More from Robert Alter: Theological Observations

The art of biblical narrativeI recently posted some gleanings from The Art of Biblical narrative by Robert Alter, highlighting his convincing exhibition of a literary approach to Old Testament narratives and a selection of his critical engagement with modern textual criticism. In this post, I am going to briefly relate some of the helpful conclusions Alter reaches with regards to Old Testament theology. And to keep this post from being nothing more than a compendium of quotes, I have tried to supplement and develop the author’s thoughts with others’. In brief, we will cover an aspect of God’s nature, the human condition, an intersection of divine will and human failure, and the need for faith.

(1) Yahweh is not manipulated. After working through Numbers 22-24, in which Balak, the fearful king of Moab, hires the pagan prophet Balaam to curse Israel, Alter concludes: “Paganism, with its notion that divine powers can be manipulated by a caste of professionals through a set of carefully prescribed procedures is trapped in the reflexes of a mechanistic worldview while from the biblical perspective reality is in fact controlled by the will of an omnipotent God beyond all human manipulation” (p134). Yahweh is omnipotent. He is neither conquered nor controlled. That was the unavoidable conclusion reached and application made when I preached 1 Samuel 5-7, when the Philistines capture the Ark. First, Israel thought that carrying the Ark to battle would thwart the Philistines (4:3-4), only to learn Yahweh is not controlled as they are defeated (4:10-11). Secondly, the triumphant Philistines set up the Ark in the house of their God, Dagon (5:1-2), signifying they had conquered Yahweh. But as the story unfolds the Ark is passed from town to town with alacrity for Yahweh’s hand is heavy against his enemies (see 5:6, 7, 9, 11; 6:3, 5). The reader thus observes how both the Israelites and the Philistines misunderstood Yahweh’s omnipotence. As Alter says, Yahweh is beyond all human manipulation. To quote D.A. Carson, in The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God: “He is unchanging in his being, purposes and perfections.”

Wood carving - Joseph(2) Old Testament anthropology. Because the dominant communicative vehicle of Old Testament stories is dialogue and narrative we are not privileged to introspection and the thoughts behind characters’ actions, characterisation is difficult and quite often unclear. For as Alter says: acts are performed and words are pronounced. That being said, he convincingly shows how Hebrew narrative provides fine insight into the abiding perplexities of man’s creaturely condition (p220). In my previous post I highlighted one of Alter’s more novel points; he argues that whoever gave shape to the integrated Hebrew text may have chosen to combine different versions that on the surface appear contradictory but actually reveal something conflicted about his subject (p181). He models this in his brief commentary on the story of the patriarch Joseph and summates, “the Bible brings us into an inner zone of complex knowledge about human nature, divine intentions, and the strong but sometimes confusing threads that bind the two” (p219; more of this below). Wonderfully worded, he describes mankind’s inner turmoil, “Humankind is the divinely appointed master of creation and an internally divided rebel against the divine scheme, destined to scrabble a painful living from the soil that has been blighted because of man” (p183). The lives of God’s people repeatedly bring out this conflict, within each person and before Yahweh.

(3) Yahweh’s election and human failings. Flowing from the above point to the intersection the omnipotent God and his rebellious creatures, “One of the most probing general perceptions of the biblical writers is that there is often a tension, sometimes perhaps even an absolute contradiction, between election and moral character” (p147). In contrast with competing ideas in the ancient world, the Hebrew conception of man as free in God’s image is fairly unique; God affords his creatures great dignity in placing them as viceroys over his world. Only, as we know, man uses his freedom to rebel against the divine will, which would suggest a irreparable breakdown between creature and Creator, as well as an unworkable incongruence of interest. For man is not only free and rebellious, but even the elect are morally imperfect and worryingly ambiguous characters. Yet, Alter writes, “The human figures in the large biblical landscape act as free agents out of the impulses of a memorable and often fiercely assertive individuality but the actions they perform all ultimately fall into the symmetries and recurrences of God’s comprehensive design” (p141). This point is picked up by Michael Horton in Introducing Covenant Theology, “[Abraham and David’s] personal mistakes (amply recorded) are incapable of thwarting God’s purposes”, not only because of Yahweh’s omnipotence but also because by his unilateral and unconditional promises. Though God’s elect often exhibit questionable morality, inconsistent with their call, neither their status nor God’s electing purposes are endangered by the failure of God’s people.

Faith and vapour(4) Man must live before God. The biblical narratives, properly read, “tell us about God, man, and the perilously momentous realm of history” (p235). We read in Ecclesiastes that life is a vapour, impossible to grasp and uncontrollably transient, always slipping through our hands. It is in these snatched lifetimes that, “Every human agent must be allowed the freedom to struggle with his or her destiny through his or her own words and acts” (p109). Every individual, “in the evanescence of a single lifetime” must untangle the twisted and knotted fibres of “intentions, emotions, and calculations” that constitute our human personality (p110). Alter thinks that the power and enduring appeal of biblical narrative is the translation of this human experience into story, dialogue and event, “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” (p24). The answer that the Old Testament narratives supply, to how we might live in this unstable and ambiguous world, is starkly ingenuous: faith.

Rediscovering the Art of Biblical Narrative

Art of biblical narrative revised and updated“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” (p235). So ends Robert Alter’s seminal contribution to biblical literary criticism, The Art of Biblical Narrative. Since finishing Alter’s masterpiece last year I have wanted to highlight a selection of invaluable points he makes with regards to how we: read biblical narrative; navigate and answer theories of textual criticism; and fully appreciate the Old Testament’s rich theology.

1. A unified and sacred text

Alter’s approach to the Hebrew text treats it as “an intricately interconnected unity” rather than a patchwork of disparate documents (p11). It is tragically ironic that Robert Alter’s view of the Old Testament is higher than much modern Christian scholarship. Modern criticism has not only undermined Scripture’s cohesion but also blinded us to, “the manifold varieties of minutely discriminating attentions…the artful use of language…shifting play of ideas, conventions, tone, sound, imagery, syntax, narrative viewpoint, compositional units, and much else” (p13). For it has caused us to ask, not what the text has to teach us but rather, what these literary phenomena reveal about the history and formation of the text.

You might agree that Alter is right in pointing us to the minutiae as literary mechanisms, yet feel that modern criticism provides the only explanation for the glaring discontinuities, duplications and contradictions in the biblical text. But Alter argues that in order to reach “the fullness of statement they aspired to achieve as writers,” at times they violated what was later decided constitutes a canon of unity and logical coherence (p165), our assumptions regarding literary unity. And a littler later, he adds that we must recognise that “the Hebrew writer might conceivably have known what he was doing” while we do not (p169). What we construe as editorial error may very well be included for a literary function within a carefully crafted narrative, of “composite artistry.”

Blake - Garden of EdenAlthough Alter does not subscribe to the traditional Christian view of inspiration, he does hold revelation and the Hebrew text closely together saying, “With language God creates the world; through language He reveals His design in history to men” (p140). Alter sees this as the underlying assumption of biblical narrative: economically selected and specifically arranged language that does not merely convey the narrative events but serves as an integral and dynamic component in God’s intermittent self-disclosure and frequent non-disclosure. In summary, Alter views the biblical text as a divinely inspired vehicle, in the form of narrative, which addresses and confronts the reader. Modern criticism too often tends towards viewing the Bible as a rudimentary and careless collection of disparate texts, shoddily edited, whose only value in study is the development that led us to the final, albeit rough, product.

2. Critique of modern textual criticism

I have touched on textual criticism generally and will offer some of Alter’s more specific and smarting critiques. Christians and Jews have long regarded the Old Testament as a unitary source of divinely revealed truth, this was, however, before the advent of modern biblical criticism. Now, neither Alter nor myself advocate for some sort of ‘chronological snobbery’ when viewing the Scriptures, but Alter does highlight how the modern view, which readily assaults the idea of a unified text, often fails to consider the Bible with any literary interest (p17). Literary criticism suggests that sources are less important than the artistic and composite whole (p21). And I tend to agree since so much criticism is conjecture, whereas literary criticism looks at the text in its final form for answers.

2.i Source criticism

Alter points out how source criticism seeks to break the Bible into its constituent sources and link those pieces to original life contexts. The first problem with this approach is that a psalm is studied in terms of its hypothetical use at a point of Israel’s history rather than treated as an accomplished piece of poetry. Secondly, source criticism attributes repetition in the Hebrew text to a duplication of sources rather than effective and deliberate literary artistry (p218). When we fail to consider the Bible as literature we run the risk of inventing groundless hypotheses and losing sight of the biblical narrative’s power (p19).

2.ii Redaction criticism

Santa Maria Maggiore“Redaction criticism,” writes Alter, views the Old Testament with a kind of “modern parochialism,” which condescendingly preconceives the ancient text (along with its editors) as simple, because it differs in so many respects to modern works (p23). Alter challenges us to escape the modern provincialism that assumes ‘ancient’ means crude and says we would do well to consider the possibility that whoever gave shape to the integrated text chose to combine versions, perhaps even demonstrating something about his subject with style or content that appears contradictory (p181). Literary criticism, on the other hand, compels the reader to recognise the complexity and subtlety with which it was formally and consciously organised, as artful discourse. What the modern reader might consider contradictory, based on the assumption that the ancient Hebrew writer or editor was inept and unperceptive, may simply have been viewed as superficial in the editorial process; or, as I have repeatedly emphasised, deliberate (p172).

2.iii Postmodernism

Finally, for now, Alter dismisses the postmodern panoply, death of authorial intent, and the rise of reader response. He does not presume to supply a fixed and absolute meaning for any literary text and we would be wise to assent, since narratives are nuanced and elusive in their meaning depending on who is reading them. Yet Alter rejects the contemporary agnosticism about all literary meaning in favour of considering a range of intended meanings (p222). These meanings are anchored in the unified and carefully written, arranged and edited Old Testament Scripture.