Books Faith

Review of “The Art of Biblical Narrative,” by Robert Alter

I finished The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter.


Genre Conventions

Alter argues understanding of the Hebrew Bible is impossible without understanding the literary conventions that its human authors and audience were used to. Alter gives a funny analogy, of a future world in which only ten surviving Westerns remained. Nine featured a gunslinger who could also draw before this enemy. A tenth featured a gunslinger with a broken right arm, who uses a rifle with his left. In that future world, “scholars” of Westerns would conclude, either

1. in the Old West, a hereditary caste of gunslingers (With a genetic predisposition for quick drawing) were given political office, or
2. Westerns are actually garbled retellings of an ancient Aztek legend of a creature that shot fire from its arms

and that all scholars would agree the tenth Western (the sheriff with the lame right arm) came from a different tradition and was inadvertently included as a “Western”


Of course, all those interpretations would be nonsense. A fast-draw gunslinger is a genre convention of a Western. It provides important information about the identity of the hero the audience is supposed to follow. It demonstrates the protective masculinity of the hero. And in the tenth story, the genre convention is there by its absence: the hero overcomes adversity to protect the town in spite of his lameness.

Types of Conventions

Alter breaks down Biblical conventions into a few categories, including

1. lead words — repeated words of word-routes that provide information about a character at a particular time, like heavy use of “stone” after Jacob flees Esau
2. first words – the first direct quote of a character provides special insight into their concerns or personality
3. themes — a pattern repeated situations with one or more characters, like the firstborn’s loss of inheritance in Genesis
4. type scenes — specific complicated scenes that repeat with different characters, like the meeting of future spouses (the “betrothal type-scene”) or the promise of a son by God

Type scenes are the most interesting because by seeing small (or large!) variations we get more insight into characters. Abraham’s betrothal type-scene with Sarah is diplomatic, long-winded, formal, and intentional, befitting his character. In Isaac’s type-scene with Rebecca, Isaac is passive while Rebecca is running the throw, like in their marriage. And in Saul’s type-scene with the young women — the scene is broken off, while Saul runs after Samuel… a tragic comment on a tragic king.


The tragedy of Saul is compounded by his first words — searching for his flock, he is overcome with concern for his family, and asks his servant if they should simply go back. A good, but weak, man, Saul will be overcome and is completely unfit for kingship.

A Minor Complaint

Alter elsewhere stated that the Book of Samuel (1 Samuel 1 thru 1 Kings 1) is the best story in the Hebrew Bible. Having read his translations, I agree. But in Samuel he sees two contradictions/inexplicable duplications that to me are not only consistent but are vital to understanding Saul.


In chronological order, these are

A1. As a test of his future Kingship, Samuel observes that Saul strips off his clothes and writes on the ground. Thus the old saying, “Is Saul, too, among the prophets?”
B1. Saul meets David for the first time, as a lute player who soothes Saul’s madness
B2. Saul asks who David is after David slays Goliath
A2. As the war between Saul and David rages, Saul goes to Samuel. But during the meeting, he stripes off his clothes and writhes on the ground. Thus the old saying, “Is Saul, too, among the prophets?”

  1. Samuel uses the “test of prophecy” to confirm Saul is a fit king.
  2. The reader sees the first hint of madness, that Saul is emotionally unstable
  3. The reader sees an even greater sign of madness, that Saul’s memory is impacted
  4. The reader realizes the “test of prophecy” was misinterpreted: Saul was mad from the beginning and Samuel is a terrible judge of kingship

Alter repeatedly uses analogies to film or Western literature, but completely misses the near-perfect analogy to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Repulsion is shocking because the main character (a sympathetic young woman) is mad for the entire duration of the whole time. But (unlike The Sixth Sense) this does not depend on a character forgetting the past and (unlike Turn of the Screw) the narrator is reliable. The “first hints” of madness are not this or that quirk in the middle of the film: the first hints of madness are the very activities that seemed to confirm the main character was worth rooting for.

The same seems to be true of Saul.

The Narrator

Alter concludes the book not with a dry summary, but an arresting observation: the Narrator of the Hebrew Bible is omniscient (and even knows God’s internal dialog with Himself!) but repeatedly excludes critical information from us. Why don’t we have access to David’s thoughts until the death of his son? Why don’t we know if David promised the kingship to Solomon (all we know is that Bathsheba and Nathan told him he had)? Why don’t we know if David massacred Israelite villages for the Moab king?



Because if we did — suggests Alter — we would know which characters are good and which are evil, like God. We would be able to see with the heart. We would know the truth.

Instead, we see with our eyes. Like young Saul we are forced with multiple conflicting priorities — the flock we are responsible for, our loved ones at home, the young women at the well, the prophet somewhere in the distance — and we must choose where to walk, knowing that God has a plan He has not shared with us.
I read Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative in the Kindle edition.

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