Best Of The Web
“It is a brave critic who gives a bad review to Muhammad’s meters, a daring one who sniffs at Moses’ prose or returns Paul’s letters. When we enter into sacred texts as readers, rather than as worshippers—treating them, the way we might the Odyssey or “Beowulf,” as ancient vessels of meaning crafted by people who, like all writers, had their good moments and their misses—we gain much, but we lose much, too. We gain the freedom to read and roam for pleasure. But we forget at our peril that, through most of their history, these have been not books, to be appreciated, but truths, to be obeyed. The peril is double: there’s actual peril for those who do imaginative reading in the wrong place and time, and there’s also intellectual peril. When reading other people’s sacred texts, we too easily glide past difficulties, or propose aesthetic interpretations, in ways that lead us away from the obvious intentions. By searching around for the good bits, we read past the point, and past their point of view: intending to honor the texts by humanizing them, we insult them by aestheticizing them. When God’s the author, being pretty’s not the purpose.
Nonetheless, curiosity about what the sacred texts say, and about how we ought to read them even if we don’t think them sacred, is a persistent preoccupation of our era, and has produced not a few robust publishing projects. Of these enterprises, one that is genuinely worthy of some Old Testament term of praise is Robert Alter’s “The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary,” which Norton has just published in a handsome boxed edition, complete with Paul Klee-like semi-abstract jacket art adapted from the tapestries of the late Israeli artist Mordecai Ardon. The translation is divided into three volumes: “The Five Books of Moses,” “The Prophets,” and “Writings.” Most Biblical translations are teamwork; the so-called King James Version of the Bible was produced by forty-seven English churchmen. But Alter has, like Dr. Johnson with his dictionary, tackled the job on his own. The accomplishment, two decades in the making, is almost absurdly impressive. One wants to call it titanic or Olympian or even heroic, but those are the wrong words—pagan words. Alter will have to settle for one of the God-fearing Hebraic terms of praise that stipple his text: “righteous” or “strong” or, simply, “wise.”
In undertaking his translation, Alter recognized that he had a terrific problem. With Homer, we expect and get a fine new translation with each poetic period—George Chapman for the Elizabethan, Alexander Pope for the Augustan, Robert Fagles and Emily Wilson for our time—but with the Hebrew Bible in English we have one huge, unsurpassable masterpiece. The King James Version, which was produced at the Scottish King’s behest under the general leadership of the clergyman Lancelot Andrewes and appeared in 1611, is not just a great translation; it is, along with Shakespeare’s First Folio, published twelve years later, the bedrock of English literature.”
JJ Editor's Picks
"On Christmas Eve of 1966, Paddy Roy Bates, a retired British army major, drove a small boat with an outboard motor seven miles off the coast of England into the North Sea. He had sneaked out of his house in the middle of the night, inspired..."
"The book that changed lecturer, activist, and current presidential candidate Marianne Williamson’s life, A Course in Miracles, is not available for free online, but its workbook is. You can find it on the website for the Foundation for..."
"Here are two sets of statements from far-distant opposites in the climate change debate. The first is from Naomi Klein, who in her book This Changes Everything paints a bleak picture of a global socioeconomic system gone wrong: “There is a..."
"Voters who trust their government — and each other — are more supportive of ambitious welfare states than those who do not. Across nations, high levels of social trust correlate with high levels of social spending. The relationship between these..."
"With the presidential campaign under way, expect to hear a lot more about a shiny new toy of progressive economic thinking, “modern monetary theory.” It seems to be the only intellectual contortion that might allow candidates to promise..."
"“We don’t want to fight y’all. We’re not trying to go to jail.” That’s what A$AP Rocky, the 30-year-old New York City rapper, can be heard saying in a video of an encounter with strangers in Sweden that has ballooned into an international crisis."
"Israel’s top officials are considering denying Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib entry to their country due to their outspoken, controversial criticism of Israel’s policy toward Palestinians, not to mention their slurs against American Jews as..."
"For most of our lives, we have been conditioned to share a piece of personal information without a moment’s hesitation: our phone number. We punch in our digits at the grocery store to get a member discount or at the pharmacy to pick up..."