More than Fairy Tales: A Look at Biblical Narrative

The following are some thoughts from the first two chapters of The Art of Biblical Narrative, by Robert Alter.

He provides some provocative and helpful counter thoughts to our modern, Western and very systematic forms of interpreting the Bible. I think Alter elevates the value of reading the Bible for enjoyment of the art and also with regard to examining the style in which the authors wrote. He seems to be offering a very different approach to conventional biblical interpretation of narrative. He shows that many seem to have missed viewing the biblical narratives through an appreciation of it as an art-form. He notices that other great works of literature have received much more attention than the Bible on the literary styles. (p.95 of 1122) While he doesn’t want to devalue the theological and historical purposes for studying biblical narrative, he desires to elevate the value of studying it as literature.

If I have any concerns, regarding Alter’s approach, it would be his leaning towards describing biblical narrative with words such as fiction, allegory, parable and even fairy tale. I think he does this to spark conversation about the author’s writing style and use of imagination and not necessarily to discount the historical accuracy of the texts. He does say, “The biblical authors are of course constantly, urgently conscious of telling a story in order to reveal the imperative truth of God’s works in history and of Israel’s hopes and failings” (p.268 of 1122). I believe that the authors used creativity and freedom in their writings, which in no way minimizes their inspiration from God. Appreciating their writings as an elaborate art, pointing the reader to all kinds of ways that God is working in history and in that these understandings may not be immediately apparent increases their appeal to me. They are not merely a story to glean moral principles from or simply a historical account to remember.

One element I thought was valuable was his discussion of the account of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38. It may seem to some as a random insertion of a random story. But perhaps it is a masterful plan to not only cause some suspense in the Joseph account, but to align with a common theme of how God is working through history to highlight a genealogy that points to Jesus. Even Judah can’t change God’s plan. As Alter writes, “[Judah] learning through his own obstreperous flesh that the divinely appointed process of election cannot be thwarted by human will or social convention” (p.82 of 1122). (Yes I had to look up the word “obstreperous,” which means unruly or uncontrollable).

So biblical narrative is much more than stories to recount and systematize, but is a legitimate art-form that can lead us to masterful insights that God has orchestrated.

(Note: the references use variable page numbers due to the use of an iBook).


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