The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter

Reviewed by Kyle D. Rapinchuk (click for PDF)

Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. Revised and Updated. New York: Basic Books, 2011. 253 pp. $16.99.

Many would suggest that the Bible is one of the greatest pieces of literature in history. Some would argue that in order for one to consider him or herself well-read, he must have a passable knowledge of the Bible from having read it. Despite this regular insistence regarding the value of the Bible as literature, far fewer have maintained that the biblical authors were great writers themselves. The Bible is merely influential and must-read literature because of its impact, not because of its literary merit. While Robert Alter, Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, acknowledges its authority as a sacred text, he argues in The Art of Biblical Narrative that the Bible also possesses significant literary merit. Alter’s stated goal in this work is to provide a “guide to the intelligent reading of biblical narrative” by illuminating “the distinctive principles of the Bible’s narrative art” (xiii). In other publications, particularly in his work The Art of Biblical Poetry, Alter addresses other facets of biblical literature and demonstrates similar literary merit with respect to Scripture. Because this work is both about Scripture and narrative, Alter identifies his audience as “anyone concerned with the Bible, whether out of cultural or religious motives, and also to students of narrative” (xiv).


Alter organizes his discussion of biblical narrative into eight chapters on the narrative art of the Bible, adding a conclusion for the ninth chapter. In chapter one, Alter introduces and defends the value of a literary approach to the Bible. He uses the interpolated story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 as a case study that demonstrates the internal literary unity between this account and its surrounding context, a position diametrically opposed to the prevailing view that this interpolation lacks any continuity and is a poorly edited addition to an existing Joseph cycle. He identifies the difference between these two approaches as “assuming that the text is an intricately interconnected unity” and “assuming it is a patchwork of frequently disparate documents” (11); Alter clearly associates himself with the former. Alter notes that the literary approach that he is proposing is only in its infancy, but already is producing promising results. Alter defines the literary analysis he proposes as “the manifold varieties of minutely discriminating attention to the artful use of language, to the shifting play of ideas, conventions, tone, sound, imagery, syntax, narrative viewpoint, compositional units, and much else” (11).

In chapter two, Alter begins with the assertion that “history is far more intimately related to fiction than we have been accustomed to assume” (26). As he proceeds in the discussion, Alter suggests that prose fiction was the best means for biblical authors to present history (36). The history which the biblical authors present, however, is not historiography, but rather “the imaginative reenactment of history by a gifted writer who organizes his materials along certain thematic biases and according to his own remarkable intuition of the psychology of the characters” (40). He speaks of this art of biblical prose fiction as “historicized fiction” before adding that it may perhaps be better understood as “fictionalized history” (47).

In chapters three through seven, Alter addresses five conventions of biblical narrative: type-scenes, narration and dialogue, repetition, characterization, and composite artistry. Alter believes that it is the loss of most of these conventions that makes encountering biblical narrative so difficult for readers (55). The first of these lost conventions is what Alter terms type-scenes. These type-scenes are “recurrent narrative episodes attached to the careers of biblical heroes” (60). Alter identifies several common type-scenes in biblical narrative: annunciation of birth, encounter with betrothed at a well, epiphany in a field, the initiatory trial, danger in the desert, and testament of the death of the hero (60). He then uses the betrothal scene as a case study for analyzing type-scenes. He explores the betrothal scenes of Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Moses, Ruth, Saul, David, and Samson, concluding that no one of these should be understood as the primary one, but rather each of them draws on a shared notion of how one should narrate (either orally or written) key events in a hero’s life (77).

In chapter four, the discussion shifts to the relationship between narration and dialogue. Alter’s primary argument is that biblical writers are less concerned with the actions of characters themselves, but rather focuses on how each character responds, and these responses are usually communicated through dialogue (82). He also identifies the prevalence of direct speech over indirect speech. These aspects together lead Alter to conclude that the biblical writers make use of a convention known as narration-through-dialogue (87).

In chapter five, Alter discusses the nature and function of repetition in biblical narratives. One of the primary emphases in this chapter is the identification of Leitwort, or the significant recurrence of a word-root in a text (116-117). Alter then places Leitwort into a scale of repetition moving from smallest to largest: Leitwort, motif, theme, sequence of actions, and type-scene (120-121). One of the most important reasons for recognizing repetition is so that the reader can recognize variations in the repetition. Alter argues that “the ideal reader (originally, listener) is expected to attend closely to the constantly emerging differences in a medium that seems predicated on constant recurrence” (122).

The next convention Alter discusses is characterization. He notes that Hebrew characterization is quite different from the modern conception, which is driven mostly by the novel. Characters can be revealed through actions, dialogue, and comments by the narrator, among others, but one of the key aspects of characterization in Hebrew narrative is the recognition of the “drastic selectivity” of the omniscient narrator (158). In order to demonstrate this convention, Alter uses the example of Michal. Through actions, dialogue, and comments by the narrator, Michal is portrayed alternately as David’s wife and Saul’s daughter depending on the context and purpose of the author.

In chapter seven, Alter addresses the final convention—composite artistry. In this chapter he uses the example of the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram in Numbers 16 to demonstrate how the author intends the reader to see two parties and two catastrophes as one (169). Though it is seemingly contradictory to modern minds, Alter argues that for the Hebrew writers and readers, these could be “mutually reinforcing” (170). This example helps demonstrate how “the biblical method for incorporating multiple perspectives appears to have been not a fusion of views in a single utterance but a montage of viewpoints arranged in sequence” (192).

In chapter eight, Alter returns to narration and argues that the authors used this type of prose fiction presented by an omniscient narrator “because of the kind of knowledge it could make possible” (195). He returns to the Joseph story, this time the final episodes in Egypt with the brothers and the silver, in order to present the reader with an example of how the type of narrative used by the biblical authors can produce knowledge and ultimately serve “as an instrument of insight into these abiding perplexities of man’s creaturely condition” (220).

Alter then reminds the reader in the conclusion of four general rubrics: words, actions, dialogue, and narration (223). His final thoughts are that one ought to reject the notion that we should take the bible seriously rather than enjoy, for it is precisely in enjoying it that one sees more clearly what they say about God, man, and history (235).

Critical Evaluation

Alter has provided in this work a foundational text for those seeking to understand the literary conventions of biblical narrative and the value of literary study on the Bible in general. The fact that Alter’s book has remained a programmatic text since its publication thirty years ago is evidence enough of its influence. Among its numerous strengths, the most consistent strength is Alter’s use of biblical examples and thorough discussion to make his points clear and accessible to the reader. For each of the conventions he discusses, he notes how they are not common to the modern way of thinking. One expects, then, that Alter will have a difficult job explaining such ignored or forgotten conventions to modern readers; yet his use of examples helps clarify these conventions for the reader. For example, he does this well in chapter four when discussing the technique of narration-through-dialogue. After explaining some of the ways that biblical writers used dialogue to drive the narrative, he focuses on occasions where the brief statement of one character and the long, extended dialogue of another character in the story speak volumes about the narrative itself, technique he calls “contrastive dialogue” (91). This is certainly true in his example of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. Potiphar’s wife is depicted in the narrative as repeatedly making the same, short request of Joseph: “Lie with me.” Joseph, in response, gives a lengthy reply about the wickedness of agreeing to her petition (91). Similarly, Amnon petitions his sister Tamar to “Lie with me, sister.” Like Joseph, Tamar gives a lengthy reply in which she strongly pleads with Amnon not to do such a thing (92). Still a third convincing example is Ahithophel and Hushai in 2 Samuel 17. Alter notes how Ahithophel’s “militarily correct advice” is forty words in Hebrew, while Hushai’s devious advice is given in eloquent language and rhetoric nearly three and a half times as long (93). In each of these examples, Alter provides his readers with clear examples that help support his discussion on the literary convention of narration-through-dialogue, specifically contrastive dialogue.

This careful use of examples is not limited to chapter four, but is rather indicative of the entire work with one minor exception. When identifying Leitworter he uses the example of Samuel and Saul and the recurring Leitworter of listen, voice, and word (117). However, unlike his other use of examples, this example is too brief to establish the function of Leitworter and their significance. Moreover, he asserts at the end of the discussion that the key word changes from “listen” to “see,” but he does not explain how it does so or why it would be important (118).

Another strength of Alter’s work is his argument for type-scenes. Alter suggests that there are numerous events in the life of the biblical heroes that follow a type-scene, or recognized pattern that sets the framework for how one would portray a particular event. For example, he argues that whenever the writer desired to present the reader with an annunciation of birth, he would follow certain conventions. Alter describes the annunciation type-scene in the following way: “Now, the crucial central motif in the annunciations type-scene is the barren wife’s being vouchsafed an oracle, a prophecy from a man of God, or a promise from an angel, that she will be granted a son, sometimes with an explicit indication of the son’s destiny, often with the invocation of the formula, ‘At this season next year, you will be embracing a son’” (108). Similarly, he identifies the components of the betrothal type-scene. The betrothal type-scene begins with the future bridegroom, or his surrogate, traveling to a foreign land. Second, he encounters a woman at a well. Third, one of the characters will usually draw water. Fourth, the girl will rush home and tell her family, usually with the use of the word “hurry” or “run.” Finally, a betrothal arrangement will be established between the bridegroom and the girl, usually after invitation to a meal (62). With respect to the betrothal type-scene, Alter then gives examples of Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Moses, Ruth, Saul, David, and Samson. Each of these examples focuses on how the story is told through the lens of the type-scene. In those cases where the narrative varies from the type-scene, Alter suggests an intentional change by the author to alert the reader to portending events. This change is evident, for instance, in Samson’s betrothal. Though he is on foreign soil and sees a girl he wants to marry, there is no well scene, no hospitality, and no arrangement. Rather, he returns to his parents and demands that they acquire her for his wife, and on the way to the arrangement he scoops honey from the lion (Alter suggests this is perhaps a replacement for the well). Alter argues that this break from the type-scene due to Samson’s impatience shows foreshadows the “impetuous rush of Samson’s career” (74).

Though Alter does sufficient work to convince the reader that the biblical authors are indeed using this convention, several problems arise. First, Alter does not discuss the relationship between the literary convention of type-scenes and historical accuracy. The reader may wonder whether the type-scene requires the biblical author to present a character as having acted in a certain manner whether or not he actually did. In many cases, this may seem a minor problem, but it raises the questions of historical truth claims. Did Jacob really meet Rachel in the manner that the text says, or was the author concerned with presenting the event according the convention of the type-scene? If the latter, then can the reader be confident that he actually did receive his brother’s blessing, or could it be that the blessing of a son by his father is yet another type-scene? Without a discussion about the relationship between a literary type-scene and the historical event, how can the reader be confident about the historical truth claims of the text? This issue is further problematic in that Ruth is included as an example of the betrothal type-scene (70-71), but Alter argues elsewhere that “Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz are fictional inventions, probably based on no more than names, if that, preserved in national memory” (38). If Ruth can be an example of a type-scene when not an historical individual, does that mean that Jacob or David may also be fictional? While Ruth’s fictionality would not require David to be fictional, Alter is unclear about the relationship between literary conventions and history. Moreover, this problem surfaces in his conclusion when writes that “fiction fundamentally serves the biblical writers as an instrument of fine insight into these abiding perplexities of man’s creaturely condition” (220). So are the characters of biblical narrative merely paradigmatic of man’s condition, or are they historical, or are they both? Alter never answers this question, and the reader is thus left unsure of how to reconcile the literary conventions with historical concerns. Despite this problem, there seems to be a concern for historical matters when he alters his use of historicized fiction to describe biblical narrative in favor of the term fictionalized history (47). The former suggests that the narratives are primarily fiction, but are given an historical flavor; the latter suggests that the narratives are primarily historical, but are presented by means of fiction and the literary conventions that accompany such writings.


The first publication of this work helped awaken biblical scholars to the value of literary study of the Bible, a movement that has been immensely helpful and produced promising results in the past few decades. However, one of the questions that has arisen from such literary studies is how, if at all, they relate to the historical truth claims of the text. Though Alter’s book is immensely helpful, it is disappointing that he did not do more to address these concerns in the updated edition. Nevertheless, Alter’s audience of those interested in the Bible and students of narrative (xiv) will find this book enlightening and helpful.

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