Archive for the ‘books’ Category

The Five Books

October 3, 2007

I’ve been reading Robert Alter’s recent translation of the “Five Books of Moses,” i.e., The Torah. Alter’s work is pretty remarkable, really, in the way it preserves the beautiful poetic language (what Alter calls the “literary dignity”) of the story while remaining faithful, it seems, to the devices contained in the original. And while I’m certainly not the first to say this, the book is quite moving in parts.

Anyway, the translation is packed with footnotes, some fascinating, many less so. Most of the footnotes deal with philology and possible alternative translations of certain passages. The most interesting notes, however, are those which Alter uses to criticize the story’s central characters; Jacob is described as callous and manipulative, Joseph as vain and self-absorbed to the point of absurdity, Leah as an outright thief, and Rebeka as a liar. These remarks, most of which I agree with, are new to me, since I’ve only encountered the story before from a religious perspective (thanks 8 years of Hebrew school!), one which left the figures exempt from criticism. Interestingly, Alter frequently criticizes other contemporary scholars by name, which couldn’t have made him popular. (I guess that’s what tenure’s for.) For what it’s worth, Alter himself was strongly criticized for translating Abraham’s tool as a “cleaver” (as opposed to the more popular “knife”) in the sacrifice scene.

A few quick notes on the story’s actual contents (and no, don’t worry, I won’t mention the obvious “oh it’s extremely violent and barbaric and cruel and God isn’t a very sympathetic character and it’s full of anachronisms and women are subjugated and people own slaves,” all of which is true, of course.) First, and most remarkably, the text seems pretty clearly to imply the existence of other, lesser Gods, at least in Genesis, although the first commandment would seem to prohibit believing in, or at least worshiping, any but Abraham’s God. However, in all my life I have never, ever seen any discussion of this topic. Second, some form of afterworld, Sheol, which is suggested to literally lie below ground, is frequently referenced, particularly by Jacob. It’s not clear what the Sheol experience is like – whether it’s Hell or whether it’s generally neutral – but I never knew Judaism had anything like this feature. I always thought any scriptural basis for a Christian underground Hell must have come post-Christ. Third, several popular stories, most notably Abraham’s smashing of his father’s idols, are nowhere mentioned in the actual text of The Five Books.

One last point: the sprawling narrative, the terse passages, the suggested character histories, the extensive genealogies, the mystic features . . . more than anything else it reminds me of popular epic fantasy fiction, like “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars.” Of course, with the Bible we’re being asked to believe the narrative relates genuine, historical truth. In this light it’s not surprising the story’s so hugely popular.