Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible is a delight to read, and his notes skillfully assist readers in understanding the text. That said, the notes have a limited purpose (mainly literary in focus) and the translation, while faithful and artistic, exposes readers to the oddity that is Hebrew prose and poetry. This exposure may jar readers used to translations like the NIV.
The Oddity of Hebrew Prose
For example, Alter translates God’s revelation of his name in Exodus 3:14: “ʿEhyeh-ʿAsher-ʿEhyeh, I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be.” Here and elsewhere he translates the awkwardness that already exists in the Hebrew text. He does not over-interpret the text, which modern translations often do in order to make it understandable to readers.
When Alter comes to Moses’ claim about his speech capacity, Alter translates: “Please, my LORD, no man of words am I, not at any time in the past nor now since You have spoken to You servant, for I am heavy-mouthed and heavy-tongued” (Exod 4:10). The elegant literal translation uncovers the Hebrew text underlying it with as little interpretation as possible. Alter’s many-year pursuit of the Hebrew Bible as literature has served him well.
Consider Exodus 4:10 in the NIV to see the contrast: “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” The NIV interprets “no man of words am I” as “I have never been eloquent.” That may be accurate in terms of intent, but does it convey the feel or style of Moses’ words?
The NIV also translates the double repetition of “heavy” with the single instance of “slow.” This translation slightly over-interprets the Hebrew text which repeats the word “heavy” twice and interprets what the text leaves somewhat unclear. As Alter’s note on Exodus 4:10 explains, “It seems futile to speculate, as so many commentators have, whether Moses suffered from an actual speech impediment or merely was unaccustomed to public speaking” (p. 226).
Whether Alter here is correct, he recognizes that Moses may simply use the language of a speech impediment metaphorically since he later seems “to be capable of considerable eloquence” (p. 226). The point here is to convey that Alter’s eloquent literal translation keeps the metaphorical language as ambiguous as it is in Hebrew (“heavy” versus “slow” in the NIV) so that its actual meaning becomes more clear.
In short, Moses repeats heavy twice with reference to his speech to possibly use the metaphor of a speech impediment. Though experience and the Lord, Moses grows into it.
Religious readers should note that Alter does not particularly approach the text with any sort of supernatural hermeneutic. Hence, no theory of inspiration or affirmation of a divine reality undergirds his reading of the text. Due to this, the literary notes focus on authorial (or editorial) literary structures without recourse to divine intent. Besides literary notes, he also clarifies and interprets the text.
Alter discovers literary techniques where critical scholars discover divergent literary sources. When he speaks about the double account of creation (Gen 1:1–2:3 and 2:4–25), he discusses the differences of the two texts at a literary level. He then concludes: “Whatever the disparate historical origins of the two accounts, the redaction gives us first a harmonious cosmic overview of creation and then a plunge into the technological nitty-gritty and moral ambiguities of human origins” (13). The point here is that he detects literary meaning without pursuing possible literary (or oral) sources that no longer exist and may never be recoverable.
Alter’s notes have fast become my go-to source for scriptural commentary. That will not be the case for every reader. I’ve learned Hebrew. I’ve been to Israel. I have some understanding of the history around the Old Testament. So I generally need help to understand the literary structures and conventions of the Hebrew Bible. Alter supplies that.
I recommend Alter’s translation (and his notes) for those who want an eloquent, literal translation of the Bible and notes that uncover the literary techniques in the text as well as offering helpful interpretative comments.
The publisher provided me with a review copy.