Saturday, April 27, 2013

Book Review: The Book of Psalms A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter

The Book of Psalms A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter

Having listened to Alter's translation and commentary on the Book of Genesis on the Forgotten Classics podcast, I was looking forward to reading this book and finding out more about the Psalms.

The introduction covers the historical and literary background of the Psalms. The discussion gets a bit technical, especially reviewing the nuances of the Hebrew language and the various purposes, styles, and quirks of ancient poetry. The text is rather dense and requires a re-reading to get a better sense of it all. The effort is worth it.

The translation of the Psalms walks the hard line of conveying both the more literal sense of the words and the (to modern ears) foreign cadence and rhythm of Hebrew poetry from thousands of years ago. Often, ideas are repeated in the Psalms to give them more vividness or more concreteness, such as in Psalm 35: 5-6, where the psalmist prays for his enemies to undergo misfortune: "Let them be like chaff before the wind,/with the LORD's messenger driving. [6]May their way be darkness and slippery paths,/ with the LORD's messenger chasing them." (p. 122)

Alter's comments point out sections where the text is difficult to translate due to awkward constructions, which may be due as much to scribal error as to the poetic license of the author. He's honest enough to admit when he is making intelligent guesses and presents his decisions well enough to be persuasive.

Alter more or less rejects a theological interpretation of the texts and limits such comments mostly to possible liturgical uses by the ancient Hebrews or how they compare to other ancient texts and poems about the gods. On the other hand, he often compares the Psalms to other biblical literature, like Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Pentateuch (as well as other Psalms) to give a context for and a possible explanation of difficult passages or to highlight a contrast. For example, in Psalm 37:25, the psalmist says, "A lad I was, and now I am old,/ and I never have seen a just man forsaken." (p. 132) Alter points out this is the exact opposite of what Job argues in his book, that the suffering of a man is not necessarily because he has done something evil. Alter puts it this way: "The Job poet challenges this received wisdom and proposes a more complicated, indeed paradoxical, moral vision." (p. 132, footnote to verse 25)

The footnote ends there and left me wanting more. More than just saying, "they don't agree." It left me wanting a deeper exploration if not some final say on the matter. The book lays aside 2500 years of Jewish and Christian reflection on the Psalms in favor of the ancient context that is less relevant to our lives today, if not less interesting.  I did enjoy the book but it was not fully satisfying for me. It's a strange result since I liked his translation and commentary on Genesis so much. Perhaps the historical context is more relevant for that book of the Bible than it is for the Psalms.

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