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Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua,…
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Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings: A…

by Robert Alter

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Does any other text have such a discrepancy between the amount of time generations have devoted to studying it and the actual understanding derived from this huge effort?? Century after century people have been told that these books were God's word, an instruction manual on how to live. Generation after generation, people have lived in houses with copies of the Bible. Family history, marriages, births and deaths were recorded in it. Dedicated missionaries spent lifetimes hard at work at their desks, just so they could translate the ancient Hebrew text into obscure languages. Just what the 19th century Hawaiians made of these brutal tales is beyond me. Did they actually read it? I know intelligent people who defend "Biblical marriage," -- did they actually read about all the concubines? Or was it just a sacred object? So I tried to read it, first as religious guidance, then as poetry and then as history. But I either couldn't follow it, or I just didn't believe it could be saying what I thought it was saying: all that murder, rape, genocide, pillage. As an archivist, I like to get as close to the original text as possible. Robert Alter seemed to be the most qualified guide, and I decided to make one last attempt.

After reading the Five Books of Moses with Robert Alter's commentary, I was addicted and went on to read "Ancient Israel," translations and commentary on Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Only with Alter's footnotes could I make sense out of the narratives. And when the actual text itself is garbled, he points out the likely reasons. For me this time, reading the OT became something of a soap opera with lots of dramatic irony as the reader sees looming disaster, "No! Don't do that!...Oh, no, they did..." There is lots of dual causality, disaster comes because the deity is mad about the worship of idols, and also because of more mundane factors like superior forces. Alter is upfront about the overall effect of the first half of "Ancient Israel" -- ruthlessness, and the general impression made by the second half -- tedium. And " nowhere in the Bible is there a more palpable discrepancy between the values and expectations of the ancient Near Eastern era in which the book was written and those of twenty-first century readers." The story of the defeat of the Canaanites is apparently mythical, not supported by archeological evidence. According to his theory, the genocide against the Canaanites as described with great approval in the Bible, probably never actually happened. The later battles with the Assyrians and Babylonians have more of a basis in fact. Alter's notes put all of these discrepancies and correspondences between text and extra-biblical evidence in context. The Bible's fundamental if brutal honesty however comes out in the deep moral ambiguity of nearly all the great biblical heroes, so even King David, actually especially King David, they all did pretty dastardly things, that is essentially true to human nature.

With Alter's framework, the folklore elements woven into the mythical and historical narratives stand out. Elijah is simply different from any of the other prophets before him. He works wishful-thinking miracles and helps the downtrodden. He miraculously provides food in times of hunger, an early model for the loaves and fishes (like the fairy tale "Tischlein Deck Dich"). Apparently these features made him the star of Jewish folklore over the centuries. Alter convincingly concludes that Elijah provides the template for many of the Jesus stories of the New Testament. The interconnections are starting to make sense to me. I'm grateful to Alter for using both his erudition and his deep insights to help non-specialists such as myself get a sense of what the OT is all about. I'm not about to give the Bible a rating, that's rather presumptuous, but Alter's notes definitely deserve 5 stars. Worth the time and effort to work through...I'm still not about to use the Bible as a guide to living, but as a guide to human nature, it's all in there. ( )
1 vote ElenaDanielson | Jul 25, 2016 |
Reading the Bible in Robert Alter’s translation helps to bring such moments of literary and human power into focus—thanks not just to his clear and elegant translation, but to the comprehensive notes that pinpoint exactly what is happening at crucial moments in the text. Ancient Israel is a perfect opportunity to return to these foundational Jewish stories and see them with fresh eyes—and what you find there may surprise you.
added by eereed | editTablet, Adam Kirsch (Jun 12, 2013)
 
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393082695, Hardcover)

Robert Alter’s award-winning translation of the Hebrew Bible continues with the stirring narrative of Israel’s ancient history.

To read the books of the Former Prophets in this riveting Robert Alter translation is to discover an entertaining amalgam of hair-raising action and high literary achievement. Samson, the vigilante superhero of Judges, slaughters thousands of Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey. David, the Machiavellian prince of Samuel and Kings, is one of the great literary figures of antiquity. A ruthless monarch, David embodies a life in full dimension as it moves from brilliant youth through vigorous prime to failing old age.

Samson and David play emblematic roles in the rise and fall of ancient Israel, a nation beset by internal divisions and external threats. A scattering of contentious desert tribes joined by faith in a special covenant with God, Israel emerges through the bloody massacres of Canaanite populations recounted in Joshua and the anarchic violence of Judges. The resourceful David consolidates national power, but it is power rooted in conspiracy, and David dies bitterly isolated in his court, surrounded by enemies. His successor, Solomon, maintains national unity through his legendary wisdom, wealth, and grand public vision, but after his death Israel succumbs to internal discord and foreign conquest. Near its end, the saga of ancient Israel returns to the supernatural. In Elijah’s fiery ascent to heaven many would find the harbinger of a messiah coming to save his people in their time of need.

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(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:45 -0400)

Chronicles the ancient history of Israel and its prophets, from Samson to Elijah.

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