>People who study and teach the Old Testament are familiar with Robert Alter and his works. Two of his most influential books, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1983) and The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 1987), have shaped the way scholars read and interpret the Hebrew Bible.
Alter has embarked on an ambitious project: to apply his insights and theories into the translation of the Hebrew Bible into English. Toward that goal, Alter has already translated The Five Books of Moses (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004), The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999), and The Book of Psalms (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007).
I have been reading Alter’s The Book of Psalms (thanks to the generosity of James Becknell, one of my Hebrew students). As I read this new translation of the book of Psalms, I have come to a new appreciation of the beauty and majesty of the psalms through the way Alter translates the original language of the psalmists.
Now, Alter has finished and published a translation of The Wisdom Books (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010). In this new translation, Alter deals with the books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, three of the most interesting and challenging books of the Bible.
Adam Kirsch, writing for The Jewish Week, has published an excellent review of Alter’s book, with some commentary of his own. Below are two excerpts of Kirsch’s review:
One sign of the difference is that Job, Proverbs and Kohelet (Alter uses the Hebrew name, whose actual meaning is hard to ascertain, rather than the familiar Greek name Ecclesiastes) do not deal with Israel but with humanity in general. Job is a monotheist but not an Israelite; he lives in “the land of Uz,” which Alter glosses as “a never-never land somewhere to the east.” In Kohelet, God is referred to only occasionally, and then only as Elohim, not by his specifically Israelite name, Yahweh. And while Proverbs ascribes its often banal sayings to Solomon, at least one section of the book is an adaptation of an Egyptian text from the second millennium BCE, the “Instruction of Amenemope.” Indeed, the scholarly designation “wisdom books” assigns these texts to a genre that is also found in Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature. “The perspective of Wisdom literature,” Alter summarizes, “is international and, in many instances, one might say, universalist. It raises questions of value and moral behavior, of the meaning of human life, and especially of the right conduct of life.”
. . . .
But Alter’s versions are not destined to replace the King James Version; they are meant to strip away its familiarity, to help us see the biblical text more closely and accurately. For this purpose, Alter’s commentary is as useful as the translation itself, as when he points out that the lines from Kohelet quoted above are a direct repudiation of Genesis.
In the Creation story, the human creature is brought into the world after the beasts and is enjoined to hold sway over all other living creatures. Here, man and beast are seen to share the same fate of mortality, and there is no qualitative difference between them.
Nothing but this was the radical insight of Darwin, which is why evolution is anathema to biblical fundamentalists; yet here is the Bible itself making the same disenchanting argument.
Kirsch’s review of Robert Alter’s The Wisdom Books is worth reading. You can read it here.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
If you enjoyed reading this post, subscribe to my posts here.
You can buy Alter’s books at Amazon.com