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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 infancy, by which I mean a criticism as precise as we rightly expect when the subject is Shakespeare or modern poetry.

With only one or two exceptions everything of high literary critical value in this huge volume happens to be written by the two hard-working editors. Alter and Kermode get high marks for their own insights, but are their contributors really the best literary critics they could find? A literary guide to Genesis and Exodus is crucial for everything else that follows, from Leviticus to Revelation. The rest of the Bible relies upon the personages and events at the origins, and these are set forth in Genesis and Exodus. To provide a guide Alter and Kermode give us J.P. Fokkelman, an obsessively technical Dutch scholar of the Bible, who generally carries his elaborate interpretations to an extraordinary degree of baroque complication. Knowing his exhaustive and exhausting Narrative Art in Genesis (1975) and Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel, Vol. I: King David (1981), I approached Fokkelman with a certain wariness, prepared to be numbed by Structuralist fireworks. I regret to report only boredom, while I seriously doubt that Alter and Kermode could consider this, the concluding sentence of Fokkelman on Genesis, to be the helpful literary criticism that they promise buyers of their book:

Thus the theme of brotherhood, a metonymy for the bond that links humanity, is handled with growing complexity from the beginning of Genesis to the end.

You could substitute almost any other work, of any place or any time, for Genesis in that sentence, and you would be just as enlightened.

A reader looking for literary guidance in reading Genesis and Exodus needs as much help as she can get, including a simple explanation of just what kind of palimpsest (by at least three authors) she is struggling to read. Fokkelman begins by dismissing the Higher Criticism, the long line of philological and historical investigation that has taught us to distinguish the very different narrative strands in Genesis and Exodus. Certainly that tradition of scholarship has been reductive and has substituted a supposedly sacred history for the text itself. But Fokkelman, and After and Kermode in printing Fokkelman, simply disregard the major narrative, authorial voice of Genesis and Exodus, J or the Yahwist. If you wish to object that the Yahwist is only a scholarly hypothesis, well then what is Homer? Is it the function of a literary guide to be so synchronic (as Fokkelman is) that the rivalry and differences among authors who follow one another in time are merely ignored? If a reader who purchases the Alter-Kermode Guide wants to know why there happen to be such conflicting visions of God—the one, a surprising personality, the other, an abstract force working for justice—in Genesis and Exodus, shouldn’t the thirty dollars of the purchase bring the buyer a little help?

Some parts of the Hebrew Bible go back 3,300 years. A reader needs all kinds of assistance now in trying to comprehend these early texts, which have become familiar in the wrong way, as it were, because of the squabbles of belief and disbelief. Genesis and Exodus are read as though they were intended to be theological documents rather than narratives. And yet biblical men and women tend to resemble Shakespeare’s characters and Freud’s descriptions of the psyche precisely because the Bible, more than Homer or the Athenian tragedians (except for Euripides), has invented our literary sense of human personality, and so has bequeathed to Shakespeare and to Freud alike what remains our universal sense of human experience. Achilles is half a god, yet when he confronts the Olympians he acknowledges crucial limits, and does not feel the necessity to be everything in himself, and also need not fear that he is nothing. The Hebrew patriarch confronting Yahweh, as Abraham does on the road to Sodom, must argue with God as though he, Abraham, is an equal, while knowing his incommensurateness with God. Hamlet, confronting his father’s ghost or meditating upon death, thinks of himself simultaneously as if he were everything and nothing, a stance as Freudian as it is biblical. A literary critic guiding us through the early books of the Hebrew Bible must explain this duality, and in some dark way even exemplify it, because that is clearly part of the power that Genesis and Exodus have upon us.


My observation that an authentic literary criticism of the Bible barely has begun is hardly an attack upon Alter and Kermode, since I do not hesitate in awarding them the palm as the best guides we have so far in English. There have been more ambitious critics who have written on the Bible, including Erich Auerbach in his Mimesis (1953) and Northrop Frye in The Great Code (1982). Frye’s The Great Code is a work in which the triumph of the New Testament over the Hebrew Bible is complete. Frye’s code, like Erich Auerbach’s employment of what he calls figural interpretation, is only another belated repetition of the Christian appropriation and usurpation of the Hebrew Bible; the Christians set out to “save” what they called the Old Testament from being cast out completely. But that is precisely what they saved—their Old Testament. The New Testament is to a considerable extent a reading of that Old Testament, and it is a very mixed reading indeed. The function of that reading, taken up in more literary terms by Frye and by Auerbach, is to replace a book with a man, the book being the Hebrew scripture and the man being Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

The triumph of the New Testament depends upon its insistence that it fulfills and to some degree cancels its precursors. Try the experiment sometime of calling the Old Testament what it actually is, the Original Testament, and its Christian “completion” the Belated Testament, since that is what it was and is in relation to the Hebrew Bible. But criticism that looks for archetypal patterns, practiced by both Auerbach and Frye, claims that a later text of the Bible “fulfills” an earlier one, rather than revises or distorts it, as is the actual case. Auerbach subtly Christianized the Hebrew Bible by emphasizing elements in it, such as the suffering of individual human beings and the pathos of divine sympathy with human suffering, that count for much more in the Gospels, while Frye frankly does away with the Hebrew Bible, melting it down in the Blakean furnaces of visionary Toronto until it assumes the archetypal contours of Christian myth.

Kermode reads the New Testament in the same empirical way that he reads Joyce’s Ulysses, with the realization that divine acts depend also upon the wills, positive and negative, of human actors. A similar close attention to the surface detail of a text is evident in his Genesis of Secrecy, with its memorable reading of “The Boy in the Shirt,” an enigmatic youth who appears in Mark 14:15–52, and whose presence there hints at a possibility of sexual scandal.

In the work under review, Kermode has written the essays on Matthew and John and a general piece on the biblical canon. Particularly in his reading of the Gospel of Matthew, Kermode shows us how the individual disciples differ from one another, and how these differences are crucial to the working through of the narrative of the Passion of Jesus. In so doing, he does not so much press upon us an awareness of the personalities of Judas, Peter, and the other disciples as compel us to reflect upon their individualities.

A similar restraint is exercised by him even in his reading of John, the fourth Gospel, and surely the most troublesome, particularly to a Jewish critic like myself. The Gospel of John, in Kermode’s overview, is by far the most suggestive and reticent of the New Testament narratives, and Kermode rightly implies that John is the most accomplished writer of a New Testament text, Paul presumably not excluded. I myself would judge John the strongest, because most vividly dramatizing, Christian revisionist of the Hebrew Bible, beyond Paul in this regard. Kermode shrewdly indicates just where John’s literary strength lies:

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