The Godless Bible

The Godless Bible

The reader should keep in mind that, for Alter, the Hebrew Bible is not one seamless book but a haphazard collection of texts. Biblical authors do not offer the same view of the one true God but different—indeed, rival—versions of God.

Robert Alter’s Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary is a massive achievement—literally. The three-volume box set weighs 11 pounds. The largest volume, with more than fourteen hundred pages, should be read with book and reader situated comfortably on the floor. These details may seem superficial, but a book’s format suggests its range of use. A large book of photographs craves a coffee table; a thin paperback rests comfortably in the seat-back pocket in front of you. A large, three-volume box set asks to be seen and not read. The tomes mark their owner as a sophisticated connoisseur of ancient literature. One need not read such things; one may simply own them.

Such is not the case here. I spent the last three years reading and annotating Robert Alter’s Hebrew Bible, typing over 20,000 words of notes along the way, and I found the whole process rewarding. Here’s how I approached the task: First, for each biblical book, I read the translation without any reference to the Hebrew, any translation, or Alter’s commentary. I then read his commentary in light of his translation, the Hebrew text, and translations in other languages (including, obviously, English). Very occasionally I’d dash to the Hebrew when first reading his translation, because I found my memory of the verse or verses so divergent from his translation. One obvious example: “And He said to me, ‘Man, stand on your feet and I shall speak with you’” (Ezekiel 2:1). “Man”? Not “son of man”? Correct. “The translation avoids rendering the term as ‘son of man’ because, after the Gospels, that designation took on Christological connotations.” I call this move ABJ: Anybody but Jesus. More on that in a moment.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Translation

What Alter does well, he does exceedingly well. Take the opening verse of Lamentations:

How she sits alone,
the city once great with people.
She has become like a widow.
Great among nations,
mistress among provinces,
reduced to forced labor.

By delaying the referent of the pronoun to the second line, Alter gives the mind space to picture a woman sitting by herself. I imagine her on a pile of rubble, casting her gaze over a barren, windswept plateau. The phrase is simple but hauntingly beautiful. Alter’s translations at their best help the reader appreciate the beauty of the Hebrew Bible.

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