The Word and the words
GabrielJosipovici salutes a literary-scriptural enterprise. JenniferLipman likes oranges
true complexity and richness of the narrative of the Bible and the narrative that is the Bible.
Chief among these were two books by Robert Alter, a professor of literature at Berkeley, California: The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981) and The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985). In simple and lucid prose, and with the minimum of fuss, Alter deployed his wide knowledge of literature and his inwardness with biblical Hebrew to help us understand the human richness of the Bible, the incredible sophistication of its authors, and the relations of God and man they depicted that were far more complex than most rabbis and theologians (let alone historians and archaeologists) had been willing to acknowledge.
Alter has now gone on to translate afresh the five books of Moses and the book of Samuel, as well as the Psalms, and it is now becoming clear that he has set himself the extraordinary task of translating, single-handedly, the entire corpus of the Hebrew Scriptures. But not only translating.
At the bottom of each page in this narrative portion is a commentary, often alerting us to problems with the text, or of translation, but mainly highlighting the richness and complexity of these stories and helping us appreciate the skills of the authors by pointing us to key words and repeating themes.
Making use of the latest scholarship (not always, it has to be said, fully acknowledged), in both Hebrew and English, Alter skilfully guides the willing reader into a deeper understanding of these remarkable works. His publisher, too, deserves praise. Gone are the double columns that cry out: “This is the Bible, be respectful”. Instead, we can readtheseworksafresh,aswewouldthe latest novel. And we can listen to what Alter has to say in both the prefatory essays to each book and in his notes, not necessarily agreeing with it but finding that our very disagreements help us
W. W. Norton, £15.99
HUMAN BEINGS love stories. But when stories are written down and become important to the community that produced them they start to be scrutinised and questioned, and then a curious thing happens: they lose their magic and become simply the carriers of moral, ethical and metaphysical messages.
Naturally, this is especially likely to happentoworksthatbecomethefounding religious texts of the community, and it happened, of course, to the Bible, both for Jews and for Christians. Though individuals throughout the ages went on relishing the stories of Cain and Abel, Abraham and Sarah, J o s e p h , S a ms o n , Saul and David, for their own sakes, as it were, without second thoughts, it has been hard for the community as a whole to shake off the weight of religious and ethical commentary that has grown up around them. But, in the second half of the last century and especially after 1980, a groundswell of academic and semipopular writing emerged that sought to free the stories from these shackles, not in any anti-religious spirit but, on the contrary, in order to bring out the
ALTER HELPS US UNDERSTAND THE HUMAN RICHNESS OF THE BIBLE
understand. This is a book to be read, pondered and argued with. It can only bring pleasure. Gabriel Josipovici’s latest novel, ‘Hotel Andromeda’, has just been published
‘Moses and Joshua descend from the Mount’ painted by Arthur A Dixon