At last, a more Jewish alternative Hebrew Bible translation in English

Earlier, as I moved from Everett Fox’s radical translation of the Five Books of Moses into the books of Joshua and Judges, I remarked how much I wanted something similar for the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Something that didn’t sound like the Bible was written in 16th century English.

I may have found something close in Robert Alter’s handsome three-volume translation of the Hebrew Bible. Or maybe I should say my wife has, in selecting it as her Christmas present to me. (No irony intended.)

Rather than going for a muscular, grainy, rough-hewn sense of Hebrew that Fox produced, Alter strives for contemporary English clarity and elegance while keeping fidelity to the original. Like Fox, he accompanies his choices with copious footnotes, but sticks closer to a text that still echoes the familiar King James. On the upside, this means I’m not having to refer to another translation to reconnect the names to the ones I understand. On the downside, I lose an awareness of the original designation.

Ephraim Moses Lilien diptych

 

The big gift was accompanied by Alter’s revelatory The Art of Biblical Poetry, a scholarly analysis that strips the thick varnish from the traditional views of the scriptures to reveal a lively, brightly colored, surprisingly contemporary rich poetics throughout the collected canon.

Here I was, thinking I was done with a straight read-through, that once was enough. But now Alter may be enough to prompt an encore campaign.

 

Why read the Bible?

If not in its entirety, which books?

I wish I had an easy answer. And, yes, it’s important. Reading itself — deep reading — is important, and the Bible is the biggest single influence on the English language itself and English literature. It also shapes our political and social values much more than we’re aware. If it’s important to read Shakespeare, the Bible is even more worthy.

Other reasons to read the Bible?

To counter bad theology and bad politics, for one thing. (Starting with right-wingers and fundamentalists, but then, as Jesus says about that mote in the eye, the spotlight soon swings to my own side of the table.)

To be more aware of the foundations of Western culture, including science — it’s one God, one Truth, an orderly creation rather than chaos or jealous deities. This universe is ruled by a Law or a Design. I’d say Plan, except I don’t want to invoke parties that want to limit the understanding.

To encourage spiritual experience. Meditating on a single verse can be a powerful mantra. Voicing one in Quaker Meeting deepens the worship.

To prompt some lively discussion. Focus on personal experience or insight, rather than creedal speculation. Take nothing at face value while looking for the big sweep of the action. As literature or factual? think of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, at times.

What would you add to this list?

~*~

Traversing the entire collection front to back — and it is a collection, an anthology, of many authors and visions — leaves me with a far less conventional interpretation of the text, yet far more admiration for its inventiveness, too. I’m more aware of its weaknesses and the places where our contemporary issues and learning can come to bear, too.

For me, this work is far from done. That’s not a bad reason for reading this magnum opus, is it?

A selected bibliography

Not all of these are mentioned in my posts on reading the Bible straight-through, but they are works I’ve found quite insightful and hold them out for your continued reading.

I should also acknowledge that the sheer volume of commentaries and interpretations of the ancient and seminal texts in the canon is well beyond any human’s ability to pursue in a single lifetime. They can, however, feed into our discussions and growing wisdom. Feel free to mention any in the comments section of this post, perhaps with a mention of why you’ve found them especially valuable.

Bill Moyers’ Genesis: A Living Conversation (edited by Betty Sue Flowers) (Doubleday, New York; 1996). Based on the Public Television Series that featured a panel of distinguished voices to reflect on selected stories in the opening book of the Bible, this transcript includes Jews, Christians of many varieties, Muslims, and others who delve into the startling implications beneath the surface of the text. Inspired by similar living-room conversations reflecting followers of all three “Peoples of the Book,” the animated dialogue demonstrates just how vital these ancient texts remain. You may also find videos from the broadcasts at your public library or online.

The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes by Everett Fox (Schocken, New York; 1995). As a poet, I’m taken with his breathtaking presentation that allows these books, as one observer remarked, to sound as if they weren’t written directly in King James English. I wish we had the rest of the Hebrew Bible in such amazing and invigorating poetry.

Godwrestling, Arthur I. Waskow (Shocken Books, New York; 1978). This was the book that completely altered my way of reading the Bible. Based on a Jewish tradition of questioning and arguing with the text, and even allowing the possibility that God might be wrong in this situation, Waskow encourages an active engagement where faith can be revolutionary. It inspired the way I love to teach these stories with teenagers in our Quaker Meeting, for one thing.

 

Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible (edited by David Rosenberg) (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York; 1987). I found my copy in a bookstore discount bin far more years ago than I care to admit, but I’ve since found it to be an startling companion in my reflections on the pages of the Hebrew Bible. In many ways, each of the authors contributing essays has become like the panelists on the Genesis discussions or the thinking in Godwrestling, companions in this engagement with these stories. Many of them have, in effect, welcomed me into their homes and even their childhoods, while introducing me to a range of rabbinical scholarship. My, how I wish I could invite them over for dinner.

Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, and Oceana (edited by Jerome Rothenberg) (Doubleday, New York; 1968). This collection, from back in my hippie years, is one that opened my awareness to the range of spiritual awareness in so-called primitive societies. I feel this awareness is helpful in engaging the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible.

New Jerusalem Bible (Reader’s Edition, Doubleday, New York, 1990). As I explained earlier, this Roman Catholic translation has been praised for its accuracy, free from much of the King James tradition. I’m still open, though, to a more radical translation in line with Everett Fox’s work.

The Parthenon Code: Mankind’s History in Marble, Robert Bowie Johnson Jr. (Solving Light, Annapolis, Maryland; 2004). I have no idea how this sweep of Greek art and thought sits with more scholarly authorities, but I remain intrigued by Johnson’s interpretation and reconstruction of the friezes on the great temple in Athens. He sees them as validating and challenging the events of Genesis — the Hebrews, for their part, being people of language, while the Greeks were essentially visual. In effect, the two cultures were in conflict and arguing with each other. For me, this adds depth to the chronological progression of thought in the Jewish Scriptures.

The Four Gospels and the Revelation: Newly Translated from the Greek by Richmond Lattimore (Pocket Books, New York; 1979). It’s a fresh take, though I’m wondering what else might lurk beneath the surface.

The Original Aramaic New Testament in Plain English with Psalm and Provers by Glenn David Bauscher (Lulu, South Wales, Australia; 2013). I obtained my copy as a print-on-demand edition via Amazon. For anyone interested in the nuances of interpreting from ancients script, his notes can be fascinating. For hints at possibilities, look at thearamaicscriptures.com/ or wit-resources.s3.amazonaws.com/Peshittant.pdf.

James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Robert Eisenman (Penguin, New York; 1997). As the Friend who suggested this book to me said, with a twinkle, Eisenman has an ax to grind. I assume this book is taken from his lecture notes — it could be easily cut by a third, if it were more tightly organized — but he does offer an alternative to what’s come down through Paul of Tarsus and his followers for our understanding of the early church.

When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome, Richard E. Rubenstein (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York; 1999). For me, an unsettling account of the too often physical confrontations between the differing camps of Christians in churches leading up to the Nicene Council.

Three Quaker Bible Studies: John, Mark, First Corinthians, Charles Fager (Kimo Press, Falls Church, Virginia; 1979). A lively, brief engagement with three books in the Godwrestling mode. His questions remain lively and useful.