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The Art Of Biblical Narrative [Paperback]

By Robert Alter (Author)
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Item description for The Art Of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter...

Analyzes the Old Testament in terms of conventions, narration, dialogue, characterization, and literary technique

Publishers Description
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 eyes--the eyes of a literary critic. Alter takes the old yet simple step of reading the Bible as a literary creation.

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Item Specifications...

Studio: Basic Books
Pages   208
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 8.02" Width: 5.42" Height: 0.56"
Weight:   0.45 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Aug 3, 1983
Publisher   Basic Books
ISBN  046500427X  
ISBN13  9780465004270  

Availability  0 units.

More About Robert Alter

Register your artisan biography and upload your photo! Robert Alter is a Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a recipient of the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime contributions to American letters, he lives in Berkeley, California.

Robert Alter currently resides in Berkeley, in the state of California. Robert Alter has an academic affiliation as follows - University of California, Berkeley.

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Reviews - What do customers think about The Art Of Biblical Narrative?

A Fascinating Way to Read the Bible  May 29, 2008
Modern Biblical scholarship has tended toward a process of atomization: how many editors were involved in the creation of the Bible? How many different strands of tradition can we find in a given story? Robert Alter's "The Art of Biblical Narrative" at once provides a corrective to this tendency, and a striking alternative way of understanding the Good Book.

Although recent scholarship has emphasized historical- and textual-critical methodologies, Alter chooses a literary-critical approach; that is, he asks how we should read the Bible first and foremost as literature. Ancient Hebrew storytelling conventions were often radically different from those we use today, so we must learn to be attuned to things like a character's silence, or minor, telling variations in a scene that is repeated several times. In this way, Alter takes much of what may make the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) seem "boring" today--its Spartan narrative style, the apparent redundancy of many of its stories--and shows how these elements are actually integral to how the Bible tells its story.

Alter's prose style is scholarly without being suffocating. It is, however, dense with ideas. I often found myself reading as little as five pages at a sitting, as each sentence seemed so full that it was all I could take in before I had to stop for a mental breather. (I recommend reading the Conclusion first, which ten pages provide an excellent summary of the book's main ideas and may make it easier to digest them as the author investigates each one in detail in the rest of the book.) His examples are profuse, and well-chosen to illustrate his points.

Alter mostly steers clear of ideological disputes about what the Bible is or isn't, sticking to his purely literary analysis of the text. He occasionally makes comments to the effect that he sees the stories of the Bible as "historicized fiction," but his approach can still fit into any faith framework; it is just as possible for a devout Christian and an atheist to read the Bible as literature. What's more, Christians will not only find an enriching way of appreciating their sacred text here, but may even gain comfort in the face of some scholars who seem to think that a Bible with editors is inherently an unreliable Bible. Alter, to the contrary, shows that the Biblical author-editors must have been very sophisticated storytellers, and that what are often taken for mere inconsistencies today may well represent a deeply thoughtful approach to depicting the moral and social ambiguities the authors saw in their world.

"The Art of Biblical Narrative" takes effort to read, but those willing to take the time to absorb it may find their understanding of the Bible enhanced, deepened, even changed.

A must read for Hebrew students or anyone wanting to better understand narrative portions of Scripture  Mar 26, 2008
Alter's purpose in the book is made very clear, and that is to show readers of biblical narrative that there are authorial devices implanted in the narrative to heighten and signify parts of the narrative that the author feels is important or worth noting. He begins to show this purpose in chapter one by seeing the Bible as a literary piece of art. He illustrate mainly with the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 because it does not seem to fit with the rest of the Joseph narrative. However when one steps back and looks at the literary whole of Genesis they will see how themes of deceit and divine election run through Genesis 38 as well as the rest of the book. That one chapter may seem out of place, but in reality it flows beautifully in the larger scope of the book and not merely the Joseph narrative. One cannot read books as a compilation of short stories, but they must see the stories as having a literary and overarching theme that intertwines them together.
In chapter two, he further develops his purpose by proposing the biblical authors used literary devices like word-plays, embellishment, and fictitious characters to give color to the narrative. He suggests that the authors received the historical data from their sources, and then proceeded to make the message and intended application clearer by use of literary devices. So their use of a fictitious character would be acceptable because they are not changing the meaning or moral message of the text. He states that they would often detail the main characters speech and actions to give insight to their motives. It is helpful to see some of these literary features in seeing how the author might have pointed out characters and events in Israel's history, but only a foundationally different hermeneutic (as Alter pointed out) could accept all of these.
The third chapter really begins to illustrate Alter's purpose. Here he points out a literary device called "type-scenes", and they are the typical "flags" that the original reader would have expected to see for certain events. One illustration was the betrothal scene, where the typical events include a man (master or servant) goes to a well in a foreign land, meets a girl, wants to marry her, she goes back to her family, and etc. Alter points out the situation with Saul going to the well and instead of asking for a wife he asks for a seer. Then the story of Ruth where the roles of hero and heroine are reversed and Ruth goes to a foreign land and Boaz has his men-servants fetch her water. The idea is presented that the original reader is used to the typical sequence, and so when someone different or completely unordinary happens the author has now arrested their attention. That is the point Alter wants to make. The author wrote in such a way to highlight certain points or characters to the original reader, but the problem is that three thousand years later those literary features are not as clear. This chapter was really eye-opening to begin reading narratives looking for those points of deviation from the typical to better understand the author's intended meaning.
In the fourth chapter, Alter shows the importance of dialogue imbedded in the narrative sequence. The author uses direct speech to develop the characters in the narrative. The reader only knows what the characters are thinking by what the author has them say. The narrative events are a mere background to dialogue. Sometimes the speech that the author mentions is a shortened form of what actually must have been said. The reader needs to pay attention to when there is speech, when it stops, and when it seems that the author has purposely not said something that should have been said. This idea of dialogue intersects with the type-scenes and other literary devices to make the Bible a real literary masterpiece.
Chapter five points out the use of repetition in the Old Testament narrative. Alter says that this point of repetition is the one that is the hardest for the modern English reader and also the one feature that is most over-looked. For instance, the writer of Exodus repeats himself when he states the plague that is going to happen to Egypt and then he restates the plague when it happened. The modern reader is not going to think anything of this device; however the original reader was mostly likely hearing this read, and so the author is making sure the hearer gets the full details at least once. He also gives the repetition of key words or "word-roots" in the narrative and called it Leitwort. His example of this idea is the Samuel story and the repetition or emphasis on the words "listen, voice, word". This is not going to be done easily in an English translation, but it will aid the reader in understanding the author's intended meaning. He showed how different repetition is in poetry where there is no direct copying of a phrase or use of synonyms, but instead poetry is styled and creative repetition of thoughts that move the poem. Alter ascribes this use of repetition to the tension between the freedom of the biblical authors to write and the Divine plan for the text.
In chapter six, Alter describes the art of characterization as a literary device. It was already mentioned briefly that much of what is known of a character comes in direct speech. That is true, and it is often the most important things that can be known about that character is by what he says, because when that character acts then the reader has to infer things about that character. However in direct speech the character cannot hide what he is thinking or who he is. The author has the ability to only allow the reader to know certain things about each character. It must be noted why the author would switch names for a person, for instance, Michal is sometimes called the "wife of David" and other times she is called the "daughter of Saul". The author could be telling something simply by changing a name about the mindset of Michal, her current marital status, or another idea laid out by context. This is another interesting literary device that is probably overlooked by modern readers, but it can, like the others, aid in better understanding the author.
Chapter seven explains a literary device that has many authors each contributing to the finished product. Because the Bible has seeming inconsistencies in it, Alter assumes that it must be a book put together by multiple authors in a type of patchwork way. However, later he says that the author may have received differing historical accounts and then purposely put both accounts in the Bible. He says that the author could have contradicted himself and done it in such a way to be artistic.
The last chapter makes the argument that the narrative and narrator give knowledge to the reader. The narrator, he says, is omniscient because they know people's thought and even God's thoughts. The author is sort of "teasing" the reader with perfect knowledge, which the author seems to have and the reader can only see a glimpse of. However, the author often tells the crux of the narrative and then goes back and tells how that happened.
This book's purpose was to show how the Hebrew author's use literary devices to "jolt" the reader out of the norm. Although these devices are often purposely or ignorantly overlooked by modern reader because of the language divide, the literary features here (for the most part) are extremely helpful for the reader. Alter accomplished his purpose, and this text is very beneficial for Hebrew students to better understand the characteristics of OT narrative.
This book hits the mark!  Mar 2, 2008
love this book. I am only on page 40 but am really enjoying every bit of it. Anyone interested in the Bible should read this book or any books by Robert Alter. He illuminates subtle literary devises in the text that you wont find anywhere else in Biblical scholarship, except maybe if you were a Torah Scholar and studied the Midrash Tanchuma (Hebrew commentary on the 5 Books of Moses) and understood it completely. But then Professor Alter translates all this into understanding the structure of well-written prose or poetry. Anyone who writes plots or makes film, or is interested in Joseph Campbell will find this extremely rich in content. He suggests that the Bible is not fictionalized History, but historicized fiction, a proposal too blasphemes for most "believers" to entertain, yet in reading this book, we find that it is not so blasphemes at all. This book will push your study of ancient Hebrew texts to a new level. All educators should read and be familiar with Professor Alters work. I think he is a breath of fresh air that encourages, not dissuades, people from going deeper into study of the Bible, from the secular to the ultra orthodox. It is densely written so if you have trouble with big words or lofty word filled sentences, this might be a problem, but I found each sentence strangely palpable and easily digested even for the non-scholar, mostly illiterate-type like myself. The book is magical and I am ordering it for a few of my same-minded friends
Dense but good  Dec 15, 2007
This book is dense with fairly small print, small margins and long chapters without section breaks; but, it is well written and does a good job showing the complexities and intricacies of scripture that lend credence to its inspiration. The author's perspective that scripture is historicised fiction can be ignored for the rest of the benefits of reading this book. Frankly, the argument for historicised fiction could just as well be used to suggest its inspiration.

Needless to say, as a result of reading this book, I bought Alter's book on Biblical Poetry.
Alter Illuminates Biblical Narrative  Nov 12, 2007
Robert Alter's "Art of Biblical Narrative" provides illuminating insights into the artful literary structure of the stories in the Hebrew Bible, and into human nature itself. Always respectful of the text, Alter reveals techniques of purposeful characterization and structure that are at work to achieve the effect of these ancient, yet ever-timely narratives. Never overly technical, written in clear and skillful prose, Alter's criticism is top-notch. I recommend this work highly.

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