The Bible as Literature?

Article excerpt

Studies in the field of "biblical literary criticism" have proliferated in recent decades. The publication of Robert Alter's 1981 The Art of Biblical Narrative marks the symbolic arrival of a mode of analysis that has now become entrenched in modern biblical research. In this essay it is asked if assumptions about texts predicated on the study of modern literature can be profitably applied to a multi-layered, multiple-authored anthology of ancient provenance such as the Hebrew Bible. As a means of illustrating our concerns we offer a critique of Alter's well-known discussion of the alleged unity and artistic merit of Genesis chapters 37-39. We suggest that exegetes may need to lessen their reliance on pre-fabricated tools of literary analysis. Instead, they will need to develop theoretical and methodological implements that are properly calibrated to the study of collectively and trans-historically composed works of art.

The redaction of the biblical text seems to me not in the least mechanical or haphazard. There are uneven joints here and there but the redactor's work is very purposeful and gives us in the end a book that we can read as a continuum ... the finished product is a carefully redacted narrative unity.

Robert Alter, "Art, Imagination and the Bible: An Interview with Robert Alter."

Every veteran Hebrew Bible instructor marches into the lecture hall armed with a metaphor to help his or her bewildered charges conceptualize the highly unusual process through which this document came to achieve its canonized form. Images culled from the art world have always proven to be sturdy little performers. "Palimpsest" is a term often used as a means of illustrating the multi-layered texture of scripture. (1) William Dever has referred to the Old Testament as a "curated artifact." (2) James Kugel, delightfully enough, once compared the Hebrew Bible to the genre of "junk sculpture." Those who assembled sacred texts in "different stages" are equated with "artists of the 1960s, whose creative eye could turn the front bumper of a Buick into a giant lady's smile, and combine that with other finds of metal and of plastic into a mammoth countenance worthy of our reverence." (3) On the culinary front, Morton Smith described the typical biblical text as "a sort of literary onion which must be peeled layer by layer, not without tears." (4)

Prior to proposing our own preferred classroom metaphor we would like to examine the feasibility of another. In this essay it will be asked if the Hebrew Bible can be justifiably likened to, and theoretically conceptualized in terms of, a work of modern literature. Robert Alter's much celebrated 1981 study The Art of Biblical Narrative is momentous in this regard. (5) Its publication coincides with what one scholar referred to as a "'paradigm shift' in biblical studies from a predominantly historicist to a literary or more generally synchronic approach." (6) It also coincides, in our estimation, with something of a pre-modern turn in contemporary Old Testament research. Alter's many studies of Scripture have, in fact, been dubbed "pre-critical," "apologetic," "neo-fundamentalist," and "Midrashic." But he is certainly not the only interpreter--whether literary critic or trained biblicist--to merit such designations. Countless exegetes presently advocate positions about the Bible qua text that have not been seen, en masse, since the nineteenth century. Studies which affirm the unity, coherence, and unparalleled artistry of Scripture and its component parts are appearing with increasing frequency--and among the most ideologically varied of exegetes no less. By concentrating on Alter's work we will be able to sketch the contours of a hermeneutical conservatism that has gripped biblical scholarship in recent decades. This discussion will position us to suggest a counter-agenda for biblical literary critics to pursue, one that casts exegetes in the uncharacteristic role of exporters, as opposed to perennial importers, of scholarly theories. …