The Bible contains some of the most beautiful poetry ever written. The only problem is that much of it was penned in ancient Hebrew, a language that few people can read and even fewer are fluent enough in to appreciate the power of the verse. One person who does feel the poetry is Robert Alter, a professor of Hebrew at UCLA who has produced some of the most stunning translations of the Old Testament available today. He has translated The David Story: 1 and 2 Samuel (1999), The Five Books of Moses (2004), The Book of Psalms (2007), and The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes (2010). Each of these translations comes with a brief introduction and a running commentary in the footnotes. Rather than expounding the theological meanings of these texts, the commentaries give us the historical background of the words, explain surprising metaphors, and highlight the literary devices being used.
Robert Alter is as much a poet as a scholar. His grasp of Biblical Hebrew is unparalleled and his translations are informed by the most recent historical discoveries. But he loves these texts for their beauty and his word choices make these ancient books come alive. Unlike most modern translations of the Bible that aim at making the text intelligible, Alter is happy to leave us confused. His poetry reproduces the rhythms of the Hebrew and it feels alien on the tongue. When he translates Ecclesiastes, for example, he begins with “the words of Qohelet son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1). The NIV renders this “Teacher,” but scholars really have no idea who Qohelet was, so Alter leaves us with Qohelet as a teaser, challenging what we thought we knew about the book. Then comes verse 2: “Merest breath, said Qohelet, mereset breath. All is mere breath.” Whereas the KJV transforms havel havalim into “vanity of vanities,” and the NIV renders it as “meaningless,” Alter notes that “the Hebrew hevel probably indicates the flimsy vapor that is exhaled in breathing, invisible except on a cold winter day and in any case immediately dissipating in the air. It is the opposite of ruah, “life-breath,” which is the animating force in a living creature, because it is the waste product of breathing. If, then, one wanted to line up the abstractions implied by hevel, it would include not only futility, absurdity, and vanity but at least insubstantiality, ephemerality, and elusiveness as well.”
Alter needs all his skill as a poet when he tackles the Book of Job. It begins with “A man there was in the land of Uz – Job, his name” (1:1), capturing the once-upon-a-time-ness of the introduction. But after the book’s preamble come four different types of poetry. Alter says that the speeches of Job’s three friends – Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar – are full of “familiar formulations” and clichés that echo the didactic poetry of Psalms and Proverbs. Job’s speeches, on the other hand, have “rich synonymity,” “lexical abundance,” and “extraordinary metaphoric inventiveness.” In purely literary terms, his poems are far superior to those of his friends. Then God speaks. Alter comments, “the poet, having given Job such vividly powerful language for the articulation of his outrage and his anguish, now fashions still greater poetry for God. The wide-ranging panorama of creation in the Voice from the Whirlwind shows a sublimity of expression, a plasticity of description, an ability to evoke the complex and dynamic interplay of beauty and violence in the natural world, and even an originality of metaphoric inventiveness, that surpasses all the poetry, great as it is, that Job has spoken.” The fourth type of poetry here belongs to Elihu, who appears suddenly in chapter 32 with no prior introduction. Alter describes Elihu’s speeches as “bombastic, repetitious, and highly stereotypical,” and cannot believe that the same poet could possibly have written these speeches. Elihu’s words, he concludes, must be the work of a later editor.
Lest you imagine that these are simply nice-sounding phrases, let me give you some examples of Alter’s Job. In his opening speech of the book, Job curses the day he was born. He says:
“Oh, let that night be barren, let it have no song of joy.
Let the day-cursers hex it, those ready to rouse Leviathan.
Let its twilight stars go dark,
Let it hope for day in vain, and let it not see the eyelids of dawn.” (3:7-9)
Alter comments on the final metaphor of this stanza: “this exquisite and surprising image – another hallmark of the poet’s originality – simultaneously indicates the first crack of light on the eastern horizon and the movement of the awakening person’s eyes taking in the first light of day.”
Job does not get all the best lines though. As Eliphaz the Temanite rebukes Job he reminds him of how insignificant humans are in their bodies of clay:
“Can a mortal be cleared before God, can a man be made pure by his Maker?
Why, His servants He does not trust, His agents He charges with blame.
All the more so, the clay-house dwellers, whose foundation is in the dust, who are crushed more quickly than moths.
From morning to eve they are shattered, unawares they are lost forever.
Should their life-thread be broken within them, they die, and without any wisdom.” (4:17-21)
Job then turns to God and challenges the Psalmist’s interpretation of why He pays attention to humanity. In Psalm 8 (Alter’s translation), David writes that:
“When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars You fixed firm,
What is man that You should note him, and the human creature, that You pay him heed,
and You make him little less than the gods, with glory and grandeur You crown him?” (8:4-6)
Turning Psalm 8 on its head, Jobs cries:
“What is man that You make him great and that You pay heed to him?
You single him out every morning, every moment examine him.
How long till you turn away from me? You don’t let me go while I swallow my spit.
What is my offense that I have done to You, O Watcher of Man?
Why did You make me Your target, and I became a burden to You?” (7:17-20)
In his next speech, thinking of Psalm 139:13, Job develops a fascinating metaphor that likens conception to the curdling of cheese:
“Your hands fashioned me and made me, and then You turn round and destroy me!
Recall, pray, that like clay You worked me, and to the dust You will make me return.
Why, You poured me out like milk and like cheese You curdled me.
With skin and flesh You clothed me, with bones and sinews entwined me.
Life and kindness you gave me, and Your precept my spirit kept.” (10:8-12)
When God finally appears on the scene in chapter 38, he answers Job metaphor for metaphor. Job’s first death-wish speech was all about darkness. He wished “like a buried stillborn to be, like babes who never saw light” (3:16). “Why give light to the wretched?” (3:20) Job asked, and later he wishes to “go, never to return, to the land of dark and death’s shadow, the land of gloom, thickest murk, death’s shadow and disorder, where it shines thickest murk.” (10:21-22). God retorts, “Who is this who darkens counsel in words without knowledge?” (38:2). His question, “Where were you when I founded earth? Tell, if you know understanding,” (38:4) shows that Job really was “without knowledge” because his mind had been darkened by suffering. “In what were [the earth’s] sockets sunk, or who laid its cornerstone,” God asks, “when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” Whereas Job fears the light of daybreak, God “commanded the morning, appointed the dawn to its place.” (38:12) “Where is the way that light dwells, and darkness, where is its place?” (38:19) God demands, for he commands both light and dark1ness.
Job wishes that he had never been born, but in a series of reflections on birth in the animal world, God shows that He gives new life and cares for newborns:
“Do you know the mountain goats’ birth time, do you mark the calving of the gazelles?
Do you number the months till they come to term and know their birthing time?
They crouch, burst forth with their babes, their young they push out to the world.” (39:1-3)
Job wishes he could call God to account in a court of law, and God offers him the chance, only to prove that Job is not up to the task:
“Will you indeed thwart My case, hold Me guilty, so you can be right?
If you have an arm like God’s, and with a voice like His you can thunder,
Put on pride and preeminence, and gradeur and glory don.” (40:8-10)
Face to face with the Living God, Job admits that “I know You can do anything, and no devising is beyond You.” (42:2) God honors Job’s repentance, though Alter dryly comments: “Job’s final recantation begins by a recognition of God’s omnipotence, though it might be noted that he had conceded this attribute all along in his complaint against God, raising doubts not about divine power but about divine justice.”
Even if he is unsatisfied with the book’s conclusion, Alter has done a great job translating it. His words bring the text alive for a whole new generation of readers.