Never mind that pesky Hebrew pluperfect

Intelligent account

Robert Alter’s award-winning translation of the Hebrew Bible continues with the stirring narrative of Israel’s ancient history.  For The Tablet, Nicholas King reviews this entertaining amalgam of hair-raising action and high literary achievement.

Ancient Israel: the Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings – a translation with commentary by Robert Alter (WW Norton)

Is it possible to read the Bible intelligently today? The biblical texts are no longer well known, yet there is still a detectable thirst for such a reading. Few have done more to quench it than Robert Alter. For some years now, Alter, the Professor of Hebrew language and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, has been electrifying readers with his translations of the Hebrew Bible, as well as the ground-breaking Literary Guide to the Bible, which he co-edited with Frank Kermode.

Very nearly at the centre of the Hebrew Bible lies the ‘Deuteronomic History,’ the great narrative sweep from Joshua to Kings; and at the heart of that story lies the powerful tale of David, his rise from shepherd boy to guerrilla leader, and his performance as King of Judah and of all Israel. That part of the story is desperately sad, since the flaws in David’s character mean that the seeds of disaster are sown, in this pivotal story, almost at the very beginning of his reign.

Within that narrative, Alter is perhaps at his very best in picking out the details of the appalling story of Amnon’s rape of his sister Tamar, and how that operates in the overall narrative of David, which is (despite what you might think) one of constant decline. Worse than that sad tale, of course, is the catastrophe in which the Deuteronomic History ends, foreshadowed already in the decline that underlies the deceptively brilliant rule of his son Solomon.

From that point onwards, the narrative becomes increasingly sketchy until it reaches its nadir with the disaster of the first deportation from Jerusalem in 597 and its final sacking in 586. Our intelligent reader could not have a better guide than Alter to the twists and turns of this narrative of the People of God and their relationship with their deity.

Alter gives a most helpful introduction to the whole of the Deuteronomic History, and to the individual books. As a scholar of English literature, he is well able to let the story speak for itself; and he is sufficiently in touch with (but not at all overawed by) current biblical scholarship to be able to help the reader through the more difficult parts of what is in places a thoroughly obscure tale. In addition to the introductions there are good and sensible (and mercifully intelligible) notes to the text, laid out where footnotes should be, on the same page as the text to which they refer.

The translation has the ‘feel’ of the Hebrew, but also the gift of robust English prose and verse, and it makes gripping reading. Some readers will judge that Alter’s fidelity to the Hebrew makes occasionally for a touch of translation-ese, but to this reviewer it seems better to see such unexpected diction as serving to arrest our attention.

He is good at explaining the multiple meanings of a Hebrew term, and honest at admitting how little of the Hebrew Bible we can confidently translate; he is also quite at ease with accepting superior readings from other versions, especially the Greek Septuagint. His use of Jewish authorities (such as Rashi and David Kimchi) will introduce many non-Jewish readers to helpful fresh ways of reading the text. Above all, he has the perceptive literary critic’s gift of showing us how the story works precisely as story…

By Nicholas King

Full review in The Tablet:

Kirkus review:

Interview in the Jewish Daily Forward:

Wikipedia on Robert Alter:

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