Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Art of Biblical Narrative


The cloak of Jacob

Key Words Clothing Intrigue Mystery Cunning
Source The Art of Biblical Narrative
Author Alter, Robert
Quote A Literary Approach To The Bible

Alter argues from the premise that Biblical narrative is finely modulated from moment to moment, that the minute choice of words, the pace of narration, small movements of dialogue and a whole network of ramified interconnections in the text.

Sections include
” Exploration of Judah/Tamar story

Genesis 38  Judah & Tamar
Alter picks up on a number of word connections at the end of Gen 37. Here Judah recognises his son s tunic ( h@rfyk@iy@awa from haker although can t find the dictionary form), the go down into the underworld mourning (Gen 37:34-35 in amongst a number of symbols of mourning, note that Jacob will later go down to Egypt after his son).

The numerous items of mourning of Jacob (37:34-35) contrast with Rueben (37:39) who simply tears his clothe (p5)

Also contrast is used in the excess of mourning by Jacob, with that of his son (p7) in Gen 38  Judah simply passes over the death of his two sons  parallel acts and situations are used to comment on each other

The designation (38:11) of Judah his  daughter-in-law reminds us of her designation, which is at the heart of her role in this story.

In 38:12 the consoling of Judah after the death of his wife stands in contrast with Jacob s refusal to be consoled

In 38:14 and 38:19 Tamar moves very quickly in and out of this designation  in the quick sequence of verbs to indicate here change of role (these sequences also mirror each other). This can be compared with the activity of Rebecca in 27:14-17.

The speed of Judah s desperation to sleep with Tamar contrasts with his delay in finding her a husband, and it is this impatience which is his undoing in the story (p9)

The use of haker-na appears in 38:23. Alter (p10) brilliantly connects the use of the verb in different ways in the story  the first for deception, the other for unmasking. Like his Father, Judah is also taken in by a piece of attire. The purpose of God cannot be thwarted.

Finally we move from a tale of exposure through sexual incontinence to a tale of seeming defeat and ultimate triumph through sexual continence  Joseph and Potipher s wife (p10 and Gen 39:1-23)

Literary Interpretation
Alter relates that Midrash had picked up on the haker-na interpretation, although there remain two problems with Midrashic interpretation:
” It doesn t dwell in narrative (p11)
” It has didactic insistence and makes obvious what the Biblical narrative wants to hide. The audience is privileged with knowledge denied Judah (p11). It makes meaning more explicit than the biblical writer intended

Alter insists that literary interpretation sees people as it would fictional characters, to see them in the multi-faceted aspects of their individuality. Literary analysis is about the shifting play of ideas, conventions, tone, sound, imagery, syntax, narrative viewpoint, compositional units, and much else.

Excavative Activity
Excavative activity (both literal and otherwise) enriches the Biblical text, dimly apprehended allusions come into focus. Passages such as Job 7:12 (God s battle with the sea beast) become clear after excavations at Ugarit describe a battle between the ancient land god Baal and the god of the sea Yamm.

Primitive Narrative
After a survey of attempts at Biblical literary study (pp13-16), Alter looks at the work of Auerbach (Mimesis), who shows that the cryptic conciseness of Biblical narrative (p17) is a reflection of profound art, not primitiveness, that there is an arresting starkness of foreground and a freight of background (p17)

Also important is the work of Perry and Sternberg who look at the story of David through ironic eyes, and the gap between what is told and what must be inferred as been deliberately contrived to leave us with two possible meanings. The most frequent criticism is that the Biblical story which is didactic in intention would not indulge in such fancy footwork (p18). That literary studies must take a disciplined look at the text in hand, that literary art fuses with all other moral, theological and historical considerations (p19), the Bible s value as a religious document is intimately connected with its value as literature (p19). This leads us to  a more troublesome understanding of what religious document might be (p19)

In looking at Historical Scholarship
A number of points must be made
” We are looking at the activity of a redactor who may quoting older documents (p19-20)
” That apparently conflicting versions of the same event may not have troubled the original audience, but seemed perfectly justified in a kind of logic which we no longer understand

Questions we might ask include (p20-21)
” Motives  why ascribed or not ascribed
” Descriptions  why minimal or detailed
” time  why dramatic shifts
” dialogue  what is actual dialogue
” in a sparing text, why are designations noted at a particular point in the story
” repetition  when does it occur
Attention to such features  leads not to a more  imaginitive reading of a Biblical narrative but to a more precise one (p21)

When we look at a text, the more we are compelled to notice such features and admire its complexity, here is  artful discourse . The supposed laws of  stylistic unity, noncontradiction, nondigression and nonrepetition would mean that Ulysses, The Sound and the fury, Tristram Shandy and Jealousy would have to be confined to the literary dustbin of shoddily redacted scraps.

The Religious Vision
 What we have to understand better is that the religious vision of the Bible is given depth and subtlety precisely by being conveyed through the most sophisticated resources of prose fiction (p22)

 Almost the whole range of Biblical narrative, however, embodies the basic perception that man must live before God, in the transforming medium of time, incessantly and perplexingly in relation with others; and a literary perspective on the operations of narrative may help us more than any other to see how this perception was translated into stories that have had such a powerful, enduring hold on the imagination (p22)

References Jacob’s bloodied cloak (Genesis 37:32-36)
Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38:1-30)
Preparation of Rebecca (Genesis 27:14-17)
Joseph and Potipher (Genesis 39:1-23)

Letter to Diognetus

They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives.  They love all men, and are persecuted by all.  They are unknown and condemned they are put to death, and restored to life.  They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are lacking all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified.  They are spoken of as evil, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers.

14 Surprises from a History of Christianity

6. Historic reputation is enhanced by intellectual breadth (Hunayn Ibn ‘Ishaq, the Great Translator of Baghdad), kindness towards opponents (Martin of Tours’ protestations against the burning of Priscillian) yet not destroyed by personal arrogance (Jerome)

7. Christians have an uncomfortable predeliction for making things up (the Turin shroud, the donation of Constantine, the Acts of Thomas)

8. The quest for purity can in the long term destroy the integrity of the Church (the Donatists)

9. The quest for unity can be highly divisive (Chalcedon)

10. The history of Christianity is very often a history of decline, failure (Augustine and the City of God) and martyred blood which was not (yet) the seed of the Church (Japan).

11. Historians find it hard to say why people become Christians (the assuaging of personal guilt and the acquisition of power are the most often cited, but also deficient)

12. There are no easy patterns, much that suggests the blessing of God, and much that makes you pray “My God, My God, why did you forsake them?”

13. Innovation comes from the extremes, sustenance comes from holding them together.

14. So much historic Christianity looks very different from my own brand

Those whose first language is numbers

I enjoy this because I enjoy statistics, and because (to paraphrase Churchill) they are the least effective method of understaning what is going on, apart from all the others.  People trot out “lies, damned lies and statistics” and “you can get statistics to prove anything you want”.  Such maxims are a license of personal prejudice and Daily Mail-esque urban myth which always seem to favour the conservative and the elitist.

Statistics are about trying to find the right indicators, manipulating the numbers intelligently and understanding the robustness of our process.

Things I never knew – part 1


The Alexandrians and the Egyptian Church were never too keen on the Chalcedonian compromise (that Christ had two natures, human and divine) and veered into a more Coptic, less Greek, expression of themselves.  Such was their fervour for their Miaphysite believes (that Christ had one nature) that they butchered a Chalcedonian bishop who had been imposed upon them by the Roman Emperor (who by this point was ruling from Constantinople).

Then there were the Nestorians (or Diaphysites) who were similarly aggrieved by Chalcedon, not enough emphasis on the human nature of Christ, referring to Mary as theotokos (mother of God) a denial of the earthly, and they too broke away from the Imperial Church (and thus prospered far away from the Empire, just as the Arian Churches had three or four generations earlier).  Theirs was form of the faith forced into dialogue with other faiths, and produced the story of Barlaam and Josaphat, a Christianised story of Siddharta Gautama, who became the Buddha.  This story was translated, disseminated and celebrated for a millenium in the life of the Church, copies were available in Old Norse, Old Russian, Coptic; versions made their way into Shakespeare, and onto the desk of Fairfax, the English civil war commander.  Thei stories vitality is a parable about the vitality of a form of faith, despite whose missionary commitment and profound piety, we would casually refer to as unorthodox.