Revealing the Craft Behind the Writing of Biblical Stories and Poems

In applying textual analysis to the Bible’s original Hebrew, literary scholars contribute as much to our understanding as archaeologists and philologists. Robert Alter’s new translation of the first four prophets offers an excellent example of this.

“Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings: A Translation with Commentary,” by Robert Alter. W.W. Norton, 880 pages, $35

Yehoshua, Ehud, Gidon, Shimshon, David, Yoav, Shaul, Avner… Judging by how they named their sons, the founding generations of the State of Israel favored the warriors and kings from the “former prophets,” the four historical books placed between the Torah and the classical prophets in the Hebrew Bible. Fewer were the names of women that could be gleaned from there, but still we find many a Devora, Hanna, Tamar, Yael and even Ataliah among the founders’ daughters. The memory of the period when Israel and Judah were independent tribes and kingdoms led by swashbuckling heroes appealed to the Jews who were bringing to fruition what for a generation of Zionist theoreticians had been but legends and dreams.

They called their accomplishments a new Shivat Zion, a return to the times of Ezra and Nehemiah, when the Judean state reestablished itself after the Babylonian Exile. (Surprisingly, as Bible scholar Shmuel Ahituv has noted, they did not draw their rhetoric from the conquest led by Joshua.) But the dominant characters in the story of the return from Babylon were scholarly administrators, so instead modern Zionists drew their image of the New Jew from the history told in the suite of volumes from Joshua through Kings. Those books were often read and taught (extensively, in the schools) as a paean to an earlier dramatic time. They embodied a “cultural memory” of a heroic age.

Contemporary readers, in Israel and abroad, see a far more nuanced image in those texts: a series of brief vignettes and longer novellas portraying flawed and inconsistent characters and forming, ultimately, a story of repeated failure. Joshua fails to complete the conquest of Canaan. The “judges” are a series of local chieftains, each more pitiable than the previous one. Their failures make it obvious that the God-as-king idea required retooling with the appointment of a mortal monarch. The monarchy is led by a series of dramatically deficient characters. It splits in two. Over time both halves succumb to foreign empires.

This view of those centuries as a time not only of valor and heroism but also of decline and decay owes much to literary scholars who, in recent decades, have broadened our appreciation of the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. They have taken us far beyond their predecessors (and contemporaries) who were trained in Semitic philology and archaeology. The opening volleys came in the late 1960s from Tel Aviv University scholars Meir Sternberg and Menahem Perry. In the Diaspora, their counterpart, beginning in the early 1970s, was a professor of literature at Berkeley named Robert Alter, whose previous scholarly work had examined the picaresque novel and Stendahl, with some forays into contemporary Hebrew literature.

Alter’s articles on biblical storytelling, followed by volumes on "The Art of Biblical Narrative" and "The Art of Biblical Poetry" (the former available in Hebrew translation) set a new standard for profundity in treating Biblical stories and poems as, of all things, stories and poems. Later, in translations of the Torah, Psalms and the wisdom books, Alter displayed not only his attunement to the arts of story-telling and poetry and his deftness with contemporary English, but also an extensive, almost encyclopedic knowledge of the fruits of biblical scholarship exploring ancient Israel and its surrounding cultures. With the publication now of Alter’s translation of these four historical books, accompanied by an extensive commentary, readers of English have a comprehensive tool for mining the rich veins of significance in the Jewish people’s carefully structured account of its First Commonwealth.

Birth of the hero

The opening of the Samson stories, as rendered and explained by Alter, exemplifies how deeply he can enhance our appreciation of the biblical writers’ craft. The annunciation of the birth of the hero is what Alter famously labeled (40 years ago) a “type scene,” meaning a story pattern used by different authors whose individual artistry is in the variations they offer - sometimes slight and sometimes stark - on the basic pattern. The variant in Judges 13, the announcement of Samson’s birth by a mysterious “man of God,” borders on farce.

Samson’s mother, known only as Manoah’s wife, is visited by a man, looking like a “man of God,” who brings news of the impending birth, in a year’s time, of a son who is to be raised as a Nazirite, meaning he is to drink no wine and never cut his hair — and even his mother is to “guard herself” from wine and strong drink during the pregnancy. Having heard from his wife about the encounter, the blustery Manoah insists on confronting and interrogating the angelic visitor himself. When the visitor reappears, Manoah’s wife fetches her husband. Despite having already heard from her the detailed instructions she has received, Manoah asks the visitor how they are to raise the child. The angel repeats some of his original directions and then states: “From all I said to the woman she must guard herself.”

A rapid reader might miss the truncating of the repeated instructions, and a naïve reader might think that our narrator is simply avoiding pointless repetition. Alter treats the writer with more respect, crediting him with intentionally shaping the dialogue. He observes that the angel has interrupted his own reiteration of the earlier instructions and comments: “There is a little note of annoyance in these words: after all, I already explained to your wife what should be done about the child, and so why are you being so obtuse as to ask me to repeat myself?” Furthermore, Alter points out, what is not repeated is the instruction to leave Samson’s hair unshorn, “as though this were a secret shared between the divine messenger and the woman that neither will entrust to Manoah. In the ensuing story, it is the secret of Samson’s indomitable strength that, when revealed to a woman, brings about his downfall.”

Alter points up the foreshadowing of another central theme in the scene that follows the birth annunciation. Chapter 14 begins: “And Samson went down to Timnah and saw a woman in Timnah of the daughters of the Philistines.” Alter stops our reading after “and saw a woman” and notes: “The first common noun that appears in the Samson narrative is ‘woman,’ a word that will be reiterated and that picks up the repeated use of ‘woman’ in the annunciation scene [i.e., the previous chapter]. ‘Woman’ is also the very first word of dialogue assigned to Samson (and for that reason, this translation follows the syntactic order of the Hebrew).” (His rendition of Samson’s speech begins “A woman I have seen of the daughters of the Philistines in Timnah.”)

Women are central to Samson and his tale. From his attentive mother to the redoubtable Delilah, they shape his destiny from beginning to end, and also garner much of his testosterone-fueled attention. The author of the biblical account sees to it that we get that message throughout the telling of the tale; Alter makes sure we don’t overlook how that message is conveyed.

With Robert Alter’s astute guidance, we come alive to the undercurrents of biblical narratives, from the crossing of the Jordan to the exile on the Euphrates. We are invited to peek beneath the surface to see the undergirding that holds up the carefully crafted images in these tendentious tellings of the Jewish people’s past. Our understanding of the history of the First Commonwealth can never again be as naïve - or as starry-eyed - as that of the mothers and fathers of all those Ehuds and Tamars.

Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based rabbi, writer and translator. He serves as Av Bet Din of the (Masorti/Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly’s rabbinic court in Israel.

Peg Skorpinski