Reading The Art of Biblical Narrative: how story shapes Scripture

Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative has been sitting on my shelf of to-be-reads most of the year. As people who follow Jesus, we inherited God’s story. It’s not a dissertation, an instruction manual, a bulleted list of doctrine. When we open its pages, we step into a story that came from a culture radically different than our own with different styles of storytelling. Saying that Scripture is story doesn’t mean that it’s not true; it means we need to read it the correct way. Alter is here to help us learn to read the narrative that we find in Scripture.

The Art of Biblical Narrative is a meaty read. I saved it on purpose for a break from seminary classes because I don’t work through this type of material on top of coursework. My brain needs a break. (Here’s what I’m reading for a “break” now so take that for what it’s worth.) But I picked it up between summer and fall classes and quickly realized, however uncomfortable I occasionally felt with some of Alter’s assumptions, this book will change how I read Scripture.

The book is dense. It’s packed with example after example and if you are into an academic level read on narrative, pick it up. If you’re not, I’m going to share three ways we can learn to read Scriptural narrative better than we are right now.

Pay close attention to dialogue.

Much of the Hebrew Scripture’s stories are told in dialogue. Moments of narration are often only present to move the plot along between units of dialogue. The dialogue requires attention. Note what a character’s first words are or who those first words are addressed to. Pay particular attention to where dialogue differs from the narration. Alter writes ” Even more frequently, dialogue-bound narration sets up a small but significant dissonance between the objective report and the terms in which the character restates the facts” (97). Consider what motives would cause a character to twist the story. Compare the differences in the speech of contrasting characters. Dialogue reveals the characters and often the plot to the reader.

Notice repetitions of scenes and the variations in those scenes.

Scripture is artistically designed, but it does not reflect the designs we are used to reading. Within Scripture, we’ll find the same scene played out over and over in various people’s lives. Alter writes, “Since biblical narrative characteristically catches its protagonists only at the critical and revealing points of their lives, the biblical type-scene occurs not in the rituals of daily existence but at the crucial junctures in the lives of the heroes, from conception and birth to betrothal to deathbed” (60). Think of the many birth announcements and birth stories that we find in Scripture. Think of how many betrothal scenes start at a well. Stories of blessing and stories of death cover the pages. As we survey these stories, we want to consider the differences and the omissions that we find in them and consider the significance of each unique (re)telling.

Consider that the gaps in the story are there on purpose.

The Bible Project first taught me that the Hebrew Scriptures are Jewish meditation literature. They are designed to be meditated on, mulled over, considered for longer periods of time. The reader is supposed to be reminded of another story and go back to look at it again (TBP calls this “hyperlinking.”) We need to spend time with the stories. Alter says that the biblical narrative is “selectively silent in a purposeful way: about different personages, or about the same person at different junctures of the narration, or about different aspects of their thoughts, feeling, and behavior” (144). Ambiguity is there on purpose. We are supposed to consider the many possible ways the meaning could be interpreted. Often the final interpretation is left unclear or only clarified later in the story.

What I have learned, ironically very slowly, is that I need to slow down when I read the Hebrew Scriptures. I need to pay more attention to details. I need to study the repetitions instead of rushing past them, assuming it was covered already. The narratives are unexpected to modern readers, but honoring Scripture means learning to read it for what it is not what I expect it to be.

There were some downsides to the reading. I assume most of you will be uncomfortable with Alter’s references to fiction throughout the book. Does he think the stories are ONLY fiction or shaped like fiction which should shape our reading? To be honest, I would need to read more of his work to be absolutely certain when it comes to some of the stories. I also found his interpretation of Genesis 2 to be less than compelling. However, I think the gains are immense. Reading can be uncomfortable and we can still learn from it.

Alter has also translated the entire Old Testament in a way that seeks to be faithful to the form of the Hebrew language. I hope to have it on my shelves one day. If you want to know more about Alter’s work, here’s a profile in The New York Times Magazine that I enjoyed. Happy reading!