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Meticulous, penetrating readings of the Bible as literature. Alter's multiple talents (critic, comparatist, Hebraist) are all in evidence here as he delves into that strangely neglected field. While Scripture has always provided infinite supplies of grist for the most varied theological, philological, archaeological, etc. mills, its unearthly status as revealed truth has, until recently, helped to discourage literary criticism, apart from either the trifling or reductive sort. Erich Auerbach's splendid explication of the sacrifice of Isaac in Mimesis (English trans., 1953) opened the way for a fruitful kind of modern humanistic exegesis that makes no narrow distinctions between formal structures (presumably ""secular"") and religious meanings in the biblical text. And Alter now gives an extended demonstration of just how well this method can work. He points out, for example, that scholarly carelessness toward the language of Bible stories can be fatal (in mistaking their artful ""selective reticence"" for primitive bareness, or attributing the presence of conflicting versions of a given episode to clumsy editing). Language, he argues, ""is never conceived as a transparent envelope of the narrated events or an aesthetic embellishment of them but as an integral and dynamic component--an insistent dimension--of what is being narrated."" God creates the world and reveals the meaning of history through language. Hence the necessity--and not just pious merit--of close reading. Time and time again, most memorably perhaps in his studies of Genesis, Alter examines the creative use of convention (in ""type-scenes,"" phrasal and incremental repetition, etc.), not simply detecting the cunning of biblical storytellers, but exploring the ""inner zone of complex knowledge about human nature, divine intentions,"" and the powerful but sometimes terribly tangled ties between them. Readers tired of the arcane inanities of ""narratology"" will find Alter both solid and refreshing, and anyone seriously interested in the Bible will find his book a strong, subtle, and continually suggestive performance.

Pub Date: June 12th, 1981
ISBN: 0465022553
Publisher: Basic Books