The Prophet’s Pen
A new book argues that the key to decoding the Bible is understanding its poetry
The quickest way to understand the audacity and originality of what David Rosenberg is attempting in A Literary Bible, the big book of his selected translations from the Hebrew Bible, is to read the introduction to his excerpt from the book of Jeremiah. To countless generations of Bible readers, Jeremiah has been a prophet—indeed, the Hebrew prophet par excellence, his very name a synonym for warning, chastising, and exhorting. To Rosenberg, however, the person (or people) who wrote this book is primarily a poet, whose “main form is the prophet’s oracle”—much as we might say that Shakespeare’s main form was the sonnet.
At most, prophet was Jeremiah’s day job, the conventional mask he put on in order to voice his poetry more effectively. “It is hardly different today when it comes to the profession of the poet,” Rosenberg writes. “Sometimes he or she is a college professor, but we still call him or her a poet, not even a poet-professor.” He draws a comparison with the contemporary American poet John Ashbery, who has been a professor and an art critic. Still, “Ashbery wasn’t called an art critic-poet, and neither were the poets of Jeremiah called prophet-poets, as far as we know.”
To almost any reader—Jewish or non-Jewish, pious or skeptical—this redescription of Jeremiah cannot help sounding like a demotion. John Ashbery may or may not be, as Rosenberg writes, “the most eminent English-language poet alive,” but such eminence looks rather meager when compared to the distinction Jeremiah claims for himself (in the words of the New JPS translation):
The LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth, and the LORD said to me: Herewith I put My words into your mouth.
See, I appoint you this day
Over nations and kingdoms;
To uproot and to pull down,
To destroy and to overthrow,
To build and to plant.
For almost all readers until modern times, reading these lines meant taking their claim at face value. Jews, and Christians, listened to Jeremiah not because he was a good writer, but because he was chosen by God to deliver a message of the utmost urgency.
David Rosenberg knows, however, that we are living in a period when the Bible’s only claims on the attention of many readers is literary. That is why, in titling his book A Literary Bible, he is performing a clever dialectical maneuver. Yes, the title tells us, this Bible is literature, and not even canonical literature: it is a highly selective anthology of stories and verses, rendered into deliberately anachronistic, 21st-century English. Yet Rosenberg believes that literature can and should possess the same kind of moral force and spiritual insight once reserved for Scripture. For him, poetry is the only really sacred speech. It follows that to call Jeremiah a poet is actually a promotion, replacing the doubtful miracle of divine inspiration with the genuine miracle of poetic inspiration.
Here is how Rosenberg renders the famous passage from Chapter 31 of Jeremiah, in which the Lord comforts Rachel:
…these are the Lord’s words:
your voice will cease its weeping
your eyes brighten behind the tears
that dissolve into crystal-clear vision
of the children alive
from the lands of enemies
from beyond anguish to hope revived
vision is your reward
there is new life for your labor, remembrance
in the presence of children, eyes wide open
turning to the future
that is also yours
within the borders of a reality
and beyond them your descendants
are walking freely
by the strength of an unfailing imagination
an unbroken integrity
a listening dedicated
to the words that bade them live.
When Rosenberg translates Jeremiah, it is plain, he is not just translating Hebrew into English, or biblical idiom into contemporary concepts like “reality” and “imagination.” More profoundly, he is translating the concrete and pragmatic faith of the Hebrew Bible into the abstract and metaphorical faith that is all he, like many of us, can really believe in.
Rosenberg’s God promises to give Rachel, the mourning mother, a “vision” of her children, a “remembrance” of them, a future vaguely “within the borders of a reality.” It is all a little wordy and elusive, and at bottom it feels like a description of closure—a contemporary, secular understanding of renewal within the harsh limits of loss and grief. That is all Jeremiah the poet can conscientiously offer. It is different with Jeremiah the prophet, as we hear him in the new JPS transaltion:
Thus saith the LORD:
Restrain your voice from weeping,
Your eyes from shedding tears;
For there is a reward for your labor.
—declares the LORD:
They shall return from the enemy’s land.
And there is hope for your future
—declares the LORD:
Your children shall return to their country.
This is what a grieving mother would want to hear, a simple promise—your children are still alive and they are coming back. Jeremiah can make this promise because he believes in an actual God who is all-powerful. What we meet with in the best, most moving passages of A Literary Bible, on other hand, is a literary God, who has both the power of literature—since poetry can move, inspire, provoke—and the weakness of literature—since poetry is always hypothetical, a matter of thought and feeling rather than history and covenant.
Rosenberg, in his fervor for the power and privileges of poetry, does not always make this distinction as clear as it should be. In his notes and his afterword, Rosenberg is oddly abusive towards biblical scholars like Robert Alter and James Kugel, whom he casts as dullards and pedants, deaf to the Bible’s poetic genius. As a poet himself, he claims a privileged access to the biblical writers’ minds, which allows him to make sweeping and unsubstantiated claims about their intentions—for instance, that “the writers of the Hebrew Bible did not consider themselves divine.” This kind of certainty is characteristic of poets like Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell, whose translations of foreign poetry were imperially bold, and Rosenberg places himself in their tradition: “My apprenticeship in reclaiming biblical authors began, at nineteen, when I was Robert Lowell’s student in New York,” he writes.
But translating Rilke, or even Aeschylus, as Lowell did, is fundamentally different from translating the Bible. A text that claims to be the Word of God makes existential demands on us that a human text, even an ancient and prestigious one, does not. Robert Alter’s translations (which Rosenberg insults) respect the absolute and alien nature of the sacred imagination; Rosenberg, in his very passion to make the Bible communicate, turns it into something more domesticated and acceptable.
In part this is simply a matter of omission. To Rosenberg, the God we meet in the book of Job is “a caricature of God as a representation for conventional religion…. He lacks a human range of emotions.” For this reason, A Literary Bible only gives us Job’s long speech of complaint, which Rosenberg renders with convincing empathy:
why should someone have to walk around
blinded by the daylight
he can’t wave off
that God throws on him
waiting at every exit
in front of me…
every horror I imagined
walks right up to me
no privacy no solitude
and my pain
with my mind
pushes rest aside.
Rosenberg’s translation ends with chapter 31 of Job: “and here for now is ended/the poem/Job speaks.” The beginning of the next chapter, in the JPS edition, reads: “These three men ceased replying to Job, for he considered himself right”; and by restricting himself to Job’s complaining voice, Rosenberg compels the reader to share that conviction of self-righteousness. But the Book of Job ends in just the opposite spirit, as God himself replies to Job “out of the tempest” and brutally, majestically sweeps aside all his protests:
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Speak if you have understanding.
Do you know who fixed its dimensions
Or who measured it with a line?
Onto what were its bases sunk?
Who set its cornerstone
When the morning stars sang together
And all the divine beings shouted for joy?
Here, as so often in the Bible, we are reminded that we do not “have understanding” of God, which is why his actions so often appear evil and inexplicable to us. It is precisely because God is God that he lacks “a human range of emotions”—and that is what makes him ungraspable in the terms of literature, which is a humane art. Perhaps it takes a prophet, rather than a poet, to make us see God face to face.
Adam Kirsch is a contributing editor to Tablet Magazine and the author of Benjamin Disraeli, a biography in the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series.