The Literary Artistry of the Bible (Gen 38)

In his famous literary introduction to the narrative portions of the Bible, Robert Alter opens with an analysis of Gen 38, the passage that I’ll be preaching this coming Lord’s Day.  Noting that traditional higher critical approaches have struggled to make sense of the placement of Gen 38, Alter offers a close reading to the text and observes the many literary and thematic links that connect Gen 38 with what comes before and what comes after.  In sum, he shows that critical methods aren’t necessarily the best way to understand the meaning of the biblical text.

But after analyzing the story in Gen 38, Alter makes an interesting distinction between literary and midrashic approaches.  He says:

There are, however, two essential distinctions between the way the text is treated in the Midrash and the literary approach I am proposing.  First, although the Midrashists did assume the unity of the text, they had little sense of it as a real narrative continuum, as a coherent unfolding story in which the meaning of earlier data is progressively, even systematically, revealed or enriched by the addition of subsequent data.  What this means practically is that the Midrash provides exegesis of specific phrases or narrated actions but not continuous readings of the biblical narratives: small pieces of the text become the foundations of elaborate homiletical structures that have only an intermittent relation to the integral story told by the text.

The second respect in which the midrashic approach to the biblical narratives does not really recognize their literary integrity is the didactic insistence of midrashic interpretation.  One might note that in the formulation recorded in the passages just cited from Bereshit Rabba, God Himself administers a moral rebuke to the twice-sinning Judah, pointing out to him the recurrence of the kid and the verb “to recognize” that links his unjust deception of his father with his justified deception by Tamar.  The thematic point of retaliation, as we have seen, is intimated in this biblical text, but without the suggestion that Judah himself is conscious of the connections.  That is, in the actual literary articulation of the story, we as audience are privileged with a knowledge denied Judah, and so the link between kid and kid, recognize and recognizer, is part of a pattern of dramatic irony, in which the spectator knows something the protagonist doesn’t and should know.  The preservation of Judah’s ignorance here is important, for the final turn of his painful moral education must be withheld for the quandary in which he will find himself later when he encounters Joseph as viceroy of Egypt without realizing his brother’s identity.  The Midrash, on the other hand, concentrating on the present moment in the text and on underscoring a moral point, must make things more explicit than the biblical writer intended.

The Art of Biblical Narrative, pgs. 11-12.

I’m a big fan of the didactic value of the Joseph story, especially as it is linked so closely with themes in Proverbs and wisdom in general, but Alter’s comments are a good reminder that reading the Bible is not primarily about gleaning moral nuggets and items for a “to-do” list.  Instead, reading the Bible means reading a story and responding to its storied and literary features in the way we are supposed to respond.

But also, and this is going beyond Alter, when we read the Scriptures, we are actually participating in the storyline as we too are hearing the word of God and having our own perception of life de-centered by its authoritative interpretation.  Our stories sometimes are misinterpretations, a commitment to fables and myths.  But God’s story is the one that reorients.  When we submit our own interpretation of life to his – submitting our own stories to correction by his own – God grants us the freedom that we can find only by looking to him.

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Rev. R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

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