After two decades of work, Robert Alter has completed his translation of the Hebrew Bible. In an interview with Sameer Rahim, he discusses why it was so important to him to try to preserve the Tanakh’s literary qualities:
The ancient Hebrew writers were certainly motivated by what we would call religious purposes—they had this new monotheistic vision of the world and they wanted to convey what God wanted of humankind and the people of Israel. But for reasons that I don’t think we can understand, these writers happened to be brilliant literary artists and they chose to convey their religious vision in extremely artful narrative and sometimes very brilliant poetry.
It’s a great mystery why they were this good. Ancient Israel was this little sliver of land sandwiched in between these large, powerful and sophisticated cultures—the Syrians and then the Babylonians to the east and the Egyptians to the south. But the biblical writers developed literary skills that totally eclipsed their neighbors. My contention is that if you want to see what the Bible has to say about humankind, morality, human nature, God and Israel, history—if you want to see that in all its fine nuances, you have to attend to the literary workings of these texts.
Let me add something about character. The patriarchal stories [in Genesis] are intended to explain national origins and the configuration of the twelve tribes. You might say they’re virtually ideological tales and that character as we think about it in fiction wouldn’t come into play—but it does. Jacob is very complicated and fascinating above and beyond any explanation of origins that the stories would be meant to convey. My inference is that these writers reveled in the [depiction] of character. Jacob/Israel [is] somebody who is devious, who bargains not only with other human beings but even with God, and is morally dubious in stealing his brother’s blessing and so forth.