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No. 37: Gleanings from Robert Alter’s Art of Biblical Narrative

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 37
May, 1992
Copyright 1992, Biblical Horizons

One of the most important developments in Biblical studies in recent years has been a movement of scholars devoted to studying the literary techniques of the Biblical writers. Tremper Longman, III of Westminster Theological Seminary has treated this movement from a Reformed perspective in his Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation (Zondervan, 1987). Within this movement, Robert Alter is a leading figure. Co-editor of A Literary Approach to the Bible, Alter is currently Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

The following notes do not constitute a review of Alter’s seminal 1981 work, The Art of Biblical Narrative. Instead, for the benefit of those who have neither time for nor access to Alter’s book, I have presented a several summaries of, expansions of, and interactions with Alter’s stimulating text.

Before examining some of the highlights, let me state some over-arching problems with the book. First, Alter is Jewish. Though a close and suggestive reader of the Old Testament, as a Jew he fails to interpret the text as a foreshadowing of the sufferings and glory of Jesus Christ, and thus entirely misses the main point. Second, Alter accepts source critical conclusions regarding the composition of the text. Though he castigates what he calls the literary "obtuseness" of source criticism, and though he seeks literary and thematic explanations for textual difficulties, he does not fundamentally reject the presuppositions of source criticism. This is simply another way of saying that Alter does not believe that the Old Testament is the God-breathed Word of God. He admits that the text claims to be historical (p. 3), but throughout says that the Bible belongs to the genre of prose fiction.

Still in all, Alter provides more insight into a number of passages than most recent evangelical commentaries. Let us now examine several of Alter’s readings.

1. Alter begins his book with a careful study of Genesis 38, the story of Judah and Tamar. This story, bracketed by episodes in the Joseph cycle, seems out-of-place. How does Genesis 38 fit into its context? To answer this question, Alter explores a number of linguistic and thematic connections between chapters 37-38. Genesis 38 begins by telling us that Judah "went down from" his brothers, separating himself just as Joseph (on Judah’s urging) had been separated from his brothers. The theme of separation from brothers binds the chapters together. The stories are tied together also by the theme of "reversal of primogeniture" so pervasive in Genesis. Finally, when Tamar reveals that she has Judah’s cord, staff, and seal in her possession, Judah "recognizes" them (38:26), which recalls Jacob’s recognition of Joseph’s bloody tunic. Chapters 37 and 38 thus reach a similar climax in recognition scenes.

Alter explains, "The first use of the [recognition] formula was for an act of deception; the second use is for an act of unmasking. Judah with Tamar after Judah with his brothers is an exemplary narrative instance of the deceiver deceived, and since he was the one who proposed selling Joseph into slavery instead of killing him (Gen. 37:26-27), he can easily be thought of as the leader of the brothers in the deception practiced on their father. . . . taken in by a piece of attire, as his father was. . . " (p. 10).

2. In a discussion of David’s sparing of Saul at the cave of En-Gedi, Alter points out that Saul’s question to David contains a subtle allusion to Isaac’s question to the disguised Jacob in Genesis 27. Saul asks, "Is it your voice, David, my son?" just as Isaac had said, "Who are you, my son? The voice is the voice of Jacob" (Gen. 27:18, 22). For Alter, this represents a brilliant example of the fictional inventiveness of the narrator, rather than a providentially ordered historical parallel. In any case, the allusion points to a significant parallelism between the two events. Saul’s question is meant to alert us to the fact that David is related to Saul as Jacob was related to Isaac. David is the younger son who replaces the firstborn (Jonathan, son of Saul, and Eliab, his own oldest brother), and inherits the birthright (the right to rule) from a reluctant and, in David’s case, murderous "father."

3. Alter’s discussion of the story of Ehud in Judges 3 is full of intriguing insights. The name of Eglon, the obese Moabite king whom Ehud assassinates, is related to the Hebrew `egel, "calf." The Moabite is a fatted calf, prepared for slaughter. Moreover, Alter brings out the sexual symbolism at work in the depiction of the murder: the text "hint[s] at a kind of grotesque feminization of the Moabite leader: Ehud `comes to’ the king, an idiom also used for sexual entry, and there is something hideously sexual about the description of the dagger thrust. There may also be deliberate sexual nuance in the `secret thing’ Ehud brings to Eglon, in the way the two are locked together alone in a chamber, and in the sudden opening of locked entries at the conclusion of the story" (p. 39).

All this is very suggestive, but Alter does not draw conclusions. Perhaps we are to understand Eglon’s murder as a symbolic rape. Legally, the lex talionis would provide a basis for this. The Moabites had raped God’s bride; God sends Ehud to rape the Moabite king. If this sounds rather too violent, we should recall Ezekiel 16, where the prophet clearly states that Israel’s harlotries will be judged by exposure to sexual violence (Ezk. 16:35-43).

Alter notes that Ehud’s sword is called a secret "thing" (Heb., dabar), a word that can also be translated as "word." Perhaps we can see here an allusion to the sword of the Spirit, which cuts God’s enemies in pieces.

Finally, Alter shows how by subtle literary allusions the writer of Judges connects the assassination of Eglon with the battle that follows. The word used to describe Ehud’s thrusting of the dagger is also used to describe his blowing of the trumpet to summon the army of Israel (3:27, 27). Every Israelite, moreover, killed a "fat man and a brave man" (v. 29), who were "laid low" (v. 30), both of which refer back to Eglon’s condition.

4. Alter’s discussion of recurring "type-scenes" focuses on several examples of the "betrothal scene." J. P. Fokkelman’s Narrative Art in Genesis provides an extended discussion of the Jacob narratives, in which he points to the recurrence of the stone motif. As Alter summarizes, "stones are a motif that accompanies Jacob in his arduous career: he puts a stone under his head as a pillow at Beth-El; after the epiphany there he sets up a commemorative marker of stones; and when he returned from Mesopotamia, he concludes a mutual nonaggression pact with his father-in-law by setting up on the border between them a testimonial heap of stones" (p. 55). Alter suggests that the recurring stone motive represents the obstacles placed in the way of the fulfillment of the promise. It is therefore fitting that Jacob should have to roll away the stone from the well when he meets Rachel (Gen. 29:9-10). Alter notes the parallel between unblocking a covered well to produce water and opening a barren womb to produce children. Thus, Jacob’s opening of the well in Genesis 29 is a sign of both of Rachel’s barrenness and of her eventual fertility.

In the same chapter, Alter points out the appropriateness of Moses meeting his wife at a well. Not only is it a standard type-scene, but it also picks up the "water theme" that flows (pardon the pun) throughout Moses’ life: He was drawn from the water; he drew water for the daughters of Jethro; he led the people through the water; he struck the rock that brought forth water; and he is denied entrance to the promised land by a sin in relation to water.

Alter ingeniously finds hints of betrothal type-scenes in unlikely places. For example, Samson goes into a foreign land to meet a woman, yet, contrary to expectations, there is no standard betrothal scene (Judg. 14). Alter suggests that there is a hidden betrothal: Samson takes honey (not water) from a lion’s carcass (not a well). The plausibility that this represents a transformation of the betrothal scene is made stronger by examining Deuteronomy 32:13, where Moses mentions the people sucking honey (which was literally water) from the rock in the wilderness.

This Old Testament background sheds light on Jesus’ encounter with the woman in John 4. As in the Old Testament betrothal scenes, Jesus, the Divine Bridegroom, encounters a woman at a well, and He discusses her marital status. Significantly, the woman is a Samaritan, not a Jewess; John 4 gives us a portrait of God’s New Covenant Bride, in whom Jew, Gentile, and even Samaritan are joined in one Body.

5. In chapter 5, Alter discusses the "techniques of repetition," highlighting five such techniques. First, there is the leitwort, the repetition of a key word or word-group to highlight a theme. Second, there is the motif, an image or an object that recurs throughout a narrative (e.g., the "stone" motif in the Jacob story). Third, there are themes, "an idea which is part of the value-system of the narrative" (p. 95). Fourth, there are repetitive sequences (e.g., Balaam’s three prophecies and paralleled by Balaam’s three futile attempts to guide his donkey). Finally, there is the "type-scene," a recurring episode composed of motifs and themes. The distinctions between these terms are not as important as the effort to be sensitive to repetition in all its forms.

6. Alter points out that variation of a set pattern or of dialogue is often very significant. For example, when the angel announces the imminent birth of Samson to Manoah’s wife (Judg. 13), the angel tells her that her child will be a Nazirite from the womb and will begin to deliver Israel (v. 5). When she reports the event to her husband, she says nothing about the deliverance of Israel, but reports that the child will be a Nazirite "to the day of his death" (v. 7). Alter suggests that this change adds some ambiguity to the prophecy, that the liberator will "end up sowing as much destruction as salvation" (p. 101). It seems to me, on the contrary, that the juxtaposition is intended to show that Manoah’s son will begin to deliver through his death, which is in fact precisely what happens. Ultimately, of course, Samson is a type of the Judge who delivered His people by His death.

7. The discussion of Balaam is helpful. Alter notes that the first word of the Hebrew narrative is "see" (Nu. 22:2); "see," "look," and related words are continually repeated throughout the narrative. The continual repetition of the theme of "sight" intensifies the irony of Balaam’s blindness to the angel of the Lord. Alter also notes the recurrence of threes in the body of the story: Balaam thrice tries to drive his donkey forward, and Balak thrice tries to curse Israel. Just as Balaam becomes increasingly irritated with his donkey, so also Balak with Balaam’s repeated prophecies of blessing. We are clearly intended to see Balaam’s donkey as an image of his master, and a more far-seeing image at that.

8. Alter’s discussion of Joseph’s encounter with Potiphar’s wife is very stimulating. Alter begins his discussion by pointing out the repetition of "all" and "success" in the first verses of Genesis 39: In many different ways, the passage stresses that God is "with Joseph" and "blesses" him in "all" he does, so that "all" his master has is given into his hand. This fits nicely with the position of this story in Genesis as a whole. The Joseph narrative weaves together threads of promise from Genesis 1 and 12: Joseph is presented not only as a fulfillment of the promise to Abraham ("in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed"), but also as a Greater Adam, who has fulfilled the Adamic commission to rule the earth.

This background helps explain the theology of Genesis 39. It is, quite simply, a reversal of Genesis 3. Potiphar’s wife is similar to both Adam and Eve. Like Adam, she takes the initiative in rebelling against the master of the house. Like Eve, she tempts a New Adam (Joseph) to seize forbidden fruit. Alter notes that "it is of course the usurpation of the master’s role and his house which the wife implicitly encourages in propositioning Joseph" (p. 109). In other words, the temptation is not only to seize forbidding sexual pleasures, but also to seize forbidden authority. The New Adam resists the temptation, a hint that he will later be granted the royal privileges Adam forfeited. In this, Joseph is also a prophetic type of the work of the Last Adam. In keeping with this, Potiphar’s wife (like Adam) shifts the blame from herself, accusing Joseph of attempting rape. The chapter ends with Joseph being thrown in prison, but 39:21-23 picks up again on the "leitworten" of the vv. 1-6: "all," Lord is "with Joseph," "success," "all," and "hands." The New Adam may suffer, but he has resisted temptation, and we know that he will eventually be exalted. Fittingly, the same repetitive emphasis on "all" is picked up in chapter 41, when Joseph is raised to the throne of Egypt.

9. On page 146, Alter compares the Biblical writers to Cubist painters who "juxtaposed or superimposed, a profile and a frontal perspective of the same face" (p. 146). Alter uses this analogy to counter the claim that the Biblical texts contradict themselves. He claims that they do, but argues that by offering contradictory accounts, the Biblical writers in fact achieved a higher (suprahistorical) unity. Now, there is something to this claim. Alter is certainly right to insist that the ancient Hebrews were intelligent enough to spot a contradiction in the text. Often, we should seek to understand the larger, theological motivations for placing apparently contradictory narratives right next to each other. Apparently contradictory texts may simply offer us various complementary "perspectives" on the same event. But we must insist, against Alter, that there is no real contradiction, that in fact the narratives are harmonizable not only at the level of literary artistry but as historical events as well. Thus, when Alter says that "The biblical outlook is informed, I think, by a sense of stubborn contradiction, of a profound and ineradicable untidiness in the nature of things" (p. 154), I would add that the contradiction is only "apparent," due to our limited view of the whole tapestry of history.

10. Alter ends the book with a brief chapter that summarizes the important literary techniques of the Biblical writers. He admits that reading cannot be reduced to a set of rules, but provides some hints about what to look for. First, he emphasizes that the Biblical writers use repetition of words, word families, and phrases, in order to emphasize a theme. Since so little descriptive detail is included, the use of such detail is always significant. We know nothing about Jacob’s appearance, but we know Esau was red and hairy. Alter urges us to ask why Moses would have included this detail and not others. This is not reading into the text, but simply following the narrative techniques used by the Biblical writers themselves. We who believe in the inspiration of the Biblical text have all the more reason to pay close attention to narrative details.

Second, Alter urges readers to pay close attention to actions, which can be used to link together or to contrast two narratives and their characters. Type-scenes (recurring episodes or patterns of episodes) are especially important to recognize, as are the variations in the episodes. How and why, Alter asks, does Sarah’s betrothal scene differ from Rebekah’s?

Third, Alter emphasizes throughout the book that the Biblical narratives major on dialogue: "Everything in the world of biblical narrative ultimately gravitates toward dialogue" (p. 182), and "transactions between characters typically unfold through the words they exchange, with only the most minimal intervention of the narrator" (p. 182). Alter thinks it significant to ask whether a speech is the first speech from a particular character; how the speech reveals the character; how the speech forces us to consider ambiguities of motives.

Fourth, Alter characterizes the narrative technique of the Biblical writers as a combination of "omniscience and unobtrusiveness" (p. 183). It is clear that the narrator of the Old Testament histories knows everything and is perfectly reliable; he knows the thoughts of all the characters and records dialogue that only two people could have known. But this knowledge "is shared with the reader only intermittently and at that quite partially" (p. 184). Alter makes the brilliant observation that the very mode of narration conveys the sense of both the comprehensive knowledge of God and the limited knowledge of man. The Bible, one might say, embodies the Creator-creature distinction in the form of literary narrative. Given the reticence of the writer, it is clear that the information we are given has been carefully selected. Departures from this generally "laconic" style are therefore worthy of note.

There is a great deal more in Alter’s short book. Because of its theological errors, it must be read with some care. Despite those errors, it is a rewarding book, and a helpful introduction to the art of reading the Bible.