Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Wisdom Books: A Translation and Commentary by Robert Alter

The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, A Translation and Commentary by Robert Alter

This book is another volume in Robert Alter's ongoing series of bible translations and commentaries. Here he focuses on the Wisdom literature, books that grapple with larger issues or present practical maxims for life. Alter presents Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, though typically Sirach, the Book of Wisdom, The Song of Songs, and the Psalms are included in lists of biblical Wisdom literature. Alter has written a translation and commentary of Psalms (see my review here) and does acknowledge some psalms fall into the "Wisdom literature" category. Sirach and the Book of Wisdom are deuterocanonical texts which is perhaps why Alter doesn't include them. The Song of Songs is attributed to Solomon (the wisest king of Israel) though it has more the character of the Psalms and is a bit of a biblical odd ball (it's a love poem that can be interpreted theologically). I suppose Alter has material for a sequel if he wants.

What of the books he does cover? Job is the classic biblical text that grapples with why good people suffer. Job is an upright and pure servant of God. In the framing story, the Adversary (hasatan in Hebrew, where we get the name Satan from) comes to God's court and challenges Job's uprightness. Take away all the good things you have given him and surely Job will curse you, the Adversary argues. God lets the Adversary take almost everything away, leaving Job covered in sores sitting on a ash pit. With him are three friends who argue the standard pietistic conclusion that Job must have sinned or else why is he punished so grievously? Job continually claims his innocence. The translation is smooth and Alter's notes are very interesting. He considers this some of the finest poetry in the Bible and does his best (which is quite good) to render it into English.

Proverbs is an anthology of some longer and shorter wisdom works. Famous parts where Lady Wisdom invites all to take her gifts or the acrostic poem praising a "worthy woman" at the end are stronger poetry than the massive collection of one- and two-line bits of practical advice or moral observation about the world and people. Being shown the discreet units within the book helps to understand them individually and to highlight their differences and similarities. Alter's notes and comments are helpful in comprehending a varied text.

Ecclesiastes (which Alter refers to as its Hebrew title Qohelet) includes both a challenge to received wisdom like Job and strings of aphorisms like Proverbs. It is not however a synthesis of the two books, but a search for meaning in life while constanty aware of the brevity and transience of the things and people in this world. Riches and intelligence don't guarantee happiness; folly could be just as valuable as wisdom in bringing relief to life's miseries. Alter re-translates the King James "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity," with "Merest breath, all is mere breath." He explains this is technically more accurate (the concrete image of an exhalation or sigh as opposed to the abstract image of emptiness). The switch is jarring in the good way of making the reader think more about the meaning and intent of the words. The only problem I had was that his phrase lost its evocativeness very quickly (since the phrase is repeated constantly in the text). It comes off more like a refrain than reassertion of the fleeting nature of everything described by Qohelet. I think Alter misses the mark here, but even his mistakes are interesting and thought provoking.

Overall, Alter's translation and commentary are fascinating to read and helpful to understand the texts in a literary light.

Fear the sword,
  for wrath is a sword-worthy crime,
    so you may know there is judgment. [Job 19:29]

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