The Five Books of Moses
A Translation with Commentary
By Robert Alter
W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, 1064 pages
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:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. And God said 'Let there be light.' And there was light.
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:
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." And there was light.
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.