The Book of Psalms

  • Review
By – March 2, 2012

With his trans­la­tion of the Book of Psalms, Robert Alter takes the read­er back to the rocky hills and arid sands of ancient Israel to hear these hymns of praise, peti­tion, and thanks­giv­ing as they were sung mil­len­nia ago. Stripped of cen­turies of post-bib­li­cal Jew­ish and of Chris­t­ian reli­gious the­ol­o­gy, the psalms express the hopes and fears of peo­ple liv­ing in a harsh world where nat­ur­al forces and hos­tile neigh­bors are con­stant threats. 

Alter, the Class of 1937 Pro­fes­sor of Hebrew and Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, brings out the every­day lan­guage of the psalms, trans­lat­ing the Hebrew lit­er­al­ly rather than laps­ing into the abstrac­tions that express cen­tral ideas of lat­er the­o­log­i­cal think­ing. For exam­ple, the words soul” and sal­va­tion” do not appear in these psalms; nefesh—trans­lat­ed as ani­ma in the Vul­gate and thence soul” in the King James and oth­er Eng­lish ver­sions — becomes life,” being,” or some­times just I,” vari­ants of its core mean­ing life breath.” In the same way, sin” becomes offense” or crime,” mean­ing dis­hon­esty, theft, and sim­i­lar abus­es peo­ple com­mit against one anoth­er rather than ways in which peo­ple per­son­al­ly fail God. 

Con­sis­tent with his empha­sis on lit­er­al trans­la­tion to con­vey the force of the Hebrew, Alter gives equal atten­tion to the poet­ry and rhythm of the psalms, recre­at­ing to the extent pos­si­ble Hebrew word sequence and com­pressed verb forms. This brings an urgency and direct­ness to the psalms that are often lack­ing in Eng­lish, as well as an ele­vat­ed archa­ic tone that reflects the orig­i­nal language. 

In his anno­ta­tions Alter explains his choice of words, a valu­able aid in a trans­la­tion where the orig­i­nal lan­guage is not includ­ed. The anno­ta­tions deep­en the reader’s under­stand­ing of the bib­li­cal world, as did the anno­ta­tions in Alter’s ear­li­er trans­la­tions of the Torah and books of Samuel. They also expand the lin­guis­tic pos­si­bil­i­ties some­times lost in the Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion Soci­ety Tanakh, where the phrase mean­ing of Hebrew uncer­tain” sums up and often brush­es aside many dif­fi­cul­ties. Alter’s cogent intro­duc­tion is an addi­tion­al aid. In a brief sur­vey he gives the his­to­ry and struc­ture of the psalms and describes his effort to take the read­er back to a time when reli­gion was inex­tri­ca­bly woven into the fab­ric of every aspect and every day of a person’s life, when the dai­ly burst­ing forth of the sun and its night­ly dis­ap­pear­ance were metaphors of great power. 

As poet­ry, as litur­gy, as a source of per­son­al com­fort, the psalms have evolved into the touch­stones of Jew­ish and Chris­t­ian the­ol­o­gy and rit­u­al. In his com­pelling and swift­ly mov­ing trans­la­tions, Alter has thrust the read­er back to the place where the monothe­is­tic reli­gions were born out of even more ancient begin­nings. Sug­ges­tions for fur­ther reading.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions