The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary
By Robert Alter
W. W. Norton & Company (2009), 518 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - February 9, 2010
The biblical book of Psalms is extremely important in Christianity and Judaism because it is used extensively in the prayer books to come closer to God, and because people in trouble turn to it for consolation, recite it and meditate upon it. Yet, despite its wide use, it is generally not understood and frequently even misunderstood. Thus Robert Alter's translation into modern idiomatic English and his extensive very readable commentary, which usually takes up half of every page, is very welcome. Alter breaks up each Psalm into poetic divisions and introduces his work with some thirty pages explaining the historical context of the Psalms and other subjects, such as nine pages introducing readers to the poetry of the Psalms.
An example is the famous twenty-third Psalm. Alter's version of the first three verses is:
A David Psalm.
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
In grass meadows He makes me lie down,
By quiet waters guides me.
My life He brings back.
He leads me on pathways of justice
For His name's sake.
Among many other explanations, Alter informs us that likening "God or a ruler to a shepherd is a commonplace in this pastoral culture."