A review of The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, by Robert Alter

For many years I have been citing and recommending Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981), and more recently I have tried to apply its insights and principles in writing a commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, with its two sets of roots in the historiography both of Moses and of Thucydides. Now Professor Alter has put those principles to work in translating the entire Pentateuch (after having translated the Book of Genesis earlier) and writing a commentary on it. "His delight is in the Torah of the LORD," the First Psalm says in a kind of prologue not only to the Book of Psalms but to the entire Hebrew Bible, "and in His Torah doth he meditate day and night."

It has been an intellectual and scholarly treat, and a spiritual refreshment, to meditate along with Alter, at the rate of several chapters per day, studying his renderings alongside the parallel columns of the original Hebrew text, the Greek Septuagint, and the Latin Vulgate in volume one of my father's well-worn Polyglotten-Bibel (1891). Unavoidably, the first impression after such a study must be a breathless admiration for the sheer audacity of the enterprise. Every verse, sometimes every word, has been contested—among the rabbis, between the rabbis and the Church fathers, between both of these and the modern critics. There have been countless translations, with the new English versions alone jamming the bookstores, as well as countless commentaries. On the Book of Leviticus, the shortest and (to most modern readers) the least interesting of the five books, there is, for example, a 3,000-page commentary by Jacob Milgrom, which Alter can cite approvingly on some passages but can "categorically reject" on others.

To begin with the more technical aspects of the problem, there is the Hebrew text of the Bible. It has been transmitted with the most meticulous care of any text from antiquity. The rabbis who compiled and handed on the official version of it in the so-called Masoretic Text, between the 6th and 10th centuries of the Common Era, counted the letters in each book, backwards and forwards, identifying both the number of characters and the middle one, to assure absolute fidelity of copying. Nevertheless, the Greek translation carried out by the Jews of Alexandria a century or two before the Common Era, therefore many centuries before the fixing of the Masoretic Text, repeatedly manifests a reading of the Hebrew that diverges from our received text, as do other early translations, notably the Aramaic Targums and the Syriac. Some of the Hebrew manuscripts discovered at Qumran in the "Dead Sea Scrolls," which also represent an earlier text, read the Hebrew differently at various places. Over and over, therefore, before deciding how to translate a passage, the translator must decide which text of it to translate. Already at Genesis 1:26—And God said, "Let us make a human in our image, by our likeness, to hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and the cattle and the wild beasts and all the crawling things that crawl upon the earth—Alter is willing to substitute the Syriac "and the wild beasts" for the Masoretic "and all the earth." At the other end of the Torah, in Deuteronomy 32:43, he concludes that the Qumran reading "might be more authentic than the Masoretic Text." And between these two passages, he repeatedly invokes the authority of the Septuagint: sometimes he adds entire phrases and clauses from it that are missing from the Hebrew; sometimes, while conceding that "it is conceivable that the Greek translators in fact had a Hebrew text before them which read that way," he suggests that "it is also quite possible that they decided to smooth out a little stylistic wrinkle actually chosen" by the original writer; and sometimes, as at Numbers 21:30, an "attractive alternate reading" in the Septuagint is mentioned but not adopted. Several times, the similarity of two Hebrew letters which made them easy for a scribe to confuse, in this case the Dalet (d) and the Resh (r), gives him a warrant to substitute one for the other in order to make better sense of a passage.

Less obvious a challenge to the translator, but at least as important because of its subtlety, is the distinctiveness of Hebrew as a language when compared with our various Indo-European languages. It does not quite share their traditional system of voice and tense, but employs "aspects" such as qal, pi'el, and hip'il with nuances of meaning that are often difficult to reproduce in English. Not only is Hebrew often more rich in its vocabulary, with, for example, "four synonyms for lion…whereas English, alas, has none," but it lends itself to puns. Some of these it is possible to imitate in English (as in Genesis 2:7—then the Lord God fashioned the human ('adam), humus ('adamah) from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature—but for others, above all in Exodus 9:3 with its "spine-tingling effect," the "fearsome pun on the divine name YHWH," there is "no obvious English equivalent." Repeatedly, Alter can have recourse to modern-day spoken Hebrew for the illumination of ancient Hebrew, reminding me that when I first studied Biblical Hebrew in 1942, six years before the founding of the State of Israel, there was no society where it was the official spoken and written tongue. Nowadays, the admonition of Leviticus 19:32, "Before a gray head you shall rise," can appear on Israeli buses to urge that passengers yield their seats to the elderly; and the Hebrew mishlah-yad, which appears in Deuteronomy 12:7, "has come to mean 'vocation' in modern Hebrew." A special challenge comes in "translating the names of God"; for there are scattered throughout the Torah "premonotheistic" uses of 'elohim to refer to many "gods" rather than, as it usually does, to the One True God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as instances of the "co-opting for monotheistic usage" of various "names once used for Canaanite deities." The unique biblical name for God was disclosed to Moses from the Burning Bush as "'Ehyeh-'Asher-'Ehyeh, I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be," and therefore YHWH, on which "rivers of ink have since flowed in theological reflection…and philological analysis." From this there arose "a quasi-mythological notion of God's name as a potent agency in its own right," and eventually a "general ban against pronouncing the name YHWH"—not to say translating it!

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Translation, therefore, must at all costs avoid "explaining the Bible instead of representing it in another language." This "heresy of explanation," of which modern translators and commentators have frequently been guilty, easily "trivializes the grand solemnity and epic sweep" of Biblical narrative, and "betrays the monosyllabic plainness of the Hebrew" and other instances of "the oddness of the Hebrew" or "the ambiguity of the Hebrew" by resorting to "a single, indifferent level of diction" in English. That insistence on "representing" rather than "explaining" includes the imperative "to mirror the repetitions as much as is feasible." Where the Hebrew has "solemn, emphatic reiteration of refrainlike phrases and entire clauses," the translation should do the same. Here in the Torah, that imperative applies with special force to the snatches of poetic language that appear over and over in the course of the narrative. These often employ the "parallelistic pattern" so familiar from the Psalms, but even "Pharaoh, in his regal confidence, speaks in verse." The heights of poetry in the Torah come in the Song of the Sea at Exodus 15 and the Song of Moses at Deuteronomy 32, for which Alter's firm grasp both of the original and of the host language enables him to find "elevated and archaic" English to "represent" the Hebrew. (At the risk of seeming to imitate the bad habit of book reviewers to speak about the book they wish the author had written rather than about the book the author wrote, I do have to express my hope that Prof. Alter will go on to do a translation of the Book of Psalms. For if his rendering here of these brief pieces of poetry scattered across the Torah, and especially of the rhetorical and poetic language of Deuteronomy, is any indication, we may expect from such an English translation a delicate grasp of imagery, word order, and rhythm that does justice simultaneously to Hebrew prosody and to contemporary English usage.)

Wading into all these thickets with confidence, Robert Alter can afford to be surprisingly candid with his readers about his translation as "somewhat speculative" in some passages, or "a reasonable educated guess," or "guesses and approximations." There has to be considerable "doubt about the identification of precious stones" in Exodus 25 or of "the sundry spices" in Exodus 30, although the Hebrew word quinnamon in Exodus 30:23 is obvious enough. Sometimes "we can do little more than revel in the gorgeousness of the words," or find a way "for the translation to reproduce the enigma of the Hebrew" instead of "explaining" it; and sometimes "all efforts to rescue intelligible meaning from the reading that has come down to us are liable to be unavailing." The taxonomy of zoological species is especially "slippery." But an accurate identification of these is important not only for the story of the Flood, but above all for kosher law. "Already at this point in the list," Alter comments on the roster of prohibited food animals in Leviticus 11:5-6, "there is some uncertainty about the identity of the animals named in the Hebrew, and this uncertainty grows as the list moves on to birds [including theqaath, 'pelican' in verse 18], amphibians, reptiles, and insects." It does not help much to consult the other rosters in the Torah, because, for example in Deuteronomy 14, "once we get beyond the camel and the hare and the pig…most of the English equivalents are approximations or guesses that reflect the tradition of translations more than ancient Hebrew zoology." All of which poses a serious enough problem for any translator of the Torah, but an infinitely more serious one for any reader of the Torah who wants to be punctiliously observant of its dietary laws and to avoid the dire consequences with which violators of those laws are threatened.

While quite severe in his criticism of "the modern English versions," which "have placed readers at a grotesque distance from the distinctive literary experience of the Bible in its original language" and "have shown a deaf ear to diction," Alter is respectful of "the King James Version, following the great model of Tyndale"—respectful but not deferential. And so "a help meet for him" in Genesis 2:18 becomes "a sustainer beside him"; in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17) it is "murdering," not "killing" as such, that is forbidden; and in Leviticus 25:10 "one must regretfully forgo the grandeur of the King James Version, inscribed on the Liberty Bell: 'proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto the inhabitants thereof.'" But in Exodus 8:17 its translation "'swarm of flies' is as good a guess as any," and in Exodus 16:3 its "rendering of 'fleshpots'…has become proverbial in the language and deserves to be retained." Even its preposition "unto," which is otherwise archaic in contemporary English, creeps into the translation a couple of times (Genesis 26:24; Numbers 24:20). One of the literary devices to which Alter has constant recourse in "representing" the original with his translations is word order, especially crucial in a largely uninflected language like English ("man bites dog" versus "dog bites man"). Thus in Genesis 42:13, "Twelve brothers your servants are," and again 42:36, "Me you have bereaved"; in Exodus 8:15 the Egyptian soothsayers exclaim, "God's finger it is!"; and in Deuteronomy 2:2 the Lord says to Moses, "Long enough you have swung round this high country." It may be the experience of reading the entire five books straight through, which, admittedly, few will attempt; but I came away from these constant inversions somewhat jaded, and I found the later ones to be considerably less effective than the first ones had been.

As befits one who holds the title of Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, Robert Alter is quite willing to invoke parallels to the Torah in other literatures ancient and modern: Homer at least five times, Oresteia, Herodotus, Oedipus, Antigone, and Vergil; but also Shakespeare, Milton, Melville—and Goldilocks. I was delighted to see the reference to Erich Auerbach's moving chapter on the Binding of Isaac, and relieved to see only one reference to Freud's problematic imaginings about the death of Moses. There is, I think, only one explicit citation of the New Testament, though the Christian use of the benediction from Numbers 6 and the Christian festival of Pentecost are mentioned. The division of the Ten Commandments that does not count the prohibition of images in Exodus 20:4-6 as a separate commandment and that therefore prohibits "coveting" twice seems to be regarded as characteristic of all Christian churches, although in fact most Protestants, Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox follow the same division that Judaism does.

The concentration on "representing" the text rather than "explaining" it does relieve Alter of the necessity to be trendy or politically correct in his translation and commentary. Despite superficial appearances, therefore, the story in Numbers 27 of the five daughters demanding an inheritance is "something other than a feminist argument." In translating Hebrew pronouns Alter finds the politically correct locution "he or she" to be "awkward" (as do I), but apparently he could not altogether avoid using it. At the same time he is sensitive to the "problematic social and perhaps psychological consequences continuing through postbiblical Judaism" that have resulted from the association of menstruation with "uncleanness" in Leviticus 15. After having appropriately described Pharaoh's order to execute the firstborn sons of the Hebrews as "genocidal," he must somehow come to terms with the "bloodcurdling" and "chilling command" to extirpate Israel's enemies, including infants, for which "it is hard to find any mitigation." He can only add: "There is, thankfully, no archeological evidence that this program of annihilation was ever implemented." While making it clear that by the promises of God "Israel will have ample, and secure, borders," he does not mention the present-day arguments about the Biblical grounds for the territorial claims of the State of Israel, except to warn against any literalism about the passages in the Torah that draw the lines of "these grandiose borders, which would make Biblical Israel seem a bit like Texas." He is especially thoughtful in describing what he aptly terms "the pervasive textualization of Jewish culture," the definition of "the text as the enduring source of authority," which he sees taking place already in the Book of Deuteronomy. He calls this "a revolutionary idea," as the subsequent history not only of Judaism but of Christianity and of Islam was to document and demonstrate.