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The Alter Bible

In a landmark new translation, Robert Alter revives the literary power of a Hebrew masterpiece

Adam Kirsch
January 30, 2019
Illustrations: Ariel Davis
Illustrations: Ariel Davis

The Bible is a refractory book, never behaving quite as we expect it to. Indeed, much of the creativity of Jewish tradition has been devoted to harmonizing the actual Bible with Judaism’s changing expectations of what it should be. The rabbinic genre of midrash tries to make sense of the text’s many narrative contradictions and ethical perplexities. The Talmud assumes that every word in the Torah is there to teach a point of halacha, while Maimonides insisted that the Bible actually teaches the same truths as Greek philosophy, though it uses an allegorical method that can easily mislead the ignorant. And the mystical Zohar, written in medieval Spain, says that if all there were to the Torah were its surface meaning, it would be easy to write a better book: It is only the hidden, esoteric content of the Torah that makes it sacred.

The one thing the Bible could not be, for most Jews throughout history and many still today, is mere literature. After all, literature is a secular art, a product of the human imagination, while the Bible is supposed to be a sacred text, the product of divine inspiration. Perhaps the first person to openly suggest otherwise was Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Jewish philosopher, who daringly wrote that the books of the Bible ought to be studied in just the same way we would study Greek and Italian poetry.

Robert Alter’s newly completed English translation of the Hebrew Bible shows what it means to take the idea of the Bible as literature seriously. For Alter, the most important thing for a translator to know about the Bible is that its authors were great literary artists. This doesn’t mean that they lacked a religious purpose, of course; but it does mean that they paid close attention to literary technique, without which their writing might never have become canonical in the first place. Getting the Bible right, for Alter, means offering the English reader a literary and aesthetic experience that comes as close as possible to the Hebrew reader’s.

Alter’s Bible has been appearing in installments since 1997, when he published his version of Genesis. Now, 21 years later, the complete English version has been published by W.W. Norton in a handsome three-volume set, one for each division of the Tanakh: Torah (the Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (Prophets, including the historical books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings), and Ketuvim (Writings, including Psalms and the books of Job, Ruth, and Esther, among others). Translating the entire Bible single-handed—a text of more than 3,000 pages, in this edition—is a scholarly and literary feat that puts Alter in the company of legendary figures such as Jerome, whose Latin translation of the Bible was adopted by the Catholic Church, and Martin Luther, whose German version helped to fuel the growth of Protestantism.

As those names suggest, for most of history translating the Bible has been a religious act, undertaken by clergymen for the purpose of advancing their faith. That is why, once a large English-speaking Jewish population emerged in the 20th century, it became necessary for Jewish translators to produce their own versions of the Bible. The first Jewish Publication Society translation of the Tanakh, published in 1917, was produced by a group of leading scholars and clergy from the Reform and Conservative movements. “The Pentateuch and Haftorahs,” more familiarly known to generations of synagogue-goers as the Hertz Chumash, appeared in 1929-36, the work of Joseph Hertz, the chief rabbi of England. Without such Bibles of their own, Jews would have been left reading translations made by and for Christians, whose interpretations of the text turn it into the “Old Testament”—a book that points to and is superseded by the New Testament of Jesus.


Alter’s Bible is an emphatically Jewish translation. There is a natural connection between the two qualities Alter’s translation strives for—philological accuracy and literary power. Both are expressions of his quest for the authentic meaning of the Hebrew text. And meaning, Alter believes, resides as much in a word’s poetic qualities—its music, its suggestive overtones—as in its dictionary definition. This approach is marked by Alter’s experience as a literary critic and a translator of modern Hebrew writers like Yehuda Amichai.

The unacknowledged heresy underlying most modern English versions of the Bible is the use of translation as a vehicle for explaining the Bible instead of representing it in another language.

Take, for instance, Genesis 49:10, a verse in Jacob’s benediction of his sons. When he reaches his fourth son, Judah, Jacob says, in the King James Version: “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.” Starting with the Church Fathers, Christian readers traditionally interpreted the word Shiloh as a reference to Jesus. On this reading, Jacob is saying that the authority of Judah, and of Judaism, will last only until the messianic Shiloh arrives, whereupon the people will follow this new king instead.

However, this reading doesn’t make much sense in Hebrew—elsewhere in the Bible, Shiloh is the name of a place, not a person—and modern translations interpret the verse differently. Thus the Revised Standard Version, an updating of the King James Bible produced in the 20th century, renders Genesis 49:10 as follows: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah,/nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,/until he comes to whom it belongs;/and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” Here “Shiloh” disappears, in keeping with a better reading of the Hebrew text. But the verse is still legible as a Christian prophecy of supersession: the ruler’s staff will depart from Judah and be given to the one “to whom it belongs.”

When the 1985 Jewish Publication Society translation comes to this verse, it naturally opts for a different interpretation. In that version—which is available free on the invaluable—there is no implied second “he” in the verse; rather, both clauses refer to the same person, Judah himself: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah,/Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet;/So that tribute shall come to him/And the homage of peoples be his.” This is a blessing that affirms the eternity of Judah’s kingship, rather than looking forward to its replacement.

How does Alter deal with Genesis 49:10? Like the JPS version, his translation rejects the Christological reading of the verse. As his note explains, he “follows an exegetical tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages which breaks up the word ‘Shiloh’ and vocalizes it differently,” rendering the passage this way: “The scepter shall not pass from Judah,/nor the mace from between his legs,/that tribute to him may come/and to him the submission of peoples.” The sense here is basically the same as in the JPS version, but there are significant stylistic differences that point to some of the key features of Alter’s Bible.

First, Alter replaces “ruler’s staff” with the more unusual word “mace,” which in English has a historical association with the idea of royal power. (Just recently, the British Parliament was brought to a halt when an irate member tried to walk out with the official mace, without which no business can be conducted.) By adding the adjective “ruler’s” to the noun “staff,” the JPS version attempts to explain or paraphrase the Hebrew, telling us not just what the staff is but what it means. This is something that Alter deliberately tries to avoid, as he explains in his introduction: “The unacknowledged heresy underlying most modern English versions of the Bible is the use of translation as a vehicle for explaining the Bible instead of representing it in another language.”

Then there is Alter’s preference for “between his legs” rather than “between his feet,” which is used in all three of the earlier versions quoted above. A staff between Judah’s feet sounds like it is planted firmly on the ground, but a mace between his legs has a distinctly more phallic implication, as Alter acknowledges in his note: “the image of the mace between the legs surely suggests virile power in political leadership.” This is a vivid image of patriarchy, entirely appropriate for a speech in which a father is passing sovereignty down to his sons.


Alter’s watchword as a translator is “concreteness”: “One of the most salient characteristics of Biblical Hebrew,” he writes in his introduction, “is its extraordinary concreteness, manifested especially in a fondness for images rooted in the human body.” Alter gives as an example the word zerah, “seed,” which God uses in his covenant with Abraham in Genesis 22. Clearly, the word is used here as a synonym for descendants, and that is how the JPS Bible translates it: “I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore.”

But this translation, Alter observes, loses the implication of “seed” as semen, the physical substance from which a man’s descendants are created. And he suggests that the comparison of stars to seed was a deliberate visual metaphor used by the biblical writer, one that “imposes itself visually on the retina of the imagination”: “an image of human seed (perhaps reinforced by the shared white color of semen and stars) scattered across the vast expanses of the starry skies.” This comparison—similar to the one that gives us the term “Milky Way”—is lost when the concrete word “seed” is flattened into a concept like “descendants.” For Alter, it is always better to trust the concrete language of the biblical writers, which is more frank and energetic than any decorous paraphrase.

Likewise, he tries to preserve the simplicity and directness of Hebrew grammar, which often proceeds by parataxis—clauses connected by “and”—rather than turning it into more complicated English. The beginning of Exodus 4, where Moses disputes with God about his worthiness to be a lawgiver, consists in Alter’s version of seven sentences in a row that start with “And”:

And Moses answered and said, “But, look, they will not believe me nor will they heed my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’” And the Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” And he said, “A staff.” And He said, “Fling it to the ground.” And he flung it to the ground and it became a snake and Moses fled from it. And the Lord said to Moses, “Reach out your hand and grasp its tail.” And he reached out his hand and held it and it became a staff in his grip.

The JPS version, by contrast, cuts five of the seven “ands” and turns one into a “but,” leaving just one intact. This results in a passage that reads more like modern narrative prose—but, Alter insists, less like the Bible itself. “The assumption of most modern translators,” he writes, “has been that this sort of [paratactic] syntax will be either unintelligible or at least alienating to modern readers, and so should be entirely rearranged as modern English.” But he argues that “parataxis is the essential literary vehicle of biblical narrative: it is the way the ancient Hebrew writers saw the world.” Preserving it is a philological principle that is also an aesthetic choice.

The effect of such choices is that reading the Bible in Alter’s translation is like seeing it through a freshly scrubbed pane of glass. Its images and contours stand out more sharply, its rhythms are more emphatic, particularly in the verse. Consider Isaiah 40:6-8, in which the prophet receives his mission from God. Here is the King James Version:

The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field:
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.

This has the stateliness we expect from the King James Bible, but that very quality—the long lines and antique diction—can make it feel distantly solemn. The JPS translation, on the other hand, is just prosy, with no sense of rhythm, making the passage hard to speak aloud:

A voice rings out: “Proclaim!” Another asks, “What shall I proclaim?” “All flesh is grass, All its goodness like flowers of the field:
Grass withers, flowers fade When the breath of the LORD blows on them. Indeed, man is but grass:
Grass withers, flowers fade— But the word of our God is always fulfilled!”

This passage is guilty of some of the literary sins Alter complains about in his introduction. There is elegant variation—“rings out” and “asks” are different translations of the same Hebrew word—and abstraction—the word of God is said to be “fulfilled,” where the Hebrew word connotes “stands,” one of those physical, bodily images Alter cherishes as characteristically biblical. Here is Alter’s version of the same passage:

A voice calls out, saying: “Call!”
     And I said, “What shall I call?”—
All flesh is grass
     And all its trust like the flowers of the field.
Grass dries up, the flower fades,
    For the Lord’s wind has blown upon it.
          The people indeed is grass,
Grass dries up, the flower fades,
     But the word of the Lord is forever.

Alter casts the text in verse lines, emphasizing the doublets—the second clause expanding on the first—that are characteristic of biblical poetry. The diction is contemporary and natural—“call” rather than “cry” or “proclaim,” “dries up” rather than “withers.” And Alter translates the Hebrew ruach as “wind,” an image from nature, rather than the theological “spirit” or the anthropomorphic “breath.” Which translation is more accurate to the nuances of the Hebrew is, of course, open to expert debate, and will surely receive it; but Alter’s version is the sharpest.


Another strength of Alter’s translation is the way it conveys the Bible’s internal diversity, and the tensions it can cause. Bible, in English, is a singular noun, and we refer to the Bible as “a” book. But the word comes from a Greek plural, biblia, and one of the traditional Jewish names for the Bible is “the twenty-four books.” This plurality gets lost when we think of the Bible as one big book, and implicitly expect from it some kind of stylistic and theological unity. This expectation is reinforced by the idea that all the parts of the Bible stem ultimately from the same author, God (even if Jewish tradition holds that different books were written by different people: The Book of Job by Moses, the Psalms by David).

Yet the Bible disappoints this expectation of unity at every turn. Written over a period of five or more centuries by dozens of different authors, it is best thought of as anthology rather than a book: verse and prose, myth and history, genealogical catalogues and territorial surveys, architectural measurements and erotic poetry. Even individual sections of the Bible are full of narrative inconsistencies and duplications that suggest they are combinations of several different texts. (Abraham goes to Egypt and pretends Sarah is his sister on two occasions; Noah is told to take two of each species of animal on board the ark, then in the next sentence to take seven of each.) Spinoza doubted that the true origins of the Bible could ever be discovered, but modern scholarship has gone a long way to proving him wrong, discerning different layers in the text that reflect various origins and agendas.

Alter’s notes are not consumed with source criticism; he tends to be interested in the effect of the finished text, rather than in its hypothetical origins. But he does show that stylistic analysis can help to make sense of how the Bible was put together. One illuminating example comes in the second chapter of I Kings, where King David delivers a deathbed speech to his son and heir, Solomon. This speech starts out, in Alter’s version, “I am going the way of all the earth. And you must be strong and be a man.” This sounds very much like the David we have gotten to know—a tough realist.

But then he continues, “And keep what the Lord your God enjoins, to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes, His commandments, and His dictates and His admonitions, as it is written in the Teaching of Moses.” This, as Alter points out in a note, does not sound at all like David, who has been none too scrupulous himself about keeping God’s statutes. What it sounds like, right down to the invocation of the teaching of the Torah of Moses, is Deuteronomy—a book that scholarship dates to the late seventh century BCE, while David is supposed to have lived around the 10th century BCE.

Alter sees this sentence, then, as “an unusual instance of the intervention of a Deuteronomistic editor in the dialogue of the original David story that was composed perhaps four centuries before him.” An editor living during the religious reformation associated with King Josiah has inserted a pious phrase into an already ancient text, in order to bring it in line with his own sense of how a Jewish king should sound. This kind of creative reinterpretation of the Bible is central to Judaism, and it was already happening in biblical times.

It’s not only doctrinally that the Bible writers diverge from one another; their styles, too, can be at odds. Esther is one of the most popular books of the Bible, and not just because it is read aloud every year on Purim: It is a gripping tale, full of dramatic ironies and coincidences. But Alter observes that its writer, who probably lived in the Persian Empire in the fifth century BCE, wrote a “late” Hebrew whose style was loose and even careless: “Agreement between subject and verb is often ignored … at some points the writer seems to be a little uncertain how to handle Hebrew verb tenses … and from time to time there are run-on sentences that sprawl over several verses without a great deal of syntactic coherence.”

In the book’s very first verse, for instance, there is an awkward repetition of the name of Ahasuerus, which no translation has quite succeeded in smoothing out. The King James Version opts for a parenthetical: “Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus, (this is Ahasuerus which reigned, from India even unto Ethiopia, over an hundred and seven and twenty provinces).” The JPS translation achieves a similar effect with a dash: “It happened in the days of Ahasuerus—that Ahasuerus who reigned over a hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia.” But Alter’s version is the choppiest of all: “And it happened in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Cush, one hundred and twenty-seven provinces.” The artless opening “and,” the omission of “over,” the last clause dangling on its own—all give the impression of haste, which is not inappropriate for a storyteller plunging into an exciting tale.

Of course, translation is usually a matter of compromise—one element of meaning or style must be sacrificed in order to preserve another. A good example comes in the story of the creation of man, in Genesis 2:7. The Hebrew word adam has three meanings that nest inside one another: It is the personal name of the first man, a word for mankind in general, and a pun on the word for soil, adamah, out of which Adam is created. The King James Version does not attempt to preserve this wordplay, saying simply, “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground.” Similarly, the JPS Bible has “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth.”

Alter, more ambitiously, tries to recreate the adam/adamah connection: “the Lord God fashioned the human, humus from the soil.” But “humus” is a rare word in English—actually, a Latin word imported into English—and the phrasing feels self-conscious; the pun has been preserved at the expense of consistent English diction. Further, perhaps in an attempt to avoid the gendered implications of “man,” Alter continues to translate ha-adam as “the human,” which leads to some odd moments: In Genesis 3:8, he has “the human and his woman” hiding from God in the Garden of Eden, rather than the JPS Bible’s “the man and his wife.”

Such trade-offs are inevitable whenever one language has to be rendered into another. The classic Bible translations—Jerome’s, Luther’s, the King James, the Septuagint—were so influential for so long that, for most readers, they effectively replaced the original Hebrew, becoming sacred texts in their own right. Indeed, many readers of these versions probably didn’t know that the original was written in Hebrew at all. Alter’s Bible doesn’t seek that kind of canonical status; it is not out to replace the Hebrew Bible, but to engage in a dialogue with it. This is the most important way in which Alter’s Bible takes literature, and the reader, seriously—by inviting us into the translation process, acknowledging that every word involves choice and compromise.

In Ecclesiastes—which Alter gives its Hebrew name, Qohelet—there is a famous warning: “of making many books there is no end, and much chatter is a weariness of the flesh.” Of translations of the Bible, too, there is no end—not as long as it continues to be the central book of our civilization. But Alter’s version will long remain invaluable for anyone who wants to engage seriously with the Bible in English. Alter is deserving of the praise given to Qohelet himself: He “sought to find apt words and weighed honestly words of truth.”

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