The World of Biblical Literature Summary

Robert Alter


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In view of Alter’s continuing insistence that the Hebrew Bible represents more unity than diversity, it is somewhat ironic that even the casual reader can discern that the chapters of this book were written at different times and places, under different circumstances and for different audiences. Alter admits as much explicitly in his acknowledgments. The result is a book that is uneven in quality and that lacks the integration and focus it needs at the level of argumentation, in spite of a common set of themes that run through it. These themes will be familiar to readers of Alter’s previous works: that biblical criticism has paid too much attention to diverse sources for biblical texts and not enough to the artful result; that literary criticism and close reading of the ancient texts can also not only help one understand the texts better but also recover their original power in one’s reading of them; that art and play and entertainment were as essential to the creation of these texts as was pious religiosity. In the end, however, it is Alter’s specific attention to individual texts, and his ability to open them up to us, that makes this (and all his other books) worth reading.

In his first chapter (“A Peculiar Literature”) Alter presents a sane overview of some of the strengths and weaknesses of recent biblical interpretation, along with his own approach. He is not so polemical as he has been in some of his other works (for example, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 1981, and The Literary Guide to the Bible, 1987, edited with Frank Kermode). Here his attitude toward traditional biblical criticism more closely resembles the stance he adopted in The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985). Still, it is surprising to see him come to this moderate conclusion so late (or, probably more accurately, to see him bounce back and forth depending on his intended audience). Perhaps Alter should be forgiven, since biblical studies is not really his first field, though he certainly has the tools to handle it well. Even so, it is dangerous to judge a field of study by the results of a few, or even the consensus of many.

Chapter 2 (“Biblical Imperatives and Literary Play”) is very uneven, and at more than a few places borders on the silly. For example, when dealing with Esther, Alter suggests that the king’s scepter may be a phallic symbol and that Ahasuerus may be impotent. This is certainly conjecture built on conjecture to rival any that biblical scholars engage in, even the infamous German form critics. Yet Alter is sane and informed on other points, as when he elucidates the underlying role-reversal present in the text of the story of Deborah and Barak. That he misses the opportunity to tie this reversal in with a general reversal theme in Scripture is probably simply due to lack of space and not lack of awareness.

Chapters 3 (“The Literary Character of the Bible”) and 8 were originally part of The Literary Guide to the Bible. Alter’s third chapter gives the impression that he has only read (usually German) form critics interested in the earliest and smallest bits of textual material and modern (usually Israeli) interpreters wishing to defend the integrity of the final textual product. He is better when he reads the text carefully, and does midrashic inner-biblical cross-comparison. His arguments are there based on the evidence, if debatable nevertheless. For example, his treatment of Isaiah 40:12-26 as allusive of the creation account in Genesis on the one hand and of the whirlwind speeches of Job on the other is closely argued and carefully presented. Alter also seems aware of (“excavative”) biblical scholarship and takes it for granted when he wants to. (On the existence of a Deutero-Isaiah and a Deuteronomistic editor, for example, he seems to agree with the scholarly consensus.)

In his fourth chapter (“Narrative Specification and the Power of the Literal”), Alter makes one of his better points (reminiscent of The Art of Biblical Narrative), that it is often narrative specification (for example, the catalog of Goliath’s armor) that gives biblical texts imagistic power. In light of what he does to Harold Bloom in chapter 7 (see below), it is unfortunate that Alter himself seems to fall into a couple of easy traps in chapter 4. He...

(The entire section is 1762 words.)