Robert Alter’s three-volume set of The Hebrew Bible and commentary may well take its place as one of the more original and unique contributions to the study of the Hebrew Bible in the English language. Alter’s numerous scholarly publications and translations of individual Hebrew Bible books are evidence of his significant contributions to biblical studies. The Hebrew Bible translation, his magnum opus of 3,500 pages, is the result of more than two and half decades of work and completes and compiles the full translation of the Hebrew Bible corpus.
I first learned of Robert Alter when NPR’s Terry Gross interviewed him. Alter explained that his purposes in his translations included taking account of the social, cultural, and historical context of each of the biblical books. He explained that he made it a point not to smooth out the Masoretic Text (MT) but to allow the English translation to reflect occasions when the Hebrew text was unintelligible or garbled. When the MT omits words or phrases, rather than guess what the word or words may have been, Alter reflects that lacuna in his English text.
When alternative manuscripts to the MT, such as the Septuagint (LXX), Aramaic, or other ancient texts, provided a more logical word or phrase than the MT, Alter inserted that word or text in the English translation. The commentary provides an explanation when Alter deviates from the MT.
A brief introduction to many of the biblical books provides the reader with pertinent data that relates to the history of the era in which the book was written, the context in which it was written, and other helpful information that helps the reader better understand the book. The commentary at the bottom of each page brings together an abundance of interpretive information, the author’s views, and pertinent scholarly data that help the serious reader understand the text.
From a pastor’s perspective, I find Alter’s translation and his commentary an excellent resource that brings together a lively translation and a collection of insightful observations on biblical texts that might otherwise be ignored or misunderstood.
Alter’s work in the Psalms and the book of Job I found particularly insightful. The translator caught the cadence of the Hebrew poetry. He did not soften the psalmist’s rhetoric nor gloss over the harsh intent evidenced in the imprecatory psalms. Classic passages such as Genesis 1:1 and the twenty-third psalm, have maintained their luster while expressing a different “read”: “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 . . . ” (Gen. 1:1, 2). In the commentary, Alter explains the translations of welter and waste: “The Hebrew tohu wabohu occurs only here and in two later biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one. The second word of the pair looks like a nonce term coined to rhyme with the first and to reinforce it, an effect I have tried to approximate in English by alliteration. Tohu by itself means ‘emptiness’ or ‘futility,’ and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert.”
“My life he brings back. He leads me on pathways of justice for His name’s sake.Let but goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life” (Ps. 23:3, 6).
Those who have worked on translating any part of the book of Job know the challenges that lie within the Hebrew text. Alter has not solved all of the conundrums that face the translator, but he has smoothed out the path for those who tread the bumpy spots that lie within the book. “The blighted man’s friend owes him kindness, though the fear of Shaddai he forsakes. My brothers betrayed like a wadi, like the channel of brooks that run dry” (Job 6:14, 15). “Would then that my words were written, that they were inscribed in a book, with an iron pen and lead to be hewn in rock forever. But I know my redeemer lives, and in the end he will stand up on earth, and after they flay my skin, from my flesh I shall behold God” (Job 19:24–26).
In the commentary, Alter explains that the passage’s context is a legal trial, where the accused awaits the testimony of a redeemer, usually a family member.
From a pastor’s perspective, I find Alter’s translation and his commentary an excellent resource that brings together a lively translation and a collection of insightful observations on biblical texts that might otherwise be ignored or misunderstood. At the very least, Alter provides an alternative to more commonly available and used translations.