In the Beginning ... the Bible Was Written in Ancient Hebrew, with Nary a Thou to Be Had. Now Comes a New Vital Translation That Tries to Capture the Original Flavor

By Wooard, Kenneth L. | Newsweek, January 15, 1996 | Go to article overview

In the Beginning ... the Bible Was Written in Ancient Hebrew, with Nary a Thou to Be Had. Now Comes a New Vital Translation That Tries to Capture the Original Flavor


Wooard, Kenneth L., Newsweek


...the Bible was written in ancient Hebrew, with nary a Thou to be had. Now comes a vital new translation that tries to capture the original flavor.

It wasn't your typical sunday school class. When New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine announced a public Bible reading last month, 2,500 showed up to hear celebrities like Norman Mailer, Jesse Jackson, James Earl Jones, Eb Wallach and Anne Jackson read the familiar stories of Noah and the Deluge, Yaakov's Ladder, the baby Moshe floating down the Nile in his ark, and YHWH issuing his Ten Words on Mount Sinai. Obviously, it wasn't your typical Bible, either. The literati were reading from a new translation of The Five Books of Moses (1,024 pages. Schocken. $50), a serious, astonishing and sometimes discomforting effort to join the warp and woof of ancient Hebrew to modem English. The work, 27 years in the making by Everett Fox, has produced the oddest of reactions to a Biblical translation: public attention.

In English alone, the Bible can be found in at least 40 different translations-from the stately Shakespearean diction of the 400-year-old King James version to the hip-hop lingo of "Rappin With Jesus." Bible publishing is a $500 million retail business in the United States, and there are more than 500 editions: from denim-bound pocket Scriptures to expensive table toppers like the Oxford University Press's satin-bound, $425 volume featuring magnificent illustrations from the Vatican Library. Many Bibles are packaged for specific audiences: feminists, children, sportsmen, the bereaved, prisoners, readers in recovery programs and any other ethnic, aggrieved, vocational or avocational interest group large enough to constitute a market. Whether or not it is read--much less understood--the Bible is a household icon in nine out of every 10 American homes, and according to the Barna Research Group, the median number of Bibles per family is three.

Fox's Bible is different. A professor of Judaica Studies at Clark College in Worcester, Mass., Fox labored to capture--more than any other English translator--the rhythms, syntax and outright quirkiness of Biblical Hebrew. For readers who think they know the Bible, the effect is often like hearing the text for the very first time. Fox's Genesis, for example, does not begin "In the beginning . . ." like most translations do, as if we were witnessing God creating something out of nothing. Instead, Fox introduces God operating in midstride, bringing order out of chaos:

At the beginning of God's creating

of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste,

darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters -- God said: Let there be light! And there was light.

Fox compares his translation to performance art--"more like a musician's rendering of a Mozart symphony," he says, "or an actor doing Hamlet." In part, his work is a restoration: from Aharon to Zevulun, everyone gets his or her Hebrew name. The name of God is always preceded by four letters, YHWH, which correspond to the Hebrew word for God, the pronunciation of which has been lost. ("Jehovah" and "Yahweh" are incorrect vocal substitutes.) All five books are put in verse form, thus capturing the musical, poetic flow of the Hebrew, which is often lost in prose translation. Many of Fox's stylistic effects come from close attention to alliterations and repetitions of key words and images. Thus, like the old King James version, Fox has the baby Moshe placed in a little "ark," rather than in a basket among the bulrushes of the Nile. In this way, he signals the connection between the rescue of Moses and God's earlier rescue of Noah from a similar death by water in the story of the flood. …

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