Book Reviews -- By: Anonymous
WTJ 51:1 (Spring 1989) p. 157
Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (eds): The Literary Guide to the Bible. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987. 678. $29.95.
The significance of this huge volume is symbolic rather than actual. Published by a prestigious university press and already widely reviewed in the conspicuous literary journals, this book signals a renewed interest in the Bible by academic literary scholars. With a suddenness that no one could have predicted, the Bible has become part of the canon of literature studied and taught by professional literary scholars.
The whole context in which this book appeared therefore predisposed me to think that it would be a definitive, landmark book. It is not. For reasons that I will note, it is a book that merits no more than passing attention.
The format of the volume is a general introduction to the book by the editors, sections on the Old and New Testaments in which individual books of the Bible are discussed by different scholars, and a concluding section of general essays on specialized topics. Written mainly by biblical scholars rather than literary critics, the resulting book is a tentative, often amateurish, literary analysis of the Bible. Not in a long time have I seen such a nondescript, unsystematic hodgepodge as is represented by this book.
A major problem is that the intended audience is undefined. The title commits the book to provide the most useful initial literary information about the books of the Bible that a reader would benefit from knowing, including an overview of their literary unity, genre, and techniques. Only a few chapters provide this kind of preliminary, essential information.
An alternative plan is certainly defensible, namely, a book for advanced scholars that charts new territory and in which each author develops a specific thesis about the literary nature of the material under consideration. But this is clearly not the type of book it is. The best inference I can draw is that the book is addressed to literary scholars with little knowledge of the Bible. I can say emphatically that the book offers little to biblical scholars who want an initiation into literary approaches to the Bible.
From my perspective as a literary scholar, the book is most notable for its absence of literary commentary. To cite some random examples, the discussion of King Saul does not even hint that this is the indisputable example of literary tragedy in the Bible. Except for a cursory statement in the last paragraph, the chapter on Jonah avoids the most obvious literary aspect of the book—that it is a satire. In the chapter on the Psalms one will look in vain for a discussion of the dynamics of Lyric poetry or metaphor, or a clear statement that a psalm...
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