Robert Alter’s ongoing translation of the Hebrew Bible into a new, more accurate and forceful English version is one of the most ambitious literary projects of this or any age. Turning the Bible into Greek, in the second century BCE, required 72 sages — which is why the Greek version is called the Septuagint (after the Latin word for 70) — and the King James Version, in the early 17th century CE, was produced by a committee of 47 Anglican divines. Yet Alter, working alone, has already published new English versions of the Pentateuch (The Five Books of Moses), I and II Samuel (the David story), and The Book of Psalms. Now, with “The Wisdom Books” (W.W. Norton, $35), he gives us new renderings of the books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes — possibly the most challenging and perplexing works in all of scripture.
For this very reason, they are also the biblical books that speak most directly to the modern, skeptical, secular reader. If the Torah is revelation — an ostensibly factual account of God’s actions and commandments — the Wisdom Books are a kind of counter-revelation: an emphatically human expression of the impossibility of knowing God or believing in his justice. As Alter writes in his introduction, “[T]he three Wisdom books are, in different ways, worlds apart from Genesis, Deuteronomy, and the Prophets.”
One sign of the difference is that Job, Proverbs and Kohelet (Alter uses the Hebrew name, whose actual meaning is hard to ascertain, rather than the familiar Greek name Ecclesiastes) do not deal with Israel but with humanity in general. Job is a monotheist but not an Israelite; he lives in “the land of Uz,” which Alter glosses as “a never-never land somewhere to the east.” In Kohelet, God is referred to only occasionally, and then only as Elohim, not by his specifically Israelite name, Yahweh.
And while Proverbs ascribes its often banal sayings to Solomon, at least one section of the book is an adaptation of an Egyptian text from the second millennium BCE, the “Instruction of Amenemope.” Indeed, the scholarly designation “wisdom books” assigns these texts to a genre that is also found in Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature. “The perspective of Wisdom literature,” Alter summarizes, “is international and, in many instances, one might say, universalist. It raises questions of value and moral behavior, of the meaning of human life, and especially of the right conduct of life.”
What makes the Wisdom Books stand out so starkly from the rest of the Bible is that, in asking such primal questions, they implicitly or explicitly reject the answers that the Hebrew Bible usually gives. In the Book of Psalms, the Psalmist sometimes laments God’s inaction — “Has God forgotten to show grace/ has He closed off in wrath His compassion?” asks Psalm 77, in Alter’s translation. But the answer that follows — “And I said, it is my failing/ that the High One’s right hand has changed” — makes clear that, if God punishes Israel, it is for good cause, out of his supreme justice. In Job, on the other hand, we hear the greatest indictment ever made of God’s injustice:
It’s all the same, and so I thought:
the blameless and the wicked He destroys.
If a scourge causes death in an instant,
He mocks the innocent’s plight.
The earth is given in the wicked man’s hand,
the face of its judges He veils.
If not He — then who else?
The force of Job’s protest is all the greater because it is set against the conventional pieties of his “comforters,” Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, who respond to each of his laments with blind insistence that if God punishes Job, Job must deserve it somehow. The irony is heightened by the fact that, as Alter writes, the comforters’ speech “abounds in familiar formulations closely analogous to what one encounters in many passages in Psalms … what this means is that much of their poetry verges on cliché.”
Alter’s translation draws attention to the way poetic style, in Job, amplifies philosophical debate. While the comforters speak in clichés, Job coins remarkably vivid metaphors (“My days are swifter than the weaver’s shuttle./They snap off without any hope”), which make his case against God still more forceful.
And when God himself finally responds, he does not endorse the comforters’ view of justice; he does not promise that virtue is always rewarded and sin punished. Rather, he employs what Alter calls “an order of poetry created to match the grandeur — or perhaps the omniscience — of God,” a language so magnificent that it puts God beyond good and evil:
Do you give might to the horse,
do you clothe his neck with a mane?
Do you make his roar like locusts—
his splendid snort is terror.
He churns up the valley exulting,
in power goes out to the clash of arms.
He scoffs at fear and is undaunted,
turns not back before the sword. …
At the trumpet he says, “Aha,”
and from afar he scents the fray,
the thunder of captains, the shouts.
This God, as martial and irresistible as a warhorse, is not the God who allowed Abraham to bargain for the lives of the innocent in Sodom. But at least the Book of Job gives God the last word, acknowledging some government of the universe, albeit an inhumane one. This is almost heartening, compared to the very modern-sounding materialism and nihilism of Kohelet:
For the fate of the sons of man and the fate of the beast is a single fate. As one dies so dies the other, and all have a single spirit, and man’s advantage over the beast is naught, for everything is mere breath. Everything goes to a single place. Everything was from the dust, and everything goes back to the dust. Who knows whether man’s spirit goes upward and the beast’s spirit goes down to the earth?
The passage (which also serves, in German, as the text for a grimly beautiful song by Brahms) is a good example of how Alter’s English differs from the language of the King James Version. Where Alter has “mere breath,” the KJV has “vanity”; the famous opening line of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” becomes Alter’s “Merest breath, merest breath. … All is mere breath.” By using a concrete image instead of an abstraction, Alter hopes to give a better sense of the Hebrew, havel havalim: “Hevel, ‘breath’ or ‘vapor,’ is something utterly insubstantial and transient, and in this book suggests futility, ephemerality.”
Concreteness and concision have been Alter’s watchwords throughout his Bible translations, on the principle that they are the essential qualities of biblical Hebrew. This does not always lead to a more appealing English style. Alter’s desire to minimize the number of words and stresses in each line of verse often results in a run of anapests, as in Job 8:21-22:
He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with a shout of joy.
Your foes will be clothed in disgrace,
and the tent of the wicked gone.
This moves like a trot, compared to the stately stride of the KJV:
Till he fill thy mouth with laughing, and thy lips with rejoicing.
They that hate thee shall be clothed with shame; and the dwelling place of the wicked shall come to naught.
But Alter’s versions are not destined to replace the King James Version; they are meant to strip away its familiarity, to help us see the biblical text more closely and accurately. For this purpose, Alter’s commentary is as useful as the translation itself, as when he points out that the lines from Kohelet quoted above are a direct repudiation of Genesis.
In the Creation story, the human creature is brought into the world after the beasts and is enjoined to hold sway over all other living creatures. Here, man and beast are seen to share the same fate of mortality, and there is no qualitative difference between them.
Nothing but this was the radical insight of Darwin, which is why evolution is anathema to biblical fundamentalists; yet here is the Bible itself making the same disenchanting argument.
It is enough to make you wonder how the Wisdom Books came to be a part of the biblical canon in the first place. It would seem that, as Alter writes, “there must have been Hebrew readers … who were not willing to let go of Qohelet,” who cherished its literary power and human insight in spite, or maybe even because, of its “subversive skepticism.” The poets who wrote these books, and the editors and scribes who assembled and preserved them, are never more alive than when we can see them as suffering and questioning human beings — as Alter’s “The Wisdom Books” helps us to do.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor of The New Republic and contributing editor to Tablet. His most recent book of poetry is “Invasions”(Ivan R. Dee, 2008). Reprinted from Tabletmag.com.