When we are accustomed to a literary genre, such as the Western, we have certain expectations. We expect that a manly hero, who is good with a gun, will defeat some dastardly foe. A writer of the Western can then play with these expectations for dramatic or comic effects.
As an example, Alter talks about the “annunciation type-scene,” in which a heavenly messenger tells a barren woman that she will bear a special son. This kind of scene occurs many times in the Bible, each with significant differences that can enhance dramatic or comic effects, or underline the theme of the story.
Alter is a soft-spoken, careful lecturer who conveys his ideas with great clarity and occasional humor. (It was a special treat for me to discover this lecture because back in the dark ages [circa 1971], Robert Alter was my senior thesis advisor in the UC Berkeley department of comparative literature.)
You can check out the lecture here:
If you’re in the mood for still more biblical studies, check out Harvard professor Jon Levenson’s lecture, Teaching the Binding of Isaac (iTunes).
Levenson was speaking to an audience of fellow educators at Villanova University, and he explores in great depth the book of Genesis story in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Levenson gives the story a close reading and then explores its numerous philosophical and theological implications.
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