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.


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