Gunkel’s The Stories of Genesis and Alter’s The Art of the Biblical Narrative
I. The Approach of Hermann Gunkel’s The Stories of Genesis
Gunkel’s approach focuses on the smaller units that make up larger texts, especially in their oral or preliterary stage. He analyzes a text based on its constituent types or forms. He seeks to clarify the form, function and social setting of a text. He argues that when we understand more about the biblical literary forms and the social settings of a text, we will understand more about the meanings of a text.
According to Gunkel, the Hebrew Bible is clearly a composite. For the most part, it was written as the story of the encounter of the people of Israel with their God. However, it is impossible that one and the same divine figure is behind all the stories of Genesis. The stories are subjugating foreign material to Israelite belief. The religion of Genesis is not simply the religion of Israel. The stories of Genesis and the religion of Israel was continually accepting and reshaping. Moreover, the material treated in the stories of Genesis is on the whole neither historical nor etiological in origin. The most important of the patriarchs are figures of poetic imagination. But the narrator and the listener regarded the stories of Genesis as “true” account.
Further, the editors of Genesis were collectors rather than redactors. They were subject to the stories and the servant of the materials. The collectors did, however, supply a link of passages. They received passages that had already been woven into a unity, or they supplied the unity themselves. They left other stories hanging loosely together.
For Gunkel, there are various literary types and forms used in Genesis for different purposes and settings. A biblical author adopted one literary form for expressing a legend and another one for conveying a religious taboo. Readers would make a serious error, if they were to read the Bible as if it belongs to only one literary type or form.
In addition, people use a particular form of speaking or writing in a particular setting.
The type of communication one chooses is related to one’s social circumstances. Likewise, a biblical literary type or form originated in a particular sitz in leben (setting of life). Each form in the Bible was related to its particular social context, circumstance and function. Gunkel believes that readers cannot fully understand the original meanings of a text without knowing the literary form and the social setting of the text.
II. The Approach of Robert Alter’s The Art of the Biblical Narrative
Alter is not interested in how biblical narratives were put together nor in the social or historical context out of which they arose. He concerns with the literary features of texts, such as words, actions, dialogue, narration, theme, characterization, and interlude. He exposes the literary structures and techniques used in fashioning a biblical text through a study of literary devices. As contrasted with Gunkel’s approach, which stresses the use of typical forms, Alter focuses on the distinctive and unique style in texts. He proposes a literary approach to interpret the Hebrew Bible.
According to Alter, the biblical text is an intricately interconnected unity, rather than a patchwork of frequently disparate documents, regardless of the number and types of smaller units that form the building blocks of its composition. However, the stories in the Hebrew Bible are not historiography, but rather the imaginative reenactment of history by gifted writers who organized their materials along certain thematic biases according to their remarkable intuition of the psychology of the characters.
Alter thinks that religious vision of the Bible is given depth and subtlety by being conveyed through the most sophisticated resources of prose fiction. If readers fail to see that the creators of biblical narrative were writers who took pleasure in exploring the formal and imaginative resources of their fictional medium, they will miss much that the biblical stories are meant to convey.
For Alter, literary analysis means the manifold varieties of minutely discriminating attention to the artful use of language, to the shifting play of ideas, conventions, tone, sound, imagery, syntax, narrative viewpoint, compositional units, and much else. Through the approach of literary analysis, we are able to possess the vision of biblical writers more fully by better understanding the messages and meanings of the text.
III. Contributions of Gunkel and Alter
1. Contributions of Gunkel’s Approach
Gunkel is regarded as the father of form criticism. He shifted the interest of biblical study from history to genres of literature. He affirmed the obligation of Hebrew Bible scholars to familiarize themselves with the history, culture, and literature of the Ancient Near East. He was a pioneer in the study of literary forms and oral tradition in the context of Hebrew Bible. He insisted that the study of the history of Israelite literature must be the study of the history of literary forms in Israel.
He proved Genesis as a collection of stories. He demonstrated that the story in Genesis 1) is often in collision with genuine historical tradition, 2) is at times intrinsically incredible, 3) introduced the divinity in person, 4) is embellished history, not debased history, and 5) aims to entertain or engage the attention. It was Gunkel who gained acceptance for the thesis that religion and religious truth can be conveyed as adequately through story as through history.
Gunkel also provided a useful tool and rules to detect the literary types and forms used in the stories of Genesis. For example, regarding the units in the stories, one of Gunkel’s rules is that the more independent a narrative, the more certainly it is preserved in its old form. Regarding the length of stories, the briefer a story, the more likely it is to have been preserved in its old form.
2. Contributions of Alter’s Approach
By analyzing many different passages in the Hebrew Bible, Alter successfully demonstrated that many unconnected or digressive narratives in the Hebrew Bible are closely related to the main narrative. The seemingly digressive narratives is the result not of some automatic mechanism of interpolating traditional materials but of careful splicing of sources by a brilliant literary artist. The Bible is a complete interfusion of literary art with theological, moral, or historiosophical vision. The fullest perception of the latter depends on the fullest grasp of the former.
With regard to the problem of recurrence in the text, Alter provided a valid resolution: instead of relegating every perceived recurrence in the text to duplicated sources or fixed folkloric archetypes, we should begin to see that the resurgence of certain pronounced patterns at certain narrative junctures was conventionally anticipated. It is on that ground of anticipation the biblical authors set words, motifs, themes, personages, and action into an elaborate literary fiction.
Alter also manifested that the fictional imagination, marshalling a broad array of complicating and integrating narrative means, provided a precious medium for making sense of human reality in the radically new light of the monotheistic revelation in the ancient polytheistic context. By using fiction, the biblical writers have bequeathed to our cultural tradition an enduring resource in the Hebrew Bible.
IV. Weaknesses of Gunkel and Alter
1. Weaknesses of Gunkel’s Approaches
Gunkel might overly emphasize on the smaller and original units that made up larger texts and on their oral or preliterary stage of texts. Therefore, he seemed to neglect the final form and stage of the Hebrew Bible. However, it is the final form of texts that most modern people read. In general, they do not see the Hebrew Bible as fragmental or disparately patchwork but a whole and unitary story.
Moreover, Gunkel sought the meanings of smaller units in a text, but he seemed to ignore the integrated meanings of a text as a whole. He put all his efforts to explore the original meanings of a text in the ancient social context, but he might overlook the contemporary meanings of a text in the modern social context. Likewise, when he tried to promote the objective, past meanings of a text, he might neglect the significance of the subjective, present meanings of a text for individual readers.
Finally, Gunkel’s approach may need to be aware of the fact that the text may be primary for most common readers, not the background material. Historical or social exegesis can be a supplement to a text, not an end in itself. We may supply the origin, event or context behind the text only to the extent to which it will aid in understanding the message in the text. Too many background studies may end up replacing the text rather than supplementing it or deepening our understanding of it.
2. Weaknesses of Alter’s Approaches
Alter claimed that it is more precise to describe what happens in biblical narratives as fictionalized history. There are many un-historical legends or fictional stories used in these narratives for literary purpose or theological emphasis. For instance, the post-exilic story in the Book of Esther which presents itself as a piece of political history affecting the main diaspora community is in fact a kind of fairytale. Its comic art departs from historical verisimilitude in ways that pre-exilic Hebrew narrative seldom does, and the story demonstrated God’s providential power in history with a schematic neatness unlike that of earlier historicized fiction in the Bible. Alter also regarded Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz as fictional inventions.
However, Alter’s view may be debatable. First, some stories of biblical figures, such as Esther and Ruth, may be dramatic or fictional for modern people, but may be truly historical events. Second, there are various literary styles in biblical narratives. A biblical story with a literary feature or style which does not consist with the features in the earlier historicized fiction in the Bible should not necessarily be viewed as an un-historical legend or fairytale.
Third, a biblical writer may make an artistic occasion out of the formal limitations of their inherited conventions in order to express some special divine action or historical events. It is also possible for a biblical writer to change his common writing style in order to express an event he thought is special.
Alter also claimed that literary analysis of the Bible is only in its infancy even though this approach of understanding the meanings of biblical narratives is significant. However, Alter may overlook the efforts of his predecessors who also interpret biblical narratives through literary analysis. In fact, in his book Alter quoted many interpretations from Midrash to support his ideas. This may show that ancient Jewish biblical scholars already had a sense of using literary analysis to approach the Bible. Further, many biblical scholars from the past to the present may have fully used literary analysis to interpret the Bible, but they may use different terms to name their approach or they may not use the terms of modern literature to describe their discoveries.