A Translation of Biblical Proportions


The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary
By Robert Alter
1064 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. $39.95.

Back in the ’70s, I took a course in the Book of Psalms taught by one of America’s most prominent scholars of the Hebrew Bible. We analyzed each word in a dozen or so chapters, learned their etymologies and parsed their complex syntactic interrelationships. We studied the Ancient Near Eastern beliefs and institutions behind those words. We related the Psalms to their original social settings, and we even learned a bit about the reality of the world from which they emerged. (“He leadeth me beside still waters” in Psalm 23 isn’t an image of pastoral tranquility; still waters are murky and dangerous places where one needs a guide in order to pass through safely.)

As we completed each Psalm with a philological analysis of its last word and prepared to move on to the next chapter, one student would raise his hand and be recognized. “But, Professor,” he would ask, “what about the Psalm as poetry? What about the Psalm as prayer?”

The first time the question was posed, the instructor stopped and stared at the student. After a brief moment, he turned the question back to the questioner: “What would you like to say about that?” From then on so it went, final verse after final verse: “But Professor—…?”—“What would you like to say about that?”

Today, one finds that professors of Bible are fluent in the terminology of literary study. They speak of “narrative strategies” and “resumptive repetitions,” and their footnotes refer to studies of comparative literature and literary theory alongside monographs in archaeology and handbooks of Akkadian and Ugaritic. More than any other individual, Professor Robert Alter of the University of California at Berkeley led that revolution. His first two books on Biblical literature, The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981) and The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985), opened new windows for the world of biblical scholarship. They not only presented new questions and introduced new fields of inquiry in the academic study of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), but they provided many of the tools and insights that have guided others in that field for the past three decades. (Alter was not alone in his time, but his works gained wider attention and covered more ground than those of his contemporaries.)

Alter, who occupies a chair of Comparative Literature and whose early books included a critical biography of Stendahl and a collection of pieces on the picaresque novel, has stayed with the study of the Bible for all the intervening years, slowly mastering the scholarly literature in that field and learning to be a discerning consumer of research in related disciplines: Semitic philology, Near Eastern archeology, Assyriology, religious studies. During those years he has produced a series of articles (and one collection), and annotated translations of Genesis (1996) and of the stories of King David from the Book of Samuel (The David Story, 1999).

Now we are treated to a monumental work, the capstone of a career—a wholly new translation of the complete Torah. This richly sensitive rendition threatens to make the standard translations, even the scholarly but accessible version published in the 1960s by the Jewish Publication Society, entirely obsolete. It comes as close as one can imagine to achieving what that work and others like it from Protestant and Catholic scholars aim to accomplish but of which they fall short: it gives us a readable, fluid English translation that nevertheless preserves many of the nuances of style, tone, and level of diction that are to be found by trained readers of the original Hebrew.

Some of the Torah’s literary features are so much on the surface that it is astounding to discover how much other translators have missed. The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) offers two examples. The Hebrew narrative sets up a very obvious contrast between the intent of the people of Babel in building their tower and the intent of the Lord in destroying it by using the same locution for both: hava n…ah (the same as in the song Hava Nagilah—“let’s be happy”). The erudite JPS translation team renders the two verses about the people of Babel as “Come, let us make bricks…” and “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower…,” but then fails to follow up that beginning, giving us instead this account of the divine intent: “Let us, then, go down…” Alter comes through: “Come, let us bake bricks…” [adding in some of the assonant spice of the original nilb’na l’venim, too] and “come, let us build us a city and a tower…” and then “Come, let us go down….” The parallel is as obvious in the translation as in the original.

In the same narrative, the retributive balance is evident in another phrase as well: what the people of Babel fear most is what in fact befalls them as punishment: “lest we be scattered over all the earth,” they say in Alter’s version, and in fact, “the LORD scattered them over all the earth.” JPS’s mismatch: “else we shall be scattered all over the world” is followed by “the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”

Alter is not the first to try to remain true to the literary nuances of the original. The most radical attempt to capture the sound and feel of the Torah in English is the translation by Everett Fox, also titled The Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books, 1995). Fox, blazing a trail parallel to the one made by Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber in German, resists all temptation to produce a smooth English rendition. His work sounds like what it is—a translation. As such it serves to guide the English-speaking student of Torah in the ways of biblical prose and poetry and to entice the reader to approach the original Hebrew text. Reading Fox offers greater challenges than reading Alter, and for the hardworking reader perhaps even more insight, but not every reader is seeking such a challenge.

The most valuable contributions in Alter’s work, more even than his translation and the accompanying brief but brilliant literary commentary, are his lucid introductions to each of the five books of the Torah. In five to eight pages, Alter explores and explains the otherwise bewildering variety of materials in each book—laws, narratives, genealogies, poems. He shows us the logic of their construction and juxtaposition. What may have been a jumble to the reader becomes a pattern instead. Students of the Bible will find themselves returning to those essays again and again.