A Of Robert Alter’s “The Wisdom Books” at The New Republic

Adam Kirsch Reviews Robert Alter’s “The Wisdom Books” | The New Republic.

Robert Alter has come out with another translation of books from the old testament. This is the third book in his effort to translate biblical Hebrew into to a clear and as accurate as possible English. This collection covers Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs and adds to his work on Pentateuch (The Five Books of Moses), I and II Samuel, and Psalms. If this book is as good as those of the The Five Books of Moses, then this will be well worth the read. The one thing I noticed, though, when I was reading the First Five, is that his copious notes, while fascinating, at times make for an exasperating read. I wanted to read all his interesting notes, but I found it distracting at times. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it makes for slow going.

Robert Alter’s ongoing translation of the Hebrew Bible into a new, more accurate and forceful English version is one of the most ambitious literary projects of this or any age. Turning the Bible into Greek, in the second century BCE, required seventy-two sages—which is why the Greek version is called the Septuagint (after the Latin word for “seventy”)—and the King James Version, in the early seventeenth century CE, was produced by a committee of forty-seven Anglican divines. Yet Alter, working alone, has already produced new English versions of the Pentateuch, I and II Samuel, and Psalms. Now he gives us new renderings of the books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes—possibly the most challenging and perplexing works in all of Scripture.

For this very reason, they are also the Biblical books that speak most directly to the modern, skeptical, secular reader. If the Torah is revelation—an ostensibly factual account of God’s actions and commandments—the Wisdom Books are a kind of counter-revelation: an emphatically human expression of the impossibility of knowing God or believing in His justice. As Alter writes in his introduction, “the three Wisdom books are, in different ways, worlds apart from Genesis, Deuteronomy, and the Prophets.”

One sign of the difference is that Job, Proverbs, and Qohelet (Alter uses the Hebrew name, whose actual meaning is hard to ascertain, rather than the familiar Greek name Ecclesiastes) do not deal with the people of Israel, but with humanity in general. Job is a monotheist but not an Israelite; he lives in “the land of Uz,” which Alter glosses as “a never-never land somewhere to the east.” In Qohelet, God is referred to only occasionally, and then only as Elohim, not by His specifically Israelite name, Yahweh. And while Proverbs ascribes its often banal sayings to Solomon, at least one section of the book is an adaptation of an Egyptian text from the second millennium BCE, the “Instruction of Amenemope.” Indeed, the scholarly designation “wisdom books” assigns these texts to a genre that is also found in Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature. “The perspective of Wisdom literature,” Alter summarizes, “is international and, in many instances, one might say, universalist. It raises questions of value and moral behavior, of the meaning of human life, and especially of the right conduct of life.”

4 thoughts on “A Of Robert Alter’s “The Wisdom Books” at The New Republic

  1. I hadn’t heard of this translation-in-progress until this new edition came out. It sounds fascinating.

    Although…uhm…aren’t the Pentateuch and the First Five Books the same thing?

  2. Good catch on the Pentateuch / First Five Books. I was thinking more in terms of book titles, which I also botched because the title of his translation of the Pentateuch is The Five Books of Moses. I’m not the biggest Bible scholar. I think 6th grade religion class is letting me down a little.

  3. Actually, this is the fourth book in his ongoing translation of the Hebrew Bible: He’s done The Five Books of Moses, The Psalms, The Wisdom Books, and The David Story (1 and 2 Samuel).

  4. Thanks for the info. I should have done a bit more research instead of trying to remember it all.

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