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John Goldingay

Dichten = Condensare

Robert Alter's artful guide to unpacking the Psalms.

Robert Alter made his way into Biblical Studies in the 1970s, when still in his first decade of teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, where for forty years now he has been a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature. That involved him in teaching and writing about modern literature, including modern Hebrew literature; one of his recent works compares Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, and Gershom Scholem. But he made the logical if unconventional move to looking also at the ancient Hebrew literature that Christians call the Old Testament. In a series of ground-breaking articles in the journal Commentary that led to his books The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981) and The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985), he asked the kind of questions one might ask of other literature: How does the Bible's narrative work? How is its characterization effected? What are the techniques of Hebrew poetry? How does it use metaphor?

These studies came out at a propitious moment for Alter to be taken seriously in Old Testament study, a time when scholars in the field were becoming aware of the limitations of the dominant contemporary approach and were looking in new directions. Hans Frei had chronicled how 18th-century biblical scholarship became newly aware of the gap between the story the Bible tells and the events that actually happened, and had to make up its mind which it was interested in. There was no contest. History was God in those days, and narrative was abandoned for the quest to locate the actual events. (The only difference in conservative scholarship was continuing to insist that the story and the history were the same, or nearly so.) If you had a copy of John Bright's History of Israel on your shelves, so the assumption went, you had what you needed for understanding the Old Testament.

By the 1970s and 1980s, the downside to that choice of focus had become apparent. If Alter had published his innovative studies a decade or two earlier, in the world of Old Testament scholarship he would have looked quaint. In this new context, he looked really interesting. He has subsequently moved on to translation and commentary, covering the Pentateuch, the David story, and now the Psalms in this latest volume (published in 2007 and scheduled to appear in paperback in the fall of 2009).

Do we need another translation? One aspect of Alter's dissatisfaction with existing versions is that they are anemic. They aim at being reasonably easy to understand, which the Bible does not. To a certain extent he makes an exception for the King James Bible, but he notes that its rhythm, too, conveys no sense of that of the Hebrew, and it is sometimes simply wrong. As he put it in connection with the Pentateuch, the problem with modern translations is their shaky sense of English, with the kjv its shaky sense of Hebrew.

The brief introduction to his translation of the Psalms is itself a masterpiece, mostly of common sense. He begins with their historical background, which means first of all their background in Middle Eastern psalmody (he could give the impression that we have examples of Canaanite psalms; we do not). He notes the ambiguity in the recurrent expression mizmor ledawid, from which readers infer Davidic authorship, but which is actually of rather indistinct meaning. He brilliantly translates it simply "David psalm" and comments, "One cannot categorically exclude the possibility that a couple of these psalms were actually written by David," which nicely makes the point about authorship. He treats with deserved skepticism attempts to identify the precise liturgical background of the Psalms and with almost as deserved skepticism the form-critical approach. He summarizes the possible development of the Psalter without buying into the overly fashionable canonical reading of individual psalms. He considers the Psalms' textual problems, and turns out to be freer about emending the text than I might have expected (or than I would be). And he summarizes his understanding of the nature of Hebrew poetry as it appears in the Psalms.

As for the translation, let us begin at the beginning.

1 Happy the man who has not walked in the wicked's counsel,
nor in the way of offenders has stood,
nor in the session of scoffers has sat.
2 But the LORD's teaching is his desire
and His teaching he murmurs day and night.
3 And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water,
that bears its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither—
and in all that he does he prospers.
4 Not so the wicked,
but like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand up in judgment,
nor offenders in the band of the righteous.
6 For the lord embraces the way of the righteous,
and the way of the wicked is lost.

A feature of Hebrew poetry, as of any poetry, is denseness. Poetry uses far fewer words to say more than prose does, in part by avoiding many of the little words that ease prose communication. One result is that it makes readers work harder and thus get involved. As Alter notes, this spareness is compounded by the fact that Hebrew is a highly inflected language. So "the man" is one word, "has walked" is one word, "in the wicked's counsel" is two words. The psalm comprises about fifty words, less than half the total required by English translations. Professor Alter can do little about that; his translation is hardly shorter than the standard ones. What he can do is make the dynamic of the psalm's lines and that of individual words correspond better to those of the original.

The layout of the printed translation makes its poetic form easier to appreciate, partly because the text is printed in wide columns (the NRSV and TNIV have similar layouts, but the narrowness of their columns makes it harder to perceive). Alter pays attention to word order to give readers an impression of the lines' dynamic. So the prepositional phrases come before the verb in the second and third versets of v. 1 ("verset" is the term he uses for a part of a line that is semi-complete; there are three versets in v. 1, four in v. 3, two—as is most common—in the other verses). That is unusual in Hebrew, as in English. The result reads a little oddly, as the translation often does, but then it is not designed for reading out in synagogue or church, and it also has the virtue of defamiliarization. Further, poetry is allowed to read oddly. This, too, keeps readers involved.

Whereas translations traditionally have "meditate" in v. 2b, the verb hagah actually signifies saying something out loud. Reading Scripture for yourself is not something that happens inside your head; it is something you externalize, "murmuring" it, like private prayer, in the way Jews do when they are davening.

There is a nice punchiness and terseness about v. 4, which in Hebrew is a pair of noun clauses (that is, the line has no main verbs). "Not so the wicked" is a noun clause in English, but this is a much commoner idiom in Hebrew, and the translation leaves it that way in both versets. Although "wicked" is a standard rendering for reshaim, at other points the translation avoids conventional religious equivalents such as "sinners" for hattaim ("offenders"). And it rightly translates torah as teaching rather than "law," which usually gives the wrong impression. These first two verses well illustrate Alter's commitment to preserving the relentlessly concrete nature of the Psalms' language, and avoiding language that may be hallowed by tradition but now carries misleading resonances. In his introduction, he instances talk in terms of "salvation" or the "soul."

Other aspects of the translation's conservatism surprised me. To begin with, the opening word is not an adjective but a plural noun. The New Living Translation gets nearest to the idiom with its "Oh the joys of those" (which also incidentally draws attention to the fact that Alter does not attempt an inclusive language rendering, which would involve sacrificing the attempt to convey the way the poetry works). The capital "He" for the deity is unexpected; that neither corresponds to the Hebrew nor to much (most?) current English usage, though it does correspond to the njps. The same applies to the surprising adherence to "the LORD" for yhwh, which I guess was a tough call. It does not matter too much in this psalm, but there are many where the substitution of the common noun for the name of God produces nonsense. "Know that the LORD is God," Alter has, conventionally, in Psalm 100. But the point is, "know that Yahweh is God," as opposed to Baal being God, or Marduk being God. The psalm is making a statement that could cost you your life. The traditional rendering produces tautology.

Setting the pattern for the volume, Alter's translation of Psalm 1 is followed by a page of notes on particular phrases—not inappropriately, they recall the notes in an edition of a Shakespeare play as much as the notes in a Bible commentary (but they also recall the form of the notes by the medieval Jewish commentators). In this case, the comments on v. 1 smuggle in an introduction to the psalm as a whole, noting its resemblance to Wisdom literature and the significance of its placing at the beginning of the Psalter. But this is atypical. Usually there is no comment on the psalm as a whole, only observations on particular phrases, to help the reader see how the poetry works and appreciate the Hebrew behind it.

That opening note also comments on the image of the "way," and on that word "happy," almost making the point I made just now about it. Subsequent notes explain that word "murmur" and the imagery in v. 3, and comment on alternative ways of understanding the Hebrew in v. 3d. A note on v. 5 would have been nice—what on earth does it mean? In other psalms, when he presupposes a different Hebrew text from the Masoretic, Alter explains what it is, and also sometimes shares insights from the medieval Jewish commentators and from other Jewish usage, and explains wordplay.

The notes on the last verse draw attention to the link between v. 6 and v. 1 ("a kind of envelope structure") and comment on the verb "embrace." It is yada, the regular verb for "know." But often this translation does not work; the verb suggests not merely mental awareness but a kind of commitment. In the line from Psalm 100 noted above, an even better translation is "acknowledge that Yahweh is God." Here, TNIV and NRSV have "watch over," njps "cherish." "Embrace" is OK, though the note raises questions. It makes a link with the verb's use to refer to people "knowing" each other sexually, and implies that this suggests "intimate connection." Actually, when the verb denotes having sex, it means just that—having sex. No intimacy is implied.

Alter also writes on literary theory, and there is literary theory lying behind his work. He knows that what he likes is the old "new criticism," which now looks old hat to his critics. He has written about The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age (1989), in which he invites his readers to put aside Derrida and Foucault for a while. There is also the well-illustrated Literary Guide to the Bible (1987), which he and Frank Kermode edited. By the standards of the 1960s and 1970s he was a revolutionary figure, but in the context of post-structuralism, deconstruction, reader-response theory, and postcolonial criticism he looks antediluvian, as critics have pointed out. [1] For some readers, of course, this will be an endorsement. In any case, Alter is an eye-opening guide to the text as it stands.

John Goldingay is David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a three-volume commentary on the Psalms, published by Baker Academic.

1. There is a useful study of this by Burke O. Long, "The 'New' Biblical Poetics of Alter and Sternberg," in the Journal for the Study of the OT, Vol. 51 (1991), pp. 71-84.

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