>Robert Alter on the Wisdom Books

>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.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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You can buy Alter’s books at Amazon.com

The Wisdom Books

The Five Books of Moses

The Book of Psalms

The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel

The Art of Biblical Poetry

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4 Responses to >Robert Alter on the Wisdom Books

  1. craigbenno1 says:

    >In march I begin my studies on Wisdom Lit and am looking forward to it. I appreciate your links and book suggestions and believe they will be of use over the next months. I'm not sure that I have commented before; I have been following and enjoying your blog for a while now.


  2. >Craig,I hope you will enjoy studying Wisdom Literature. I love teaching this course. Thank you for your comment and for visiting my blog.Claude Mariottini


  3. craigbenno1 says:

    >I started today and already have fallen in love with this subject. I will be blogging regularly my thoughts on it http://craigbenno1.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/back-to-the-books-wisdom-literature/One area which came to mind today was that of how much influence the exilic experience had on the book of Proverbs. The point I was thinking is if the final form of Proverbs came out of the “Exilic Period” and was a way for the Hebrew people to live within the frame work of their law; whilst having to live under the greater umbrella of the Babylonian law. This raises some more points about how it seems within the OT there is a reflection of 2 Exiles…and just as Solomon is credited as being the wisest man on earth… Daniel within the exilic period is also credited as being among the wisest of the young men in Babylon…and therefore is there a possibility of Daniels influence on the final redacted state within the book of Proverbs I would appreciate your thoughts on the matter.


  4. >Craig,I read your post on back to the Wisdom Literature. Two points:1. The reason there is so little about God in wisdom literature is that the literature reflects human wisdom, that which a teacher teaches his students.2. I doubt that Daniel had any influence in the redaction of the book of Proverbs. The wisdom of Daniel would be a reference to the wisdom of the Chaldeans, a group of people who served as counselors to the kings of Babylon.Claude Mariottini


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