

First, he uses an example of convention in Hollywood westerns to demonstrate how easily readers without an awareness of the conventions of the genre can utterly misunderstand the reason certain story events recur, and the significance carried by any deviation from those conventions. Then, he sheds light on some passages frequently assumed by scholars to be constructions from shared sources, and argues that their similarities arise not from the authors mixing up sources, but from convention; specifically, the three “betrothal at the well” scenes: Isaac and Rebecca , Jacob and Rachel, and Moses and Zipporah.

The story of a good betrothal follows a relatively strict pattern, deviation from which can signal meaningful change in artistic intention. Careful literary analysis of the Bible requires attention to these patterns or at least a keen awareness that we have no access to sources necessary to indicate to us where many patterns are. After this, Alter analyzes the relationship in Biblical stories between narration proper and dialogue between characters.

He argues that in the Bible, dialogue (either between characters, or, more rarely, inner-dialogue) is the preferred vehicle of narrative and character development, whereas descriptive narration proper is used only in certain instances, namely, 1) actions essential to the plot, 2) exposition setting the stage, and 3) “verbatim mirroring, confirming, subverting, or focusing in narration of statements made in direct discourse by the characters” [p77]. When narration mirrors dialogue, it is meant to draw attention back to the dialogue in some way.

Alter argues that the reason for this emphasis is because “the biblical riters… are less concerned with actions in themselves than with how individual character responds to actions or produces them[. ]” [p 66] One common device in characterization through dialogue is the contrast between the respective brevity or loquacity of characters’ speech to each other; a short question with a long reply, or a long question with a short reply, depending on the situation, can tell the attentive listener nearly everything he needs to know about that character. Questions of appearance, or other descriptions which moderns would ask, had virtually no presence in the ancient Israelite mind.

This all alerts us to two things. First, any variation on this conventional preference for dialogue should be significant enough to draw closer attention, as well as any variation on the conventional ordering of exposition, actions, mirroring, and dialogue. Second, the biblical authors only included descriptive details which they thought were completely essential to the story, and thus special attention must always be paid to actions and details within biblical stories, and to their significance to the import of the story.

For example, when Eve gave the fruit to Adam, the following words, “who was with her,” would have had such significance as to mean, “who had been standing there with her the whole time! ” But we today are much more accustomed to expository detail, and don’t tend catch the significance that resided in those details. The next stage of Alter’s literary treatment of the Bible is focused on the all-pervasive presence of repetition within Biblical narration.

He addresses four types of repetition in the Bible: Leitwort, motif, theme, sequence of actions, and type scene; but first points out that the original audience and authors must have taken pleasure in the mechanism of repetition in ways that we simply do not. Indeed, in English prose, word repetition is tedious and usually interrupts flow. Leitwort, the label Alter uses for this sort of word repetition which English avoids, where a specific word or set of words appear with regular frequency in a given narrative, is one of the commonest and easily observable techniques of repetition in the Bible.

Since this technique also takes advantages of Hebrew word constructions that don’t necessarily come off in translation, it is, of course, much more visible in the original language, and so familiarity with the original language offers access to a deeper layer of meaning beyond syntax and vocabulary. This feature of Hebrew narrative is the most noticeable difference from most modern languages and literature, and its usage is always both intentional and meaningful.

Because of the Bible’s heavy reliance on repetition as discussed here, key meanings can be discovered by paying attention to the variations (additions, subtractions, word changes) between verbatim quotations as they appear in a given story. The second category of repetition is motif, a flexible term for an idea or thing, usually something concrete, repeated at key points of a given narrative, which helps to tie the story together in memorable ways. The third type is theme, which is larger and more composite than motif, as motif is to leitwort.

It is reflective more of the value system of the story and teller, and is the pedagogical or hortative aspect of the story. The fourth category of repetition is sequence of actions, a further step larger and more composite than theme. This is when, in a single story, a character does or experiences a certain set of actions or events more than once, such as Balaam’s three failures to direct his donkey, Delilah’s repeated attempts to sap Samson’s strength, or Job’s sequential loss of everything.

This technique of repetition is usually for the purpose of memorability. Finally, the largest and most composite sort of repetition in the Bible, Type-scene, is seen when seemingly entire stories are told again, but perhaps with different characters, but which are really conforming to convention. Once again, the variations between individual samples of repetition like type-scene are significant to the meaning of a story. The next feature of prose fiction relevant to literary study of the bible is “reticence,” and it is particularly idiosyncratic to the Bible.

In short, this is the Bible’s unusual (to us) habit of leaving the internal (emotional, mental) lives of its characters almost completely un-described and uncommented-on. For a long time, the trend was to attribute this lack of description as poor, primitive storytelling and characterization. The biblical writers DO demonstrate the ability to do so on occasion, so the careful literary critic will realize that this reticence is deliberate and craftful. It is simply a method, foreign to us, for circuitously communicating depth and ambiguity.

As pointed out earlier, austere economy in exposition and narration proper is the rule in Biblical prose, so careful attention must be paid to what inner life is described, and how certainly, in order to catch many of the authors’ meaningful hints. The unique level of ambiguity produced by this narrative technique is uncannily apt for the monotheistic worldview held by the Biblical authors for whom the tension between God’s ordering and man’s disordering is never far out of mind.

The chief impediment to analysis of the Bible as literature is the reality that it was not written by one author, but rather composed by multiple authors, editors, redactors and compilers, even within individual books. Is any one particular instance of narrative contradiction the intentional (or even intuitive) result of a skilled storyteller, or the incidental result of multiple editors/redactors attempting to cobble together irreconcilably disparate sources?

Alter argues that contradiction and inconsistency within a narrative are indeed the result of an author pulling together multiple sources, but that the contradictory elements are the vessels of meaning indispensable to the author. For example, the introductory stories of David sharply contradict, but this is because they are describing aspects of David which naturally suggest contradiction, that is, the realities of both his private person and his public figure.

Thus, rather than editorial incompetence, the presentation of the two stories together reflects a nuanced, artful awareness of the complexity of David’s character. “Without both these versions of David’s beginnings and his claim to legitimacy as monarch, the Hebrew writer would have conveyed less than what he conceived to be the full truth about his subject. ” (p153, emphasis mine) “Would it not be frivolous on the part of an anonymous Hebrew writer charged with the task of formulating sacred traditions for posterity to indulge in writerly [sic] pleasures…?

Alter asks as a hypothetical challenge to his conception of the Bible as fictionalized history/historicized fiction. “The repertoire of techniques for telling a story,” with fiction prose, he tells us, were (and indeed, still are) more abundant and more fit to convey knowledge about Yahweh than any other form of literature of the time. “… [E]xaggeration or stylization may be a means of exposing what is ordinarily hidden, and fantasy may faithfully represent an inner or suppressed reality[. ” In this way, the playfulness and artfulness of the fiction prose of the Bible is not frivolous, but profoundly and unexpectedly serious. And far from being a way to deceive, mislead about the truth of what happened, or invent entire stories from whole cloth, the prose fiction of the Bible serves as the vehicle for the authors’ depiction of history.

Once more, “fiction was the principal means which the biblical authors had at their disposal for realizing history. Alter’s core thesis is both brilliant and simple, yet open enough for a wide range of interpretation that its value can hardly be overstated. Furthermore, he is right that fiction can often convey knowledge that other methods of expression struggle with. (There is a truth to Winnie the Pooh completely absent in any newscast or history textbook. ) And really, is it possible, even in theory, to relate any past event without some degree of imaginative fictionalization?

One’s choice of words, starting point, ending point, excluded details, emphasis, and even the act of remembrance, will all necessarily involve acts of imagination, so why ought the Bible and its creation be exempt from fictionalization, especially considering all the features which seem only to be there for their aesthetic effect? Alter’s examples and explication of specifics were superb at delineating why it is so difficult for us to catch those features, and pointing in the direction of further study.

While it was a masterful work, The Art of Biblical Narrative was not without its problems. His discussion of the common ground between fiction narrative and “historical” narrative was painfully short, and I believe I myself only grasped it because of my prior education in the subject. Additionally, he gives the impression, despite occasional qualifications, that the narrative of the Bible all employs the same fictional techniques, as if they were all by the same author. He gives very little time to possible differences from author to author, especially over time.

For an example of how this is problematic, the supposed Biblical/Hebrew preference for dialogue over action seems absent especially in the early parts of Genesis. We are also given no direct information about which school of literary criticism he belongs to, in order to more accurately judge his arguments over the backdrop of his educational context. Finally, he doesn’t clearly explain exactly what fiction is. Despite these shortcomings however, Alter’s work still towers as the authoritative work on the subject thirty years later, and with good reason.

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