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The Godless Bible

Robert Alter’s Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary is a massive achievement—literally. The three-volume box set weighs 11 pounds. The largest volume, with more than fourteen hundred pages, should be read with book and reader situated comfortably on the floor. These details may seem superficial, but a book’s format suggests its range of use. A large book of photographs craves a coffee table; a thin paperback rests comfortably in the seat-back pocket in front of you. A large, three-volume box set asks to be seen and not read. The tomes mark their owner as a sophisticated connoisseur of ancient literature. One need not read such things; one may simply own them.

Such is not the case here. I spent the last three years reading and annotating Robert Alter’s Hebrew Bible, typing over 20,000 words of notes along the way, and I found the whole process rewarding. Here’s how I approached the task: First, for each biblical book, I read the translation without any reference to the Hebrew, any translation, or Alter’s commentary. I then read his commentary in light of his translation, the Hebrew text, and translations in other languages (including, obviously, English). Very occasionally I’d dash to the Hebrew when first reading his translation, because I found my memory of the verse or verses so divergent from his translation. One obvious example: “And He said to me, ‘Man, stand on your feet and I shall speak with you’” (Ezekiel 2:1). “Man”? Not “son of man”? Correct. “The translation avoids rendering the term as ‘son of man’ because, after the Gospels, that designation took on Christological connotations.” I call this move ABJ: Anybody but Jesus. More on that in a moment.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Translation

What Alter does well, he does exceedingly well. Take the opening verse of Lamentations:

How she sits alone,
the city once great with people.
She has become like a widow.
Great among nations,
mistress among provinces,
reduced to forced labor.

By delaying the referent of the pronoun to the second line, Alter gives the mind space to picture a woman sitting by herself. I imagine her on a pile of rubble, casting her gaze over a barren, windswept plateau. The phrase is simple but hauntingly beautiful. Alter’s translations at their best help the reader appreciate the beauty of the Hebrew Bible. 

Alter’s choice of words often enhances the drama. In Alter’s translation of Esther 5:9–10, for example, “Haman brimmed with wrath against Mordecai” but “held himself in check and came to his house.” These phrases outpace the everyday characterization of a man “full of indignation” who “refrained himself,” as in the King James Version, or a man “filled with wrath” who “restrained himself,” as in the English Standard Version.

That’s not to say Alter’s translation always shines. Having made the decision to use LORD for the Tetragrammaton, Alter should have recognized that if readers are not habituated to Yahweh, they won’t know what to do with Yah. If I hear someone say, “For hand upon Yah’s throne” (Exodus 17:16), I will assume the speaker is intoxicated. Alter offers eight lines of apologia for his translation, but it just doesn’t work. Neither does “El, the God LORD” (Psalm 50:1) or “so that Yah God would abide” (Psalm 68:19). Sometimes the translations are downright clunky: “Redeem, God, Israel from all its straights” (Psalm 25:22). What?

Then there’s the question of consistency. Alter insists that stylistic variations in English for the same Hebrew word obscure the pungency of the text. So he translates “seed” in the same way, expecting the reader to understand that “seed” in one context relates to the harvest but in another to one’s child. But Alter drops his own requirement for consistency when he finds a single consistent word inconvenient for his purposes. So Alter avoids the English word “soul,” telling us “the traditional translation of ‘soul’ . . . is misleading because it suggests a body-soul split alien to biblical thinking” (Deuteronomy 6:5). But in Psalm 42, in order to avoid the word “soul,” Alter has to translate nafshi as “I” (v. 2), “my whole being” (v. 3), “my heart” (v. 5), and “my being” (vv. 6,  7, and 12). Someone unfamiliar with the Hebrew text or standard English translations would simply not know that the word nafshi is—to quote Alter—“abundantly used in this psalm” (42:2).

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Commentary

A change of vocabulary cannot keep us from asking important philosophical questions about the soul (Cartesian or not!) or the afterlife. Qohelet (that is, Ecclesiastes) asks, “Who knows whether man’s spirit goes upward and the beast’s spirit goes down to the earth?” (Qohelet 3:21), causing Alter to suggest that Qohelet is “entirely skeptical about the idea” of the ascent of the soul after death, “suspecting that the spirit of man and beast alike descends into the earth.” But Qohelet disagrees with Alter and answers his own question: “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, / and the life-breath returns to God Who gave it” (Qohelet 12:7). About this verse, Alter has quite literally nothing to say.

Alter forthrightly divulges his divergences from the Hebrew text, but he should let the text speak for itself, as he promised to do.

Even still, Alter’s textual comments often provide genuine insight. When the wife of Jeroboam goes to the blind Ahijah’s house, Alter notes that the text “nicely captures the perspective of the blind man, who has to depend on his acute sense of hearing” (1 Kings 14:6). And this strength extends beyond just dialogue. Every year Hannah takes the boy Samuel a little cloak she made for him. Alter comments, “We have been told nothing about Hannah’s feelings,” yet “this minimal notation of Hannah’s annual gesture of making a little cloak for the son she has ‘lent’ to the LORD beautifully intimates the love she preserves for him” (1 Samuel 2:19). 

But sometimes Alter’s comments seem exactly wrong. Alter calls Proverbs 29:2 “no more than a formulation in verse of a platitude,” but Daniel L. Dreisbach’s Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers devotes an entire chapter to that single verse, much loved at the time of the American Founding: “When the righteous are many, a people rejoices, / but when the wicked man rules, a people groans.” Early Americans “widely, if not universally,” embraced the notion that—as one political sermon proclaimed—“The character of a nation is justly decided by the character of their rulers, especially in a free and elective government.” Dreisbach writes, “They believed it was essential that the American people be reminded of this biblical maxim and select their civil magistrates accordingly.” Annual election sermons and other political sermons often had Proverbs 29:2 as “the primary text.” Far from being a platitude, this single verse may contain a cure to the contagion that is contemporary American political life.

Alter’s commentary benefits from his allusions to, among others, Freud, Gilgamesh, Herodotus, Hesiod, Homer, Josephus, Joyce, Kafka, Melville, Milton, Molière, Nabokov, Shakespeare, Shelley, and Sophocles. But technical words and phrases often appear without explanation: aleatory device, autochthonous, collocation, deictic, diachronic collage, dittography, durance vile, emphatic anaphora, gnomic, haplography, metonymy, and threnody. (To my knowledge, there is no readily available glossary containing all these words—so you will just have to google one word at a time, dear reader.) Even when Alter offers a definition as an aside, I wonder how many people will benefit from his explanations., e.g., “This pairing is virtually a zeugma, the syntactic yoking together of disparate items” (Isaiah 44:15).     

The volumes suffer from one major omission: a bibliography. When Alter first says, “This translation follows Pope” (Job 5:15), I confess I thought of Alexander Pope, the English poet, and not Marvin H. Pope, the late Yale University professor. Berlin, Blenkinsopp, Collins, Fox, Gordis, and Seow come and go with little indication of who they are, and they occasionally appear as an ensemble cast, as in “Fox, Seow, and others” (Qohelet 8:8). Perhaps my favorite aside is “The Blochs opt for ‘apricot’” (Song of Songs 2:3). Good to know.

ABJ: Anybody but Jesus

If the New Testament appeals to a verse from the Hebrew Bible, anticipate an unusual translation. So Daniel sees “one like a human being” and not “son of man” in Alter’s translation of Daniel 7:13. Alter says he avoids the phrase “‘like the son of man’ because of its strong, and debatable, tilt toward a messianic interpretation.” Alter forthrightly divulges his divergences from the Hebrew text, but he should let the text speak for itself, as he promised to do. Regardless, translating the phrase as he does creates its own problems. If I only ever read the Alter translation, I’d probably ask myself, “What did Daniel see — a centaur?”

When Alter abstains from word-for-word translations when they have New Testament resonances, he commits what he calls “the unacknowledged heresy underlying most modern English versions of the Bible,” which is “the use of translation as a vehicle for explaining the Bible instead of representing it in another language, and in the most egregious instances this amounts to explaining away the Bible.” 

Alter’s avoidance of straightforward translations undermines his credibility when he tackles texts used by Christians for millennia in support of their claims that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. He has every right to offer arguments against Christian claims for Jesus, of course. But his remarks take him beyond his stated aims for this commentary—an extension of translator’s notes to include questions of style, narrative, motifs, etc.—and they place him as a disputant in a theological controversy. Take Isaiah 53: “Debate persists about the identity of the Servant”—collective Israel, an individual, or even the prophet himself (Isaiah 53:3)—but, whoever it is, Alter knows it ain’t Jesus. Alter offers two reasons to exclude Jesus from consideration. First, “Illness . . . is not part of the story of Jesus.” Second, “Virtually no serious scholars today see this as a prediction of the Passion, but it certainly provided a theological template for interpreting the death of Jesus” (Isaiah 53:3). 

Bereft of the one God of the Hebrew Bible, Alter seems to settle for the God of Baruch Spinoza.

Let’s take each reason in turn. First, about illness, the Gospel of Matthew actually cites Isaiah 53:4 to account for the healing ministry of Jesus (Matthew 8:14–17). Alter’s second reason, namely that “virtually no serious scholars” read the passage this way, hardly counts for much. The phrase “virtually no” suggests that some do, and Alter’s qualification of “serious” before “scholars” trivializes the appeal—the word “serious” does not seem to mean “earnest” or “dedicated” but “those who are part of my guild” or “those who agree with me.” Put another way, he missed an opportunity to give those sympathetic to a Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53 the names of people to read if they want a different point of view.

Regardless of what “serious scholars” say, Alter cannot avoid noting how the passage resonates with the cross of Christ, how “the Servant’s bearing the sins of the people and becoming a kind of sacrificial lamb seemed especially relevant to the idea of Christ’s dying for the sins of humankind” (Isaiah 53:3). The Servant’s work is substitutionary: “the Servant has acted as a surrogate for the people, taken upon himself the burden of the people’s crimes” (Isaiah 53:6). Alter adds, “It is also puzzling that after the Servant has been reported dead and buried, and a surrogate for Israel’s sins, this conditional possibility of a long and happy life should be offered” (Isaiah 53:10). Christians propose the following answer to this puzzle: Easter Sunday. 

The Theologies of Alter

The reader should keep in mind that, for Alter, the Hebrew Bible is not one seamless book but a haphazard collection of texts. Biblical authors do not offer the same view of the one true God but different—indeed, rival—versions of God. Alter writes dismissively of “the so-called biblical worldview, which is really a construct of later interpreters,” saying, e.g., that “Ezekiel’s God is perhaps the most implacable of the many versions of God in the Hebrew Bible” (Ezekiel 9:10). In order to explain the variations, Alter must psychologize: “One suspects that, more than the other prophets, he underwent extreme ecstatic states” (Ezekiel 33:22). Or again: “this whole vision appears to be some sort of hallucinatory experience” (Ezekiel 8:3).

Bereft of the one God of the Hebrew Bible, Alter seems to settle for the God of Baruch Spinoza. On Qohelet 2:26, Alter comments, “In this transient life, he who pleases God may enjoy the worldly goods passed on to him from the unlucky man who offends God, but under the aspect of eternity, even that difference amounts to little, for in the end death serves as the great equalizer.” Here Alter explicitly evokes Spinoza’s phrase “under the aspect of eternity” (sub specie aeternitatis).

On Qohelet 5:18, Alter writes, “Thus, the opportunity to follow a course of simple hedonism is a gift of God—or perhaps fate, for the two exhibit some interchangeability in Qohelet.” Note again the resonance with Spinoza, who writes of “God, or Nature” (Deus, sive Natura) in his Ethics. Alter may say that his commentary simply articulates the position of each particular author. Instead, he has given us a Hebrew Bible without God. His commentary, often thought-provoking and occasionally infuriating, is never edifying.

Even still, these volumes will not rest on my shelf untouched. Yes, I have read them carefully, but I will return to them again. Indeed, whenever I speak or write about the Hebrew Bible, I plan on consulting them. You should, too.