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Robert Alter Wants Us To Think More Seriously About the Bible as Literature

The scholar, critic, and masterful translator remains dedicated to uncovering the full subtlety and intelligence of the stories in sacred texts

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18th-century fresco showing the judge Gideon, center. The Wallfahrtskirche in Hafnerberg, Austria. (Wikimedia Commons)
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The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible was completed in the 3rd century B.C.E., under circumstances that, according to tradition, were plainly miraculous. The King of Egypt invited 72 Jewish sages to work on the task of translation, putting them up on the island of Pharos in the harbor of Alexandria. Each translator worked separately, in complete isolation; yet when they emerged, it was discovered that each of the 72 had produced the same Greek text, word for word. Such agreement provided the Septuagint—as the Greek Bible is known, from the word for “seventy”—with a kind of holy imprimatur, a proof of divine inspiration to match the original’s. Philo of Alexandria, the Greek Jewish philosopher, referred to the two versions as “sisters,” and regarded them as equally authoritative.

The Septuagint, then, was the product of a committee. The King James Bible, which for 400 years has been the Bible’s English “sister,” was also produced by a large group of scholars and divines. And the fact that these translations have no single author is a key to their power. A translation produced by consensus, or by unanimity, seems to emerge not from the mind of a single writer but from the genius of the language itself. When Walter Benjamin, in his essay “The Task of the Translator,” declared that translation was a process of completion—that a text put into another language regains a lost dimension of its essential meaning—he had this kind of translation in mind. The word of God is so infinite that no number of translations can exhaust its meaning; each version only peers a little way into the bottomless depths of God’s intention.

For Robert Alter, the great scholar and critic whose Bible translations have been appearing over the last decade, translation is necessarily a very different process. Alter is working alone, the way a poet or novelist does, and the versions he produces carry the authority of imagination, of literature, rather than of religion. In a sense, Alter’s translations—so far he has done the Five Books of Moses, Psalms, the Wisdom Books, and now, in Ancient Israel, the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings—are the consummation of his career-long effort to make us think seriously about the Bible as literature.

In his eyes, this is not a demotion but an elevation. Only if we approach the Bible as a work of literature, Alter believes, can we understand the full subtlety and intelligence of its stories. As he writes in his pioneering book The Art of Biblical Narrative: “As one discovers how to adjust the fine focus of those literary binoculars, the biblical tales, forceful enough to begin with, show a surprising subtlety and inventiveness of detail, and in many instances a beautifully interwoven wholeness. … The paradoxical truth may well be that by learning to enjoy the biblical stories more fully as stories, we shall also come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us about God, man, and the perilously momentous realm of history.”

In Ancient Israel, Alter has reached the part of the Bible with the most to say about history. The Pentateuch begins in myth and ends in moral exhortation; its most famous legends are precisely that, legends, which can only be accepted as true by an act of faith. Adam eating the apple, Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Moses parting the Red Sea—these are not the kinds of things that can be corroborated with outside evidence. Starting with the Book of Joshua, however, Ancient Israel moves into a more recognizable world of power politics, in which the main events are wars between tribes, states, and empires, and the intrigues of kings and courtiers. Toward the end of Kings, when we read of the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrian Empire and the sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, we are dealing with events that also appear in extra-biblical inscriptions and documents. Somewhere along the line, the Israelites have evolved from a holy family into a political entity, with all the compromises and disappointments that entails.

The chief tension in Ancient Israel, which fuels the narrative from Joshua all the way through Kings, is the maddening inability of the Israelites to remain faithful to God. When the people cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan—the water stops flowing to let them across, in a neat replay of the Red Sea—they are instructed to annihilate the local population and claim the land for themselves. But as Alter shows in his acute and helpful notes, the text offers conflicting messages about their success. On the one hand, we are told that the Israelites carried out a genocidal cleansing of the Canaanites, so that none were left to resist them.

Yet the Book of Joshua was written or edited centuries later, at a time when the land was, in fact, chock full of Canaanites. As Alter writes, “if the Canaanites seem to have disappeared, it was not because they were extirpated but because they had been assimilated by the Israelites.” And that assimilation remained very partial: Again and again in Ancient Israel, we read about how the Israelites were just as likely to assimilate to Canaanite ways, erecting sacred poles to the gods and worshiping Baal. The authors and editors of the Bible often resort to ingenious tactics to cover up this fact.

Take, for instance, the story of Gideon, in the Book of Judges. Gideon is one of the series of judges—a better term might be chieftains or warlords—who emerge to lead the Israelites against their enemies, during a long period of political chaos. Gideon is told by an angel to lead the Israelites into battle against the Midianites, and he wins a miraculous victory. Yet the text cannot suppress what was evidently the well-known fact that Gideon’s original name was Jerubaal, which is clearly Canaanite. To explain the name, Judges tells us that it derives from an incident when Gideon destroyed an altar of Baal, and proclaimed, “‘If [Baal] is a god, he will contend for himself, for his altar has been shattered.’ And he was called on that day Jerubaal, which is to say, ‘Let him contend for himself, for his altar has been shattered.’ ” Alter’s notes point out, however, that a more likely translation of the name is “Baal contends [for his loyal worshippers].” In other words, Gideon, the Israelite hero, was probably born a Baal-worshiper. The text invents an etymology for his name to minimize the scandal of this fact.

Judges is full of famous figures and stories—Gideon, Deborah, above all Samson, whose legends Alter compares to those of Hercules. So too are the later books, First and Second Kings, which include the cycles of miracle tales about the prophets Elijah and Elisha (as well as long annalistic lists of virtually interchangeable monarchs). But the heart of Ancient Israel can be found in the story of David, which occupies most of the Book of Samuel. (As Alter points out, the division of Samuel and Kings into two books is arbitrary, owed to the fact that they could not fit on a standard-length scroll.)

Alter has been thinking about the David story for decades—some of his observations in “The Art of Biblical Narrative,” from 1981, reappear in the text and notes of Ancient Israel—and for him it is one of the supreme achievements in all of literature. “The story of David,” Alter writes, “is probably the single greatest narrative representation in antiquity of a human life evolving by slow stages through time, shaped and altered by the pressures of political life, public institutions, family, the impulses of body and spirit, the eventual sad decay of the flesh.”

Perhaps the most powerful moment in the whole David story, Alter suggests, comes in II Samuel 12, at the conclusion of the episode of Bathsheba. The story is well known: David sees Bathsheba bathing from his rooftop and is filled with desire for her. He summons her and sleeps with her, but when she gets pregnant, he is faced with a dilemma: How to conceal his deed from Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband? Ultimately, David decides to have Uriah sent into battle where he will be killed, allowing him to claim Bathsheba for himself.

But “the thing that David had done was evil in the eyes of the Lord,” the narrator tells us, and he pays a terrible price: When Bathsheba gives birth to a son, the baby falls ill. David prays urgently for his recovery: “And David implored God for the sake of the lad, and David fasted, and he came and spent the night lying on the ground.” He is so possessed by grief that his courtiers are afraid to bring him the news that the boy has died. When they finally tell him, they are surprised to see David immediately recover himself: “And David rose from the ground and bathed and rubbed himself with oil and changed his garments.” When they ask him about this sudden change of heart, David replies with a piercing line: “While the child was still alive I fasted and wept, for I thought, ‘Who knows, the Lord may favor me and the child will live.’ And now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I am going to him and he will not come back to me.”

Here, Alter suggests, we see David transformed from a warrior and politician to a representative human being, speaking out of his “existential nakedness.” Like King Lear confessing, “I am a very foolish fond old man,” or Hamlet’s “The readiness is all,” David manages to compress our experience of love, mortality, fear, and resignation in a single sentence. Reading the Bible in Robert Alter’s translation helps to bring such moments of literary and human power into focus—thanks not just to his clear and elegant translation, but to the comprehensive notes that pinpoint exactly what is happening at crucial moments in the text. Ancient Israel is a perfect opportunity to return to these foundational Jewish stories and see them with fresh eyes—and what you find there may surprise you.

***

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SteveDGH says:

Regarding the authors comments on the host of scholars involved in translating the King James version of The Bible. It is my understanding that some 90% of its content of the New Testament is from William Tyndale’s translation and about 50% of the first 5 books of the Old Testament is also from Tyndale’s translation.

GordLindsay says:

I’m not exactly sure what’s new, here. The commentaries, midrashim, agadot etc. have long analyzed, interpreted, and revealed innumerable aspects of both the narrative and linguistic content of the Torah, in Hebrew. The Torah has always supplied an infinite and eternal inexhaustible wellspring of insights and wisdom.

dongszkie says:

There is no shortage of opinion and speculations that would aroused from the mind of a thinking man, when given access to any sort of document. No wonder that there is only one Bible,but many religious groups w/ each conflicting religious doctrines mushroom in the long gone and current society.

    N. Mara Czarnecki says:

    The issue is that either people at least try to read and study the Bible for what it is or they don’t. As one person responded to a contention that the Torah was really not given at Sinai, “The main issue with…embracing The Revelation story as (possibly) being mere allegory is simply this: if it didn’t happen, then Judaism/Jews have ZERO ground on which to stand! The state of Israel, Zionism, aliyah… all of it comes to zilch. It would take a place among all the other man-made religions/spiritual tradition of the world, and have no more relevance than what the “believers” themselves hold. Judaism would essentially be a buffet religion with no real roots, as members would be redefining what their form of Judaism is. There could be no claim to the land Israel now occupies, or anything else. The miracles that have taken place, such as what was documented during the Six Day War, and the miracle at Golan Heights, for example, would be relegated to myth and folklore as many other so-call miracles of other faiths have.”

      dongszkie says:

      What a nice piece. You make me feel not alone in this planet. I am very grateful that you are in existence.

        N. Mara Czarnecki says:

        I just quoted the guy (whose name was Hillel, as I recall–he was responding to a piece that is similar to Robert Alter’s work), and he (Hillel)’s right.

          dongszkie says:

          YOU MUST KNOW HOW I APPRECIATED YOU. And you must know that the Bible is my highest authority textbook when it comes to knowing about God and his purpose for this earth and humankind.

gwhepner says:

DAVID’S RESPONSE TO CRISIS

“Can I bring him back again?” theking, his father,

asked rhetorically,

prior prayers he’d made mere wool he chose to gather

oratorically.

As soon as he accepted the futility

of depression and dejection

he recovered from his disability,

and justified his election.

gwhepner@yahoo.com

drorbenami says:

this is not the important part of the story. the important part is the message from nathan comparing bathsheba to a lamb, which belongs to a poor man, that is taken away from him and is served as dinner for the friends of a rich man.

the question has to be: how is david having sex with bathsheba considered the same as serving a lamb for dinner?

clearly robert alter has a lot to learn…….

N. Mara Czarnecki says:

“The Pentateuch begins in myth and ends in moral exhortation; its most famous legends are precisely that, legends, which can only be accepted as true by an act of faith. Adam eating the apple, Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Moses parting the Red Sea—these are not the kinds of things that can be corroborated with outside evidence.”

If Torah is myth that can’t be corrobarated with evidence, then how come the Hebrew/Israelite/Jewish people even came to be and still exist–isn’t that enough evidence that the Torah is not myth?

    Because much of the the torah is believed to have been written much after the fact. So its like saying the French were the first people to populate the US because look there are french descendents living today. Forgetting about that, the stories prior to Abraham have no direct relations to Jews. If they really happened or not, the story of the Hebrews would have still have happened. Somehow the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews came to into being. The torah explains the story, but if its assumed that was written after they had been established as a group, who is to say the story of how they came to be is true

      N. Mara Czarnecki says:

      But then how can verses like D’varim 32:8-9 be explained? If b’nei-Adam were divided according to b’nei-Yisra’el, then that “the stories prior to Abraham have no direct relations to Jews” is a false statement.

    runpacer says:

    Things that are defined as true will be true in their consequences.

    Indians believe, as part of their theodicy, that the planet Earth rests on the back of an Elephant. It is myth and do not Indians exist?

    GordLindsay says:

    On this point, no, the existence of the Jewish people does not prove that the Torah is not — chas v’shalom — a myth, any more than the existence of Greeks today, proves the existence of the — possibly — mythical Greek gods. That’s the emes, the truth, and, since the Torah is Truth, it’s fitting to accept this. The Torah is called “eidut” which means the testimony of witnesses. We, not remembering being present at the events described in the Torah, are each like members of a jury which hears testimony regarding the circumstances of a crime at which we were not present. We must each personally weigh the testimony (“testament”) and decide for ourselves whether or not we find it trustworthy. Doubt is part of the equation. Faith is the end result for some, and, not for others. The door, of course, is always open, and there are always new things to discover.

      N. Mara Czarnecki says:

      Then how come the Torah states that it was written with the very finger of G-d?

        GordLindsay says:

        As far as I am concerned, this is very true. But I would never claim to be able to “prove” it. It is impossible to “prove” the existence of G-d Himself, in the first place. This is because the methods we use to prove things logically cannot possibly encompass a reality beyond the limits of our experience. Can you scientifically prove that the sun will come up tomorrow? Good luck with that. You can bring evidence of the sun rising billions of times in the past, but, scientifically, it is impossible to prove the future rising of the sun. You can talk probabilities, of course, based on the evidence — but guess what? That’s faith.

          N. Mara Czarnecki says:

          Let me ask you this: why would any people risk being the most-persecuted people in history if their history of how they came about wasn’t true or provable? And isn’t that we have been the most-persecuted people in history actually proof of Tanakh?

Facebook User says:

It sounds like either Robert Alter doesn’t realize certain facts, or that Adam Kirsch is misrepresenting him.

Consider, for example:

“But as Alter shows in his acute and helpful notes, the text offers conflicting messages about their success. On the one hand, we are told that the Israelites carried out a genocidal cleansing of the Canaanites, so that none were left to resist them.

“Yet the Book of Joshua was written or edited centuries later, at a time when the land was, in fact, chock full of Canaanites. As Alter writes, “if the Canaanites seem to have disappeared, it was not because they were extirpated but because they had been assimilated by the Israelites.”

Where does he find anywhere that the book of Joshua claims that no Canaanites were left? On the contrary, it speaks of them in quite a few places (13:1-6, 13:13, 15:63, 16:10, 17:12-13, 17:16-18, 23:4ff). Indeed, in ch. 23, where Joshua speaks to the people, he mentions both that “no one withstood you” (v. 9) and that the remaining Canaanites may still be troublesome in the future (v. 13). Where’s the contradiction?

Again,

“In other words, Gideon, the Israelite hero, was probably born a Baal-worshiper. The text invents an etymology for his name to minimize the scandal of this fact.”

First of all, no one is “born” a worshiper of anything; they are taught it. Second, of course he was born into a Baal-worshiping family – the altar that he destroyed belonged to his father! That he rebelled against this upbringing is hardly a “scandal” that needs to be “minimized,” and indeed the Bible makes no effort to do so.

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Robert Alter Wants Us To Think More Seriously About the Bible as Literature

The scholar, critic, and masterful translator remains dedicated to uncovering the full subtlety and intelligence of the stories in sacred texts