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The Art of Biblical Narrative

4.25  ·  Rating details ·  1,219 ratings  ·  129 reviews
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.
Paperback, 207 pages
Published 1981 by Basic Books
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 ·  1,219 ratings  ·  129 reviews

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Taylor Rollo
In this short but dense work, Alter presents his case for the Bible, particularly the Old Testament (OT), as a piece of literature that can and should be examined with literary techniques. We found this book both very helpful and incredibly frustrating at times. It is helpful because Alter lays out useful techniques that help one examine the Bible as a piece of literature by paying attention to words, actions, dialogue, and narration. It is, however, frustrating because Alter is apparently unawa ...more
ἀρχαῖος (arkhaîos)(RK)
The Art of Biblical Narrative is the best critical work I have read. It does more than just explain. It teaches. It encourages. It makes the reader want to read the [Hebrew] Bible for the pure pleasure of practicing what has been learned, to discover the literary secrets of the Bible and to enjoy anew the art of reading.

I read the Bible, not as revelation nor as history, although I suppose that there is some history there. I read the Bible as literature and as a literary source of Western cultur
Jan 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
The author is a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature, not a theologian or “biblical scholar.” This is the basis for a perspective on the Old Testament to which most Christian readers do not have access. Consider, for example, the talking snake of Genesis 3; fictionalized prose or historically accurate? Most conservative Christians don’t want to go there. Might there be something to be gained by doing so?
Jacob Aitken
Sep 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Within a few pages I knew I was in the presence of a master. Not only is Robert Alter in complete command of the Hebrew language, but he is second to none in English literature as well. Both are obvious in this work.

I am perfectly willing to grant an editorial process to the Hebrew text. I think that is common sense. That, however, does not justify the multiple sub-authorships that critical scholars have posited. And while
Jul 15, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: commentary-bible
Alter's description of the intricate details of OT narratives that usually escape modern readers is fantastic. His defence of the literary integrity of the OT narratives against the claims of source criticism is refreshing. He's ambivalent about the historicity of the events of the OT narratives. Alter writes from a Jewish viewpoint. ...more
Jul 29, 2011 rated it it was amazing
So why are there two separate creation myths in Genesis? The story of God creating Adam and Eve simultaneously and the story of God creating Eve out of Adam’s rib? Source criticism would have us believe that the redactor was simply stitching together stories from two distinct oral traditions. Robert Alter would have us look at the Bible through the lens of literary criticism, to recognize and consider how and why the author (s) employed such literary devices as narration, dialogue, characterizat ...more
Feb 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own, biblical-studies
I was a bit torn on how to rate this book. It dragged on a bit for me, but it was very rich with insights into Scripture. I love getting a Jewish perspective on Old Testament passages, because even if I don’t agree with the final outcome, it still makes me see things from a different perspective. I frequently had to stop reading this book and open my Bible to make notes and look at things for myself. That’s always a good thing. I can’t wait to dip into his second volume, The Art of Biblical Poet ...more
Nov 22, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Alter's impressive sense for literary detail is immensely helpful for dense readers like myself. I picked this book up in the hopes of gaining some insights that would help me to write an exegetical paper on a narrative passage, and I wasn't disappointed. While I can't agree with every conclusion at which he arrived, this book has equipped me with a framework that will assist me in finding meaning in Old Testament narrative. ...more
Nov 28, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is the first major book-length treatment of the Bible as literature, and was published in the 1980s. I especially enjoyed the chapter, "Composite Artistry." In that chapter Alter showed that contradictions in the Bible were due not to sloppiness by the unsophisticated ancients, was often assumed, but the deliberate thrust of a literary genius.

Most memorable was the section on the 2 different creation accounts in Genesis. The (P) account (Gen. 1-2:4) presents an orderly narrative of the crea
Oct 25, 2011 rated it liked it
Definitely a mixed bag, but Alter makes his point well: the Bible is not a poorly written, sketchy book. It is, in fact, the most carefully written, well-thought out, systematic book you will ever read.
Jul 08, 2011 rated it it was amazing
A pleasure to read. Demonstrates very simply how masterful (even crafty!) the Scriptures are, with many practical tips on reading between the lines in the Bible.
Taylor Swift Scholar
Feb 28, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: christmas-list
Oh my goodness I love this book. Alter's essential argument is that a literary approach to the Bible is valid and can yield worthwhile insight. In order to achieve this, he provides examples of his own analysis, some of which are so well done that they made me want to cry. Offering a masterclass in close-reading, Alter insists that the reader takes the Bible on its own terms rather than assuming that the text we have now is the error of a redactor or the product of archaic minds (or, on the othe ...more
Cheyanne Welch
“Subsequent religious tradition has by and large encouraged us to take the Bible seriously rather than to enjoy it, but the paradoxical truth of the matter may well be that by learning to enjoy the biblical stories more fully as stories, we shall also come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us about God, man, and the perilously momentous realm of history” (235).

I thoroughly enjoyed this critical analysis of literary techniques used by biblical writers and how understanding these techniqu
Katie Stahl
Apr 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Brilliant. Robert Alter has changed the way I read the Bible. In this book he shows how the biblical stories are not crude and simple, but woven together with great literary imagination. To quote him, “The human figures that move through this landscape thus seem livelier, more complicated and various, than one’s preconceptions might have allowed.”
Jesse Rice
Jan 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
Religious tradition pushes us to treat the Bible seriously, but the paradox may be that learning to enjoy the Bible as story May help us more clearly understand what it says about God, man, and existence. (189, paraphrase)

Very good book. Should reread someday.
Apr 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Brilliant. As a former English Lit student who loves the Bible, an utter delight.
B. P. C.
A pleasure to read. Despite his general acceptance of the psychotic consensus of source criticism, he is a very attentive reader and provides great insights. Christian readers would do well to follow his "method", which he summarizes in the Conclusion. ...more
May 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
Not a casual read—each page weighs about twenty pounds. That being said, I loved Alter's breakdowns of biblical stories, especially his frequent reference to Joseph in Egypt. ...more
Laurent Dv
Jan 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
Good book that gives insights for interpreting biblical narratives (through repetition, narration, speechs, revelations, type-scenes etc), with a lot of examples (David's story, Joseph's). But written by (I think ?) a jewish scholar so it doesn't take Jesus and redemptive-history into account. ...more
Mary Overton
"The biblical tale, through the most rigorous economy of means, leads us again and again to ponder complexities of motive and ambiguities of character because these are essential aspects of its vision of man, created by God, enjoying or suffering all the consequences of human freedom.... Almost the whole range of biblical narrative ... embodies the basic perception that man must live before God, in the transforming medium of time, incessantly and perplexingly in relation with others." loc 473

Koen Crolla
Alter is deeply, almost aggressively ignorant of the history of both the Hebrew Bible itself and the region in which its stories take place, but doesn't let that stop him from delineating historical fact and fancy, and projecting, evidence-free, scores of motives onto both the writers of the Bible and their original target audience, usually in exactly the smug and self-indulgent way his stereotype as a literary analyst demands.
If his point is that Hebrew Bible's legendary dullness is mostly a co
Graham Heslop
Aug 21, 2014 rated it really liked it
“Religious tradition has by and large encouraged us to take the Bible seriously rather than enjoy it, but the paradoxical truth of the matter may well be that by learning to enjoy the biblical stories more fully as stories, we shall also come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us about God, man, and the perilously momentous realm of history”. So ends Robert Alter’s seminal contribution to biblical literary criticism. I am convinced that any serious biblical scholar, and not only Old Test ...more
Jan 09, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: old-testament
I really enjoyed this book. Alter walks through the literary features of the Hebrew Bible (within the narrative accounts). There are so many great insights in this book.

While Alter identifies the historical impulse behind the biblical text, he doesn't hold up the historicity of everything in the biblical account which I would. However his attention to the literary artistry and examination of the Hebrew idiom and literary conventions (i.e. repetition of key words, variations in repeated words, ec
Oct 29, 2011 rated it it was amazing
"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 a 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 t ...more
Jan 25, 2008 rated it did not like it
Shelves: christian, abandoned
I did try with this. It's written from a Jewish perspective, supposedly showing how the Old Testament is written with various literary styles, and the significance of them. It sounded interesting, and was one of the required books for a theology course my son took.

Unfortunately, it was verbose and rather tedious, at least in the first couple of chapters. Worse, it spent far too long criticising many other writers who had written on similar topics. Perhaps the criticisms were valid, but they didn
Andy Oram
Jan 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: religion, literature
Alter turns the gem we've inherited in the form of the Jewish Bible to a new facet and shows that the unknown authors of these texts used considerable skill--perhaps inventing a narrative style that never before existed--to leave the reader with philosophical and moral complexities as sophisticated as anything we'll find in modern literature. I don't believe that reading this book is enough to turn the average American into a literary analyst of the Bible, because a sense of narrative has to be ...more
Dec 16, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: books-of-2012, bible
This is a very insightful piece on how to read the Bible as narrative. So 4+ stars for moments of insight but dips here and there due to the secular Jewish perspective of Alter. However, really worthwhile all the way through.
Daniel Wright
If you read this book, you may well get bogged down in the dryness of the prose several times. On the other hand, if you read this book, you will certainly never read the Old Testament in the same way again.
John Sims
Aug 09, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Fantastic analysis of the Hebrew text from a secular literary perspective. Alter is a genius at bringing the stories of the bible into beautiful detail, and he gives the reader the tools to do the same. I would recommend this to anyone who has ever seen the bible as being "crudely written". ...more
Sung Min
Jul 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Watershed of literary criticism of the Scripture. Classic. Read over and over again.
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Robert Bernard Alter is an American professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, where he has taught since 1967, and has published many acclaimed works on the Bible, literary modernism, and contemporary Hebrew literature.

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