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.)

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