Alter questions how the
Bible can evoke such depth, complex and vivid characters when so little is
revealed about them. He argues that the result is achieved by the use of contrasting
Biblical narrative techniques to reveal knowledge about a character. These
techniques form an ‘ascending scale of certainties’, which deems certain forms
of knowledge as inferior.
The highest level of certainty is awarded to reliable narrative accounts
concerning the character’s feelings, intentions or desires. This is represented
by Saul in 1 Samuel 18, as the narrator explicitly reveals and even intervenes,
during speech to remind the reader that Saul fears David, thus revealing the
motivation for Saul’s plot in which ‘the Philistines can strike him David
down’. Speech constitutes a mid-level of certainty; outward speech often
depends on context and inward speech may be affected by unconscious motivations.
Alter argues Michal is an example of this: her love for David is shown to be
true through speech and her actions during David’s crisis. However, the
audience is never made aware of Michal’s feelings about David’s remarriages nor
towards her new husband. Actions and appearance are rendered the lowest form of
certainty, leading to inference alone, as seen through David. His speech is
restricted to public context, thus holding ulterior political intentions. The
reader has no notion of David’s thoughts, feelings or the true motivations
behind his actions; whether he is solely following expected behaviour before
the King, whether he is aware of David’s plans and what his intention for
marrying Michal is.
Alter asserts that the narrator consciously allows room for each of
these claims to exist, precisely through the lack of specification. David’s
ambiguous nature is a deliberate narrative choice to solidify David as both a
public and private man. For example, David’s public persona is seemingly
unconcerned by the death of his son as the news is followed by nine fast-paced
verbs concerning David’s mundane actions.
Moreover, the writer is careful to conceal his own feelings, accepting David’s
divine election, but neglecting to explain whether such theological
entitlements justify moral wrongs. The breaking off of dialogue between Michal
and David’s argument and the barrenness of Michal may not be necessarily reduced
to a definite relation between cause (Michal rebuking the King) and effect
(David or God’s condemnation). Rather, this technique may be the narrator’s attempt
to demand the reader’s awareness that a straightforward understanding of the
Bible is flawed. Alter thus concludes that the reader should form their
understanding of a character through a process of inference from the deliberately
revealed certainties by the narrator and an acute awareness of the deliberate
ambiguity surrounding the character, which represents the unpredictability,
ambiguity and changing nature of humanity.
Alter’s understanding of a narrator which is decidedly
reticent at chosen times and with certain characters, seems accurate when
considering other passages. Throughout Genesis, the inner thoughts and feelings
of a character are rarely revealed, nor is the meaning of an event. Similarly,
in the Book of Ruth, whilst the women explicitly state their positive
evaluation of Ruth, the narrator never does. Often descriptions only correlate to social context
rather than moral judgement or personal detail, like that of Boaz as ‘a
prominent rich man’ in 2:1. Details that are revealed by the narrator are
often crucial to the story, like Saul’s height, Samson’s hair, Bathsheba’s
beauty and Job’s righteousness. Moreover, Alter’s conclusion is a strength in
itself as it rejects any straightforward reading of the Bible and invites the
reader into a participatory and active interpretive role with the text,
requiring them to engage more fully with it’s possible meanings. Furthermore,
his conclusion, though he does not state the connection, correlates with
popular theological concepts like the epistemic distance. It conveys the
omniscience of God in comparison to finite human knowledge, as readers struggle
with determining the meaning behind the text and its ambiguities, which are
clear only to God. Alter is also careful to reinforce the concept of the
omniscient divine narrator by specifying it as a certain mode of
characterization, rather than an absence of characterization.
Alter seems to begin from a somewhat flawed
understand of many Christians approach to the Bible as he mistaken characters
as becoming vivid in the reader’s ‘imagination’. Yet, the lack of factual detail
is unimportant as it is the believer’s faith brings these once real individuals
to life. He rather too swiftly concludes that because the narrators are ‘of
course omniscient’ that the ambiguity surrounding the story must be
‘deliberate’, failing to take into consideration often contradictory accounts
of stories and whether such ambiguity actually is intentional. Nor does he clarify
whether there is any distinction between the narrator and the author. Moreover,
Alter repeatedly notes the narrator’s refusal to make moral judgements.
However, he fails to note the significance of this. The Bible is a form of
divine revelation; thus, it seems curious that the moral judgements of
characters would be left to a flawed human race. Nor does he explore any
explanations for the emittance of moral judgements, perhaps as morality is
often held to be subjective, or rather to ensure an epistemic distance by
allowing readers to develop their own sense of morality. Furthermore, narrators
are similarly generally reticent about God, it is worth questioning the
distinction between such reticence and whether applying such reticence to
finite human characters somewhat lessens our understanding of God as ineffable.
Whilst Alter’s ‘scale of ascending certainties’ is clear, it seems
oversimplified and reduces divinely revealed knowledge to a methodological list
of superiority and inferiority which is applied to only one story.
Alter’s assertion of a decidedly reticent
narrator is important as it seems characteristic of many Biblical passages.
However, he overlooks its significance, making little suggestion of how one
should readjust the way they interpret the Bible. Perhaps the best approach would
be to hold an acute awareness of this narrative technique, questioning its
individual purpose within each passage alongside a holistic appreciation of
context, translation and metaphorical interpretations.