The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. By Robert Alter. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 3500 pp. Hardcover, $125.00.
Christian interpreters of the OT run into two common struggles when reading the OT. The first is the tendency to read our Christian perspective into passages where it is not warranted. The second is a deep familiarity with much of the OT which then causes us to miss illuminating details. I believe every Christian pastor, teacher, and student of the Word can easily fall into those two traps. And Robert Alter provides a helpful guard against both of these struggles. For that reason, The Hebrew Bible should be counted as a must-own for all students of the OT today.
The Hebrew Bible is an impressive three-volume work containing Alter’s English translation of the Hebrew Bible and his commentary on the text. Alter’s translation is one of the great feats of OT scholarship, and his commentary should be consulted alongside one’s own study of the Hebrew text.
As an example of Alter’s work, he translates Gen 15:2 as “…what can You give me when I am going to my end childless…” Alter’s choice of “going to my end” stands apart from every other English translation. Some leave the Hebrew halak untranslated, while others translate it as remain, continue, or go. The common English translations focus on Abram’s remaining or continuing childless. I believe Alter correctly interprets halak to mean that Abram is fearful of going to his grave childless. This helps the reader to understand the despair in Abram’s heart, something recognized by the Lord, who came to Abram with a message of “Fear not” in v 1.
Throughout the translation, Alter picks up on small points and details that others often overlook and brings them to light for greater understanding.
The key to the value of Alter’s work is his relative independence from other translations. For example, his rendering of Joseph’s technicolor coat didn’t follow the majority of English Bibles with “many colors” but with a more accurate “ornamented tunic.”
In Ezek 18:2, the children’s teeth are blunted by their father’s unripe fruit instead of being set on edge by sour grapes, as rendered in other English Bibles.
Alter’s work is far superior to other translations in several passages. There are many instances in the OT where scholars follow tradition more than the text even in the latest translations. But Alter does not need to follow Christian traditions in his translation of the Hebrew Bible.
Alter’s commentary is nearly as helpful as his translation. My conservative views on inerrancy, historicity, and the fulfillment of OT prophecy in Christ’s two advents, cause me to often disagree with Alter. At the same time, his unique perspective, compared to my Christian commentaries, provides a helpful guard for the Christian interpreter. On some occasions, such as Isaiah 53, Alter will reference Christian interpretations of a passage, but he rejects a Christian understanding of OT prophecies. Hence, the reader should feel free to disagree with Alter whenever he runs afoul of the NT.
At the same time, when the NT doesn’t expressly point out a reference to Christ or interpret a passage as prophetic, Alter helps the reader to see how it would be viewed from a strictly Jewish perspective. His interpretation of Ezekiel’s temple defends the view that Ezekiel was describing a physical temple but one not in line with Solomon’s or any other temple recorded in the Bible. The temple is not an illustration of the Messiah, but Ezekiel was looking forward to a bold and new reconstruction of the temple, which he last saw as a child. At times, our Christian perspective imposes a Christian understanding on the text that changes the author’s intended meaning.
No one serious about examining the Hebrew Bible’s finer points and determining the author’s meaning of the text should pass up on Alter’s translation and commentary. It is more than worth the cost.
Grace Community Bible Church