The Bible through Literary Eyes

“Now a question which may occur to at least some of you out here is, ‘What really does literature have to do with the Bible?’ After all the Bible is a collection of religious texts and to the extent you might talk about it as literature, you might be doing something rather frivolous, imposing merely aesthetic category on these texts. The fact of the matter is that there is no split, there is no contradiction, between literature and anything else, the greatest spiritual seriousness, the greatest philosophical probing. If you look at the texts that are assembled in the Hebrew Bible, the vast bulk of them are cast either in narrative or poetry, and it’s my contention that in order to see what is going on religiously, in order to see what is the precise nature of the monotheistic revolution effected by the biblical writers, you have to be able to understand the literary form in which they worked. By that understanding you get a more nuanced perception of how they saw human nature, how they saw society, how they saw history, and so forth.” – Robert Alter

I came across Robert Bernard Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, quite recently in an episode of OnScript discussing Deuteronomistic History and the Israelite monarchy. Prof. Alter, by his own admission, is a literary critic who “stumbled” into biblical scholarship quite late in his academic career. His 1981 book, The Art of Biblical Narrative, was a seminal work in biblical scholarship which was part of a revolution in seeing and studying the Hebrew Bible as a sophisticated literary masterpiece. In the 2007 lecture above which draws on his revolutionary work, he introduces some of the prominent and ingenious features of biblical literary art.

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