Poetry and Prophecy, Dust and Ashes

Phil Christman:

In the early 1990s, W. W. Norton, that indefatigable supplier of textbooks, invited the literary scholar Robert Alter to assemble a critical edition of Genesis. Alter countered that he’d have to do his own translation, the existing ones being inadequate. Norton agreed. But, Alter tells us in his new treatise The Art of Bible Translation, “I had not gotten halfway through the first chapter of Genesis before I discovered that there were all sorts of things going on in the Hebrew, many having to do with its literary shaping, that had not been discussed in the conventional commentaries and that I wanted to take up.” The scholar-turned-translator thus found himself launched on a third parallel career, as commentator. Alter’s Genesis appeared in 1996 to rapturous reviews, followed by The David Story (both Samuels and a smattering of Kings) a few years later, then the Pentateuch a few years after that. Those of us who came to love Alter soon found ourselves in a position akin to that of Robert Caro’s or George R.R. Martin’s fans. Would he keep going? What if he lost interest, perhaps taking up a less exacting hobby upon his retirement? What if – morbid thought – he died? But twenty-three years after Genesis, Alter has completed his work: a finished Hebrew Bible, three volumes lovingly footnoted; an altogether worthier object of contemplation than some fantasy series, or Lyndon Johnson. And I, who am but dust and ashes, review it.