GENESIS: Translation and Commentary
By Robert Alter
Norton. 324 pp. $25
Go to the First Chapter of "Genesis: Translation and Commentary"
GENESIS: A New Translation of the Classic Biblical Stories
GENESIS: A Living Conversation
GENESIS: As It Is Written
IN THE BEGINNING: A New Interpretation of Genesis
Go to Chapter One
Back Where It All BeganBy Jonathan Groner
Sunday, December 8, 1996
Every fall, during the synagogue cycle that encompasses the public reading of the entire Torah, the Five Books of Moses, the scroll is rolled back to the beginning, the first words of the book of Genesis. For 12 weeks, Jews worldwide ponder the familiar stories of Creation, Adam and Eve, the Flood, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob's wrestling match, Joseph in Egypt. But this year, Jewish congregations and everyone else who seeks meaning in these ancient tales will enjoy considerable assistance from their local bookstore and their television set. The 50 chapters of Genesis form the basis of several highly publicized new English translations and volumes of discussion -- and of a 10-part PBS television series moderated by Bill Moyers.
Besides this year's books, there have been several other notable projects in the past year or so, including literary critic Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg's "The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis," Washington psychologist Naomi Rosenblatt's "Wrestling With Angels," and Jewish scholar Everett Fox's long-awaited, intentionally archaic translation of all five books of Moses. Genesis is clearly a hot text.
It is not so clear why it is suddenly a hot text. Moyers's cultural influence in some segments of the American intelligentsia accounts for some of the renewed interest. Stephen Mitchell, the poet and acclaimed translator of the Book of Job, says he began his Genesis translation precisely because Moyers invited him to participate in the PBS symposia and he found that the best way to prepare. It also seems that Genesis benefits from being perceived as about as universal and nonsectarian as a book of the Bible can be. Genesis begins, after all, with an account of the origins of the world and its peoples; and even the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- according to Jewish tradition the transmitters of God's covenant with the nation of Israel -- are also assigned significant roles in Christian and Muslim thought. In fact, one does not need to be a believing Jew, Christian or Muslim to learn from Genesis. These stories speak to everyone, religious and secular alike.
For many readers the crucial test of any new book on Genesis is whether it combines fidelity to the traditional text -- and, in a broad sense, to the intent of the text -- with sensitivity to modern concerns regarding such matters as literary style, ethics, psychology and history. According to those criteria, Robert Alter's new translation is the one book in this group that unquestionably should find a place, in one form or another, on the bookshelf of every lover of Genesis and the Bible. (Alter's version is also being published in an elaborately produced Hebrew-English artistic edition by Arion Press of San Francisco.)
Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, has long pioneered the application of literary criticism to the Bible. Unlike many biblical scholars, he prefers to show what a powerful and subtle work of art this text is, not to chop it up into sources and subsources. Genesis, he argues, "has powerful coherence as a literary work," and conventional scholars try far too hard to find in it elusive and often imaginary contradictions, duplications and errors of transmission.
Alter contends that most modern renditions of Genesis have emphasized a facile clarity while utterly sacrificing the narrative rhythm and literary style of the Hebrew original. He disparages most 20th-century translations for "repackaging" the text for "an audience whose reading experience is assumed to be limited to Time, Newsweek and the New York Times or the Times of London." Alter provides instead a compelling neoclassical translation, which simultaneously rejects the high-flown and "biblical" but often obscure language of the 1611 King James version and the breeziness of some contemporary Jewish and Christian efforts.
For example, probably a dozen Bible translations were composed just to put an end to opaque expressions like this from the King James (Genesis 31:2): "And Jacob beheld the countenance of Laban, and, behold, it was not toward him as before." In the original Hebrew, this is not a difficult verse; the problems originate entirely in the translation. "Modern" versions made it understandable but also left it flat. One such rendition, the Jewish Publication Society version of the 1960s, has: "Jacob also saw that Laban's manner toward him was not as it had been in the past." Alter steers clear of the language of the daily newspaper and takes a middle course: "And Jacob saw Laban's face and look, it was not disposed toward him as it used to be." The syntax of the Hebrew, including that little break in the action with the word "look" (Hebrew hinneh), is preserved, but the reader isn't put off by all that "behold" business. (The acclaimed 1995 Everett Fox translation takes us even further from everyday English: "And Yaakov saw by Lavan's face: here, he was no longer with him as yesterday and the day-before.")
Stephen Mitchell's translation, in contrast, is a great success as poetry (he renders the passage as: "Now Jacob noticed that Laban's conduct toward him was not as friendly as it used to be"). But it is not Genesis. Mitchell divides stories, chapters, even individual verses into fragments of sources, selects the parts he likes, and uses them as his text. The portions of Genesis that fail his test of literary value or that seem repetitious are relegated to footnotes or addenda. In his zeal to impose logic and consistency, Mitchell removes ambiguity, even when ambiguity is the essence. Jacob wrestles with an angel and is given the new name "Israel," he who struggles with God, "for you have striven with God and men, and won out" (Alter's translation). Mitchell simply deletes the words "and men," attributing them to the addition of a long-forgotten participant in the process of creating the book of Genesis. According to Mitchell, this Israelite editor was scandalized by the implicit notion that Jacob vanquished God -- and inserted the words "and men" to soften the apparent blasphemy. Yet, as Mitchell recognizes, the text does not call Jacob's wrestling opponent a God or an angel, but ish, a man. We are not supposed to know quite so readily who this mysterious stranger was.
Indeed, Walter Brueggemann, one of the participants in the dialogues of the Bill Moyers book (which in a different form constitute the PBS television series), is perfectly supportable when he posits that "part of whoever this wrestler is, is certainly Esau [Jacob's long-lost brother]." Brueggemann, a Protestant theologian, proceeds to debate the meaning of the wrestling match with a diverse group that includes -- besides Moyers -- Avivah Zornberg, Rabbi Burton Visotzky of the Jewish Theological Seminary, artist Hugh O'Donnell, and feminist thinker Renita Weems of the Vanderbilt Divinity School.
This dialogue of equals -- clergy and laity, Christian, Jew and Muslim, traditionalist and radical -- forms both the strength and the weakness of the book. Moyers gathered no fewer than 38 participants for his series of overlapping discussions, and like any set of conversations, this one has moments of high drama and moments of banality. It is hardly new or interesting at this point to explain that Genesis involves intra-family conflicts: Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers.
David Rosenberg conceives of his book, "Genesis: As It Is Written," as a response to what he sees as the inadequacies of the Moyers dialogues. Rosenberg, believing that only a writer of fiction can respond adequately to Genesis, commissioned brief essays by poets such as Robert Pinsky and Edward Hirsch, playwrights Arthur Miller and David Mamet, and several novelists, including Madison Smartt Bell and Lore Segal. But these are extremely variable in quality. Bell's mystical essay on Creation is virtually incomprehensible, and Miller's discussion of Adam and Eve contains more about Miller than about the text. Still Allegra Goodman on the character of Rachel, and Geoffrey Hartman's essay on Abraham and Isaac, among others, are insightful and incisive.
Karen Armstrong, the author of the 1993 bestseller "A History of God," is both a participant in the Moyers dialogues (as are Alter, Mitchell and Naomi Rosenblatt) and the author of a brief work on Genesis. Her "In The Beginning" emphasizes spiritual struggle, that of the flawed biblical characters and our own. "The Israelites recognized the image of the wrestling match," she writes, thinking of Jacob's nighttime encounter. "They did not imagine their religious heroes achieving enlightenment effortlessly or with the calm serenity of a Buddha. Salvation was a painful, difficult process." From Armstrong's viewpoint, Genesis is the story of God's gradual disappearance from the life of human beings, and its ultimate message is that we can achieve wholeness only by coming to terms with our own natures. This is far from a traditional interpretation, but Genesis provides inexhaustible resources for the traditional and the non-traditional alike.
Jonathan Groner is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and editor who frequently reviews books on Jewish topics.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company