Literature as the Bible

The Literary Guide to the Bible

edited by Robert Alter, edited by Frank Kermode
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 678 pp., $29.95


What happens when we attempt to read the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament in some of the same ways that we read Homer or Shakespeare, Wordsworth or Proust? Is such an attempt legitimate? Should we say that the distinction between sacred and secular literature is wholly social and political, and so is not a literary distinction at all? The ancient vexed relation between poetry and belief perhaps reduces to the question of whether any single poem or story can be more sacred than any other. I myself have come to the opinion that it makes sense to assert that all strong literature is sacred, and just as much sense to insist that all of it is secular. What is less sensible, I think, is to say that some great literature is more sacred or more secular than some other.

No aesthetic criterion could have admitted Leviticus to the Hebrew Bible, and yet it would be astonishing if the Song of Songs had become canonical on any ground except that of aesthetic judgment. The great Akiba, the dominant rabbi among those who formulated Judaism in the second century of the Common Era, acted as a superb literary critic when he insisted that the Song become part of the canon. Most of the Hebrew Bible indeed seems to reflect a powerful series of aesthetic judgments on the part of its canonizers. The J writer or Yahwist, the originator of most of what we now call Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, is a maker comparable to Homer, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy, and in his expressive power surpasses any other biblical author, including his revisionist, the E writer or Elohist.

The J writer is believed to have done his work in 950–900 BCE, whereas the E writer, who revised him severely, wrote one hundred years later. The Elohist or E Source, as sometimes he is called, can be said to have begun that long process in which the audacities of J were tempered into what eventually became Rabbinical tradition. But so uncanny is the Yahwist in his portraits of Yahweh that only the literary power of the writing could have preserved so shocking a vision of God from being erased completely by later editors, who must have felt Him to be too much an impish and willful personality, and not sufficiently abstract. The Hebrew Bible, from its origins onward, is anything but a theological library; it is the product of aesthetic choices.

Robert Alter and Frank Kermode are literary critics of wide experience and formidable learning, and each has made considerable contributions to what they call the literary study of the Bible. Their joint “General Introduction” is in what Emerson called the Optative Mood and expresses the modest hope that their choice of contributors, of “literary critics interested in the Bible and competent to discuss it, and…biblical scholars interested in literary criticism,” has brought about “a happy union of the two disciplines.” Unfortunately, an authentic literary criticism of the Bible is still in its…

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