Alter questions how theBible can evoke such depth, complex and vivid characters when so little isrevealed about them. He argues that the result is achieved by the use of contrastingBiblical narrative techniques to reveal knowledge about a character. Thesetechniques form an ‘ascending scale of certainties’, which deems certain formsof knowledge as inferior. The highest level of certainty is awarded to reliable narrative accountsconcerning the character’s feelings, intentions or desires. This is representedby 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 themotivation for Saul’s plot in which ‘the Philistines can strike him Daviddown’. Speech constitutes a mid-level of certainty; outward speech oftendepends 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 betrue through speech and her actions during David’s crisis.
However, theaudience is never made aware of Michal’s feelings about David’s remarriages nortowards her new husband. Actions and appearance are rendered the lowest form ofcertainty, leading to inference alone, as seen through David. His speech isrestricted to public context, thus holding ulterior political intentions. Thereader has no notion of David’s thoughts, feelings or the true motivationsbehind his actions; whether he is solely following expected behaviour beforethe King, whether he is aware of David’s plans and what his intention formarrying Michal is.
Alter asserts that the narrator consciously allows room for each ofthese claims to exist, precisely through the lack of specification. David’sambiguous nature is a deliberate narrative choice to solidify David as both apublic and private man. For example, David’s public persona is seeminglyunconcerned by the death of his son as the news is followed by nine fast-pacedverbs concerning David’s mundane actions. Moreover, the writer is careful to conceal his own feelings, accepting David’sdivine election, but neglecting to explain whether such theologicalentitlements justify moral wrongs.
The breaking off of dialogue between Michaland David’s argument and the barrenness of Michal may not be necessarily reducedto a definite relation between cause (Michal rebuking the King) and effect(David or God’s condemnation). Rather, this technique may be the narrator’s attemptto demand the reader’s awareness that a straightforward understanding of theBible is flawed. Alter thus concludes that the reader should form theirunderstanding of a character through a process of inference from the deliberatelyrevealed certainties by the narrator and an acute awareness of the deliberateambiguity surrounding the character, which represents the unpredictability,ambiguity and changing nature of humanity. Alter’s understanding of a narrator which is decidedlyreticent at chosen times and with certain characters, seems accurate whenconsidering other passages. Throughout Genesis, the inner thoughts and feelingsof a character are rarely revealed, nor is the meaning of an event.
Similarly,in the Book of Ruth, whilst the women explicitly state their positiveevaluation of Ruth, the narrator never does. Often descriptions only correlate to social contextrather than moral judgement or personal detail, like that of Boaz as ‘aprominent rich man’ in 2:1. Details that are revealed by the narrator areoften crucial to the story, like Saul’s height, Samson’s hair, Bathsheba’sbeauty and Job’s righteousness. Moreover, Alter’s conclusion is a strength initself as it rejects any straightforward reading of the Bible and invites thereader 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 withpopular theological concepts like the epistemic distance. It conveys theomniscience of God in comparison to finite human knowledge, as readers strugglewith determining the meaning behind the text and its ambiguities, which areclear only to God. Alter is also careful to reinforce the concept of theomniscient divine narrator by specifying it as a certain mode ofcharacterization, rather than an absence of characterization.
Alter seems to begin from a somewhat flawedunderstand of many Christians approach to the Bible as he mistaken charactersas becoming vivid in the reader’s ‘imagination’. Yet, the lack of factual detailis unimportant as it is the believer’s faith brings these once real individualsto life. He rather too swiftly concludes that because the narrators are ‘ofcourse omniscient’ that the ambiguity surrounding the story must be’deliberate’, failing to take into consideration often contradictory accountsof stories and whether such ambiguity actually is intentional. Nor does he clarifywhether 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 ofdivine revelation; thus, it seems curious that the moral judgements ofcharacters would be left to a flawed human race. Nor does he explore anyexplanations for the emittance of moral judgements, perhaps as morality isoften held to be subjective, or rather to ensure an epistemic distance byallowing readers to develop their own sense of morality. Furthermore, narratorsare similarly generally reticent about God, it is worth questioning thedistinction between such reticence and whether applying such reticence tofinite human characters somewhat lessens our understanding of God as ineffable.Whilst Alter’s ‘scale of ascending certainties’ is clear, it seemsoversimplified and reduces divinely revealed knowledge to a methodological listof superiority and inferiority which is applied to only one story. Alter’s assertion of a decidedly reticentnarrator is important as it seems characteristic of many Biblical passages.
However, he overlooks its significance, making little suggestion of how oneshould readjust the way they interpret the Bible. Perhaps the best approach wouldbe to hold an acute awareness of this narrative technique, questioning itsindividual purpose within each passage alongside a holistic appreciation ofcontext, translation and metaphorical interpretations.