How to Judge Robert Alter's Landmark Translation of the Hebrew Bible

Finished after decades of labor, this one-man English translation is a stupendous achievement. How does it hold up against the masterpieces (and follies) that have come before?

From The Letter “Aleph” by the Israeli artist Mordecai Ardon, whose work is used for the cover of Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible.

From The Letter “Aleph” by the Israeli artist Mordecai Ardon, whose work is used for the cover of Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible.

Feb. 4 2019
About the author

Hillel Halkin’s books include Yehuda HaleviAcross the Sabbath RiverMelisande: What are Dreams? (a novel), Jabotinsky: A Life (2014), and, most recently, After One-Hundred-and-Twenty (Princeton). 

However you look at it, Robert Alter’s The Hebrew Bible is a stupendous achievement. The result of decades of work, consisting of over 3,000 pages of translated text and commentary, it includes every one of the 35 books from Genesis to Chronicles that constitute Jewish scripture. One might call it the translator’s equivalent of a solo circumnavigation of the globe were it not that sailing a boat around the globe takes far less time.

Of the over 100 English translations of the Hebrew Bible, many of them revisions or adaptations of previous ones and most published together with the Christian New Testament, almost all have been done by teams or committees. The 1611 King James Bible, which was the Bible for generations of English readers and retains for many a hallowedness that no other English Bible has, was the work of 47 scholars pooling their knowledge, skills, and judgments. All of the better-known modern English Bibles—the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (1901), the Jewish Publication Society Bible (1917), the New English Bible (1946), the Good News Bible (1976), the New International Version of the Bible (1978), the New Jerusalem Bible (1985), the New Living Translation Bible (1996), the Holman Christian Standard Bible (2004), the New Jewish Publication Society Bible (1985), the ArtScroll English Tanach (1996), the Anchor Bible Series (initiated in 1956 and now nearing completion)—have been joint efforts. Not even the King James’s two great predecessors that were named for single translators, the 14th-century Wycliffe Bible and the 16th-century Tyndale Bible, were done single-handedly.

What English Bibles before Alter’s were done by one translator? The list includes Robert Young’s Young’s Literal Translation of the Holy Bible (1862); Judith Smith Parker’s The Holy Bible (1876); Ferrar Fenton’s The Holy Bible in Modern English (1903); James Moffat’s The Old Testament: A New Translation (1924); George Lamsa’s Lamsa’s Bible (1933); and Eugene H. Peterson’s The Message Bible (2002). I know of no others.

Each of these translators had his or her reasons for undertaking the task. Young, an autodidactic Scotsman and Christian missionary, thought that prior translations of the Hebrew Bible had strayed too far from its wording and misunderstood biblical Hebrew’s tense system; in fact, the one to misunderstand it was he. Smith, also self-taught, was the daughter of a Connecticut congregational minister. She said of the Bible, “I do not see how anyone can know more about it than I do,” and produced a grotesquely unreadable version of it.

Fenton was a London businessman with an interest in Oriental poetry and the belief that that he had discovered the metrical principles behind “the varied and beautiful forms of ancient Hebrew versification.” Some of his translations of biblical poetry were quite good. Those of biblical prose were less so. The King James Bible begins, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the Earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Fenton rendered these verses, “By periods God created that which produced the Solar Systems, then that which produced the Earth. But the Earth was unorganized and empty, and darkness covered its convulsed surface while the breath of God rocked the surface of its waters.”

Lamsa, an Assyrian Christian, espoused the theory that the Peshitta, the ancient Syriac version of the Bible, was more accurate than the Hebrew Masoretic text and should be relied on instead. Petersen, a Presbyterian minister and popular author with an MA in Semitic languages, intended his Bible to be English’s first thoroughly colloquial one. His Genesis starts, “First this: God created the Heaven and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see! Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.”

Of all these figures, Moffat alone was an academically trained scholar. A professor of Greek and Bible at Oxford, Yale, and Union Theological Seminary, he aimed for a modern translation in “effective, intelligible English” that would reflect the latest advances in biblical Source Criticism. Seeking to combine the so-called Yahwistic strand of Chapter 2 of Genesis with the Elohistic strand of Chapter 1, he commenced his Creation account: “This is the story of how the universe was formed. When God began to form the universe, the world was void and vacant, darkness lay over the abyss.”


I. The Bible as Literature


And now we have Alter. Today a professor emeritus at the University of California in Berkeley, he has, like Moffat, the solidest of academic backgrounds, though not in biblical studies but in Hebrew and European literature, on which he has published widely. His writings on the Bible began with several essays in Commentary in the 1970s, which led to his The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981), The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985), and The World of Biblical Literature (1991); then came translations of Genesis in 1996 and the two books of Samuel in 1999, gradually followed by the rest of the biblical corpus. A leading advocate of the view, rarely voiced before the mid-20th century, that the Bible needs to be read as great literature and not just for its religious or historical content, he has sought to bring this perspective to bear on its translation.

The authors of the great works of the Bible, Alter has consistently argued, most recently in a forthcoming new book, The Art of Bible Translation, were highly self-conscious poets and prose writers whose artistry has been ignored or inadequately dealt with by nearly all of their modern translators. Their choice of words; the construction of their sentences; the cadences of their language; their use of word play and sound play—attention to these and other literary elements has been unjustly subordinated to the truths these authors were supposedly seeking to convey and the times in which they sought to convey them.

The authors of the Bible, Alter argues, were highly self-conscious poets and prose writers whose artistry has been ignored by nearly all of their modern translators.

The first lines of Alter’s Bible are, “When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.” They illustrate several of his main points about biblical language and its translation.

He preserves, because he thinks it stylistically crucial, the Bible’s repetitive use of the coordinating conjunction “and” instead of varying it with such alternatives as “while,” “then,” “but,” etc., or eliminating it completely, as most modern translations do. He translates ru’aḥ elohim as “God’s breath” rather than “God’s spirit” because “breath” has more of what he calls the “Bible’s extraordinary concreteness” and better evokes the mysterious force (ru’aḥ also means “wind” in Hebrew) blowing back and forth over the depths. He alliterates “welter and waste” to imitate the echo in the Hebrew rhyme of tohu va-vohu, the King James’s “without form and void.” He seeks to reproduce the Hebrew’s strong cadences, as in “and the éarth then was wélter and wáste and dárkness over the déep.” He eschews all rhetorical paraphrases like Petersen’s “inky blackness” and “brooded like a bird,” which he considers a bane of modern Bible translation.

All of this works well, even if it doesn’t have quite the majesty we have come to associate with the King James. Yet by now there are so many translations of the Bible that it is impossible to be terribly original. Alter’s decision, based on grammatical considerations already discussed by the medieval exegetes, to translate the Hebrew’s b’reshit bara as “When God began to create” rather than “In the beginning God created” has its English predecessors, of whom Moffat may have been the first. Moffat’s alliterative “void and vacant” anticipates Alter’s “welter and waste.” Alter’s principled retention of the biblical “and” was also the policy of the King James. His “breath” instead of “spirit” is found in Fenton. And Fenton, while his Genesis 1:1-2 is atrocious, insisted on the importance of rhythm in translating biblical Hebrew long before Alter did.

The merit of these lines, therefore, lies less in any single feature of them than in their overall configuration. They are sensitive to the flow and texture of the Bible’s language; their choices are judicious; there are no eccentricities or lapses of taste in them; no translator’s “Look at me!” or “Can you beat this?” This holds true of the entire Alter Bible. To call it the best solo English Bible is, given the competition, not saying much. But one is also tempted to call it the best modern English Bible, period—a judgment with which Alter appears to agree. While he states his admiration for the King James often, his criticisms of all the English Bibles that have come after it are unsparing.


II. Alter vs. the King James


Can the Alter Bible compete with the King James? This is not an entirely meaningful question because, like most other English Bibles, it owes so much to the King James that comparing the two is often comparing the King James with itself. Moreover, the contemporaneity of Alter’s language as opposed to the antiquatedness of the King James’s is simultaneously a plus and a minus. More comprehensible by today’s reader, it lacks the sacralizing patina of age.

Suppose, for example, that we set the King James for Psalms 8:4, “What is man that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?” alongside Alter’s “What is man that You should note him, and the human creature, that You should pay him heed?” One might say that, “son of man” being a literal rendering of the Hebrew ben-adam and not idiomatic English, and the verb “to visit” no longer having its 17th-century meaning of “to attend to” or “to succor,” the Alter translation is more suitable to our times.

As compared with the King James, the contemporaneity of Alter’s language is a plus and a minus: more comprehensible by today’s reader, it lacks the former’s sacralizing patina of age.

But it is also true that the very strangeness of “son of man,” whose “man” is both the father each one of us has had and the first father of us all, gives it a poetry that “human creature” doesn’t have, and that there is a wondrousness about God’s “visiting” a man or a woman even if we no longer use the verb in this fashion—in part, because we no longer use it in this fashion. After all, the Hebrew ki tifk’denu that is translated by the King James as “that Thou visitest him” is archaic today, too. Why should we read the Bible in an English that is more up to date than the Hebrew?

Nevertheless, meaningful literary comparisons between the King James and Alter Bibles often can be made—and when we make them, we find places in which one reads better and places in which the other does, frequently in close proximity. Take one of the best-known passages in the Bible, the theophany in chapter 6 of Isaiah. Here is the King James version of it:

In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory.

And here is Alter:

In the year of the death of King Uzziah, I saw the Master seated on a high and lofty throne, and the skirts of His robe filled the Temple. Seraphim were stationed over Him, six wings for each one. With two it would cover its face, and with two it would cover its feet, and with two it would hover. And each called out to each and said: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of armies. The fullness of all the earth is His glory.”

Several things strike one as superior in the Alter translation:

(1) “In the year of the death of King Uzziah” suggests a memorable year more than does “In the year that king Uzziah died.” Uzziah ruled over Judah for four decades. The year of his death was a milestone. Alter conveys this better.

(2) There is no good reason for the “also” in the King James’s “I saw also the Lord.” It is not in the Hebrew text, and Alter’s omission of it is justified.

(3) “On a high and lofty throne” is better than “upon a throne, high and lifted up.” “Lifted up” implies that someone has lifted it. There is no such implication in the Hebrew.

(4) The monosyllabically metrical “And éach called óut to éach” has a more powerful impact than does “And one cried unto another.”

Such improvements, however, are offset by other things. Alter’s choice of “Master” instead of “Lord” strikes one as a mistake. Hebrew adonai, the word in question, though formed from adon, “master,” can only (and regularly does in the Bible and elsewhere) refer to God, and the awesomeness of Isaiah’s divine vision is ill-served by a word whose referents—one thinks of slave masters, schoolmasters, housemasters, Zen masters, ḥasidic masters—are purely human.

Equally unfortunate is Alter’s “Lord of Armies” for the Hebrew’s adonai ts’va’ot in place of the King James’s “Lord of hosts.”  True, the plural Hebrew noun ts’va’ot literally means “armies.” But the army in the common biblical expression ts’va ha-shamayim, “the army of heaven,” is not a military force. It is a corps of celestial bodies and beings, from stars to angels, enlisted in the service of God, and “the host of the heavens” or “the heavenly host” is the ancient and traditional term for it found in almost every English Bible starting with Wycliffe.

Alter’s rejection of this term with its aura of solemn mystery makes little sense, especially because it is opposed to his own guidelines. With its driving rhythm and alliteration of “holy” and “hosts,” “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts” is acoustically faithful to the Hebrew’s kadósh, kadósh, kadósh, adonái ts’va’ót, whose stressed final o-vowel in tsva’ot echoes the same vowel in kadosh. “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of armies” wanders off and goes lame at the end. And while “the fullness of the earth is His glory” for m’lo khol ha-arets k’vodo can be defended on grammatical grounds, the King James’s simpler “the whole earth is full of his glory” is equally defensible, supported by older translations, and more expressive of the seraphs’ excitement.

Perhaps the only explanation of such decisions is what might be called translator’s ennui—the feeling that, faced with a precedent so universally accepted that it is boring to adopt it as everyone else has done, one must do something new or different. There is no need to be a partisan of committees to observe that, had Alter been on one, a fellow member would have raised a red flag at this point and carried the day for boredom.


III. A Case of Ands


The desire to be different, however, does not explain another case in which Alter goes against precedent. Here, too, the passage is a famous one, that of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac in the book of Genesis. Alter translates this excruciating episode:

And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham. And he said to him, “Abraham!” and he said, “Here I am.” And He said, “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains which I shall say to you.” And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey and took his two lads with him, and Isaac his son, and he split wood for the offering, and rose and went to the place that God had said to him. On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar. And Abraham said to his lads, “Sit you here with the donkey and let me and the lad walk ahead and let us worship and return to you.”

Here, by way of contrast, is the New Jewish Publication Society version:

Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” And he said, take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” So early the next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering and he set out for the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham looked up and he saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his servants, “You stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you.”

A comparison of these two versions demonstrates how right Alter is about the biblical “and,” which the New Jewish Society Publication version omits in six places and changes in others to “so” and “then.” The “and’s” create a series of discrete events, none of which blurs into another or is more important or determinative. All are equal links in a terrible chain that Abraham is free to break whenever he wishes but does not. When we say, “So early the next morning, Abraham saddled his ass,” we are saying: Well, of course. Abraham has decided to go to Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son, so he has to saddle up. When we say, “And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey,” we are saying: No! Abraham does not have to do this. He has a choice. He can stay home.

The “and’s” expand each moment to its maximum. At each, Abraham has to decide: am I going ahead with this or not?

The “and’s” expand each moment to its maximum. At each, Abraham has to decide: am I going ahead with this or not? At each, he has the chance to back out. At each, he must firm up his resolve all over again. At each, he is that much closer to killing his son. At each, every step becomes harder.  

Father and son reach Mount Moriah. The Alter translation continues:

And Abraham took the wood for the offering and put it on Isaac his son and he took in his hand the fire and the cleaver, and the two of them went together.

The cleaver? Other English Bible translations say “the knife.” With a knife, Abraham will slit Isaac’s throat as one slaughters an animal. With a cleaver—but  let’s look at the note in Alter’s always helpful commentary:

the cleaver: [the Bible scholar] E.A. Speiser notes, quite rightly, that the Hebrew term here is not the usual biblical term for knife and makes a good argument that it is a cleaver. Other terms for butchering, rather than sacrifice, are used [further on in the story].

We turn to the commentary in Speiser’s Anchor series Genesis:

cleaver: the pertinent Hebrew noun (see also Judges 19:29 and Proverbs 30:14) is used expressly for butcher knives.

The “pertinent Hebrew noun” in the Isaac story is ma’akhelet, formed from the verb akhal, to eat or devour. We turn to Judges 19:29. It comes at the end of a chapter telling of the rape and murder of a traveling Israelite’s concubine by the townsmen of Gibeah. In Alter’s translation:

And he . . . took a cleaver [ma’akhelet] and held his concubine and cut her up limb by limb into twelve pieces, and he sent her through all the territory of Israel. And so whoever saw her would say, “There has not been nor has there been seen such a thing from the day the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt.”

Frightful! The traveler wishes to incite all the tribes of Israel against the inhabitants of Gibeah, and he succeeds, whereupon a war breaks out between them and the tribe of Benjamin, in whose territory Gibeah is located.

And Abraham?

Alter doesn’t ask in his commentary why Abraham has brought along a cleaver instead of a knife; nor does Speiser. This forces us to ask: is Abraham about to go berserk? Will he, having saddled his donkey, and split wood for an offering, and gone to Mount Moriah, and sacrificed Isaac on the altar he builds . . . chop him into pieces? Will all his terrible resolve, now that Isaac is dead, erupt in an orgiastic fury?

And what will he do with the pieces of Isaac? There are no tribes of Israel to send them to. Will he send them to the seven peoples of Canaan, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Perezites, the Jebusites, and the Girgasites, for them to say, “There has not been nor has there been seen such a thing from the day crazy Abraham listened to his God and came to this land”?

In all likelihood, ma’akhelet does not mean “cleaver,” or else sometimes means “cleaver” and sometimes means “knife.” Contrary to Alter’s assertion, there is no “usual” biblical term for a knife. Sakin, the rabbinic and modern Hebrew word, occurs in the Bible only once. The earliest Bible translation, the Greek Septuagint, translates ma’akhelet as “knife.” So does the Targum, the earliest rabbinic translation into Aramaic. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate has glaudium or “sword,” but Jerome may have been thinking of a long slaughterer’s knife with a curved tip such as is portrayed in the 6th-century CE synagogue mosaic of the binding of Isaac at the Israeli site of Beyt-Alpha.

This certainly seems more plausible than a cleaver. As Alter writes in The Art of Biblical Translation, “You cannot determine the meaning of biblical words without taking into consideration their narrative or poetic contexts.” He might have heeded his own advice in this case.


IV. In What Style of Hebrew is the Bible Written?


But the problem of determining what the Bible is trying to tell us so as to be able to convey it in translation goes far beyond the meaning of specific words. Alter makes an important point when he writes in his introduction to The Hebrew Bible, “Beyond issues of syntax and local word choice lies a fundamental question that no modern translator I know of has really confronted: what level, or perhaps levels, of style is represented in biblical Hebrew?”

Though the Bible is the most studied book in history, we often simply don’t know.

Let’s take another biblical story thematically related to the sacrifice of Isaac, that of Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter in the book of Judges.

Jephthah is an Israelite warrior, or perhaps one should say gang leader, living east of the Jordan, beyond the mountains of Gilead. (The son of a prostitute, he has gathered around him, the Bible says, a fighting force of “no-account men.”) When the Gileadites, his fellow Israelites, appeal to him to rescue them from their Ammonite enemies, he agrees and leads his men into battle. First, though, in Alter’s translation,

Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If You indeed give the Ammonites into my hands, it shall be that whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return safe and sound from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I shall offer it up as a burnt offering.”

Like every translator of this passage, Alter had to make a difficult call, because the words rendered by him as “whatever comes out of the door of my house”—v’hayah ha-yotsey asher yetsey mi-daltey veyti, literally, “the comer-out that comes out of the doors of my house”—can also be translated, as he notes in his commentary, as “whoever comes out of the door of my house.” This ambiguity, on which the story hangs, cannot be preserved in English, in which the translator must come down on one side or the other. Wycliffe opted for “whoever” and “I shall offer him up”; Tyndale for “that thing that cometh out” and “I will offer it”; the King James for “whatsoever” and “it”; modern translators have gone both ways, with Alter following Tyndale and the King James.

Jephthah wins his battle against the Ammonites and returns triumphantly home. The book of Judges relates, in Alter’s translation,

And Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, and, look, his daughter was coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dances, and she was an only child—besides her, he had neither son nor daughter. And it happened when he saw her, that he rent his garments, and he said, “Alas, my daughter, you have indeed laid me low and you have joined ranks with my troublers, for I myself have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot turn back.” And she said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the Lord. Do to me as it came out from your mouth, after the Lord has wreaked vengeance for you from your enemies, from the Ammonites.” And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: let me be for two months, that I may go and weep on the mountains and keen for my maidenhood, I and my companions.” And he said, “Go.” And he sent her off for two months, her and her companions, and she keened for her maidenhood on the mountains. And it happened at the end of the two months, that she came back to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed, and she had known no man.

This is heart-wrenching. And our hearts go out to both of them, the daughter who must die and the grieving father who must put her to death. It is only on second thought that we think: “Just a minute! Must she die? And does her father grieve for her at all?”

First of all, Jephthah’s vow. It is thoughtlessly phrased, his intention having been, one may presume in giving him the benefit of the doubt, to sacrifice a “what” and not a “who,” a farmyard animal rather than a human being. Only when his daughter is the first to emerge from the house does he realize that he has been trapped by his own words.

But there is a difference between being thoughtless and being inhuman. Which is the Jephthah who says, “Alas, my daughter, you have indeed laid me low and you have joined ranks with my troublers”?

You have indeed laid me low and you have joined ranks with my troublers? What kind of language is this? Who talks this way to a daughter when telling her he is going to kill her?

In the Hebrew, Jephthah’s exclamation is, “Aha, biti! Hakhre’a hikhra’tini, v’at hayit b’okhrai.” This is difficult. If one were to try to translate it literally, one would arrive at something like, “Ah, my daughter! To bring to knee have you brought me to my knees, and you have been one of my troublers.”

The “to bring to knee have you brought me to my knees” construction, formed in this case from the verb kara’, to kneel, is a common biblical one, known as the infinitive absolute, that consists of using a verb twice, first in its infinitive form and then in an inflected one, thus making it more emphatic; it is often translated as “surely,” as in “Surely, you have brought me to my knees.” As for okhrai, “my troublers,” it comes from the verb akhar, to muddy or trouble, as in the muddying or “troubling” of water; hence the King James’s and Alter’s renditions.

Yet when Ahab says to Elijah in the book of Kings, “Is that you, you okher of Israel?” he is clearly calling him a troublemaker, which is what Jephthah appears to be calling his daughter. He is also, however, engaging in word play, since hakhre’a hikhra’tini and okhrai have the same sounds and share the same three root letters, kaf, reysh, and ayin, though not in the same order.

How should this be translated?

As Alter does?

As: “Ah, my daughter, you surely have undone me. You have done what no enemy could do”?

As: “Damn it all, child! You’ve tripped me up, you have, and trouble is all you are”?

We can’t speak with confidence about the levels of style in biblical Hebrew because we simply don’t know what Israelite speech was like 3,000 years ago.

To answer the question, we would have to be able to say in what “level of style” Jephthah is speaking—and we can’t with any confidence do this. We simply don’t know what Israelite speech was like 3,000 years ago. Jephthah could be talking “high” or “low,” in high-flown rhetoric or in the lively language of the street. His wordplay could be the literary flourish of an author or the spontaneous outburst of a man blurting out words of which one leads unthinkingly to another.

It’s anyone’s guess—and rather than guessing, translators in such situations have often preferred the safety of following in their predecessors’ footsteps. Hence we have Tyndale  (“Alas, my daughter, thou hast made me stoop and art one of them that trouble me”); the King James (“Alas, my daughter! thou has brought me very low and thou art one of them that trouble me”); and Alter, with little difference among them, even though the potential for difference is great.

Much of the Bible is like this. Its translators work in a closed circle. To understand the nuance of a line, they must understand the passage in which it occurs, but they often cannot understand the passage without understanding each line’s nuance. Before objecting that “Damn it all, child!” can’t possibly be the tone in which Jephthah is speaking, we need to consider the monstrously self-centered person he can be viewed as being. He has made a rash vow that his daughter had no way of knowing about; she runs out to greet him when he returns from battle; for this, he decides she must die—and all he can do is blame her while thinking of his own predicament. It’s her fault. How could she have done this to him? Just look at the trouble she’s gotten him into!

Jephthah’s subsequent behavior does not cause us to think any better of him. When his daughter tremulously asks for a two-month stay of her sentence so that she may mourn in the mountains with her friends, all he can manage is a gruff “Go!” Not once during those months does he go to see her. He simply waits for her to come back, certain that she will, and then, we are told, “he did to her as he had vowed.”

And this isn’t the worst of it. The worst is that it never occurs to Jephthah that he needn’t keep his vow—that he can swallow his pride or sense of honor, admit he’s made a foolish mistake, and spare his daughter’s life. He wouldn’t have been the first Israelite to have broken a vow, or the last.

Ah, says another translator, that’s the whole point! Jephthah isn’t just another Israelite. He is a God-fearing one, and he has made a promise to God that he must keep. He is a tragic victim of fate, not a monster. He puts his own feelings first because he is devastated by them—why else would he rend his clothes? He says “Go!” and no more because he is emotionally unable to say another word.  He lets his daughter wander for two months in the mountains in the hope that she will flee and not return. She comes back anyway because she is her father’s daughter and thinks like him that a vow is a vow. Our hearts go out to them both.


V. Translating the Ten Commandments


The ancient rabbis blamed not only Jephthah. In the Midrash Tanḥuma we read:

Because Jephthah the Gileadite had no knowledge of Torah, he lost his daughter. . . . When he sought to sacrifice her, she wept and said: “Father, I came out joyously to greet you and you would slaughter me? Did God say in his Torah that we should sacrifice human life to Him?”

Pretending to go with her friends to the mountains, she then, according to the midrash, went to Jerusalem to ask the Sanhedrin (which historically, of course, did not yet exist at the time) to absolve her father of his vow but could not get it to do so because it, too, failed to interpret the law correctly. When she was offered up on the altar,

God’s Holy Spirit cried, “Did I ask for human sacrifice? I never commanded it. . . . I never intended Abraham to slaughter his son . . . or asked Jephthah to sacrifice his daughter.”

Much of the Bible is about God’s commandments and the choices men make in obeying or disobeying them. Many of them are purely ritual. Alter translates these faithfully, even though one would be hard-pressed to find literary merit in passages like

And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them, “Speak to the Israelites, saying, ‘These are the beasts that you may eat of all the animals that are on the land. Everything that has hooves and that has split hooves, bringing up the cud, among beasts, this you may eat.’”

But what about the following?

And it happened on the third day as it turned morning, that there was thunder and lightning and a heavy cloud on the mountains and the sound of the ram’s horn, very strong. . . . And Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord had come down on it in fire, and its smoke went up like the smoke from a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And the sound of the ram’s horn grew stronger and stronger. . . . And the Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the mountaintop, and the Lord called Moses to the mountaintop, and Moses went up. . . .

And God spoke all these words, saying: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves. You shall have no other gods beside Me. You shall make you no carved likeness and no image of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters beneath the earth. . . . You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not acquit whoever takes His name in vain. . . . Remember the Sabbath day to hallow it. . . . Honor your father and your mother. . . . You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your fellow man. You shall not covet your fellow man’s house. You shall not covet your fellow man’s wife, or his male slave, or his slavegirl, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that your fellow man has.”

Although all of God’s commandments demand to be obeyed, Jephthah is forced to choose between two of them. One tells him he will not be acquitted if he fails to obey it and the other doesn’t, and so he obeys the first and murders his daughter.  He cannot, as does Abraham, put his trust in God because God does not speak to him. He must judge for himself and he, one of Israel’s judges, judges badly. This is a story that can be read as literature.

But can the Ten Commandments? And why in Alter’s translation do they not affect us as they do in the King James? The latter reads:

And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud. . . And Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly. And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by voice. And the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mount: and the Lord called Moses up to the top of the mount; and Moses went up. . . . And God spake all these words, saying,

I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. . . .

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain.

Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy. . . .

Honor thy father and thy mother. . . .

Thou shalt not kill.

Thou shalt not commit adultery.

Thou shalt not steal.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.

The King James has the advantage of what earlier in this essay I’ve called “the sacralizing patina of age.” This includes such usages as “exceeding loud” instead of “very strong,” “spake” instead of “spoke,” “graven” instead of “carved,” “manservant” and “maidservant” instead of “male slave” and “slavegirl,” and so forth. More importantly, it includes the now archaic “thou,” “thee,” and “thy” of the second-person-singular English pronoun.

“You shall not steal” and “Thou shalt not steal” are not quite the same thing. “You” is addressed to everyone. “Thou” is addressed to me.

Why English lost the intimate form of “you” that is still possessed by other European languages need not concern us here. Suffice it to say that “You shall not steal” and “Thou shalt not steal” are not quite the same thing. “You” is addressed to everyone. “Thou” is addressed to me. I am the person in the crowd to whom it points a finger and calls out, “You there, I mean you!”

One can’t fault Alter for not doing what the English language can no longer do. One can fault him, however, for not following the King James in giving every commandment a line of its own:

Thou shalt not kill.

Thou shalt not commit adultery.

Thou shalt not steal.

This has an effect like that of the Hebrew Torah scroll, in which each of the Ten Commandments, though not occupying a separate line, is set off by an empty space on either side of it. It is into these spaces, as it were, that the verse immediately following the final commandment comes crashing: “And all the people were seeing the thunder and the flashes and the sound of the ram’s horn and the mountain in smoke, and the people saw and they drew back and stood at a distance.” Thou shalt not kill. Thunder! Lightning! The ram’s horn! Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thunder! Lightning! The ram’s horn! Thou shalt not steal. Thunder! Lightning! The ram’s horn! “And they said to Moses, Speak you with us that we may hear, and let not God speak with us lest we die.”

Is this literature? If so, it is a very special kind. No one has put it better than Erich Auerbach. It was Auerbach, then a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany living and teaching in Istanbul, who in the early 1940s wrote the first serious literary analysis of biblical narrative style. In the opening chapter of his great book Mimesis, in comparing Homer’s Odyssey with the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, he comments:

One can perfectly well entertain historical doubts on the subject of the Trojan War or of Odysseus’ wanderings, and still, when reading Homer, feel precisely the effects he sought to produce; but without believing in Abraham’s sacrifice, it is impossible to put the narrative of it to the use for which it was written. Indeed, we must go even further. The Bible’s claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer’s, it is tyrannical—it excludes all other claims. . . . The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us—they seek to subject us, and if we refused to be subjected, we are rebels.

Reading the Bible as literature—if that is all we read it as—remains an act of rebellion today, if not against a divine giver of the Bible who no longer commands our credence, then against the Bible itself, which does not wish to be read in this way. It is regrettable that, in his excellent introductions to, and commentaries on, the literary qualities of the books of the Bible, Alter has not dealt with this issue, which is ultimately a translator’s as well. Perhaps he still will.

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