"Praise, Prayers, and Pleas"
Renowned Hebrew scholar Robert Alter has just released another translation of a portion of the Old Testament, this time of the Psalms–perhaps the most familiar and beloved book of Scripture among believers and nonbelievers alike. The Book of Psalms (Norton) is a near-600-page tome featuring Alter's translation of all 150 psalms, along with extensive historical and cultural commentary, which comprises nearly half of each page. Psalms is the next installment of Alter's biblical translations, following The Five Books of Moses (2004), Genesis (1997), and The Art of Biblical Narrative (1983), a foundational primer in how to read the Bible for its literary qualities.
Alter states in an interview with online Jewish arts magazine NextBook that his intent in translating has always been to capture and remain faithful to the intent and rhythm of the original Hebrew text. Such literary qualities that he says are often overlooked in some popular English translations are the parallelisms, plays on words, and what he calls the "terrific compactness of the Hebrew expression." Thus, some of the most well-known psalms, like Psalm 23, begin to take a different shape with Alter's translation:
Though I walk in the vale of death's shadow,
I fear no harm, For You are with me.
Your rod and Your staff - it is they that console me.
You set out a table before me in the face of my foes.
You moisten my head with oil, my cup overflows.
Let but goodness and kindness pursue me
all the days of my life.
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for many long days.
Alter's translation epitomizes one of many ways to read Scripture. He and culture-makers who consistently give his translations glowing reviews (like the New Yorker's James Wood) understand the biblical text primarily as a piece of literature that features several passages of exquisite poetry and insight into the human condition.
What can confessing Christians, who believe that the Bible is so much more than a piece of great literature, gain from scholars who approach Scripture primarily as a literary text? Do we ignore translations like Alter's as being inconsequential in light of the Bible's transformative power as the very Word of God? Or do we embrace Alter's translations as fine pieces of scholarly rigor and great supplementary books to keep alongside our KJVs? How do we affirm the literary genius of the scriptural text, or should we?
To answer these questions, it may be helpful to consider a unique educational project that launched two years ago to address the overwhelming ignorance of the Bible among today's high school students. The Bible Literacy Project (for which Alter is a board member), offers curriculum to high school teachers to teach the Bible as the most important literary text of the Western world. The curriculum, titled The Bible and Its Influence, has been praised for its scholarship among secular and religious news sources alike.
Writing as a confessing Christian, it's worthy of celebration to hear that people who may never have opened a Bible otherwise are digging deep into the historical and cultural roots of this powerful text. Whenever the Bible is studied, even if it is being studied primarily as a piece of literature, who knows how the Lord might use those instances to illuminate the text far beyond a great book, but indeed, his very Word with its power to shine Light into our darkness? And who is to say that Alter's translations might not be used by the Lord in the same way–especially for New Yorker editors who may never otherwise touch a Bible with a 10-foot pole?
Yet the church has the opportunity to pick up where Alter's translations fall short and teach Scripture primarily as the Word of Life, and only secondarily as a remarkable piece of literature. We shouldn't be afraid to recognize the stunning beauty of passages like Psalm 103, Isaiah 43, or the entire book of Ecclesiastes (one of my favorites), knowing that this beauty is a mere vehicle for the power of a "two-edged sword ... able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb. 4:12).