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Bookmarks Issue: 
14-Jan-Feb-2005
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A Translation With Commentary

A-FiveBooksMosesIt takes some nerve to rewrite the Torah, or Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), but that’s exactly what Alter, who teaches Hebrew and comparative literature at Berkeley, has done. Leaving these ancient stories wholly intact, from creation to the expulsion from Eden, the Great Flood, the Ten Commandments, and the parting of the Red Sea, Alter applies his knowledge of ancient Hebrew to give the Bible greater accuracy and literary flair. In informative commentary, he shows where many modern translations (including the "shaky" King James Bible) went wrong, and discusses passages’ ambiguities, mysteries, and theological meanings. With this modern approach, Alter reveals, as he says, "the literary miracle of the stories."
Norton. 1,064 pages. $39.95. ISBN: 0393019551

New Republic 4 of 5 Stars
"The translator’s richly developed notes and reflections are informed by scholarship, wit, and intuition; without the intrusions of didacticism, they educate. But the antique words, on their own power, and even in a latter-day language, draw us elsewhere, to that indeterminate place where God is not a literary premise but a persuasive certainty—whether or not we are willing to go there." Cynthia Ozick

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"[B]y allowing us to see for ourselves how the Bible embeds its most acute ironies in wordplay and repetition, he affords us a fuller glimpse than we are usually given of the dark and often surprisingly unpious sensibility that essentially invented Western religious life. … Alter’s magisterial translation deserves to become the version in which many future generations encounter this strange and inexhaustible book." Judith Shulevitz

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"What is also interesting about Alter’s work is how in his commentary he frequently deconstructs recurring scenes, such as the racy betrothal episodes in Genesis and characters’ interior monologues, searching for the literary devices and shifts of prose and poetry styles. … Above all, Alter lets the language as he has translated it do the work for the readers." Matt Love

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"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." Michael Dirda

New Yorker 2.5 of 5 Stars
"But who will read it? … Reading through this book, or five books, is a wearying, disorienting, and at times revelatory experience." John Updike

Critical Summary

Alter, author of The Art of Biblical Narrative and more than a dozen other books, acknowledges that the Bible was a composite venture written over many years. Here he argues for unity—and a fresh approach for understanding this collaborative story. In showcasing his literary and biblical scholarship, he offers an enlightening, accessible translation. The introduction alone is worth reading; the text itself is nothing short of poetic; the footnotes offer vigorous commentary that reveals how a single word can alter the entire understanding of a passage, creating irony or wordplays (the mark of Cain, for example, was not a stigma, but a sign of protection.) Only The New Yorker criticized Alter’s strange phrasings and pedantry. Overall, this translation bridges the gap between the Bible’s teachings and our own lives. "After the still, small voices of so many tepid modern translations," notes the Washington Post, "here is a whirlwind."

Comparing Two Translations of Genesis

Alter: "When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness."

The King James Bible: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness."

Supplemental Reading

God’s Secretaries The Making of the King James Bible | Adam Nicolson (2203): 4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2003. Nicolson explores how "the greatest prose work ever written in English" came to be created by committee.