The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes
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.