Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, editors (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1987) 678 pp., $29.95
The Bible as Literature: An Introduction
John H. Gabel and Charles B. Wheeler (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986) 278 pp., $24.95
The Bible has been read in many different ways throughout the last two millennia: as divine revelation, as myth and legend, as history and, relatively recently, as literature. Scholars have debated endlessly whether a particular verse is to be ascribed to one author or another, or when, or in some cases if, a particular “historical” event happened. To the lay reader, many of these debates seem arcane or silly: Does it really matter if the work of one, two or three prophets is incorporated into the Book of Isaiah, or whether the First Temple was destroyed in 587 or 586 B.C.E.?a
The new “literary” approaches to the study of the Bible are thus especially welcome to the general community of Bible readers since they offer an opportunity to understand the Bible in a way familiar from everyday life.
Critical approaches focus on the text’s prehistory and its relationship to historical events, often raising problems that offend traditional believers concerning the origin and authority of scripture. Literary approaches, on the other hand, are usually involved in the study of the complete text and its esthetic beauty rather than its historical truth. Therefore, literary analysis of the Bible could be a valuable bridge between traditionalists and nontraditionalists, allowing them to have some common ground for serious Bible study. These two volumes would seem especially welcome since their titles suggest that they are introducing the broad public to the new literary study of the Bible. Both volumes are not, however, equally satisfactory in fulfilling that goal.
Gabel and Wheeler’s The Bible as Literature begins with two excellent chapters on “The Bible as Literature” and “Literary Forms and Strategies in the Bible.” These chapters offer clear explanations of such commonly recognized literary devices’ as hyperbole, metaphor, symbolism, allegory, personification, irony and wordplay. The authors offer diverse, well-chosen examples of each of these devices from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The collection of examples indicates that the Bible is suffused with literary devices and should not be read merely as a straightforward, dry account of the events of the past. Furthermore, the Bible’s use of these devices in some cases puts it in a comparable league with great secular works of literature.
This strong introduction could have served as the basis of a book-by-book examination of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, which would have indicated which literary devices are more prevalent in particular biblical books and which books are more successful from the literary perspective. Instead, this literary discussion is followed by chapters on “The Bible and History,” “The Physical Settings of the Bible,” “The Formation of the Canon,” “The Composition of the Pentateuch” and by surveys of various biblical genres, such as prophesy, wisdom, apocalyptic, gospels and letters. These chapters offer relatively clear but slightly outdated summaries of the critical approaches current in biblical research. These chapters could serve as a good introduction to the general study of the Bible, but are inappropriate for a book entitled The Bible as Literature.
In contrast, the book edited by Alter and Kermode maintains its literary focus. It offers a book-by-book survey of the Bible, which largely sidesteps the “traditional,” critical issues of the text’s prehistory and historicity. The chapter on Genesis disregards source-criticism—the theory that the text is a composite of documents from various time periods. Instead, it focuses on literary issues of the completed text—the symmetries within Genesis and the relationship between the parts of Genesis and the whole book.
The chapter on 1 and 2 Samuel does not discuss the role that Samuel actually played in the institution of the Israelite monarchy, on the dates and extent of Saul’s reign and on the “historical” David. Instead, it examines the various characterizations that the Bible offers of its early kings, and it explores the general structure of the books of Samuel and their significance.
All books of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are covered, generally in an amount of detail appropriate to their literary interest. For example, the 65 chapters of Chronicles, which show certain signs of literary structuring but are esthetically uninspiring, are surveyed in eight pages, while the eight chapters of the Song of Songs, among the most beautiful poetry of 044world literature, are given 15 pages.
The book concludes with a selection of general essays on such issues as canon, the Bible and its historical and literary background, midrash and Bible translations. All of these essays are up-to-date surveys written by experts. They are properly relegated to an appendix, since they do not directly bear on the “literary” study of the Bible, but they do answer basic questions that might interest any serious reader of the biblical text. Therefore, anyone who wants to understand “the Bible as literature” and the range of literary approaches within biblical studies could read the early chapters of Gabel and Wheeler, but would benefit more from the sensitive, diverse essays collected in Alter and Kermode.
The Literary Guide to the Bible
Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, editors
(Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1987) 678 pp., $29.95
The Bible as Literature: An Introduction
You have already read your free article for this month. Please join the BAS Library or become an All Access member of BAS to gain full access to this article and so much more.
The Five Scrolls has been published in three editions: The congregational edition (reviewed here) includes both the translation of the five books and prayers to accompany the reading of the books in the synagogue on the holidays when it is traditional to do so; the next version, without prayers, in a larger format than the congregationnal ($60), and the special limited edition in large format printed on rag paper with a hand-pulled Baskin etching, signed and numbered by the artist ($675). In all three versions, Baskin’s 37 watercolor illustrations are included.