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'The Five Books of Moses'

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, October 24, 2004; Page BW15


A Translation with Commentary

By Robert Alter. Norton. 1,064 pp. $39.95

Detail from a 16th-century Torah (Gerald Martineau / The Washington Post)

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Of the making of biblical translations there is no end. For most of the Middle Ages, Christians were content to hear their priests intone the Latin vulgate of St. Jerome, and to rely on these clerical middle-men to interpret its divine message. But with the Reformation everything changed. Sola Scriptura, the Bible alone, became the ultimate foundation of belief. The Protestant elect needed to study God's word directly, to hearken to His commandments and His covenant while concomitantly examining, usually with mounting horror, the constant backsliding of their own immortal, sin-bespattered souls.

Ever since William Tyndale claimed that he would render the New Testament (and eventually much of the Old) into colloquial English so that it might be understood by "a boy that driveth the plough," the world has been deluged with one version after another of this great encyclopedia of myth, poetry, dogma and moral wisdom. Many people still regard the King James or Authorized Version as the real Bible -- and indeed, nothing sounds quite so grand on the tongue as its rolling periods: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." Too often our well-meaning attempts to make the Bible downright neighborly only end by making it sound as if one's neighbors quit school after the fourth grade. In certain "good news" versions of the Old Testament, our prelapsarian parents might be Dick and Jane rather than Adam and Eve.

Robert Alter will have nothing to do with such dumbing-down. In his superbly attentive translation of the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), he has set himself a demanding three-part task: to translate every word of the Hebrew without fudging; to maintain, as befits the ancient text, a properly serious tone; and to provide useful commentary on key phrases, textual cruxes, and what he has called, in an earlier book, the art of biblical narrative. This makes reading his version of the Torah -- the Hebrew name for what Christians sometimes call the Pentateuch -- thrilling and constantly illuminating: After the still, small voices of so many tepid modern translations, here is a whirlwind.

In particular, as Alter emphasizes in his polemical introduction "The Bible in English and the Heresy of Explanation," he translates every "and" in the Hebrew. The Torah's syntax is fundamentally additive (or paratactic); it comes at you head-on, one thing after another, rather than couched in subordinate clauses and complex sentences (hypotaxis). Modern translators, in their attempt to achieve a more flowing, contemporary style, abandon this archaic bluntness, and with it the Hebrew original's somber power. Alter points to the story of Rebekah as an example of how the repetitive use of "and" can build up meaning as well as majesty:

"And she came down to the spring and filled her jug and came back up. And the servant ran toward her and said, 'Pray, let me sip a bit of water from your jug.' And she said, 'Drink, my lord,' and she hurried and tipped down her jug on one hand and let him drink. And she she let him drink his fill and said, 'For your camels, too, I shall draw water until they drink their fill.' And she hurried and emptied her jug into the trough, and she ran again to the well to draw water and drew water for all his camels."

As Alter observes, the crescendo of "ands" is used to convey the tireless Rebekah's heroic labor: "A camel after a long desert journey can drink as much as twenty-five gallons of water, and there are ten camels." Those "ands" give urgency and weight to her task, which otherwise we might imagine as merely a graceful gesture of hospitality by a shy milkmaid: John Constable paints the Old Testament.

It is unquestionably valuable to find in The Five Books of Moses so faithful a reflection of the original syntax. Without being slavish about it, Alter also tends to use the same English equivalent for each Hebrew word, rather than vary matters for esthetic effect. Thus if a Hebrew adjective is translated as "beautiful," it won't next be rendered as "pretty" or "attractive." This is important because it allows the reader to detect narrative and imagistic patterns that would otherwise go unnoticed.

But seemingly no pattern goes unnoticed by Robert Alter. For me, the chief glory of this edition of The Five Books of Moses may actually lie in its abundant footnotes. To these he brings all his gifts as both a scholar of Hebrew and a major literary critic. The result is a kind of modern-day Midrash, commenting on language roots as well as laying bare some of the motifs and interlacings of this great foundational text. I don't know Hebrew, but it is good to be reminded that Adam draws his name from the word for soil and that his son Cain has a name meaning smith, or that 'arum (cunning) -- the adjective associated with the Garden of Eden's serpent -- puns on a word from the previous verse: 'arumin, which means naked. One starts to feel wiser just by paying attention to the words that Alter defines: ruah (breath, wind, spirit), marah (bitter), tsahaq (laugh). The last words of the the last book of Moses are appropriately "le'eyney kol-yisra'el" ("before the eyes of all Israel").

Alter's brief notes also recall the scholarly knowledge and critical insight displayed more fully in his three earlier studies: The Art of Biblical Narrative, The Art of Biblical Poetry and The World of Biblical Literature. Just look at two comments here about the few verses that relate the story of Cain and Abel. "The widespread culture-founding story of rivalry between herdsman and farmer," Alter points out, "is recast in a pattern that will dominate Genesis -- the displacement of the firstborn by the younger son." Once he says this, you see immediately how true it is, as the stories of Jacob and Esau, of Joseph and his brothers, of Absalom and Solomon rise up in your mind. Then, after Cain murders, Alter sensibly explains the famous "inconsistency" -- how could there be people around who might slay Cain once he turns into a "restless wanderer," and where in the world does he find a wife?

"Either the writer was assuming knowledge of some other account of human origins involving more than a single founding family, or, because the schematic simplicity of the single nuclear-family plot impeded narrative development after Cain's banishment, he decided not to bother with consistency." In other words, we have two options in accounting for this perplexity: Adam and Eve may not have been the only couple that God set up on old Earth, or the inconsistency was needed for the story, and to hell with narrative punctiliousness.

Alter's notes deliver, I suppose, the quiet serenity and wisdom of Midrash. By reading him, we learn things we might have forgotten or never noticed: The mark of Cain was a sign of protection, not of stigma. Onan's crime was not in fact masturbation but coitus interruptus. As for Moses's destruction of the Commandments in anger over the Golden Calf, "There is also a good deal of evidence that in the ancient Near East smashing the tablets on which a binding agreement was written was a legal act of abrogating the agreement."

Regardless of one's particular religious beliefs, the Torah is unquestionably a major work of world literature. Yet any translator of these Mosaic texts must face one artistic stumbling block: After the sublime myths and very human stories of Genesis and Exodus, the narrative momentum slows in Leviticus, Numbers and most of Deuteronomy to focus on dietary prohibitions, tribal rituals, and detailed legalistic imperatives. Alter makes the claims available to defend this shift -- that there is a kind of epic quality to the cataloguing and a high-minded poetry to "thou shalt not" eat this or do that, and that all these matters were central to preserving the Lord's covenant with his unruly people. Epic poets do often indulge in long lists, and yet the equivalent of congressional reports and architectural blue prints still makes for somewhat dull reading. It's as though we were to interrupt a grand opera like "Aida" or "The Trojans" with a grainy documentary, shown in a school gymnasium, about the dangers of sex and alcohol. Important lessons, yes, but rather a letdown after Leontyne Price and Placido Domingo at full throttle. Obviously, I speak from a wholly esthetic and secular point of view.

But there's no doubt that the Torah turns increasingly to pageantry, spectacle, community regulation, priestly and legal rhetoric. Alter's introductions do indicate the particular quiddity of each of the later books (Deuteronomy is the most rhetorical of the five), and remind us that even the most didactic scriptural chapters allow for intriguing speculation about deep mental or symbolic structures -- e.g., the obsession with hivdil, of dividing things or separating them from one another. Alter also cites the work of many other scholars, such as the brilliant Mary Douglas, best known for her study Purity and Danger, who interprets Leviticus, analogically, as an elaborate series of correspondences.

Autumn, it seems to me, is the best time to read the Bible. The green world is turning mottled and brown, the evening grows dark ever more quickly, we feel the chill in the brisk morning air. In the fall we find ourselves turning naturally to mild philosophical meditation, reflecting in our vague way on the purposes of life, the passage of time, the petty affairs of humanity. For brief moments, we even view our own selves from a distance, sub specie aeternitatis. In such a mood one might profitably reread parts of either testament -- or take up Robert Alter's fine and thoughtful new version of the five books of Moses. •

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His live online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

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