After showing the different verbal clues and other elements connecting Genesis 37 and 38, Robert Alter (The Art of the Biblical Narrative [New York: Basic Books, 1981]) offers this summary of the way the Old Testament narratives should be interpreted:
Indeed, an essential aim of the innovative technique of fiction worked out by the ancient Hebrew writers was to produce a cetain indeterminacy of meaning, especially in regard to motive, moral character, and psychology. . . . Meaning, perhaps for the first time in narrative literature, was conceived as a process, requiring continual revision–both in the ordinary sense and in the etymological sense of seeing-again–continual suspension of judgment , weighing of multiple possibilities, brooding over gaps in the information provided. . . .
These notes . . . may illustrate the usefulness of trying to look carefuly into the literary art of the biblical text. This sort of critical discussion, I would contend, far from neglecting the Bible’s religious character, focuses attention on it in a more nuanced way. The implicit theology of the Hebrew Bible dictates a complex moral and psychological realms in biblical narrative because God’s purposes are always entrammeled in history, dependent on the acts of individual men and women for the continuing realization. To scrutinize biblical personages as fictional characters is to see them more sharply in the multifaceted, contradictory aspects of their human individuality, which is the biblical God’s chosen medium for His experiment with Israel and history. Such scrutiny, however, as I hope I have shown, cannot be based merely on an imaginative impression of the story but must be undertaken through minute critical attention to the biblical writer’s articulations of narrative form (12).
If Alter is right, and he is making a compelling case that he is, one wonders what the ramifications his reading has on the documentary hypothesis and other theories that fragment the text by the hands of a myriad of redactors.