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The Five Books of Moses

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The Five Books of Moses

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The Five Books of Moses
A Translation with Commentary
By Robert Alter
W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, 1064 pages
ISBN-10: 0393019551
ISBN-13: 978-0393019551

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - February 15, 2010

Robert Alter, an expert on both the Bible and literature, presents a unique, interesting and informative translation and commentary on the Five Books of Moses. For example, the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translates Genesis 1, verses 1 though 3, as follows:

There are several problems with these verses, both in the original Hebrew and in this English translation. Two problems are: First, contrary to what seems to be stated, the heaven and earth were not the first creations; verse 3 says that the first creation was light. Second, what is the meaning of the Hebrew tohu vavohu, which JPS translated "unformed and void."

The classical Jewish rabbinic Bible commentator Rashi, who was born in 1040, understood the first verse differently than the usual translations such as JPS. Alter incorporates Rashi's interpretation when he writes:

Thus, according to Rashi and Alter, heaven and earth were not the first creations.

Alter handled the second problem in his commentary where he writes that that the word vavohu is a nonce term coined to rhyme with tohu and to reinforce it. A nonce term is a word invented for one occasion. Alter seems to be correct. The Hebrew words tohu and vavohu do rhyme and do have a "ring" to them. In this case, Alter did not borrow from an ancient sage, but used his own training. He treated the Torah as literature and sought to explain the Torah's literary style.

These two examples from the first page of Alter's book show that the work contains a new vibrant translation and an original commentary that stimulates readers to think about the Bible; in this instance, that Scripture was frequently written in a poetic fashion.

I wrote a review of Everett Fox's and David Rosenberg's Bible translations today and readers may want to read them to see the differences between the three approaches to Scripture.


Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of seventeen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides. The Orthodox Union (OU) and Yeshiva University publish weekly chapters of Drazin and Wagner's book Let's Study Onkelos on www.ou.org/torah and on www.yutorah@yutorah.org. His website is http://booksnthoughts.com.

The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
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