Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Set Up a Standard; Publish, and Conceal Not' ; A Fresh Translation of the Pentateuch with Commentary

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Set Up a Standard; Publish, and Conceal Not' ; A Fresh Translation of the Pentateuch with Commentary

Article excerpt

Robert Alter's "The Five Books of Moses" is both something new and something old. The text under his lens is something very old indeed, but his commentary includes a great range of material drawn from modern Bible criticism.

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy make up the core of the Jewish Bible. As the five books of Moses, they are the work of priests with a genius for, in Alter's word, "collage." In the sixth century BC during the Babylonian exile, they intertwined four major strands and several minor ones into a whole, thus connecting the nation with a multicultural past.

By referring to Moses in his title, Alter acknowledges one of the supreme inventions, a voice that resonates in time and defines, for many, the meaning of history to this day. Moses, after all, is known and loved by the several faiths - Jewish, Muslim, and Christian - that seem to be on a collision course in our time. Since the certainty of being on the side of God has become a pretense for realpolitik, Alter's Moses may speak to our condition now more than ever. As a person, Moses was notably uncertain of his path, though he was faithful to the commands of God.

In his introduction, Alter writes: "For the philologist, the great goal is the achievement of clarity." His notes are full of clarifications of the meanings of words. But he also allows for obscurity and even ambiguity. In the ancient Hebrew, Alter discovers a profound music. He can raise an already beloved text to new heights of resonance and reality. Listen, for instance, to the beginning of everything:

"When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God's breath hovering over the waters, God said, 'Let there be light.' "

Based on a lifelong study of the Bible (Alter has written at least five major works on various aspects and edited a major collection of essays), this edition reflects a belief that the biblical word goes beyond mere belief. In the introduction, Alter writes, "Literature in general, and the narrative prose of the Hebrew Bible in particular, cultivates certain profound and haunting enigmas, delights in leaving its audiences guessing about motives and connections, and above all, loves to set ambiguities of word choice and images against one another in an endless interplay that resists neat resolution. …

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