Book review: Genesis, in translation by Robert Alter

I’ve been reading Robert Alter’s lovely translation and commentary on Genesis, and my, is it good.

He does two things that I really appreciate and don’t recall from other translations.  First, his translation is very lively, in some way – he makes the people seem very immediate, and makes me want to keep on reading.  Secondly, his commentary is brilliant at pointing out connections between stories in the lives of different characters, or within the lives of single characters.  I hadn’t previously noticed the ‘everyone of importance goes down to Egypt’ motif, or the ‘everyone meets their wife by a well’ recurring theme.  And – for example – what he has to say about Jacob’s story is just fascinating.  At the start of Jacob’s story, we see him deceiving his father about his identity, by using the skin of a kid to mimic Esau’s hairier skin and Esau’s clothes to disguise his identity.  Later, he in turn is deceived by his sons, who slaughter a kid and use its blood and Joseph’s clothing to make him believe that Joseph is dead.  He is able to deceive his father because his father cannot see him – and he is deceived in the matter of a wife because Leah is disguised by darkness.  And his story is full of duos in opposition – himself versus his brother, Leah versus Rachel, the two slaves he later marries.  Alter points up these themes and patterns (far better than I have here, because I read this all about a week ago) in a way that really makes me grasp the sense of intent and purpose that went into putting together these books of the Torah, and choosing which stories should go where, and in what form.

(also, don’t ever be an elder son with urban inclinations.  This never ends well.)

Oh, and the other thing Alter does brilliantly is tell you, in the commentary, which words are related to each other or sound like each other – for example, Isaac means laughter, but it also means several other things and sounds like a few others, and the writers of the Bible apparently tended to cluster these words together when Isaac has been by, to remind you of him, or to associate him further with his name meaning (the same applies for other names).    And he also likes to tell you what various Jewish scholars over the centuries have had to say about various scenes or situations, quoting extensively from some of them and from various Midrashim.  Here’s a little section from the Midrash Bereishit Rabba:

And all that night he cried out to her, ‘Rachel!’, and she answered him.  In the morning, ‘and,… look, she was Leah.’  He said to her, ‘Why did you deceive me, daughter of a deceiver?  Didn’t I call out Rachel this night, and you answered me!’ She said: ‘There is never a bad barber who doesn’t have disciples.  Isn’t this how your father cried out Esau, and you answered him?”

I really love this insight into Jewish thinking about the Torah, because it’s not something one tends to come across, reading the Old Testament from a Christian perspective.

There’s also something indefinable about this translation which I think is just plain old Good Writing.  We are constantly, subtly reminded, for example, that Joseph has spent a long time in Egypt and in many ways behaves and thinks like an Egyptian and very differently to his brothers.  I don’t know quite how this effect is achieved (though Alter informs us that there are a lot of Egyptian loan-words in the Hebrew of this section), but it is definitely there.

It’s all fascinating stuff, and I really do need to get stuck into Exodus, once I catch up on some sleep.

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