THE NARRATIVES of the Hebrew Bible have been watched with an unceasing gaze for more than 2,000 years. They have meant more to more human lives than any other narratives, with the possible exceptions of certain Christian or East Indian texts. In the past 200 years, they have been studied by a new army of heavily armed scholars -- studied linguistically, theologically, archeologically, and in dozens of other sane ways (not to mention the insane); indeed, in all the ways except the obvious, the one in which they above all invite study. They have barely been studied academically as stories, as works of narrative intent and accomplishment. (I stress the lack of academic study because, of course, it has always been as stories -- seductive accounts of credible action -- that the books of Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings have reached the common believer.)
In the early pages of this eagle-eyed book, The Art of Biblical Narrative, Robert Alter outlines the nature of that academic neglect and, while acknowledging his rare precursors in English and modern Hebrew criticism, proposes a pioneering effort of his own. He means to convey to contemporary secular readers the results of his delicate but deep penetration of the ancient texts in their original language (he is a professor of Hebrew as well as comparative literature). In the end, he summarizes his findings thus -- "What I have tried to indicate throughout . . . is that in the Bible many of the clues offered to help us make these linkages and disriminations depend on a distinctive set of narrative procedures which for readers of a later era has to be learned. It has been my own experience . . . that such learning is pleasurable rather than arduous."
A stunningly obvious conclusion, you may think, for the amount of intense scrutiny applied. The stories of the Bible are intricately made toward a conscious purpose; and our discovery of those groundplans will enhance our reception both of the pleasurable tales of human action and of the divine agenda concealed in the fabric. In the face of the current cold gales that blow from French structuralism, Alter's conclusion is the principle that has powered the sovereign literary illuminations of our time -- such works as Erich Auerbach's Mimesis and H. D. F. Kitto's Greek Tragedy. It is the fact that the Hebrew Bible has largely escaped such illumination that lends freshness to Alter's enterprise -- a blessedly old-fashioned freshness.
His procedure is straightforward and generally devoid of the narcissistic son et lumiere of most recent narratology. In successive chapters he discusses, with constant reference to the original language in his own close translation, what he sees as the strategies and vehicles of the stories -- type-scenes, dialogue, verbal and gestural repetition, characterization, and silence. Though he ranges over the whole repertory of stories, he focuses most revealingly on the extended Joseph story of Genesis and the history of David from Samuel and Kings. And he steadily uncovers what seems to me virtual uncontestable evidence for his contention that the stories -- far from being the awkwardly conflated primitive documents that so much scholarship has led us to see -- are as sophisticated in their verbal and formal devices as any other ancient narratives. The largest of his revelations may well prove to be that the narratives -- some perhaps 3.700 years old -- are as technially sophisticated as those 20th-century novels which have preened themselves for dazzlement.
The most valuable consequence of that finding is, again, the best consequence of all the substantial literary criticism since Longinus -- the realization that the most entertaining and enduringly useful kinds of literary complexity are those produced from within by a large and central complexity in the matter of the story itself. Since the mysteries of these brief narratives have provided fuel for most of the motions of western culture -- most frighteningly, in the present confrontation of Israel and Islam -- any set of insights as devoted and intelligent as Alter's is all the more welcome.
Toward the end, he states the main questions he has found in his texts -- "What is it like, the biblical writers seek to know through their art, to be a human being with a divided consciousness -- intermittently loving your brother but hating him even more; resentful or perhaps contemptuous of your father but also capable of the deepest filial regard; stumbling between disastrous ignorance and imperfect knowledge; fiercely asserting your own independence but caught in a tissue of events divinely contrived; outwardly a definite character and inwardly an unstable vortex of greed, ambition, jealously, lust, peity, courage, compassion, and much more?"
It is the richness of Alter's understanding that points up the two weaknesses of his otherwise superb effort. The first is a frequent lapse into distended and jargon-ridden prose. The second is brevity. The quality of his success can only make us feel that the present study is a sketch -- a brilliant preface to the immense examination, line by line, of all canonical Hebrew narrative. May he start it soon.