The Word and the words

GabrielJosipovici sa­lutes a lit­er­ary-scrip­tural en­ter­prise. Jen­nifer­Lip­man likes or­anges

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - RE­VIEWED BY GABRIEL JOSIPOVICI

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

AN­CIENT IS­RAEL

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

PHOTO: GETTY IM­AGES

‘Moses and Joshua de­scend from the Mount’ painted by Arthur A Dixon

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