Judith Shulevitz’s NY Times review of The Five Books of Moses: A Translation With Commentary by Robert Alter not only raves about the book (“Alter’s magisterial translation deserves to become the version in which many future generations encounter this strange and inexhaustible book”), it goes into the kind of detail that whets my appetite:

What Alter does with the Bible instead [of allocating bits to “J” and other presumed authors] is read it, with erudition and rigor and respect for the intelligence of the editor or editors who stitched it together, and — most thrillingly — with the keenest receptivity to its darker undertones.

In the case of the binding of Isaac, for instance, Alter not only accepts a previous translator’s substitution of “cleaver” for the “knife” of the King James version but also changes “slay” (as in, “Abraham took the knife to slay his son”) to “slaughter.” Moreover, in his notes, he points out that although this particular Hebrew verb for “bound” (as in, “Abraham bound Isaac his son”) occurs only this once in biblical Hebrew, making its meaning uncertain, we can nonetheless take a hint from the fact that when the word reappears in rabbinic Hebrew it refers specifically to the trussing up of animals. Alter’s translation thus suggests a dimension of this eerie tale we would probably have overlooked: that of editorial comment. The biblical author, by using words more suited to butchery than ritual sacrifice, lets us know that he is as horrified as we are at the brutality of the act that God has asked Abraham to commit.

Translators often win praise for their attention to nuance, but in the case of the Hebrew Bible subtlety has hurt more than it has helped. Biblical Hebrew has an unusually small vocabulary clustered around an even smaller number of three-letter roots, most of them denoting concrete actions or things, and the Bible achieves its mimetic effects partly through the skillful repetition of these few vivid words. The translators who gave us the King James version appear more or less to have understood this, but many 20th-century English-language translators have not. In their desire to convey shades of meaning brought out by different contexts or, perhaps, to compensate for what they perceived as the primitiveness of the ancient language, they replaced biblical Hebrew’s restricted, earthy lexicon with a broad and varied set of often abstract terms.

Not Alter. As he explains in his introduction — an essay that would be worth reading even if it didn’t accompany this book — the Hebrew of the Bible is, in his view, a closed system with a coherent literary logic, “a conventionally delimited language, roughly analogous in this respect to the French of the neoclassical theater,” though plain-spoken where neoclassical French is lofty. Alter’s translation puts into practice his belief that the rules of biblical style require it to reiterate, artfully, within scenes and from scene to scene, a set of “key words,” a term Alter derives from Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, who in an epic labor that took nearly 40 years to complete, rendered the Hebrew Bible into a beautifully Hebraicized German. Key words, as Alter has explained elsewhere, clue the reader in to what’s at stake in a particular story, serving either as “the chief means of thematic exposition” within episodes or as connective tissue between them.

I like the appreciation (even if muted) for the King James, which will always be my favorite version, and the comparison with the restricted vocabulary of French classicism, and I especially like the preference for rendering the same word or phrase the same way whenever it makes sense: that’s the only way to bring across the growing web of associations that characterizes any great work of literature.


  1. The translation did seem interesting, but the review bothered me a little. Particularly that bit that leaps from “takes a hint… from Rabbinic Hebrew” and then goes to “editorial comment.” Forgive me if I’m wrong, but isn’t there a gap of many, many years between the Hebrew of the Five Books proper and Rabbinic Hebrew? (Not my area, so I’ll willingly concede defeat.) While some words stay roughly the same in meaning and nuance, I’m sure that you can easily think of hundreds of examples of words that change with history. While I’m very, very willing to accept the hint that Alter does (as the review seems to tell us), I’m less willing to read it as “editorial comment” without some more information on the linguistic development of this mysterious verb.

  2. Shooting from the hip:
    1. I remember being very attracted to Everett Fox’s translation of the Pentateuch in the mid 1990s. It was similarly indebted to Rosenzweig and Buber, and gave the narratives a rawness lacking in many modern versions. Fox’s Pentateuch did for me what Lattimore’s New Testament would later do: they renewed the stories.
    2. The Abraham/Isaac story, for all its familiarity, remains a disgusting tale of human sacrifice and alien voices. Only Kierkegaard (in “Fear and Trembling”) seems to have fully confronted this horror in all its dimensions.
    3. There should be a moratorium on the use of the word “magisterial” in book reviews.

  3. Here’s Fox’s translation of Genesis 22:6-12
    Avraham took the wood for the offering-up, he placed them upon Yitzhak his son, in his hand he took the fire and the knife. Thus the two of them went together. Yitzhak said to Avraham his father, he said: Father! He said: Here I am, my son. He said: Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering-up? Avraham said: God will see-for-himself to the lamb for the offering-up, my son. Thus the two of them went together: They came to the place that God had told him of; there Avraham built the slaughter-site and arranged the wood and bound Yitzhak his son and placed him on the slaughter-site atop the wood. And Avraham stretched out his hand, he took the knife to slay his son. But YHWH’s messenger called to him from heaven and said: Avraham! Avraham! He said: Here I am. He said: Do not stretch our your hand against the lad, do not do anything to him! For now I know that you are in awe of God – you have not withheld your son, your only-one, from me.
    I found that text online here, and I don’t have the book with me, so I don’t know how he broke the lines up, but the following text, which I found here, keeps his breaks:
    At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth,
    When the earth was a wild and waste darkness over the face of Ocean,
    the rushing-spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters
    – God said:
    “Let there be light!”
    And there was light.
    God saw the light: That it was good.
    God separated the light from the Darkness. God called the light: Day! And the Darkness he called: Night!
    There was setting, there was dawning: ONE DAY.
    God said:
    “Let there be a dome amid the waters, and let it separate waters from water.”
    God made the dome and separated the water that were below the dome from the waters that were above the dome.
    It was so.
    God called the dome: Heaven!
    There was setting, there was dawning: SECOND DAY.
    As I recall, the annotations were quite absorbing.

  4. The Abraham/Isaac story, for all its familiarity, remains a disgusting tale of human sacrifice and alien voices. Only Kierkegaard (in “Fear and Trembling”) seems to have fully confronted this horror in all its dimensions.
    I must have missed the part where Kierkegaard calls it “disgusting”. But I’d like to hear about it!
    Regarding “bound” (in the original) as “editorial comment,” the reviewer’s suggestion is plausible, but maybe even more plausible chronologically is that the Rabbis used “bind” in the sense of animal sacrifice because, well, it was the word used in the Binding of Isaac. That is, the Rabbis took the hint from the story in the Bible, whose use of the word might be chiefly descriptive and not editorial.
    (There are other features of the story which are editorial, but I’m not convinced that that word was one of them. Then again, perhaps Alter’s argument is more extensive.)

  5. Good call on “bind.” It’s a very old story, after all, so the midrash and the textual tradition could have originated from there…
    As for Kierkegaard, I didn’t say he found the story disgusting, I said *I* did.
    But he certainly found it troubling, horrifying even, and so did I.
    Of course, he eventually finds it “better than moral”, as the knight of faith cannot limit himself to regular standards, and that’s precisely where I part ways with Moody Old Soren K. For me, the story cannot be redeemed. It remains a blot. And I wonder if Sarah’s (Mrs Avram to you) with me on this one.

  6. Robert Alter’s idea of key words is something that I am very glad to see making its way into the NYT in this context.
    Isn’t there something perverse about the reviewer describing an effect as “editorial comment” when that effect is the unavoidable consequence of a limited vocabulary?

  7. In my view, the obscure poet Robert Zimmerman’s commentary on the story of Abraham and Isaac successfully summarized SK in only a few verses. And I say this as a serious booster of SK.
    Elck, how do you like _Job_?

  8. I don’t know Zimmerman; I’ll have to look him up.
    Job has undergone a strange metamorphosis in my mind. Back when I believed these things, the Job narrative frightened and dismayed me. Now that I merely “believe”, I find it to be one of the most agonistic and elemental narratives in the whole book. It’s pagan, almost, in its picture of the heavenly court, and it can be read as a collusion between the Good Force and the Evil Force in a project of humbling a man.
    Pierre, where’ve you been hiding?

  9. Look at me spouting off in Hat’s comments boxes. Pardon!

  10. elck, you’re welcome to spout off here to your heart’s content, as is pierre. This place would be barren without thoughtful, heart-ful commenters like you.

  11. William Tyndale:
    And Abraham toke the wodd of the sacrifyce and layde it upon Isaac his sonne and toke fyre in his hande and a knyfe. And they went both of them
    Than spake Isaac unto Abraham his father & sayde: My father? And he answered here am I my sonne. And he sayde: Se here is fyre and wodd but where is the shepe for sacrifyce? And Abraham sayde: my sonne God wyll provyde him a shepe for sacrifyce. So went they both together.
    And when they came unto the place which God shewed him Abraham made an aulter there and dressed the wodd and bownde Isaac his sonne and layde him on the aulter above apon the wodd. And Abraham stretched forth his hande and toke the knyfe to have kylled his sonne.
    Than the angell of the Lorde called unto him from heaven saynge: Abraham Abraham. And he answered: here am I. And he sayde: laye not thy handes apon the childe nether do any thinge at all unto him for now I knowe that thou fearest God in yt thou hast not kepte thine only sonne fro me.

  12. Zimmerman’s version. Cohen’s rendering. Of course, Isaac was a lot older than Cohen gives him credit for being.

  13. People who think Job was composed by the Almighty it tend to be nagged by the suspicion that it was an irresponsible and oppressive thing for Him to write. But understood differently, the possibility of irony makes it much more fun. Job’s friends are all Polonius. And God gets the equivalent of the “to be or not to be” speech at the end.
    Something of the sort is now my reading of the Isaac story. After cycling through all the infinite inwardness scenarios so brilliantly expressed by SK, I think we wind up with Dylan’s reading. Times are hard and Abe needs a job. The resonances are not within the story but rather in the ways the story can be picked up later. The careful “charging up” of the limited vocabulary is an investment in the possibilities of future reference to the story.
    Thanks Hat for permitting these digressions!

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