Robert Alter is a distinguished scholar and literary critic who has published over two dozen books. Recently retired from the University of California, the protean Alter made his reputation studying European literature, but ultimately came back to his first love, Hebrew literature and the Bible. This love affair began as a young bar mitzvah boy, continued through Camp Ramah, Columbia, JTS, and Harvard. His 1981 study, The Art of Biblical Narrative, and its subsequent 1985 companion, The Art of Biblical Poetry, revolutionized the way that scholars read the Bible. Alter turned his attention to the literary techniques that recur throughout the Bible — the repetition of key words, the reticence of the narrator, subtle variations on conventional scene types, modern advances in linguistic and historical scholarship, all written in contemporary English.
Many translations of the Bible exist and each in their own way is also a commentary. Alter is no exception. He argues that the others fail to convey in English the refined narrative style and linguistic rhythms of the Hebrew original. It is an argument that is all the more persuasive because it is backed by his scholarship on the literary artistry of the Bible. One critic writes: “Even to the untrained reader, Alter’s translations are both familiar and startlingly different. The language is simple, vigorous and rhythmical, and Alter prefers concrete, often tactile metaphors to the more philosophical renderings of other translators.”
This work on the early prophets follows his translations of The Five Books of Moses, Psalms, the Wisdom Books and other works of biblical scholarship. He not only translates but supplies copious notes to buttress his interpretations as he weaves his own narrative of the biblical stories. The Introduction to each book offers Alter’s view of the personalities described therein. His depictions of Samuel, David, Saul etc., may not be traditional but they are engaging.
There are so many fascinating tidbits in this work that it is difficult to choose among them. He is constantly finding parallels to texts such as the scarlet cord in Joshua 2:18 and in Genesis 38:28. His grammatical analysis of Deborah’s song in Judges 5:1 is intriguing as are his depictions of the main characters in the Books of Samuel. His theory of how Samuel received his name (Samuel 1:20) is more than speculation and his interpretations of the David-Bathsheba story and Avishag’s role makes for stimulating reading.
Nit-picking is easy when dealing with translations, especially one of such scope and breadth. Alter makes good use of many commentaries, rabbinic and otherwise, but is selective. The woman named Rahab who sheltered the spies in the beginning of Joshua is described as a whore-woman (isha zona). Some interpret the phrase as innkeeper from the root ZN meaning food. It may be a minor point but this interpretation ought to have been cited.
Professor Alter has provided a fresh look at old texts and breathed into them a new vitality. We look forward to his translations of the remaining prophets.