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A painting by Marc Chagall titled: Adam and Eve, 1912

Poetry and Prophecy, Dust and Ashes

A review of The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, by Robert Alter

Phil Christman

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  • Joel

    I've been intrigued for a while by Alter's translation. Now I want to read more Christman!

  • MICHAEL NACRELLI

    It's disheartening that Christman impugns the integrity and material sufficiency of Scripture. Does he really believe it has nothing to say concerning child molestation? While it might not directly address pedophilia (or abortion, for that matter) its teachings are abundantly clear that children are to be cherished and protected, not abused and exploited for pleasure or killed for convenience.

  • John Sciortino

    That was really fun, equal parts erudite, amusing, and thought provoking. Well done!

  • Alison Phelps

    what a tasty, tantalising and inviting review. Thank you!

In the early 1990s, W. W. Norton, that indefatigable supplier of textbooks, invited the literary scholar Robert Alter to assemble a critical edition of Genesis. Alter countered that he’d have to do his own translation, the existing ones being inadequate. Norton agreed. But, Alter tells us in his new treatise The Art of Bible Translation, “I had not gotten halfway through the first chapter of Genesis before I discovered that there were all sorts of things going on in the Hebrew, many having to do with its literary shaping, that had not been discussed in the conventional commentaries and that I wanted to take up.” The scholar-turned-translator thus found himself launched on a third parallel career, as commentator. Alter’s Genesis appeared in 1996 to rapturous reviews, followed by The David Story (both Samuels and a smattering of Kings) a few years later, then the Pentateuch a few years after that. Those of us who came to love Alter soon found ourselves in a position akin to that of Robert Caro’s or George R.R. Martin’s fans. Would he keep going? What if he lost interest, perhaps taking up a less exacting hobby upon his retirement? What if – morbid thought – he died? But twenty-three years after Genesis, Alter has completed his work: a finished Hebrew Bible, three volumes lovingly footnoted; an altogether worthier object of contemplation than some fantasy series, or Lyndon Johnson. And I, who am but dust and ashes, review it.

From his earliest writings on the Bible, Alter has warred against what he calls “the heresy of explanation”: the tendency among most modern English Bible translators to turn the original text’s weirder idioms into their own English-language explanatory glosses. In his introduction to the three volumes, he lists some examples: translations that describe Onan’s “offspring” where the text gives us the cruder, but simultaneously far more suggestive, “seed”; avoiding the text’s repetition of the metaphorical “hands” (into his hand, in his hand, by his hand, my hand against him) even when this avoidance destroys a careful network of verbal echoes that carry through several chapters; breaking up a large series of actions soldered together into a single sentence by and-constructions (she did this and that and that and that), or turning several linked simple sentences into compound-complex sentences, and thus slowing a patch of narrative meant to read as a series of quick, decisive actions.

After you’ve read Alter, the NRSV or the NIV read like the work of a subcommittee of deans.

He complains forcefully about this kind of thing in The Art of Bible Translation, and sets out a convincing brief guide to some of the Bible’s distinct stylistic devices – the semantic parallelism seen throughout the Psalms, in which the first line sets out an idea and the second elaborates or retraces it; the constant use of punning and wordplay, some of it untranslatable; the kind of repetition in which tiny variations or omissions often speak volumes; a preference for concrete language. His translation, however, makes the strongest argument of all. After you’ve read Alter, the NRSV or the NIV read like the work of a subcommittee of deans. At the same time, he isn’t simply literal, in the manner of Everett Fox, whose jerky, jittery rendering of the Pentateuch makes me feel as though I’m reading Talking Heads lyrics. He makes the text sound strange, but still recognizably English. (A brief example, from Isaiah 1:11: “I am sated with the burnt offerings of rams and the suet of fatted beasts.” As you read you really feel all those ts in your teeth.) In his judiciously-applied literalism and sensitivity to English idiom, he makes possible an encounter with the text that other contemporary translators don’t seem to trust readers with.

I don’t see myself rereading any other version of the Pentateuch but Alter’s in the near future, and any version of the Song of Solomon that avoids the KJV’s unfortunate rendering of verse 5:4 (“my bowels were moved for him”) is an improvement. At the same time, Alter doesn’t fully overshadow the best of his early-modern rivals, Tyndale, Coverdale, and the translators of the KJV. Isaiah 60 is a major literary test for any English Bible translator. In his History of English Prose Rhythm, George Saintsbury wrote that the KVJ’s rendering of this passage was “one of the highest points of English prose,” and you are probably already murmuring its first verse to yourself: “Arise, shine, for thy light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.” (The assonance alone overwhelms – arise/shine/thy/light and is/risen and glory/thee.) Here is what Alter does with it: “Rise, O shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has dawned over you.” I don’t know how he could have done better, in modern English; but with the older rendering in your head, you can’t help feeling that he’s flinched.

Then again, when it comes to the Bible, we all flinch. No other book makes me so know my own readerly laziness. I always set out with good intentions, planning to read every verse slowly, sifting every genealogy for hidden theological claims, limning every ritual instruction and temple spec with the empathy of a fieldworker and the ingenuity of an allegorist. I always get through Genesis just fine. At least, that’s been true since I read Alter’s version back in college – one of a handful of experiences that delivered me from the kind of scared, pious Bible reading that assumes the text is like a lease agreement, too important to be enjoyed. Genesis, in its careful organization, its deft portraiture, its mysteries and silences, most of all its beautifully strange, believably nuanced ending – Joseph, through months of indecision, revealing himself to his brothers via a tortuous and self-torturing process that allows him just enough revenge (can you imagine poor Benjamin, seeing that cup in his bag?) to be believable – is among the loveliest objects in the literary canon. (I want to say that this is self-evidently true, apart from religion, apart from our assumptions about the truthfulness of the text’s worldview, but of course aesthetics and ethics and politics are siblings, like Jubal the herder and Jabal the musician and Tubal-cain the metalworker. They form civilization with continuous reference to each other. And so the aesthetic through which I form a judgment on its loveliness is descended, willy-nilly, from this book.)

Here, reader, my attention will go no further. It turns and rebukes me, like Balaam’s ass.

And I always appreciate the weirdness of early Exodus, but then you hit the back half of the book, where God spends several chapters telling Moses exactly how to build a temple, and then Moses (or his secretary or, fine, be that way, “the redactor”) spends several chapters telling us that that’s exactly how he did it, quoting the earlier passages verbatim, page after page, like Kathy Acker in a particularly sadistic mood, and … here, reader, my attention will go no further. It turns and rebukes me, like Balaam’s ass. Someday, I keep telling myself, I’ll find the proper angle of view to see it whole. My patience with the text will attest to God’s with me.

Still, these are strange and alien volumes, and by this point the Bible’s body count and terrifying strictness have begun to make the alienation more than simply aesthetic. You start to wrestle with a special version of the same problem that worries every theist: if God is all good and merciful, and intends, finally, only restoration and wholeness, then why … all this? Why not skip to the good part? You can ask that question about all human history, and about the millennia of death and extinction that preceded human existence, and also about whatever future is left to life. The books themselves provoke such questioning – “Will you really wipe out the innocent with the guilty?” – even as they forbid it – “Who is this who darkens counsel?”

A painting by Marc Chagall titled: Adam and Eve, 1912

Adam and Eve, 1912 by Marc Chagall

Those doubts only increase with the violence of Joshua, hero to gun-toting colonialists in modern America and modern Israel alike, and Judges, a book that ends in horrifying violence against an unnamed woman. As Israel begins nation-building in earnest (“Give us a king!”), the prophets register their anger at injustice, but they are at least equally insistent about ritual observation and location, a subject about which readers who aren’t practicing Jews don’t even have the option of having an opinion.

At worst, the picture that emerges for a modern reader is of a God more concerned with setting up elaborate rules than with the Dignity of All People and Concern for Individual Human Lives that thumbnail sketches of Western history often credit these texts with inventing. If God actually isn’t like this, then why does God start out by seeming like this? And why inspire a book so easy to misuse? No one has answered this question satisfactorily. No one can. But no one can answer these questions satisfactorily when we pose them about human history, either. The nihilist fails worst of all, since, having explained the slowness and ineffectiveness of the good by refusing to acknowledge its existence, he thus shuts his eyes to more than half of human life.

It is depressing, after so many years, to be asking the Bible the same questions I started asking it at eight years old.

It is depressing, after so many years, to be asking the Bible the same questions I started asking it at eight years old. They are naive ones, but I come by them honestly, having been raised to believe that the Bible could have no mistakes. This hermeneutic could not survive a confrontation with the text’s own complexities, its self-contradictions and frank insufficiency as a rulebook for every question. The Bible has a proof text against eating owls, none against molesting children. It tells us that every person shall answer for their own acts, and that their children will pay for the parents’ sins. It posits universal brotherhood, then tells Israel to kill all the Amorites. Et cetera. Any village atheist can fill in further blanks. To some extent, the contradiction seems patterned, intentional, as though God liked to make rules in order to break them. Some texts insult eunuchs, others exalt them. Some texts seem to promote a hatred of everything that isn’t Israel, but the whole book of Ruth exists to insert alien blood into David’s line. Genesis often seems to justify a world structurally and symbolically situated upon sexual dimorphism, but it also casually lets slip that the first woman came from a man’s interior. (In a pinch, a boy can have a womb, and a woman can drive a tent peg through a skull.) Primogeniture is mandated (Deuteronomy 21:17) and yet constantly reversed – Cain is the first-born, but his worship-offering has something wrong with it. First-born sons go on to suffer many comic indignities in the Bible, as befits the national canon of a second-rate military power, soon conquered and colonized. The normal channels for securing and assigning power keep getting dammed up. I wish that God hadn’t told the Israelites to put other nations to the ban, but I appreciate that he orders Gideon to stack the deck against himself, again and again, winnowing from an army that already excluded newlywed men (per Deuteronomy) also those who simply didn’t feel like fighting (!). Biblical military power, in this story particularly, can seem a thing constituted by its own absence.

Biblical inerrancy is a modern doctrine, and these kinds of reactions, too, invite the accusation that I am judging an ancient text by standards not native to it. Indeed, I am. This is a necessary step in a process called “reading.” My disgust and confusion are forms of information; they measure my distance from the text’s world. A reading that entered fully into the text’s thought-world, that required no haggling or silent dissent on the way, would be a useless exercise – you could bring nothing back from it; it would dissolve like a dream. Nor are such objections simply modern. Alter’s notes detail many instances in which medieval and early-modern textual critics tried to smooth away the violence and contradictions of the text.

The Bible gives us micro-portraits that freeze the heart with recognition.

You can make some sense of these things by reading more widely in the literature of the ancient world. It is bad that David butchers so many people, but he is harder to dislike when you’ve just reread one of Achilles’s many “how-dare-you-steal-my-sex-slave-when-I-kidnapped-her-fair-and-square” tantrums. The epics of Gilgamesh or the Atrahasis move us with their portrayal of the inevitability of death, and their proto-Biblical use of repetition (the worm dangling from dead Enkidu’s corpse), and the surviving scraps of Canaanite epic poetry fascinate us with their very different treatments of motifs that appear later in the Bible (El’s chariot). We certainly appreciate the intermittent concern for widows and orphans that various of these deities express. But the Bible brings a degree of attention to human interiority, and to the feelings of ordinary people, that distinguishes it from every surviving text of comparable antiquity. (The Greek playwrights are its closest rivals.) It has people in it. The Bible gives us micro-portraits that freeze the heart with recognition.

I love, for example, the passive-aggressive competition between Leah and Rachel for Jacob’s attention, which reaches its height in Genesis 30:14-21. Rachel essentially sells her husband to her sister, for the night, for some mandrakes. Leah, the second-choice bride, finds Jacob as he’s on his way home from the fields in evening, brusquely informs him that she has purchased his services, conceives a baby, and names him Zebulun, remarking, “God has granted me a goodly gift. This time my husband will exalt me, for I have borne him six sons.” In the notes, Alter points out the relevant puns and sound-plays between “Zebulun,” “zebed” (gift), and “zabal” (exalt), then glosses the moment thus:

Having born Jacob half a dozen sons, half of the sanctified tribal grouping of twelve, Leah indulges one last time in the poignant illusion that her husband will now love her.

No other ancient texts give me the tragic and the comic thus blended, in prose that we can only call “realistic.”

This term raises the question of genre. The Bible is a library, encompassing epic and saga, poetry and prophecy, but it is also a history. By this I don’t mean that every text is literally true – the creation accounts don’t even seem intended to be read this way – but that we are meant to think of these stories as accounts of actual people and places, with a smattering of universal history and conjecture to set the stories against a wider background. I was shocked, as a youngster, to realize how profoundly the Bible fails the promises that inerrancy makes for it, but I have been equally shocked, as an adult, to learn how often it frustrates the efforts of biblical minimalists to reduce it to an after-the-fact fantasy composed in exile. Books like James Hoffmeier’s Israel in Egypt and Ancient Israel in Sinai assemble an impressive panoply of evidence that these books, however late they were edited into their current form, contain texts that go pretty far back into history, and engage with material realities (cities, practices) no post-exilic poet could have remembered.

What we are left with, then, is an engagingly, frustratingly, horrifyingly human book, full of misery and violence, of ethnic chauvinism and misogyny, of idealism and generosity and forgiveness and humaneness, of, most of all, genealogies and blueprints. (Make the crossbar of acacia wood! No, dangit, I said acacia wood!) It contains much history – biased history, but those terms will always be synonyms, despite the Enlightenment’s long imposition of its biases. And it contains legends, some of them certainly adapted from the cultures it rejects (see Job, for example). And running through it all, a character too weird to be represented by the text, except from the back, who wrestles us, taunts us, makes us, kills us, and invites us, who are but dust and ashes, to respond.

Book cover of The Hebrew Bible by Robert Alter

Get the book: The Hebrew Bible by Robert Alter

Contributed By portrait of Phil Christman Phil Christman

Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing. His work has appeared in The Christian Century, Paste, Books & Culture, the Hedgehog Review, and other publications. His book Midwest Futures is forthcoming.

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