Monday, November 01, 2004

Five Books of Moses

Robert Alter's new translation of the Five Books of Moses, otherwise known as the Torah, or Pentateuch, is reviewed in the NYT Book Review, by Dirda in the Washington Post Book World, and by John Updike in the New Yorker.

Dirda praises:

In his superbly attentive translation of the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), he has set himself a demanding three-part task: to translate every word of the Hebrew without fudging; to maintain, as befits the ancient text, a properly serious tone; and to provide useful commentary on key phrases, textual cruxes, and what he has called, in an earlier book, the art of biblical narrative. This makes reading his version of the Torah -- the Hebrew name for what Christians sometimes call the Pentateuch -- thrilling and constantly illuminating: After the still, small voices of so many tepid modern translations, here is a whirlwind.

Judith Shulevitz of the NYT also exalts Alter:

What Alter does with the Bible instead is read it, with erudition and rigor and respect for the intelligence of the editor or editors who stitched it together, and -- most thrillingly -- with the keenest receptivity to its darker undertones.

Updike laments:

Why should not Alter’s version, its program so richly contemplated and persuasively outlined, become the definitive one, replacing not only the King James but the plethora of its revised, uninspired, and “accessible” versions on the shelf?

Several reasons why not, in the course of my reading through this massive tome (sold sturdily boxed, as if to support its weight), emerged. The sheer amount of accompanying commentary and philological footnotes is one of them...It is difficult for the reader, given the overload of elucidation imposed upon the basic text, to maintain much momentum...


Reading through this book, or five books, is a wearying, disorienting, and at times revelatory experience. Our interest trends downhill.

Looks to me like a must-buy for every bibliophile.

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