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The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (original 2004; edition 2008)

by Robert Alter

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535919,425 (4.54)3 / 33
dchaikin's review
Originally posted on my thread with this note: WARNING : Not sure I should be posting this. Perhaps I would have been better off keeping it in my pocket. I wrote this quickly, but these are things I have been thinking about for awhile.

The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter (translation & notes) (2004, 1064 pages, read Dec 3 - May 16)

After spending over five months with this book, I’ve become pretty attached to it. Alter makes a conscious effort to preserve the literary sense biblical Hebrew in this translation. This isn’t really possible, as puns and sounds don’t translation well, but Alter makes up for this with extensive notes, with an emphasis on literary aspects. There isn’t really anything else like this available.

Looking at this translation from a strictly literary perspective, it doesn’t come close to standing up to the King James Version, which is a work of art. It’s the notes that are the real value here and the scholarship makes this work something special….YAAAAAWWWNNN…

hmmm…

Well, I’ve also been thinking about the content of these five books and I’ve been wondering “What?” and “Why?”. What is going on with these stories? This God is messed up. He has jealous rages, and kills capriciously and wantonly. He walks around, makes mistakes, maybe even gets tricked here or there. And his followers, they get no reward. They are enslaved, then they escape to suffer in various ways from hunger and thirst. When they complain, more death, and sometimes the slaughter is remarkably bitter. This is not the god we typically associate with our Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions. The Golden Rule? It can kind-a sort-a be found in a single line, an unremarkable law hidden somewhere in Leviticus. This is an ancient god from a time when people were petrified of gods and treated them the way they might treat a ruler who had absolute power, the power of life and death over them. The book blesses blind submission. Explanation is not found within.

And, anyway, these are books of failure. Moses and his generation never reach their promised land.

So why do these books manage to outlast the passage of time and the wild evolving of religious thought? It’s a question that can’t be answered, or that can be answered a thousand different, incomplete ways. Sticking with the literary point-of-view—of which I’m hardly qualified to do—and keeping it simple, there are a number of key literary themes here—about good and bad, justice and injustice, about black and white laws and black and white traditional assumptions and the inability to stick to them. But the overriding themes seem to be about death and preservation and about history and foundation.

Death is ever-present in an extensive variety of ways – through long dead patriarch and matriarchs, through warfare, slaughter or divine execution, through the many laws prescribing a more civil execution, through laws on corpses; and through sacrifice, whether animal, symbolic, or the hints at a lost era of human sacrifice. This lost tradition of human sacrifice surfaces most prominently in the story of Abraham and Isaac.

But Israel, the subject people, is about preserving a genetic line from mythical Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel), and the semi-mythical twelve ancient tribes. The commands are to be fruitful and multiply, and the promises are seed as numerous of the sands.

Of course, lost in all this is the individual.

But, when we look back at these books, I don’t think we see this death and I don’t think we value these genetic lineages, at least not with anything near the prominence they have in the text. For us westerners as a whole, the main value is the sense of foundation these books provide. Under Western religion, thought, arts and literature lies, prominently, the biblical writings of an origin too ancient to know, because they cross the boundary of written history. There can be no other foundation.

When I try to go back to the era before canonization of the text, and wonder there about why these dark, and unrewarding writings were valued, I find that I think mainly about all the senseless death. Were these ancient writers surrounded by death? Probably more than we are today, but probably not wholly, because if they were they wouldn’t have found the resources to write this stuff down. These kinds of records are likely only kept when times are relatively good. But, fear of death is really about uncertainty. Life is uncertain, and death is the ultimate end, and unknowable end, of an unpredictable nature. Senseless death can serve as a touchstone, a literary exaggeration of any uncertainty, and it's a theme with extensive reach. Senseless death everywhere, yet we are alive now, for the moment.

The first five books in the bible are about defeat. Victory comes later, in Joshua. But then Moses is dead. The only victory, and the true victory of these books, is that someone is still alive to talk about it.

...

For anyone interested, here are links to my posts on each of the first five books. All these links go to the same LibraryThing thread:
Genesis: http://www.librarything.com/topic/128182#3208318 (post #53)
Exodus: http://www.librarything.com/topic/128182#3306746 (post #120)
Leviticus: http://www.librarything.com/topic/128182#3350780 (post #169)
Numbers: http://www.librarything.com/topic/128182#3387682 (post #196)
Deuteronomy: http://www.librarything.com/topic/128182#3440428 (post #241) ( )
12 vote dchaikin | Jul 4, 2012 |
All member reviews
Showing 9 of 9
Robert Alter's translation of the Five Books of Moses is stunning. There is something wonderful about reading them translated from scratch by a single person so that it embodies a fresh, singular vision rather than a committee that builds on previous translations (although the New Standard Revised Version has a lot to be said for it, and the other work of a single translator I once tried to read--Everett Foxx--was borderline unreadable). It is also a beautiful edition, nicely printed with excellent and detailed footnotes that focus on the literary qualities of the text but also provide explanations and context for much of the text as well. It is also nice to have a large volume devoted just to the Torah. I read this over the course of a number of years, next up is Robert Alter's just published "Ancient Israel" which covers Joshua through Kings.
1 vote nosajeel | Jun 21, 2014 |
I'm prematurely rating this book, as I am only just finishing Genesis—the first of the five eponymous books here. But I can already tell this work has finally broken my "bible barrier": I have been trying to read the bible from a literary-history perspective for most of my life, and until now have never gotten a toehold. Alter's translation reminds me of what Seamus Heaney did for Beowulf. Here the language is brilliant, not a single passage done sloppily, a fantastic melding of heightened tone (archaic and lofty) with readable English. It is a text one can grapple with. And his commentary! Granted, I feel as if I should, for due diligence, also compare notes with another translator, another commentator, but I feel like Alter is my teacher through all of this, neither hyper-religious nor disdainful of the faith and metaphors contained. This book will sit with pride in my ancient/classical reference section and will get picked up often. ( )
1 vote lyzadanger | Feb 5, 2014 |
Very interesting in depth commentary. ( )
  bethanie336 | Jul 10, 2012 |
Originally posted on my thread with this note: WARNING : Not sure I should be posting this. Perhaps I would have been better off keeping it in my pocket. I wrote this quickly, but these are things I have been thinking about for awhile.

The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter (translation & notes) (2004, 1064 pages, read Dec 3 - May 16)

After spending over five months with this book, I’ve become pretty attached to it. Alter makes a conscious effort to preserve the literary sense biblical Hebrew in this translation. This isn’t really possible, as puns and sounds don’t translation well, but Alter makes up for this with extensive notes, with an emphasis on literary aspects. There isn’t really anything else like this available.

Looking at this translation from a strictly literary perspective, it doesn’t come close to standing up to the King James Version, which is a work of art. It’s the notes that are the real value here and the scholarship makes this work something special….YAAAAAWWWNNN…

hmmm…

Well, I’ve also been thinking about the content of these five books and I’ve been wondering “What?” and “Why?”. What is going on with these stories? This God is messed up. He has jealous rages, and kills capriciously and wantonly. He walks around, makes mistakes, maybe even gets tricked here or there. And his followers, they get no reward. They are enslaved, then they escape to suffer in various ways from hunger and thirst. When they complain, more death, and sometimes the slaughter is remarkably bitter. This is not the god we typically associate with our Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions. The Golden Rule? It can kind-a sort-a be found in a single line, an unremarkable law hidden somewhere in Leviticus. This is an ancient god from a time when people were petrified of gods and treated them the way they might treat a ruler who had absolute power, the power of life and death over them. The book blesses blind submission. Explanation is not found within.

And, anyway, these are books of failure. Moses and his generation never reach their promised land.

So why do these books manage to outlast the passage of time and the wild evolving of religious thought? It’s a question that can’t be answered, or that can be answered a thousand different, incomplete ways. Sticking with the literary point-of-view—of which I’m hardly qualified to do—and keeping it simple, there are a number of key literary themes here—about good and bad, justice and injustice, about black and white laws and black and white traditional assumptions and the inability to stick to them. But the overriding themes seem to be about death and preservation and about history and foundation.

Death is ever-present in an extensive variety of ways – through long dead patriarch and matriarchs, through warfare, slaughter or divine execution, through the many laws prescribing a more civil execution, through laws on corpses; and through sacrifice, whether animal, symbolic, or the hints at a lost era of human sacrifice. This lost tradition of human sacrifice surfaces most prominently in the story of Abraham and Isaac.

But Israel, the subject people, is about preserving a genetic line from mythical Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel), and the semi-mythical twelve ancient tribes. The commands are to be fruitful and multiply, and the promises are seed as numerous of the sands.

Of course, lost in all this is the individual.

But, when we look back at these books, I don’t think we see this death and I don’t think we value these genetic lineages, at least not with anything near the prominence they have in the text. For us westerners as a whole, the main value is the sense of foundation these books provide. Under Western religion, thought, arts and literature lies, prominently, the biblical writings of an origin too ancient to know, because they cross the boundary of written history. There can be no other foundation.

When I try to go back to the era before canonization of the text, and wonder there about why these dark, and unrewarding writings were valued, I find that I think mainly about all the senseless death. Were these ancient writers surrounded by death? Probably more than we are today, but probably not wholly, because if they were they wouldn’t have found the resources to write this stuff down. These kinds of records are likely only kept when times are relatively good. But, fear of death is really about uncertainty. Life is uncertain, and death is the ultimate end, and unknowable end, of an unpredictable nature. Senseless death can serve as a touchstone, a literary exaggeration of any uncertainty, and it's a theme with extensive reach. Senseless death everywhere, yet we are alive now, for the moment.

The first five books in the bible are about defeat. Victory comes later, in Joshua. But then Moses is dead. The only victory, and the true victory of these books, is that someone is still alive to talk about it.

...

For anyone interested, here are links to my posts on each of the first five books. All these links go to the same LibraryThing thread:
Genesis: http://www.librarything.com/topic/128182#3208318 (post #53)
Exodus: http://www.librarything.com/topic/128182#3306746 (post #120)
Leviticus: http://www.librarything.com/topic/128182#3350780 (post #169)
Numbers: http://www.librarything.com/topic/128182#3387682 (post #196)
Deuteronomy: http://www.librarything.com/topic/128182#3440428 (post #241) ( )
12 vote dchaikin | Jul 4, 2012 |
"Two reviews down in twenty minutes! Hooray! Now ... what the fuck do I do about the bible."

"People have been asking themselves that for a long time, sweetheart." Hurr hur.

And, me reading Genesis to my niece: "And the human was with his woman in the garden, and they were naked, and they were not ashamed."

Lu: "And they aaaalllll lived happily ever after."

That makes me smile. This book breeds anecdotes such as the above, and gets itself into everything, and contains so much of its own past and future it gives me a headache. And reading about how to build a tabernac' for 200 pages compounds that headache. And yet other parts of it are just so endless, sprawling out like forty years in the desert, sure, but a desert where you will be sustained by manna and encounter ever so many interesting things.

Lots of this is boring and evil. Lots of it brings tears to your eyes it's so beautiful and we're so fragile. Alter's treatment is magnificent. I can't get into the details here--to have the proper time and space for that would require either a research chair or a conversion experience. But I will tell you that Genesis is a bill(marill)ion Silmarillions (Silmarillioni?) and if I manage to fucking squeeze out some kids one time I will think about the patriarchs every day and make sure I only bless them both simultaneously. And Exodus has every other quest narrative beat all hollow because of the way Moses isn't just fighting Behemoth or founding Jerusalem, he's protecting his people from the mother of all abusive husband/father/pimp/strongmen the whole way.

And just after YHWH does something so vicious and contemptible that it makes you use a ridiculous word like "pimp" to describe him, he switches it up, turns into a little fluffy cloud to guide you, and you're thinking back on your imaginary Christian childhood and didn't-happen loss of nonexistent faith, and yearning swallows you up and you want to go outside the bounds of the encampment for two weeks until you're clean again. But no, YHWH's a bad dude. Maybe he was great shits in the lost and forgotten old days, when he was doing the feats in the Book of the Battles of YHWH, but that book was lost and something happened to the LORD to turn him sour, and not only will he destroy you for just anything, sometimes even if you're keeping his covenant, not only does he do all the Old Testament boasting we came for and know how to let slide, but he also--no, okay, you know what turned me against him was Leviticus 26:29, "You shall eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters,” and more than that, the following discussion, where he dwells lovingly on how the trauma of this experience will break our minds and turn us into un-men. God doesn't just want to see us punished; he wants to see us unmade, which I guess makes sense for a maker. But I would have liked to know him when he was El-Shaddai or Elyon or those other old-timey names, an optimistic if rash demiurge on the move.

When there was something other than fear. Because that's all this book has in terms of promise: If you keep the covenant, maybe you'll find a place in the sun on the winning team and at worst you can eat other people's field-leavings until those Godless yet inexplicably mighty Babylonians cut you down or sweep you off. We think of the monotheists as future-oriented, and sure there's the promise of Israel, but there's also such a sense of sadness and loss that I think Ezra their compiler, whoever he was or were, must have felt very keenly as he was compiling this book of Law for the Persian emperor the weight of the already sad and broken and bloodied old world. If Deuteronomy is basically a fascist rally-speech, we may consider that this fascism is different from the barbarism of a new world; it's duct-tape around the collective psyche of people who've seen and done awful things. (There's more than one type of fascism.)

So who can judge? The Judges don't come till later. But from any human perspective there's so much to keen and wail about here, and even Moses, the hero of these books if anyone is, fucks it up in the end, orders the needless slaughter of the Moabites and the Midianites (his own wife's people! Zipporah is my favourite biblical name, incidentally), making his character arc more Darth Vader than any of those guys I alluded to earlier. And if an ugly racist theocracy seems like an acceptabe price to pay for a land of milk and honey, well, I guess those were different times and I won't judge you too harshly. But I buy milk and honey at the store. (Our god is convenient access to consumer products, it is well known.) Also they killed Balaam, who is my pet Bible character now and such a deft little character sketch.

So how do you rate these guys? Genesis is world-was-young cosmology, Exodus is Hollywood epic, Leviticus is boring and has God showing his true dark face, Numbers is not a guy you'd wanna meet in a dark alley, and Deuteronomy gives you the greatest-hits version and a lot more exhortations to bloodshed (although God does somewhat redeem himself with the best dis in the book, about how you will be sold as slaves, "and there will be no buyer").

I'm focusing too much on the morality. Vicious and evil, but the kind that you can just about stomach coming as it does from a herd of pastoralists just hoping to eat and live to see 30. (As for you modern literalists, I suspect we're enemies; at the very least, I wonder what happened in your life to make you like this.) There are some small gestures toward a kind of rudimentary justice, and protection for the marginalized, but not much. (It's funny too how Scripture so often brings out the secular positivist in the most anti–absolute truth among us.) I do think it's cute how they don't ever want to cook animals with their young, although Alter figures that's more of a fear of muddying binaries, which I can believe.

As literature? Many glories here. I look back fondly on the books that were full of narrative. The language comes alive when you force yourself to read slooow, like with your finger on each word, or aloud. It enchanted my niece supra immediately and I hope and don't hope she becomes a charismatic preacher one day.

There are a lot of parts that drag too, of course, but they're not really "literature"--more religious instruction manuals, useful for Levites and other people who aren't me.

And as scholarship, and as anthropology, it's superlative. Plush footnotes you could disappear into.

So how do I grade this pretty hate machine? I stop trying to apply modern categories to it. I think about what an enjoyable desert journey it's been, and how it feels to taste one of our greatest beginnings. I feel grateful for this draught of learning, to Alter, Moses, my friend Dan Chaikin, who led our group read, but sorry, man, not God. Can't go there.

As an accomplishment, Alter's book deserves a regular five stars, and the original Torah of course deserves one of those five starses that are actually six stars because without it we wouldn't even be us or rate things in stars but probably spend nights erecting giant umbrellas to black them out because we think they're how the Living Tribunal sees our misdeeds and the Mighty Ain promised he'd protect us if we obseved the sacrament of the umbrella. Or whatever. Anyway, I recommend this to anyone, or at least you should just spend a bit of time with a Bible story that intrigues you and learn more about what happened before and after it and the people who made it. But I don't give it five stars, because I don't trust its motives and I guess Satan something something. ( )
13 vote MeditationesMartini | May 4, 2012 |
Genesis 2:4-7,17
".... This is the tale of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
"On the day the LORD God made earth and heavens, no shrub of the field being yet on the earth and no plant of the field yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not caused rain to fall on the earth and there was no human to till the soil, and wetness would well from the earth to water all the surface of the soil, then the LORD God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature."
"And the LORD God said, 'It is not good for the human to be alone, I shall make him a sustainer beside him.'"
Kindle 1072-1091

"The biblical conception of a book was clearly far more open-ended than any notion current in our own culture, with its assumptions of known authorship and legal copyright.... The biblical term that comes closest to 'book' is sefer. Etymologically, it means 'something recounted,' but its primary sense is 'scroll,' and it can refer to anything written on a scroll - a letter, a relatively brief unit within a longer composition, or a book more or less in our sense. A scroll is not a text shut in between covers, and additional swathes of scroll can be stitched onto it, which seems to have been a very common biblical practice. A book in the biblical sphere was assumed to be a product of anonymous tradition...."
Kindle location 885-895

"I am deeply convinced that conventional biblical scholarship has been trigger-happy in using the arsenal of text-critical categories, proclaiming contradiction wherever there is the slightest internal tension in the text, seeing every repetition as evidence of a duplication of sources, everywhere tuning in to the static of transmission, not to the complex music of the redacted story.
"The reader will consequently discover that this commentary refers only occasionally and obliquely to the source analysis of Genesis. For even where such analysis may be convincing, it seems to me a good deal less interesting than the subtle workings of the literary whole represented by the redacted text. As an attentive reader of other works of narrative literature, I have kept in mind that there are many kinds of ambiguity and contradiction, and abundant varieties of repetition, that are entirely purposeful, and that are essential features of the distinctive vehicle of literary experience. I have constantly sought, in both the translation and the commentary, to make this biblical text accessible as a book to be read, which is surely what was intended by its authors and redactors. To that end, I discovered that some of the medieval Hebrew commentators were often more helpful than nearly all modern ones, with their predominantly text-critical and historical concerns. Rashi (acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Itsaqi, 1040-1105, France) and Abraham ibn Ezra (1092-1167...) are the most often cited here; they are two of the great readers of the Middle ages, and there is still much we can learn from them."
Kindle location 931-946
1 vote | maryoverton | Apr 5, 2012 |
Genesis is great and Alter makes it greater with his scholarly and poetic translation. The footnotes take up more page space than the text, and every note is outstanding. This should be in every library alongside Homer and Ovid. ( )
1 vote jamescostello | Apr 5, 2011 |
Robert Alter's commentary makes the Hebrew more accessible. ( )
  MarthaJeanne | Jun 16, 2010 |
Alter shows his subtle, resourceful, nuanced depth-reading skills here in a suggestive translation of the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures. Bible as literature! ( )
1 vote Bibliophial | Dec 30, 2006 |
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Two editions of this book were published by W.W. Norton.

Editions: 0393019551, 0393333930

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