The Art of Biblical Narrative


By Robert Alter

Formats and Prices




$16.99 CAD



  1. ebook $12.99 $16.99 CAD
  2. Trade Paperback $17.99 $22.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 26, 2011. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

From celebrated translator of the Hebrew Bible Robert Alter, the classic study of the Bible as literature, a winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Renowned critic and translator Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative has radically expanded our view of the Bible by recasting it as a work of literary art deserving studied criticism. In this seminal work, Alter describes how the Hebrew Bible’s many authors used innovative literary styles and devices such as parallelism, contrastive dialogue, and narrative tempo to tell one of the most revolutionary stories of all time: the revelation of a single God. In so doing, Alter shows, these writers reshaped not only history, but also the art of storytelling itself.


Rogue's Progress
Fielding and the Nature of the Novel
After the Tradition
Modern Hebrew Literature
Partial Magic
Defenses of the Imagination
A Lion for Love: A Critical Biography of Stendhal
Motives for Fiction
The Art of Biblical Poetry
The Invention of Hebrew Prose
The Literary Guide to the Bible (co-editor with Frank Kermode)
The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age
Necessary Angels
The World of Biblical Literature
Hebrew and Modernity
The David Story
Canon and Creativity
The Five Books of Moses
Imagined Cities
Pen of Iron
The Wisdom Books

For Alfred Appel
another kind of plexed artistry

The fate of books, like that of children, is usually not foreseeable by those who bring them into the world. Like many writers, I have more than once fostered the illusion that a particular book of mine was destined to make a great impression, only to discover that its readership seemed to be confined to librarians and my friends and relations. What happened, however, with The Art of Biblical Narrative proved to be quite the opposite.
After having stumbled onto this subject more or less by chance in the later 1970s, a happy accident that led to four published articles, it occurred to me that I had some possibly interesting ideas on how biblical narrative worked that would be worth putting together in a book. I did not have a very clear idea at the time about the potential audience for such a book, though, as with all my writing before then and since, I tried to put what I wanted to say in terms that would be accessible to a general readership and at the same time would be sufficiently rigorous to command the attention of scholars. I was not in the least thinking of framing this work as a textbook, though it turned out that this is one of the uses to which it has been put. The enthusiastic critical reception that the book was given on its publication surprised me a little, perhaps because I thought I was going to annoy readers by ruffling scholarly feathers and otherwise proposing a view of the Bible that might upset common preconceptions. What was even more surprising to me was that as time passed, the book continued to sell steadily, and then, with the advent of e-mail, readers wrote me, as they still do, to say how much the book had meant to them. A friend who always kept a close watch on academic market trends once said to me that the average shelf life of a work of literary scholarship was six years, after which nobody cared about it. His remark was made some fifteen years ago in regard to the longevity of The Art of Biblical Narrative, and now, thirty years after its initial appearance, it still seems to be a book that fills a felt need for many readers, whether their interest in the Bible is religious or literary, academic or cultural.
Writing around 1980, I complained in the first chapter and elsewhere in the book about the woeful absence of literary understanding among professional scholars of the Bible. Some things have changed for the better over the past three decades, but as is often the case with intellectual work, not entirely in the way one would have hoped. Literary analysis is now an accepted emphasis in the guild of Bible scholars, and that is all to the good. (Some reviewers of my Bible translations in the past few years have attributed this development to me, but I am convinced that this is a serious exaggeration. It would almost certainly have happened anyway, and The Art of Biblical Narrative was at most a modest catalyst in the process.) There has been some excellent literary work on the Bible in America, England, France, Belgium, and Israel, but only in patches. I would mention fine books by Ilana Pardes and Yair Zakovitch in Israel, Robert Kawashima in this country, and the Vatican scholar Jean-Pierre Sonnet. But some who have embraced literary perspectives have chosen to ignore text-critical analysis and the rigors of philology, though even in the polemic zeal of The Art of Biblical Narrative, I made clear that these were indispensable tools for dealing with ancient texts. Other Bible scholars, in the supposed interest of literary understanding, have sought to apply to the Bible one or another fashionable academic ideology—postcolonialism, gender studies, radical feminism, deconstruction. My own position remains what it was thirty years ago—that the best way to get a handle on the Bible's literary vehicle is to avoid imposing on it a grid external to it but instead to patiently attend to its minute workings and through such attention inferentially build a picture of its distinctive conventions and techniques.
Going over the 1981 book line by line has been instructive for me, and I hope the resulting revisions will be useful to readers. I have corrected a few minor inaccuracies and added an occasional nuance or amplification to statements made in the original version. There are at least a few points about biblical narrative that I have come to understand better over the years. Some of my argument with biblical sourcecriticism has been tempered in this new version, and I am especially grateful to my good friend and colleague Ron Hendel for going through the book and making specific suggestions in this and other regards. I have inserted a few new pages in the chapter on type-scene because I was trying to define a particular ancient convention, and so it seemed to me that some issues of methodology—especially the relation of type-scene to biblical form-criticism—were worth clarifying. The chapter on composite artistry now incorporates a few qualifications of the original argument because I have come to see that the discrimination of multiple sources can be more fully embraced as a complement to literary analysis than my initial formulations would lead one to think. All in all, however, this revised version remains basically the same book as the one that appeared in 1981, but at least in some regards I think it is now tighter and more precise.
I should add that the most extensive revisions are of the ad hoc translations I originally did of all the biblical passages discussed in the book. Three decades back, I was decidedly too much under the influence of the English translations of the Bible that appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, and, especially, the New Jewish Publication Society translation. I had no notion then that, beginning in the mid-1990s, I would become a translator of the Bible myself. In doing that, I quickly realized that a faithful and effective English version needed to emulate the distinctive stylistic traits of the Hebrew and follow wherever possible its purposeful syntactic contours. Though when I began, I was unsure whether it was really feasible to do this in readable literary English, I became convinced through experience, and through the response of many readers, that this was not an entirely impossible undertaking. In light of my recent experience as a translator, I am rather aghast at the versions I did for the first edition of this book, in which Hebrew sentences that begin with "and" are made to start with "when," "now," "since," and the like, and the lovely eloquence of coordinate clauses in the Hebrew is recast in modernizing subordinate clauses that sound like the daily newspaper. In all instances, then, I have substituted my own subsequently published translations, which cover most of the passages cited, and for a few others I have drawn on as yet unpublished translations that I have done. I would hope that these English versions will convey to readers a better sense of the literary allure and subtlety of the Hebrew narratives that the book is meant to illuminate. With these different translations, then, and with the occasional amplification and tightening of the argument, I offer a refurbished Art of Biblical Narrative that I trust retains the timeliness of the original book.
Berkeley, California
September 2010

This book is intended to be a guide to the intelligent reading of biblical narrative. In the first two chapters I shall try to explain both the need for such a guide and its conceptual rationale, but here a few words may be in order about the procedures I shall follow and the origins of this project.
The aim throughout is to illuminate the distinctive principles of the Bible's narrative art. Numerous examples, both brief and extended, are analyzed, but always with the purpose of illustrating general principles, not to provide a commentary, comprehensive or otherwise, on any particular passage. The term "Bible" here will refer only to the Hebrew Bible. I adhere to the traditional Jewish practice, now widely adopted by biblical scholars, of not using the Christian designation, Old Testament, which implies that the Old is completed only in the New and that together they comprise one continuous work. There are, of course, certain literary as well as theological continuities between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, but the narratives of the latter were written in a different language, at a later time, and, by and large, according to different literary assumptions. It therefore does not seem to me that these two bodies of ancient literature can be comfortably set in the same critical framework, and, in any case, I would not have the linguistic and scholarly competence to deal with the New Testament. The Hebrew Bible itself is a collection of works written at intervals over a stretch of seven or eight centuries; and since the narrative books like Esther and Daniel composed in the latter part of this period, after the Babylonian Exile, generally reflect rather new literary practices, I have concentrated on the great body of works for the most part initially formulated in the preexilic age, that is, the Pentateuch and the Former Prophets.
As far as possible, I have tried to make my argument intelligible to the general reader and at the same time precise enough to be instructive to those who may have a more specialized knowledge of the Bible. When I began this study, I hoped I might be able to throw some new light on the Bible by bringing a literary perspective to bear on it. It is an aspiration I have not relinquished, but I also discovered for myself something unanticipated in the course of minutely examining many biblical texts: that the Bible on its part has a great deal to teach anyone interested in narrative because its seemingly simple, wonderfully complex art offers such splendid illustrations of the primary possibilities of narrative. This book, then, is directed to anyone concerned with the Bible, whether out of cultural or religious motives, and also to students of narrative. Readers in this last category will find no more than a couple of passing allusions to the new narratology that has flourished in France and America over the last decade because, quite frankly, I find its usefulness limited, and I am particularly suspicious of the value of elaborate taxonomies and skeptical as to whether our understanding of narrative is really advanced by the deployment of bristling neologisms like analepsis, intradiegetic, actantial. Occasionally, it has seemed necessary to use an established technical term in order to describe exactly a particular feature of style, syntax, or grammar, but I cling to the belief that it is possible to discuss complex literary matters in a language understandable to all educated people. Beyond such considerations of formulation, my approach differs from that of the new narratologists in my sense that it is important to move from the analysis of formal structures to a deeper understanding of the values, the moral vision embodied in a particular kind of narrative. Precisely for that reason, I think this study may have something to say to readers trying to make sense of the Bible as a momentous document of religious history.
The shape and meaning of any literary text will naturally be dependent to some extent on its linguistic fashioning. Because of that fact, I refer intermittently to matters of word-choice, sound-play, and syntax perceptible in the original Hebrew, occasionally even offering alternative translations to indicate a significant pun. All of this, I think, should be fairly easy for a reader to follow without any knowledge of Hebrew; and the main topics I have chosen are features of biblical narrative that for the most part can be observed reasonably well in translation. (For this reason, I decided not to include a chapter on style, which I had originally contemplated, because it would not have been of much use to readers without Hebrew.) I have done my own translations of all biblical texts cited. The King James Version, of course, remains the magisterial rendering in English, but even in its modern revised form it lacks a good deal in the way of clarity and philological precision, while the various contemporary translations, in striving for just those two qualities, tend to obliterate literary features of the original like expressive syntax, deliberate ambiguity, and purposeful repetition of words. My own versions at times may seem a little awkward, but at least they have the virtue of making evident certain aspects of the original that play an important role in the artistry of biblical narrative.
The earliest idea for this project began with an invitation in 1971 from the Department of Religion at Stanford University to give an informal colloquium on the literary study of the Bible. That session, devoted to Genesis 38 and 39 (echoes of which will be found in chapters 1 and 5 here), turned out to be rather more successful than the carefully meditated public lectures on modern Jewish writing I was giving that week at Stanford. I put my notes for the colloquium away in a drawer, and some four years later, on an impulse, I asked the editors of Commentary whether they would be interested in an article on the need for a literary approach to the Bible. I am grateful to them for their receptivity, and especially to Neal Kozodoy, who encouraged me to make this backward leap of almost three millennia from my usual period of critical specialization. I am even more grateful to the readers of Commentary, so many of whom wrote me or the magazine after the appearance in December 1975 of the first article (in revised form, it now constitutes chapter 1) and convinced me that this was a subject eminently worth pursuing. Three subsequent articles were published in Commentary, in May 1976, October 1978, and November 1980; these now form part of chapter 5 and all of chapter 6 and chapter 8. Slightly shorter versions of chapters 2 and 3 appeared, respectively, in Poetics Today (Spring 1980) and in Critical Inquiry (Winter 1978). I would like to thank the editors of all three journals for their openness to a subject that might have seemed outside the chiefly modern purview of their publications, and I want to express my appreciation for their willingness to place the articles in question at my disposal for this book.
Preliminary versions of some of the material were tried out in the Buckstein Memorial Lectures at Trent University, Ontario, at the Indiana University Institute on Teaching the Bible in Literature Courses, and at a conference on biblical literature sponsored by the University of California at San Diego; and in each case the intelligent responsiveness of the audience helped improve the final version. I have also learned much from the keenness of my students in two graduate seminars on biblical narrative taught at the University of California at Berkeley. My colleague Tom Rosenmeyer was kind enough to respond in critical detail to the published segments of this study, and, though he may not agree with everything I finally say, his good judgment and learning have saved me more than once from invidious simplifications of the Greeks.
Typing and incidental research costs were covered through the assistance of the Committee on Research of the University of California at Berkeley. The typing itself was done by Florence Myer with her usual meticulous care. Finally, I would also like to thank the many biblical scholars who have encouraged me in this undertaking, a few of them old friends, others whom I came to know through the publication of the first two articles. In my polemic beginning, I imagined, as I suppose most of us sometimes like to imagine, that I was going to ruffle a lot of feathers; instead, what I have discovered for the most part among professionals in the field is a generous receptivity to my ideas.
Berkeley, California
August 1980

A Literary Approach to the Bible
WHAT ROLE DOES literary art play in the shaping of biblical narrative? A crucial one, I shall argue, finely modulated from moment to moment, determining in most cases the minute choice of words and reported details, the pace of narration, the small movements of dialogue, and a whole network of ramified interconnections in the text. Before we weigh the theoretical considerations that may explain why this should be so, and also the circumstances of intellectual history that have prevented this essential literary dimension from being sufficiently observed, it would be well to follow the sustained operation of narrative art in a biblical text.
Let me propose for analysis a supposedly interpolated story, because it will give us an opportunity to observe both how it works in itself and how it interacts with the surrounding narrative material. I should like to discuss, then, the story of Tamar and Judah (Genesis 38), which is set in between the selling of Joseph by his brothers and Joseph's appearance as a slave in the household of Potiphar. This story is characterized by E. A. Speiser, in his fine Genesis volume in the Anchor Bible series, as "a completely independent unit," having "no connection with the drama of Joseph, which it interrupts at the conclusion of Act I."1 The alleged interpolation does, of course, as Speiser and others have recognized, build a sense of suspense about the fate of Joseph and a feeling of time elapsed until Joseph shows up in Egypt, but Speiser's failure to see its intimate connections through motif and theme with the Joseph story suggests the limitations of conventional biblical scholarship even at its best. I shall begin with the last five verses of Genesis 37 in order to make clear the links between frame-narrative and interpolation. My translation will at a number of points be deliberately literal to reproduce verbal repetitions or syntactic peculiarities of the original for the purposes of analysis.
Joseph's brothers, one recalls, after selling him into slavery, dip his cherished tunic in goat's blood to show to their father.
"They sent the ornamented tunic and had it brought to their father [note the indirection of their approach to Jacob, even more marked in the Hebrew syntax], and they said: 'This [zot] we found. Recognize, pray [haker-na], is it your son's tunic or not?'" (Gen. 37:32). The brothers are careful to let the contrived object, "this [zot]," do their lying for them—it goes before them literally and syntactically—and of course they appropriately refer to Joseph as "your son," not by name nor as their brother. Jacob now has his prop, and from here on he can improvise his own part: "He recognized it [vayakirah], and he said: 'It is my son's tunic! A vicious beast has devoured him, / Joseph is torn to shreds!" (Gen. 37:33). Haker, the verb for recognition (which we will be seeing more of), stated by the brothers in the imperative, immediately recurs in the perfect tense, Jacob responding at once as the puppet of his sons' manipulation.
It should be observed (I am not sure the scholars have) that when Jacob goes on here to invent a disastrous explanation, left unstated by his sons, for the bloodied tunic, his speech ("A vicious beast ...") switches into formal verse, a neat semantic parallelism that scans with three beats in each verset: ḥayáh raʿáh ʾakhaláthu / taróf toráf Yoséf. Poetry is heightened speech, and the shift to formal verse suggests an element of self-dramatization in the way Jacob picks up the hint of his son's supposed death and declaims it metrically before his familial audience. If this seems fanciful, I would direct attention to how Jacob's bereavement is described in the next two verses: "Jacob rent his clothes and put sackcloth on his loins, and keened for his son many days. All his sons and daughters tried to console him but he refused to be consoled, saying, 'Rather, I will go down to my son in Sheol mourning,' thus did his father bewail him" (Gen. 37:34–35). In two brief verses half a dozen different activities of mourning are recorded, including the refusal to be consoled and direct speech in which the father expresses the wish to mourn until he joins his son in death. (Later, ironically, he will "go down" to his son not to Sheol, the underworld, but to Egypt.) One can hardly dismiss all these gestures of mourning as standard Near Eastern practice, since the degree of specification and synonymity is far beyond the norms of the narrative itself. Thus, just a few verses earlier (Gen. 37:29), when Reuben imagines Joseph is dead, his sincere sense of bereavement is expressed quite simply with "He rent his clothes"—in the Hebrew only two words and a particle.
Finally, the extravagance of Jacob's mourning is pointed up by the verse that immediately follows it and concludes the episode: "But the Midianites had sold him into Egypt to Potiphar, Pharaoh's courtier, the high chamberlain" (Gen. 37:36). Modern translations usually render the initial vav of this verse with something like "meanwhile," but that loses the artful ambiguity of the Bible's parataxis. In this cunningly additive syntax, on the same unbroken narrative continuum in which Jacob is mourning his supposedly devoured son, Midianites are selling the living lad: "And his father bewailed him but the Midianites had sold him"—for even the sentence break would not have been evident in the ancient text. (The same particle vav introduces each of these two clauses, even if it has an adversative sense in the second clause.) The original syntax, as noted, does indicate some opposition and probably a past perfect sense of the verb by placing the subject before the verb ("the Midianites had sold him"), not the normal Hebrew order, and by switching the verb form when the Midianites are introduced. In any case, the transition from Jacob mourning to Joseph sold is more nearly seamless, less relationally marked, than modern translations make it seem.
At this point (Genesis 38), with an appropriately ambiguous formulaic time indication, vayehi baʿet hahi, "And it happened at that time," the narrative leaves Joseph and launches on the enigmatic story of Tamar and Judah. From the very beginning of the excursus, however, pointed connections are made with the main narrative through a whole series of explicit parallels and contrasts:
1. And it happened at this time that Judah went down from his brothers and pitched his tent by an Adullamite named Hirah. 2. And Judah saw there the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua, and he took her and came to bed with her. 3. And she conceived and bore a son and called his name Er. 4. And she conceived again and bore a son and called his name Onan. 5. And she bore still another son and called his name Shelah, and he was in Chezib when she bore him. 6. And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7. And Er, Judah's firstborn, was evil in the eyes of the LORD, and the LORD put him to death. 8. And Judah said to Onan, "Come to bed with your brother's wife and do your duty as brother-in-law for her and raise up seed for your brother." 9. And Onan knew that the seed would not be his, and so when he would come to bed with his brother's wife, he would waste his seed on the ground, so to give no seed to his brother. 10. And what he did was evil in the eyes of the LORD, and He put him to death as well. 11. And Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, "Stay a widow in your father's house until Shelah my son is grown up," for he thought, Lest he, too, die like his brothers. And Tamar went and stayed at her father's house.
The story begins with Judah parting from his brothers, an act conveyed with a rather odd locution, vayered mʾet, literally, "he went down from," and which undoubtedly has the purpose of connecting this separation of one brother from the rest with Joseph's, transmitted with the same verb-root (see, for example, the very beginning of the next chapter: "Joseph was brought down [hurad] to Egypt"). There is thematic justification for the connection since the tale of Judah and his offspring, like the whole Joseph story, and indeed like the entire Book of Genesis, is about the reversal of the iron law of primogeniture, about the election through some devious twist of destiny of a younger son to carry on the line. There is, one might add, genealogical irony in the insertion of this material at this point of the story, for while Joseph, next to the youngest of the sons, will eventually rule over his brothers in his own lifetime as splendidly as he has dreamed, it is Judah, the fourthborn, who will be the progenitor of the kings of Israel, as the end of Genesis 38 will remind us.
In any case, the preceding block of narrative had ended with a father bemoaning what he believed to be the death of his son. Genesis 38 begins with Judah fathering three sons, one after another, recorded in breathless pace. Here, as at other points in the episode, nothing is allowed to detract our focused attention from the primary, problematic subject of the proper channel for the seed (since this is thought of both figuratively and in the most concretely physical way, I have translated it literally throughout). In a triad of verbs that admits nothing adventitious, Judah sees, takes, lies with a woman; and she, responding appropriately, conceives, bears, and—the necessary completion of the genealogical process—gives the son a name. Then, with no narrative indication of any events at all in the intervening time, we move ahead an entire generation to the inexplicable death ("was evil in the eyes of the LORD") of Er, Judah's firstborn, after his marriage to Tamar. The firstborn very often seem to be losers in Genesis by the very condition of their birth—the epithet "firstborn," hardly needed as identification, is asserted twice here, almost as though it explained why Er displeased God—while an inscrutable, unpredictable principle of election other than the "natural" one works itself out. The second son, Onan, however, makes the mistake of rebelling by coitus interruptus against the legal obligations of the system of primogeniture, refusing to act as his dead brother's proxy by impregnating the widow in the brother's name, and so he, too, dies. Interestingly, after we have been exposed to Jacob's extravagant


  • Winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Thought
  • "A groundbreaking study that encourages us to look beneath the theological surface of the biblical text to glimpse its beating heart."—Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times
  • "[An] admirable book....It is truly extraordinary that such familiar tales as those of Joseph and David should acquire so much detail and color, as if perfectly restored."—The New York Times
  • "The results of [Alter's] work give the Bible a fresh voice for a new generation of readers."—Christian Science Monitor
  • "This clearly written book should please anyone interested in the fundamentals of storytelling."—The Washington Post

On Sale
Apr 26, 2011
Page Count
272 pages
Basic Books

Robert Alter

About the Author

Robert Alter is Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a recipient of the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime contributions to American letters, he lives in Berkeley, California.

Learn more about this author