Ancient Israel: The For­mer Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings

  • Review
By – April 4, 2013

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.

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions