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Still a whirlwind

03 August 2011

Walter Moberly looks at one man’s version of three OT books


The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes
Robert Alter

W. W. Norton £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

ROBERT ALTER, Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, has put students of the Old Testament lastingly in his debt through his 1981 paradigm-changing book The Art of Biblical Narrative (and also his 1985 The Art of Biblical Poetry, though this made less impact).

Since then, he has been produc­ing annotated translations of the books of the Hebrew Bible — the Pentateuch, the Psalms, and the books of Samuel are already avail­able — to which he has now added this rendering of the Wisdom literature.

Alter’s translation is fresh, retains certain Hebrew idioms (e.g. sen­tences beginning with “and”), and, while always readable, eschews easy accessibility: “A man there was in the land of Uz — Job, his name. And the man was blameless and upright . . .”. Although Alter usually ploughs his own furrow, he some­times follows a time-honoured translation — e.g. the LORD speaks to Job from a “whirlwind” rather than the more philologically precise “storm” — because of this render­ing’s deep embeddedness in the English-speaking imagination.

His annotations range widely: Hebrew idioms, textual difficulties, literary craft, the formation of the text, and various points of textual content. On these last, however, he is unpredictable; he sometimes passes over key verses in silence

(e.g. the pivotal narrative role of “Does Job fear God for nothing?”), and so he hardly replaces a more conven­tional commentary. He occasionally notes use of the text in his own Jewish tradition, but is, on the whole, uninterested in classic reli­gious readings.

Alter’s overall stance is that the Hebrew Bible is a masterpiece of literature, a cultural religious classic, which can enlarge our sensibilities about the human condition. Many should find Alter’s work an acces­sible way of engaging, or re-engaging, with the Old Testament and perhaps being surprised by it.

The Revd Dr Walter Moberly is Professor of Theology and Biblical Interpretation at Durham University.

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