Robert Alter’s Bible: A Symposium

In the mid-1970s, scholar and critic Robert Alter began writing about the literary techniques of the Bible. In the mid-1990s, he began to translate it, beginning with Genesis, then moving forward to the story of King David in the two books of Samuel and the beginning of Kings, before turning back to translate the other four books of Moses.

These translations were accompanied by a lucid commentary, which was animated by Alter’s characteristic concerns with the techniques of ancient Hebrew prose and poetry. The commentary, as much by its unapologetic presence as by its frequent recourse to Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and others, marked the distinctively Jewish nature of Alter’s project. This was inadvertently pointed out by John Updike’s somewhat peevish and very Protestant complaint in the New Yorker that Alter spent too much time luxuriating “in the forked possibilities of the Hebrew text.” After all, the company of translators who had produced the King James Version had worked “to supply readers with a self-explanatory text.” It has, of course, been the central claim of the Jewish traditions of reading scripture, to which Alter is heir, that it can’t be read alone.

In the 14 years since he published The Five Books of Moses, Alter has steadily progressed through the Tanakh, continuing to produce translations that aim at something like a 21st-century American equivalent of what he has called the “simple yet grand” English of the King James Version, while relentlessly attending to the literary techniques and “forked possibilities of the Hebrew text.”

Although the sheer scale of Alter’s achievement in translating the entire Hebrew Bible has been widely remarked upon, it is worth noting just how unprecedented it is. Every major, complete translation of the Hebrew Bible into English over the last half-millennium has been, like the King James Version and the two Jewish Publication Society translations, a group project. (Of the great early modern solo translators, William Tyndale did not translate the entire Hebrew Bible and Miles Coverdale did not really know Hebrew; of the most prominent 19th– and 20th-century Jewish translators, Isaac Leeser and Harold Fisch, both would be perhaps better described as revisers of earlier translations.)

Perhaps more importantly, Alter’s Hebrew Bible is the only single-author translation by someone who has spent a lifetime studying literary artistry in both Hebrew and English. This is not to say that it is, or could be, beyond criticism. In the following symposium, we have asked six critics, each with his or her own disciplinary specialty and literary ear, to respond to a key passage or more from Alter’s commentary.

—The Editors

“By Babylons Streams”


Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible is the best—and arguably the first—literary translation of the world’s bestseller. In the long history of Bible translations there have been two standard approaches: translating word by word or sense by sense. The first prioritizes the lexicon and grammar of the source language (Hebrew, with a smattering of Aramaic), while the second privileges the intelligibility of the target language (in this case, English). Alter has moved beyond these approaches. He aims to represent the artistry of the Hebrew, using the full resources of literary English. This is a new and different kind of strategy, and it has yielded significantly different results.

The most exacting case of word-by-word translation is Aquila of Sinope’s translation of the Bible into Greek. Aquila, known as “the convert” (ger), seems to have applied the convert’s zeal to translation. Famously, he even translated untranslatable words, like the direct-object marker ’et, which indicates the grammatical case of the next word. Rabbi Akiva is said to have interpreted each ’et with a distinctive meaning, and Aquila may have been his disciple, carrying this interpretive strategy into translation.

So, for example, Aquila translates the first verse of Genesis with an eye to each Hebrew word: en kephalaiō ektisen theos sun ton ouranon kai sun tēn gēn (“In head, God created with the heaven and with the earth”). It doesn’t make much sense in Greek either, but it isn’t arbitrary. If the Bible is the word of God, then each word matters, as does its position in the verse. Thus, Aquila translates the first Hebrew word, bereishit, as “in head” in order to represent its lexical root, reish-aleph-shin, which as a common noun means “head.” And he translates the direct object marker ’et twice as “with,” since this form can, in other contexts, mean “with.” Aquila translates word by word in order to fully represent the Hebrew, including root meanings and grammatical features. It is a triumph of fidelity to the original over making sense.

Photo of gray-haired smiling man in front of bookshelf.
Robert Alter.

In modern times, Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig attempted (in German) a slightly less frenzied version of the word-by-word strategy. They aimed to represent the linguistic texture of the Hebrew in order to defamiliarize the Bible, to make it strange and thus new, both aesthetically and religiously. Their unfinished translation succeeded in its aims, but it was a very odd German text. Everett Fox adopted the same strategy in his English translation of the Torah and early prophets. Fox foregrounded the words and syntax of the Hebrew, making the translation a strange creole that points toward the original Hebrew, which lies just behind the curtain of the translation. As with Aquila, the theory of translation in these cases is more compelling than the translation itself. But there is also an important difference between Aquila’s Akivaesque translation and that of his word-by-word successors in the 20th century. Aquila struggled to represent the Bible’s grammar because it was literally God’s grammar. Buber, Rosenzweig, and Fox worked to emphasize the Bible’s uncanniness in order to awaken their readers from their modern complacency. The holy tongue (lashon ha-kodesh) became a dialogical other.

Most modern translations take the opposite tack: They attempt to familiarize the Bible by reformulating its ideas into clear, often vernacular, English. In doing so, they privilege the target language, in this case English, over the source, biblical Hebrew. For instance, the New Jewish Publication Society translation (NJPS) describes the protagonists of Genesis 6:1–4, the benei ha-elohim, as “divine beings” rather than “the sons of God,” as in other translations (including Alter). The NJPS explains the unusual Hebrew phrase, rather than preserving its strangeness. This is justifiable, but it loses the texture of the phrase and its literary parallelism with benot ha-adam, “the daughters of man” (to use Alter’s translation), with whom the sons of God have sex and beget mighty offspring. Moreover, it loses the sense that the boundary between ha-elohim and ha-adam, gods and humans, has been dangerously violated when sons and daughters of these opposite domains become one flesh.

The key to Alter’s translation is his sophisticated understanding of the artistic conventions and style of biblical prose and poetry, as codified in his now-classic books The Art of Biblical Narrative and The Art of Biblical Poetry. He privileges not the words, syntax, or semantics of the Hebrew but its style and literary resonance, which can be—albeit partially and imperfectly—represented in English. We can see what Alter is after by comparing his translation of the beginning of Psalm 137, the famous lament “by the rivers of Babylon,” to the word-by-word translation of the King James Version (KJV) and the intermittently sense-by-sense translation of the NJPS. In chronological order:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. (KJV)

the rivers of Babylon,

there we sat,

sat and wept,

as we thought of Zion. (NJPS)

By Babylon’s streams,

there we sat, oh we wept,

 when we recalled Zion. (Alter)

Painting of a group bowing down, heads in hands, at the edge of a body of water
At the Waters of Babylon by Gebhard Fugel, ca. 1920. (Diocesan Museum, Freising.)

The Hebrew original is a terse, 10-word verse: ‘al naharot bavel sham yashavnu gam bakhinu bezokhreinu ’et tziyon. TheKJV accurately reproduces the form of the Hebrew as prose. This suits a word-by-word translation that privileges the original Hebrew. The NJPS and Alter represent the verse as poetry, which correctly exemplifies the modern understanding of the psalm’s literary form. Alter meticulously presents the verse as a tricolon, with internal parallelism in the second verset (a kind of subverse within a line of biblical poetry), which the NJPS incorrectly divides into two versets. Alter’s division of this verse into three parts is confirmed by its accentual rhythm of 3:3:2.

The classic KJV translation “By the rivers of Babylon” is followed by the NJPS. Alter shortens this five-word English sequence into three words, mimicking the three-word Hebrew. In doing so, he creates an alliterative sequence, “By Babylon’s.” The Hebrew (al naharot bavel)doesn’t have sound play here, but it does in the second verset, sham yashavnu gam bakhinu, with shasha and shamgam and, spilling over into the third verset, the thrice-repeated -nu. So Alter transposes the alliteration to the first verset, using English resources to mimic the Hebrew alliterative style. Similarly, he represents the internal parallelism of the second verset with rhythmic parallelism in English: “there we sat, oh we wept.” The extra words in the KJV (“down”) and NJPS (the second “sat,” which is not in the Hebrew) obscure the rhythm and parallelism of these two verbs. Alter’s interjection “oh” (for Hebrew gam) nicely intensifies the movement from “sat” to “wept,” framing it as a kind of second thought, a confession of deep emotion. None of these literary effects is even ventured in the other translations.

Alter also sharpens the style of the canonical KJV rendering of “rivers” and “remembered” by using short words, “streams” and “recalled.” We are so used to the KJV language here that these choices may sound strange, but the short words mimic the terseness of the Hebrew, drawing on the Anglo-Saxon substrate of English rather than the French, hewing closer to the clipped Hebrew of the original. The verb “recall” is also close to the sounds of the Hebrew word zakhar, with its r and k sounds. (Compare the NJPS “thought,” a flat colloquial rendering, which loses the resonance of the Hebrew.) By using a different English vocabulary than that of the KJV, Alter approximates the effects of the Hebrew. His translation also recalls us to the fact that—its familiarity and resonance notwithstanding—the KJV is not the original. The Hebrew has a life of its own, which Alter tries to capture in crisp English.

Of course, not all of Alter’s translations are as brilliantly effective as this. Sometimes he tries to reproduce the literary quality of the Hebrew and fails, and sometimes it is impossible even to try (Frost was at least partly right when he defined poetry as what is lost in translation). The virtue of Alter’s version is that he tries to represent the cadence, parallelisms, repetitions, terseness, and sometimes sheer difficulty of the Hebrew in a supple, refined literary English. This is a marvelous goal, which no one has attempted at this level of precision and expertise. It is a magnificent achievement, a simulacrum of the greatness of the original.

And It Shall Happen in Future Days”


Robert Alter’s historic one-man translation of the entire Hebrew Bible is like two worlds at once, the heavens and the earth, with the translation above and the commentary below. One can spend a lifetime in either of these worlds.

The largeness of the task of the Torah translator is reflected in the committee effort of the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) and the team approach of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig (with Buber eventually completing the translation alone in 1961). But Alter also offers a translator’s commentary, explaining numerous aspects of biblical Hebrew to the English reader and illuminating his own translation decisions. In this, he stands alone.

Commentators often begin with an introduction to their way of reading. Sometimes, as in the case of the great medieval commentator Abraham ibn Ezra, upon whom Alter himself often draws, they also use it as an opportunity to explain the shortcomings of other commentators. In Alter’s extensive introductions, both to the entire translation and to each individual book, he explains his mode of translating and often shares what he judges to be the flaws of other translations. “[T]he characteristic biblical syntax is additive,” he writes. The simple “and” (the vav prefix), Alter writes, is “the way the ancient Hebrew writers saw the world, linked events in it,” yet previous translators have routinely elided the biblical “and”s. Thus, he notes, his translation of the four and a half verses in which Rebekah waters Abraham’s servant’s camels has 15 “and”s; the Revised English Bible has just five. It is impossible to miss the effect.

Older translations suffer from a lack of familiarity with Hebrew, Alter writes, while more recent translations suffer from the opposite malady: flawed or pedestrian English. While this is largely true, every serious translation brings something to the table, even if it is as small as one sublimely translated verse. Perhaps this reflects the largeness of the task. The ideal way to read the Hebrew Bible in translation may be to read several translations at once.

For all of the King James Version’s flaws, it is difficult to surpass its poetry. In his translation of Isaiah, Alter wisely preserves some of its magnificent contributions, including the beginning of the opening chapter’s second verse—“Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth.”

As Alter notes, Isaiah likely presents “the greatest challenge that modern readers will find in the biblical corpus to their notions of what constitutes a book.” This makes it an ideal setting for Alter’s translation-plus-commentary approach, simply because there is so much to explain—from why other translators veered from the rhythm of verse to how the book coheres (or doesn’t). But there are also moments in Alter’s Isaiah that showcase the risks of a literary translation that has the twin goals of being faithful to what the Hebrew is saying and saying it in expressive, stylish English.

Consider the famous prophecy of Isaiah 2:2, which begins with the iconic Hebrew phrase ve-haya be-achrit ha-yamim. Here is Alter’s translation:

And it shall happen in future days

    that the mount of the Lord’s house shall be firm-founded

        at the top of the mountains and lifted over the hills.

And all the nations shall flow to it . . .

Alter’s commentary notes that “in the end of days,” found in many older translations, gives the phrase an “emphatically eschatological meaning it does not have.” (The King James has, “And it shall come to pass in the last days.”) “The Hebrew ’aharit,” he writes, “derived from the word that means ‘after,’ refers to an indefinite time after the present.”

The great biblical scholar H. L. Ginsberg, with whom Alter studied in the 1950s, had the same view of the meaning of be-achrit ha-yamim, but his wonderful 1973 translation for JPS renders the verse quite differently. As I read Alter’s Isaiah, I imagined these two towering, and very different, scholars in dialogue. Ginsberg’s knowledge of biblical Hebrew and cognate languages was unexcelled, but Alter is a master of both biblical literary technique and the English and European literary tradition.

Ginsberg translates the first part of Isaiah 2:2 with four short lines, compared to Alter’s three long lines. In all, Ginsberg’s translation is shorter—and his first line renders ve-haya be-achrit ha-yamim in just five English words:

In the days to come,

The Mount of the Lord’s House

Shall stand firm above the mountains

And tower above the hills;

And all the nations

Shall gaze on it with joy.

In fact, Ginsberg’s first two and a half lines are monosyllabic, which gives the beginning of the prophecy a grand, breath-filled rhythm; the reader has no choice but to breathe in that line, probably between “days” and “to.” Yet ve-haya be-achrit ha-yamim is actually nine syllables long. Usually, Hebrew is more concise than English. Here, Ginsberg makes English more concise than Hebrew. Alter, to his credit, tries to reproduce the rhythm of Hebrew by reproducing the syllable count; “and it shall happen in future days” is exactly nine syllables long. And yet I am not sure that “and it shall happen in future days” is a decisive improvement over “in the days to come.”

Painting of a bearded man in an orange robe
Medieval commentator Abraham ibn Ezra, on whom Alter draws.

Both Ginsberg and Alter seem to make English stretch with this verse. Ginsberg translates: “The Mount of the Lord’s House / Shall stand firm above the mountains / And tower above the hills;” using the word “above” twice. But it’s clearly a hard line, and Alter, too, finds it difficult to reproduce the prophet’s placement of the Temple: “That the mount of the Lord’s house shall be firm-founded / at the top of the mountains and lifted over the hills.” The italicized phrase is an invented construction, and, to my ear, not entirely felicitous either.

As the reader will have noticed, Alter and Ginsberg also disagree on what the nations are doing at the end of the verse. Alter takes the more straightforward position that naharu is a denominative of the noun nahar, meaning “stream” or “river”; hence the nations flow toward Jerusalem as the capital of divine justice. Ginsberg follows the medieval grammarian Ibn Janah and Ginsberg’s academic colleague Baruch Schwartz in deriving it from the term for “light” in biblical Aramaic, and thus he has the nations gazing toward Jerusalem.

I wonder how Ginsberg (who passed away in 1990) would have responded to Alter’s Isaiah, both in its grand poetic flow and with regard to the many minute philological and stylistic decisions that a translator must make in the course of translating even a verse.

Of course, Alter cannot raise the dead, but he is able—through his commentary—to give the reader of English a seat at the table with translators and commentators, living and long gone. His commentary shows the English reader what is an issue of biblical Hebrew and what is a question of English style; this is a gift that will remain ours, both “in future days” and “in the days to come.”

“Let Me Sing unto the Lord for He Surged, O Surged”


When Pharaoh and the Egyptians realize that the Israelites have fled Egypt, they have a change of heart and ask, in Robert Alter’s meticulous translation, “What is this we have done [mah zot asinu], that we sent off Israel from our service?” (Ex. 14:5); just six verses later, as the Israelites approach the sea, they panic and demand of Moses, mah zot asita? Aiming for the idiomatic, the NJPS translation renders this as, “What have you done?” and misses what Alter calls its “pointed echo” of verse 5; he translates the later verse as, “What is this you have done [mah zot asita] to us to bring us out of Egypt?” (14:11).

When a significant word or phrase is repeated in a given text, Alter works hard to capture the repetition, but of course he is attentive to more subtle literary features of the text as well. Thus, in the triumphant Song of the Sea that follows upon God’s miraculous salvation of the people, Alter displays his ingenuity as both translator and commentator. Exulting in God’s decisive defeat of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, the Israelites declare that they will sing to the Lord ki ga’oh ga’ah, ordinarily rendered as “for he has triumphed gloriously” (15:1). Noting in his commentary that the Hebrew word ga’ah is also the verb used to describe the sea’s rising tide, “a concrete image that is especially apt for representing God’s overwhelming the Egyptians with the waters of the Sea of Reeds,” Alter beautifully captures the Bible’s “vivid pun”: “Let me sing unto the Lord for He surged, O surged.”

As Alter has repeatedly argued over the years, understanding the literary techniques of the Bible is indispensable for understanding “what the biblical writers meant to say about God, creation, history, human nature, morality, and the destiny of the people of Israel.” And yet in his commentary to this passage and others, one wishes that he were more attuned to the deeply theological story the Bible is telling about God and Israel. The story of the Exodus is not just about a national god who liberates his people from brutal enslavement. It is, crucially, the story of the Creator God scoring a momentous triumph in His battle with the cosmic forces of evil and chaos.

As the Egyptians approach, God uses the wind to turn the sea into dry ground, enabling the Israelites to “c[o]me into the sea [yam] on dry land [yabashah], the waters a wall to them on their right and on their left” (14:21–22). In his commentary, Alter rightly notes that “[t]he key terms here hark back to the first creation (God’s breath-spirit-wind, ruah; the dividing between sea and dry land)” and then observes that “[God’s] power over the physical elements of the world He created is again manifested, this time in a defining event in the theater of history.” This is true as far as it goes, but it ignores the unfolding theological drama.

Colorful artwork depicting soldiers with weapons and horses in a swirling blue sea
“The Sea of Reeds” (Lodz, 1934) from The Szyk Haggadah. (Courtesy of Historicana, Burlingame, CA.)

In a magnificent bit of wordplay, Exodus 1 has presented Pharaoh as working to prevent Israel from proliferating (“lest they multiply”—in Hebrew, pen yirbeh); yet, the Bible reports, “[A]s they abused them, so did they multiply [ken yirbeh] and so did they spread” (1:10, 12). Following Rashi, Alter notes the play on words—pen yirbeh versus ken yirbeh—but, again, does not underscore the broader significance for his readers: In the book of Exodus, the forces of life, aligned with God, are engaged in a massive struggle with the forces of death, aligned with Pharaoh. The forces of ken yirbeh are at war with the forces of pen yirbeh.

Accordingly, when Exodus 14 invokes “sea” and “dry land,” the point is not only that God retains control over the physical world but that the liberation of these slaves and the defeat of this tyrant represent a cosmic victory for creation over chaos and for life over death. As the Bible scholar Terence Fretheim has noted, in separating the waters, God recapitulates the creation of the world. The defeat of Pharaoh is a victory for creation. Not surprisingly, in the Song of the Sea the Israelites are described as am zu kanita (15:16), which Alter renders as “the people You made Yours.” He observes that the Hebrew word kanita “means ‘to acquire,’ ‘to purchase,’ and occasionally ‘to create’” and adds that “[t]he liberation from Egyptian slavery is taken [by the song] as the great historical demonstration that God has adopted Israel as His special people.” What this misses is what we might call the creational sense of kanita—in splitting the waters of the sea, God is recreating the world: Now, as then, chaos is defeated, and life emerges triumphant.

The association of Pharaoh with the forces of chaos is made explicit elsewhere in the Bible. In what is arguably the most crucial example, the prophet Ezekiel calls the Egyptian king ha-tanim ha-gadol, which the NJPS translation renders as “mighty monster” and the New International Version as “great monster.” Pharaoh is thus associated with the primeval sea monster whom God defeats in establishing order and creating the world, according to Psalm 74:13–14 (and some other biblical texts).

Reading Exodus in light of Ezekiel, we see that God’s vanquishing of Pharaoh reenacts the primordial victory over the sea monster. Some scholars suggest that since Ezekiel’s prophecy deals with Pharaoh and his relationship with the Nile, tanim should here be rendered as “crocodile” rather than “monster.” But they generally note that even if crocodile is the primary meaning of the word, its mythological overtones remain. Alter translates ha-tanim ha-gadol as “great crocodile,” explaining that “although this same Hebrew word in Genesis and Psalms refers to a mythological sea beast, here it is the crocodile, whose habitat is the Nile, and who also is an emblem for Pharaoh.” But it seems to me unlikely that tanim means crocodile rather than monster; if anything, it suggests both: Calling Pharaoh a crocodile conjures up the monster for the biblical reader. In Ezekiel as in Exodus, Alter slights the mythological drama of God’s confrontation with Pharaoh.

Robert Alter is captivated by the Bible’s literary genius, and he has done more than anyone in our time to reveal its intricate workings and render its results in limpid English prose, but he is less absorbed by, and therefore less attentive to, its religious pathos. His translation has a rare grace, and his commentary is studded with arresting insights. For the theologically minded reader, Alter opens many doors, even if he himself does not always walk through them.

“You Who Dwell in the Garden, Friends Listen for Your Voice”


To translate scripture is to risk a chorus of complaint, censure, vituperation, or (worst of all) helpful suggestions. Biblical scholars, even if well disposed to the project, will take exception to the ways the final product fails to reflect their own published views of the sources. Literary critics will draw unflattering comparisons to the King James Version and will object to every infelicity (no matter how unavoidable) produced by a more accurate rendering of the text’s meaning. Theologians will expect and even demand a text conformable to the later doctrinal idioms and hermeneutical habits of their traditions and will try to marshal the few stray atoms of linguistic training they got in seminary to “correct” the new version’s deviations from orthodoxy. Other biblical translators will feel the need to justify their renderings of the same materials at the expense of this new rival. And, of course, there are the legions of the faithful who, on the basis of dogmatic formation, religious schooling, profound conversion experiences, or private inspiration, will feel themselves competent to pronounce upon the translator’s work with an authority only slightly less magnificent than God’s.

Admittedly, I am generalizing here from—and slightly exaggerating—the reactions to my recent translation of the New Testament. I probably should not presume that Robert Alter has endured anything of the sort. Renderings of Christian scripture involve a different set of religious and ideological issues than do those of Hebrew scripture. The Tanakh is less fraught with the ambiguities of doctrinal terminology and less haunted by a long history of debates in systematic or dogmatic theology. Hence, there is less need to rescue the text from its millennial accretions of doctrinally determined interpretations. Moreover, the canon of Hebrew scripture is far richer, far more beautiful, far more varied, and far less definably “sectarian” than the often drab miscellany of documents that Christian tradition impudently appended to it.

So I regard Alter’s work with genuine admiration but also with a keen sense of the dilemma at its heart. On the whole, with a few notable exceptions, the literary quality of the New Testament is unexceptional and in some cases quite poor, and so any ungainliness that resulted from my labors was as likely as not an advance in fidelity as compared to the original. Alter’s aims are higher and perhaps also in some sense incompatible with one another; he aspires to be at once as literal as possible in his rendering of the Masoretic text and also as faithful as possible to its extraordinary literary range and power. This requires the skills both of a meticulous scholar and of a gifted poet, which is a rare enough combination; it also requires an almost magical ability to achieve a continuous equilibrium between them.

By those standards, no one could hope to succeed entirely. A translator with ambitions of that sort has to enter the ring not only with the King James Version but with Tyndale’s Bible, and Coverdale’s, and the Bishops’ Bible—each of which abounds in strange beauties, limpid sonorities, and glittering rhetorical figures, mesmerizing in their plain sublimity, opulent archaism, or gorgeous obscurity. The Coverdale Psalter alone, whose shimmering, solemn cadences grace the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer, should strike fear in any translator’s heart. The language of the King James, which is somehow at once both transparent and concrete, captures in almost ideal form a moment in the history of the English tongue when it had achieved its greatest purity and eloquence.

Painting of two goat-like animals in a red background
Song of Songs by Marc Chagall, 1960. Musée National Marc Chagall, Nice, France. (©RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY; © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.)

What one should ask of a project like Alter’s, then, is how successful a balance it strikes between the scholarly and the literary. And the answer will almost certainly vary according to whichever period of Hebrew scripture is at issue. I found my gaze irresistibly gravitating toward the loveliest of the post-exilic books—Job, the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes. Certainly, the King James versions of these texts are among the greatest glories of English literature. Here Alter’s project could either succeed admirably or fail miserably, but there would be no room for merely adequate achievement. Happily, he acquits himself more than honorably.

Then again, I share many of Alter’s prejudices regarding the proper approach to scriptural translation. I approve especially of his desire to retain concrete images, rather than treating them as simple metaphors and transposing them into an abstract key. His decision to render hevel as “mere breath,” for instance, and havel havelim as “merest breath” seems right to me, even if one laments all the connotations it fails to make perfectly explicit. Surely, it is closer to the vividness of the Hebrew than the traditional “vanity” and “vanity of vanities” of older translations.

More broadly, it seems to me a healthy impulse on Alter’s part to eschew paraphrase and to resist the temptation to supply explanatory substitutes for difficult usages. It is a vulgar assumption that the difference between ancient and modern idioms is simply a difference between distinct ways of saying the same things, rather than between distinct ways of seeing reality. One should never transform an apparently obsolete metaphor or baffling image into what one imagines to be its functional equivalent among the conventional expressions of the present. It is far better to try to render a strange and remote language as strange and remote, and hope thereby to conjure up something of the world it once expressed. (Actually, I would often prefer an even more radical approach than Alter’s. I have a higher opinion than he does of the Buber-Rosenzweig German translation, for instance, as well as of Everett Fox’s renderings of the Torah and early prophets.)

In the case of Job, at least, Alter’s approach allows him at times to achieve a kind of rough grandeur that conveys a sense of the elemental power of the Hebrew. His version is full of pointedly concise phrasings, especially effective where the matter is bleakest. “My flesh was clothed with worms and earth-clods, / my skin rippled with running sores. / My days are swifter than the weaver’s shuttle. / They snap off without any hope” (7:5–6). This plain, condensed diction achieves some stirring effects in expressing despair: “Look, He passes over me and I do not see, / slips by me and I cannot grasp Him” (9:11). But it is at its most effective in expressing raw rage (as the furious peroration of chapters 29 to 31 amply demonstrates): “In gloom did I walk, with no sun, / I rose in assembly and I screamed. / Brother I was to the jackals, / companion to ostriches. / My skin turned black upon me, / my limbs were scorched by drought” (30:28–30).

As for the great theophany of chapters 38 to 41—well, the voice of God, even when He is in something of a huff, is hard to capture. For the most part, Alter’s version thunders away quite convincingly and with genuinely captivating power. Leviathan and behemoth are both limned with impressive flourishes. But there are times when one wishes for something a little more exalted, terrible, and remote. “Do you know the mountain goats’ birth time . . . ?” (39:1), for instance, starts out in the wilderness but ends in an obstetrics clinic. And on a few occasions the phrasing is awkward in ways that detract from the splendor of the scene: “Where were you when I founded earth? / Tell, if you know understanding” (38:4). Unless we are meant to think that God is explicitly speaking of the planet named “Earth,” the absence of the definite article has the feel of a jarring anachronism.

Painting of a group of people gathered around a dining table
Esther, Ahasuerus, and Haman by Jan Steen, ca. 1668. (Courtesy of the Cleveland Musuem of Art.)

There are few, if any, such lapses in Alter’s Song of Songs, however. In part—not to diminish Alter’s achievement—this is because the text lends itself more readily to transposition into another tongue. Principally, it demands of its translator that he or she render its imagery as gracefully as possible and then retreat to the wings to let the two young lovers perform their play for themselves. Even so, it is genuinely impressive how well Alter makes the transition to smoother cadences and a more transparent simplicity of phrasing. “My lover is mine and I am his, / who grazes among the lilies. / Until morning’s breeze blows / and the shadows flee, / turn round, be like a deer, my love, / or like a gazelle / on the cloven mountains” (2:16–17). And here his manifest fondness for poetic brevity is especially effective: “You who dwell in the garden, / friends listen for your voice. / Let me hear it. / —Flee my lover and be like a deer / or like a gazelle / on the spice mountains” (8:13–14). The crystalline terseness has an exquisite quality about it, quite different from more familiar translations.

Of the three books treated here, Ecclesiastes is probably Alter’s most fascinating achievement. It conveys the hypnotic rhythm of the text’s repetitions and renders them in delightfully poignant form: “merest breath,” as I have already mentioned, but also “herding the wind,” which is a particularly inspired reading of the Hebrew. To anyone who knows the version in the King James, of course, no other translation could rival its nobility, grandeur, or crepuscular plangency. Where Alter’s version excels, however, is in capturing something else about the voice of Kohelet: an oddly hectic quality, a sort of morose peevishness, at once restless and fatigued. And this serves especially well in the last chapter’s incantatory, twilight descent into darkness and silence. “And the almond blossoms, / and the locust tree is laden, / and the caper fruit falls apart. / For man is going to his everlasting house, / and the mourners turn round in the market. / Until the silver cord is snapped, / and the golden bowl is smashed, / and the pitcher is broken against the well, / and the jug smashed at the pit. / And dust returns to the earth as it was, / and the life-breath returns to God Who gave it. / Merest breath, said Qohelet. All is mere breath” (12:5–8).

It is worth pausing simply to appreciate what a monumental achievement this translation truly is. In the three books that I have considered here, three powerful voices in three vastly different registers have been rendered not only distinctly but each with genuine imagination, force, and élan. And so it is of the whole. Few scholars would have had the audacity even to contemplate so immense a labor.

David Bentley Hart is a philosopher, theologian, writer, classicist, and a few other things at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study.

And She Went and Came and Gleaned in the Field Behind the Reapers”


Robert Alter’s articles in Commentary, followed by his books The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981) and The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985), opened our eyes to the artistry of the Bible’s narrative prose and poetry. In those early books and essays, Alter told us about the Bible’s literary features, but in his now-complete translation of the entire Hebrew Bible, he shows them to us.

Alter’s stated goal is to translate the Bible’s literary style and diction into fluent English, to capture the syntax, the parataxis, the rhythms, and the concreteness and repetition of the vocabulary that characterize biblical style. He does so masterfully, especially in his translations of narrative prose, which are his forte. His sensitivity to language and his ability to turn a phrase are displayed in his rendering of a passage in the book of Ruth (2:3–7), in comparison to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). I have italicized the more striking differences in wording, but the reader should also attend to the overall flow of the narrative, as well as Alter’s determined avoidance of contemporary stock phrases.

And she went and came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers, and it chanced that she came upon the plot of Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech. And look, Boaz was coming from Bethlehem, and he said to the reapers, “May the Lord be with you!” and they said, “May the Lord bless you!” And Boaz said to his lad who was stationed over the reapers, “Whose is this young woman?” And the lad stationed over the reapers answered and said, “She is a young Moabite woman who has come back with Naomi from the plain of Moab. And she said, ‘Let me glean, pray, and gather from among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ And she has come and stood since the morning till now. She has barely stayed in the house.” (Alter)

So she went. She came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech. Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you.” They answered, “The Lord bless you.” Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, “To whom does this young woman belong?” The servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. She said, ‘Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.” (NRSV)

Notice how much smoother Alter’s rendering is. His sentences are longer, but his phrases are shorter, reproducing the biblical cadence. Alter routinely translates the Hebrew vav (“and”) that often begins a verse or clause, rather than variously adapting or even omitting it to fit the context as the NRSV does here (“so,” “as,” “just,” “then”). This may not always be elegant in English, but it retains the directness and the simplicity of the Hebrew as it keeps the narrative moving forward.

While there is much to admire in Alter’s translation, there are, inevitably in an undertaking so massive, occasional infelicities. To consider them is to appreciate what choices have been, or might have been, made. Let us take two examples from the book of Esther. King Ahasuerus and Vashti both make banquets in chapter 1, and, later, in chapter 5, Esther prepares a banquet. The Hebrew verb is the same in all instances. According to Alter’s stated criteria, the English should reflect this, but he follows previous English translations—King James Version, NRSV, New International Version, and New Jewish Publication Society (NJPS)—in using one verb in chapter 1 (in Alter’s case, “made”) and a different one in chapter 5 (“prepare”).

In Esther 6:8, my disagreement with Alter’s translation is more substantive; I believe he has mistranslated a phrase. In that verse, Haman suggests to Ahasuerus that if the king wishes to have a man honored, he should, in Alter’s words, “let them bring royal raiment that the king has worn and a horse on which the king has ridden, and set a royal crown on his head.” As his commentary notes, Alter follows a midrash here in understanding Haman as wanting “raiment, horse, and crown that are not merely regal but that the king has actually used, thus putting himself in metonymic contact with the body of the king—in a way, becoming the king.” I agree that Haman is represented here as really desiring the kingship itself, but the Hebrew of the verse is not as straightforward with regard to the crown as Alter suggests. The NJPS translation reflects the now widely accepted understanding that the crown was on the head of the horse, not on Mordechai’s head: “Let royal garb which the king has worn be brought, and a horse on which the king has ridden and on whose head a royal diadem has been set. . . ” (Michael V. Fox has noted that Assyrian reliefs show royal horses wearing tall head ornaments.) As I note in The JPS Bible Commentary: Esther, the crown on the horse indicates that this is the king’s own horse, and whoever is mounted on it will appear to be the king. This is why, when the king orders Haman to carry out these instructions, Mordechai is to be given only the raiment and the horse. Ahasuerus says (in Alter’s translation), “Hurry, take the raiment and the horse as you have spoken, and do this for Mordecai the Jew.” The king doesn’t mention the crown because it is not for Mordechai but for the horse. Later, when he actually carries out the order, the text says nothing about Haman having to crown Mordechai.

As Alter has helped to show us, parallelism and terseness are the outstanding features of biblical poetry. Although English is not as terse a language as Hebrew, these features are readily translatable. In contrast, wordplay and especially sound-play are harder, and often impossible, to convey in translation. Alter is more careful than previous translators to maintain the lines of the poems and to balance the number of words in each, as the Hebrew does, as well as to retain the word order in most cases. His translations of biblical poetry are therefore at times starker and more dramatic than previous translations, as in Song of Songs 4:3, for instance: Alter’s translation reads, “Like a scarlet thread, your lips, / and your tongue—desire”; whereas the NRSV has, “Your lips are like a crimson thread, / and your mouth is lovely.”

I’ll close with one final example, Song of Songs 1:5:

shechorah ani ve-na’vah

“I am dark but desirable”

“Dark” is certainly a better choice for American readers than “black,” because the reference is to sun-darkened skin, not to African ancestry. Surprisingly, Alter does not follow the Hebrew word order, which would render the line “Dark am I but desirable,” putting the emphasis on “dark,” a word that recurs in a slightly different form in the next verse. Most translations render na’vah as “lovely” or “beautiful.” In his commentary, Alter justifies “desirable” and uses it elsewhere (but not at Song of Songs 1:10 and 6:4, where he has “lovely”); but one wonders whether in this case he is also aiming for the alliteration in “dark” and “desirable.”

In fact, he employs alliteration throughout Song of Songs. Thus, to take a half-dozen examples, we have “cushion me with quinces” (2:5); “peering . . . peeping” (2:9); “[i]ts posts . . . its padding . . . its curtains crimson” (3:9); “watchmen of the walls” (5:7); “[l]ike Lebanon his look” (5:15); and “a fearsome flame” (8:6). In none of these phrases does the Hebrew have alliteration, nor do previous English translations. Actually, alliteration is not a significant device in biblical poetry, although it is in English poetry. Alter makes these verses in Song of Songs work as English poetry by departing from the Bible’s poetic style.

No translation is created ex nihilo; each translator is in dialogue with previous translations as well as with the text itself. In his earliest work on the Bible, Robert Alter showed biblical scholars, myself included, how the Hebrew Bible works as literature and how its literary structures and techniques shape its meaning. Now he has given us an English Bible that is faithful to the Hebrew Bible’s own literary values.

Adele Berlin is professor emerita at the University of Maryland, where she held the Robert H. Smith Chair in Biblical Studies. Her books include The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism (Indiana University Press) and Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Eisenbrauns). She was the coeditor with Marc Brettler of The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford University Press) and served as editor in chief of The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, second edition (Oxford University Press). 

For Many Long Days


History offers two models for creating an authoritative Bible translation. One is a committee of scholars with government sponsorship—such as the 72 Jewish translators who produced the Greek Septuagint for Ptolemy II in 3rd-century B.C.E. Egypt or the 47 Anglican divines who issued the King James Version in 1611. On the other hand, some translations have become standard even though they were the work of a single, self-appointed individual. In the 4th century C.E., Jerome produced the Latin Vulgate that would be adopted by the Catholic Church; in the 16th century, Martin Luther’s German version became the standard Protestant translation in German-speaking lands.

With Robert Alter’s complete Bible, we are dealing with a new, third kind of translation. It is the work of a single person, but it was not produced as part of a religious mission; it has the authority of scholarship, but it is not intended to serve as an authorized version. In fact, while it is certainly a magnificent creative achievement, Alter’s Bible is best understood as a critical work—not just a version of the Bible but an intervention into a long-standing debate about what the Hebrew Bible is and how we should read it. That is why Alter’s notes are such an integral part of his translation: He invites us into the translator’s study, explaining the problems of the text and weighing the considerations of sound and sense that dictate his choices.

Lines of Hebrew script opposite their Greek translation
The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.

Alter’s Psalms show how illuminating this approach can be. Sometimes, he explains, weighty theological issues can hang on a single word choice. In Psalm 23, for instance, the King James Version reads: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. / He restoreth my “soul.” By translating the Hebrew word nefesh as “soul,” the KJV turns the psalmist’s image of a sheep and shepherd into an implicit metaphor for Heaven. This sense is heightened by the psalm’s last line: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” Clearly, we are dealing with a poem about resurrection and eternity.

Alter’s version sets out to dispel this notion: “In grass meadows He makes me lie down, / by quiet waters guides me. / My life He brings back.” “The Hebrew nefesh does not mean ‘soul’ but ‘life-breath’ or ‘life,’” his note explains. “The image is of someone who has almost stopped breathing and is revived, brought back to life.” This relocates the idea of salvation to this world, rather than the world to come. Likewise, Alter’s version ends, “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord / for many long days”—an exact translation of the Hebrew is orekh yamim. The psalmist is talking about long life, not eternal life, Alter insists: “the viewpoint of the poem is in and of the here and now.”

There are many such examples of revised diction in Alter’s Bible. But his poetry also consistently challenges the familiar rhythm of the psalms as we know them from the King James Version—the spacious, balanced lines whose rhythm is that of breath being drawn in and released. This almost physiological reaction to the psalms is part of their reassuring power in English, as in the KJV’s Psalm 91:

Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation;

There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.

For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.

They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.

For Alter, however, this systole and diastole is untrue to the rhythm of Hebrew, which is considerably quicker and more compact. One of his stated goals in translating biblical poetry is to approximate the syllable count of the original.

For you—the Lord is your refuge,

the Most High you have made your abode.

No harm will befall you,

nor affliction draw near to your tent.

For His messengers He charges for you

to guard you on all your ways.

On their palms they lift you up

lest your foot be bruised by a stone.

For the KJV’s prose rhythm, Alter substitutes iambic and dactylic patterns, divided into short verse lines on the page. His diction is more contemporary, of course—“draw near” rather than “come nigh”—but it is also more physical and concrete: “palms” rather than “hands,” “bruise” instead of “dash thy foot.” And here, too, his language works against supernatural interpretations: His God sends messengers rather than angels. On every page, Alter’s masterful translation not only revises our theological, linguistic, and literary expectations of the Bible but explains why those revisions are justified.


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