What has become of the so-called literary approach to the Bible since Robert Alter published The Art of Biblical Narrative in 1981? What gave rise to this approach in the first place? How has it been influenced by recent trends in biblical studies and literary scholarship? And what is its future, both in general and as part of the particular project that Prooftexts represents? The essay addresses these questions as a way of introducing what is at stake in the present volume.
If Exodus was the paradigm of revolutionary politics in the seventeenth century, Job was the book that most resonated in the Enlightenment, a period when political, aesthetic, and religious ambitions far exceeded their real powers. Poetry emerged as a central concern at precisely the moment when these limitations were realized, both as a vehicle for recuperating the Biblical text and for imagining a certain divine and political order. Job’s theodicy provided a meeting ground for an entwined poetics and politics during the Enlightenment and, this essay suggests, today as well. The Enlightenment, I suggest, illuminates that version of Biblical poetry articulated by Robert Alter, backlighting it to show some of the political implications of a poetic Bible.
This essay considers Robert Alter’s reading of Job in The Art of Biblical Poetry. It uses his close reading of God’s Whirlwind poem as a point of departure to discuss Melville’s grand homage to Job in Moby-Dick. Special attention is given to Melville’s response to the continental advocates of the aesthetic turn in biblical exegesis in his tantalizing juggling of physical and metaphysical leviathans.
Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981) did not merely aim to elucidate the literary structure of the Bible for a broad audience; it also sought to articulate the moral and theological vision of the Bible. In this respect it parallels the efforts of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, whose essays on biblical translation collected in Die Schrift und ihre Verdeutschung (1936) claimed the mantle of critical scholarship but, more importantly, strove to guide readers to a meaningful encounter with the biblical text. This article argues that a common theological agenda animates both Alter’s and Buber-Rosenzweig’s projects and informs the metaliterary significcance that the authors ascribe to the literary approach to the Bible.
Interpretations of “the Wooing of Rebekah” (Gen. 24) tended to banalize Rebekah’s position. The activation of her perspective, through a close reading of the text, will radically change our understanding of the story, turning it into a tale about bridegroom-swapping. The analysis of Gen. 24 will lead into a broader discussion of counter-stories in the biblical narrative. It is my contention that behind every biblical story there is a latent counter-story that takes part in a conflict of ideologies. The biblical narrative is a polyphony of human perspectives, which reflects a hierarchy of clashing human agendas, whose conflict ultimately serves a divine agenda. Many of the counter-stories in the Bible are driven by women: the divine agenda, which requires voices that are lower in the hierarchy in order to undermine higher ones, maintains a continued coalition with women. This coalition opposes patriarchal and national voices. My analysis is meant to demonstrate how listening to female voices in the biblical narrative increases the text’s exhaustion and can establish a significant factor in the biblical plots and meanings. In doing so we are not projecting on the text an interpretation imposed a priori by a feminist reading strategy, but rather tread its main road.
Robert Alter’s groundbreaking study, The Art of Biblical Narrative, is premised on literary comparisons that are based not on historical contiguity, but on formal similarity. Failing to grasp such comparisons, Alter’s critics have unfairly dismissed his project as “ahistorical” and “anachronistic.” His literary approach to the Bible, however, is in fact historical, just not historicist, realist rather than nominalist. That is, it posits the existence of various literary universals, specifically, the formal narrative possibilities inherent to the medium of literary prose. The theoretical issues involved can be observed in the case of allusion. Allusions in biblical narrative operate according to the literary principle Viktor Shklovsky identified as “defamiliarization.” In contrast, allusions in Homer’s oral epics operate according to the aesthetic principle of familiarity, which according to Walter Benjamin characterizes the traditional art of the storyteller. Thus, literature and oral tradition, poetry and prose, are no mere constructions, but autonomous categories subsisting in the real of language.
This article draws upon Robert Alter’s insights into biblical narrative to challenge the strict dichotomies between “ law” and “narrative” in the Hebrew Bible, demonstrating that both genres share many rhetorical techniques, and providing a template of narrative vision and legal praxis intertwined. It provides close readings of one “ juridical parable” (Nathan’s condemnation of David) and one narrativized, “casuistic” law (the imperative to return lost property) in the Hebrew Bible, concluding that the genres “ law” and “ literature” are modern categories perhaps misapplied to the Hebrew Bible; Alter’s observations about how biblical literature works may be both broadened and tested by including biblical law as an integral part of biblical literature.