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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

Adam Kirsch
June 12, 2013
18th-century fresco showing the judge Gideon, center. The Wallfahrtskirche in Hafnerberg, Austria.(Wikimedia Commons)
18th-century fresco showing the judge Gideon, center. The Wallfahrtskirche in Hafnerberg, Austria.(Wikimedia Commons)

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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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.