The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary

The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary
  • Author: Robert Alter
    Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
    Genres: Reference
    Publish Date: December 18, 2018
    ISBN-10: 0393292495
    Pages: 3500
    File Type: EPub
    Language: English

Book Preface

Much of what I have to say in my commentary about the details of the narrative presupposes that Genesis is a coherent book, what we moderns would think of as a work of literature. But, as many readers may be aware, two centuries of biblical scholarship have generally assumed that Genesis—and indeed each of the Five Books of Moses as well as most other biblical texts—is not strictly speaking a book but rather an accretion of sundry traditions, shot through with disjunctions and contradictions, and accumulated in an uneven editorial process over several centuries. There are knotty issues of the dating and the evolution of the text that have been debated by generations of scholars and that I shall not pretend to resolve, but I do think that the historical and textual criticism of the Bible is not so damaging to a literary reading of the text as is often assumed.

The biblical conception of a book was clearly far more open-ended than any notion current in our own culture, with its assumptions of known authorship and legal copyright. The very difference in the technology of bookmaking is emblematic. For us, a book is a printed object boxed in between two covers, with title and author emblazoned on the front cover and the year of publication indicated on the copyright page. The biblical term that comes closest to “book” is sefer. Etymologically, it means “something recounted,” but its primary sense is “scroll,” and it can refer to anything written on a scroll—a letter, a relatively brief unit within a longer composition, or a book more or less in our sense. A scroll is not a text shut in between covers, and additional swathes of scroll can be stitched onto it, which seems to have been a very common biblical practice. A book in the biblical sphere was assumed to be a product of anonymous tradition. The only ones in the biblical corpus that stipulate the names of their authors, in superscriptions at the beginning, are the prophetic books, but even in this case, later prophecies by different prophet-poets could be tacked onto the earlier scrolls, and the earlier scrolls perhaps might even be edited to fit better into a continuous book with the later accretions.

Let me say just a few words about the different strands that are detectable in Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers, and then I shall explain why I make very little of them in my commentary. Since well back into the nineteenth century, it has been the consensus of biblical scholarship that Genesis, together with two of the next three books of the Pentateuch, is woven together from three distinct literary sources or “documents”—the Yahwistic document (spelled with an initial capital J in German and hence designated J), the Elohistic document (E), and the Priestly document (P). Most scholars have concluded that J and E are considerably earlier than P, which could be as late as the sixth century B.C.E. (the period after the return from the Babylonian exile). According to one older view, J would be a product of the tenth century B.C.E. (early in the Davidic dynasty) and E perhaps a century later, though many would make both at least several generations later; another common position is that J and E are roughly contemporary, the latter having been composed in the northern kingdom, Israel, the former in the southern kingdom, Judah. Scholars identify the different sources on the basis of different names used for the deity (emblematically, YHWH in J and Elohim in E), on the basis of certain stylistic features, and by virtue of what are claimed to be different ideological and historical assumptions. It is generally thought that the three sources were redacted into a single text quite early in the period of the Return to Zion, probably in Priestly circles.

This rapid summary may make matters sound pat, but in fact all the details of the Documentary Hypothesis are continually, and often quite vehemently, debated. There are strong differences of opinion about the dating of the various sources, especially J and E. Serious questions have been raised as to whether either J or E is the work of a single writer or school, and various scholars have contended that in fact there is a J1, J2, J3, and so forth. Enormous energy has been invested in discriminating the precise boundaries between one document and the next, but disagreement on minute identifications continues to abound: one scholar will break down a particular text into an alternation between J and E, with an occasional conflation of the two and perhaps a brief intrusion from P, seeking to refine the documentary categories phrase by phrase, while another will call the whole passage “an authentic production of J.” (I should add that efforts to distinguish between J and E on stylistic grounds have been quite unconvincing.) It is small wonder that the Documentary Hypothesis, whatever its general validity, has begun to look as though it has reached a point of diminishing returns, and many younger scholars, showing signs of restlessness with source criticism, have been exploring other approaches—literary, anthropological, sociological, and so forth—to the Bible.

The informing assumption of my translation and commentary is that the edited version of Genesis—the so-called redacted text—which has come down to us, though not without certain limited contradictions and disparate elements, has powerful coherence as a literary work, and that this coherence is above all what we need to address as readers. One need not claim that Genesis is a unitary artwork, like, say, a novel by Henry James, in order to grant it integrity as a book. There are other instances of works of art that evolve over the centuries, like the cathedrals of medieval Europe, and are the product of many hands, involving an elaborate process of editing, like some of the greatest Hollywood films. From where we stand, it is difficult to know to what extent the biblical redactors felt free to modify or reshape their inherited sources and to what extent they felt obliged to reproduce them integrally, permitting themselves only an occasional editorial bridge or brief gloss. What seems quite clear, however, is that the redactors had a strong and often subtle sense of thematic and narrative purposefulness in the way they wove together the inherited literary strands, and the notion of some scholars that they were actuated by a mechanical compulsion to incorporate old traditions at all costs is not sustained by a scrutiny of the text, with only a few marginal exceptions.

It is quite apparent that a concept of composite artistry, of literary composition through a collage of textual materials, was generally assumed to be normal procedure in ancient Israelite culture. The technique of collage could come into play at two stages. A writer in the first instance might feel free to introduce into his own narrative, as an integral textual unit, a genealogy, an etiological tale, an ethnographic table, or a vestige of a mythological story, or perhaps to re-create one of the aforementioned without an explicit textual source. Then the redactor, in shaping the final version of the text, could place disparate textual materials at junctures that would give the completed text the thematic definition or the large formal punctuation he sought. I am deeply convinced that conventional biblical scholarship has been trigger-happy in using the arsenal of text-critical categories, proclaiming contradiction wherever there is the slightest internal tension in the text, seeing every repetition as evidence of a duplication of sources, everywhere tuning in to the static of transmission, not to the complex music of the redacted story.

The reader will consequently discover that this commentary refers only occasionally and obliquely to the source analysis of Genesis. For even where such analysis may be convincing, it seems to me a good deal less interesting than the subtle workings of the literary whole represented by the redacted text. As an attentive reader of other works of narrative literature, I have kept in mind that there are many kinds of ambiguity and contradiction, and abundant varieties of repetition, that are entirely purposeful, and that are essential features of the distinctive vehicle of literary experience. I have constantly sought, in both the translation and the commentary, to make this biblical text accessible as a book to be read, which is surely what was intended by its authors and redactors. To that end, I discovered that some of the medieval Hebrew commentators were often more helpful than nearly all the modern ones, with their predominantly text-critical and historical concerns. Rashi (acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Itsḥaqi, 1040–1105, France) and Abraham ibn Ezra (1092–1167, traveled from Spain to Italy, France, and England) are the most often cited here; they are two of the great readers of the Middle Ages, and there is still much we can learn from them.

A few brief remarks about the structure of Genesis as a book are in order. Genesis comprises two large literary units—the Primeval History (chapters 1–11) and the Patriarchal Tales (chapters 12–50). The two differ not only in subject but to some extent in style and perspective. The approach to the history of Israel and Israel’s relationship with God that will be the material of the rest of the Hebrew Bible is undertaken through gradually narrowing concentric circles: first an account of the origins of the world, of the vegetable and animal kingdom and of humankind, then a narrative explanation of the origins of all the known peoples, from Greece to Africa to Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, and of the primary institutions of civilization, including the memorable fable about the source of linguistic division. The Mesopotamian family of Terah is introduced at the end of this universal history in chapter 11, and then when God calls Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees at the beginning of chapter 12 we move on to the story of the beginnings of the Israelite nation, though the national focus of the narrative is given moral depth because the universal perspective of the first part of Genesis is never really forgotten. Some critics have plausibly imagined this whole large process of biblical literature as a divine experiment with the quirky and unpredictable stuff of human freedom, an experiment plagued by repeated failure and dedicated to renewed attempts: first Adam and Eve, then the generation of Noah, then the builders of the Tower of Babel, and finally Abraham and his seed.

Although the Creation story with which the Primeval History begins does look forward to the proliferation of humanity and the human conquest of the natural world, by and large the first eleven chapters of Genesis are concerned with origins, not eventualities—with the past, not the future: “he was the first of all who play on the lyre and pipe” (4:21), the narrator says of Jubal, one of the antediluvians. The literal phrasing of the Hebrew here, as in a series of analogous verses, is “he was the father of. . . .” That idiom is emblematic of the Primeval History, which is really a record of the archetypal fathers, a genealogy of human institutions and of ethnic and linguistic identity. Although the Patriarchal Tales are in one obvious way also the story of a chain of fathers—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the horizon these tales constantly invoke is the future, not the past. God repeatedly tells Abraham what He intends to do with and for the offspring of Abraham in time to come, both in the impending near future of Egyptian enslavement and in the long-term future of national greatness. It is perfectly apt that the Patriarchal Tales should conclude with Jacob’s deathbed poem envisaging the destiny of the future tribes of Israel, which he prefaces with the words “Gather round, that I may tell you what shall befall you in the days to come” (49:1).

The Primeval History, in contrast to what follows in Genesis, cultivates a kind of narrative that is fablelike or legendary, and sometimes residually mythic. The human actors in these stories are kept at a certain distance, and seem more generalized types than individual characters with distinctive personal histories. The style tends much more than that of the Patriarchal Tales to formal symmetries, refrainlike repetitions, parallelisms, and other rhetorical devices of a prose that often aspires to the dignity of poetry, or that invites us to hear the echo of epic poetry in its cadences. As everywhere in biblical narrative, dialogue is an important vehicle, but in the Primeval History it does not have the central role it will play later, and one finds few of the touches of vivid mimesis that make dialogue in the Patriarchal Tales so brilliant an instrument for the representation of human—and human and divine—interactions. In sum, this rapid report of the distant early stages of the human story adopts something of a distancing procedure in the style and the narrative modes with which it tells the story.

God’s very first words to Abraham at the beginning of chapter 12 enjoin him to abandon land, birthplace, and father’s house. These very terms, or at least this very sphere, will become the arena of the narrative to the end of Genesis. The human creature is now to be represented not against the background of the heavens and the earth and civilization as such but rather within the tense and constricted theater of the paternal domain, in tent and wheat field and sheepfold, in the minute rhythms of quotidian existence, working out all hopes of grand destiny in the coil of familial relationships, the internecine, sometimes deadly, warring of brothers and fathers and sons and wives. In keeping with this major shift in focus from the Primeval History to the Patriarchal Tales, style and narrative mode shift as well. The studied formality of the first eleven chapters—epitomized in the symmetries and the intricate repetition of word and sound in the story of the Tower of Babel—gives way to a more flexible and varied prose. Dialogue is accorded more prominence and embodies a more lively realism. When, for example, Sarai gives Abram her slavegirl Hagar as a concubine, and the proudly pregnant Hagar then treats her with disdain, the matriarch berates her husband in the following fashion: “This outrage against me is because of you! I myself put my slavegirl in your embrace and when she saw she had conceived, I became slight in her eyes” (16:5). Sarai’s first sentence here has an explosive compactness in the Hebrew, being only two words, ḥamasi ʿalekha, that resists translation. In any case, these lines smoldering with the fires of female resentment convey a sense of living speech and complexity of feeling and relationship one does not encounter before the Patriarchal Tales: the frustrated long-barren wife at cross-purposes with herself and with her husband, first aspiring to maternity through the surrogate of her slavegirl, then after the fact of her new co-wife’s pregnancy, tasting a new humiliation, indignant at the slave’s presumption, ready to blame her husband, who has been only the instrument of her will. Such vivid immediacy in the representation of the densely problematic nature of individual lives in everyday settings is an innovation not only in comparison with the Primeval History but also in comparison with virtually all of ancient literature.

What nevertheless strongly binds the two large units of the Book of Genesis is both outlook and theme. The unfolding history of the family that is to become the people of Israel is seen, as I have suggested, as the crucial focus of a larger, universal history. The very peregrinations of the family back and forth between Mesopotamia and Canaan and down to Egypt intimate that its scope involves not just the land Israel has been promised but the wider reach of known cultures. National existence, moreover, is emphatically imagined as a strenuous effort to renew the act of creation. The Creation story repeatedly highlights the injunction to be fruitful and multiply, while the Patriarchal Tales, in the very process of frequently echoing this language of fertility from the opening chapters, make clear that procreation, far from being an automatic biological process, is fraught with dangers, is constantly under the threat of being deflected or cut off. Abraham must live long years with the seeming mockery of a divine promise of numberless offspring as he and his wife advance childless into hoary old age. Near the end of the book, Jacob’s whole family fears it may perish in the great famine, and Joseph must assure his brothers that God has sent him ahead of them to Egypt in order to sustain life. Genesis begins with the making of heaven and earth and all life, and ends with the image of a mummy—Joseph’s—in a coffin. But implicit in the end is a promise of more life to come, of irrepressible procreation, and that renewal of creation will be manifested, even under the weight of oppression, at the beginning of Exodus. Genesis, then, works with disparate materials, puts together its story with two large and very different building blocks, but nevertheless achieves the cohesiveness, the continuity of theme and motif, and the sense of completion of an architectonically conceived book. Although it looks forward to its sequel, it stands as a book, inviting our attention as an audience that follows the tale from beginning to end.

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