Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Wisdom Books

The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary
By Robert Alter
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., $35.00 cloth
ISBN: 978-0-393-06812-2


The importance of sacred texts forms the foundation of culture. The preserved wisdom inherent in such works as the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Bible teaches us how to live and the significance of our life experiences. Through sacred literature, we discover our place in the universe and the meaning of life.

It is in that spirit that Robert Alter’s new translation with commentary, The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, re-evaluates the wisdom contained in those biblical books for a twenty-first century audience. Alter focuses on a more literal translation using Hebraic sources, and compares the language to the Vulgate, Septuagint, Egyptian, Arabic and rabbinic Hebrew sources. He takes great pains to construct his reordering of the words, utilizing a linguistically dogmatic and accurate translation, footnoting the conjugation of verbs, implication of specific diction, and the possible scribal errors that might have occurred through the centuries.

Given the number of classic translations of the biblical books, Alter has his work cut out for him. Can the King James’ Bible really be superseded by yet another translation? His take is to trace the three books as part of the wisdom canon of sacred texts. He cautions readers that scholars disagree as to the order and importance of the books in this section of the Old Testament, but “there are identifiable features of Wisdom literature that give [these books] a distinctive identity within the biblical corpus.” He goes on to say that “Abundant evidence has been uncovered, in Egypt and in Mesopotamia as well, that Wisdom writing was a fairly widespread practice in the ancient Near East.” This kind of literature focuses on a dialogue, similar to a legal construct, debating the philosophical implications of good and evil, and why human suffering exists in the world. This literature “raises questions of value and moral behavior,” Alter writes, “of the meaning of human life, and especially of the right conduct of life.”

Alter writes an opening essay for each of the three book translations, analyzing the historical and critical ideas present in the specific book. This is where Alter’s work is most successful. He is a first-rate biblical scholar, and his discussions of the books reveal many intricate aspects of the texts.

Of Job, he writes, “apart from the prose frame-story of the first two chapters and the last one, [the book] is composed entirely as poetry, and it often proves to be poetry of a highly innovative and sometimes deliberately disturbing kind.” He insists that “Job, for all its profundity, is a theological rather than a philosophic text.”

Proverbs,” he says, “is the only one of the three canonical Wisdom books that might conceivably reflect the activities of some sort of academy. Composed in verse from beginning to end, it often seems to utilize the mnemonic function of poetry to inscribe in memory principles of right and wrong, and one can plausibly imagine a teacher imparting instruction of this sort to his disciples.”

Alter uses the Hebrew title for Ecclesiastes: Qohelet. This book, “concerned as it is with the structure of reality and how ephemeral human life is locked into that structure, is close to a genuinely philosophic work, though it articulates its philosophy through incantatory language and haunting imagery rather than through systematic thought.”

As for the translation, Alter’s work does not really improve upon other classic biblical translations. For instance, Proverbs 11:29 reads in Alter’s version: “Who blights his house will inherit the wind, and the dolt is a slave to the wise of heart.” This may be linguistically accurate, but I find the poetry missing from the phrase, and the writing is clunky.

The New American translation has the verse as “He who upsets his household has empty air for a heritage; and the fool will become slave to the wise man.” That certainly has to be an even worse rendering.

I find the best, most poetic translation to be the King James’ version: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.” As I have said, there is a reason why the King James’ version has withstood the test of time, and Alter’s new translation is no threat to its sovereignty.

Alter also tends to utilize the same phrases or words repeatedly. He uses “dolt” to refer to a stupid or foolish person. His text is littered with “dolts” and the word becomes cliché and pedantic with overuse. Yes, “dolt” might be the exact translation of the original Hebrew word, but accuracy must sometimes be sacrificed for readability.

The other problem with the book concerns the layout of the text. Alter has the translated text on each page followed by the footnotes of explanation and source material at the bottom. This almost uniformly makes each page half text and half notes. I read the text and then the notes, which interrupts the continuity of the reading. Ideas and complete thoughts of the biblical writer are interrupted in order to include Alter’s notes. I tried reading to the end of the thought, but then I had to turn back, sometimes several pages, to catch up on the notes. The notes are far more interesting than the translation.

Alter is an incredible scholar, and his analysis of the books and their importance to culture is the best part of the book. His insights and background make for such interesting reading, and if a reader wants to review the text of the biblical book, one can consult the Bible separately. The value of Alter’s work is the scholarship, and this material really does not need to compete for page space with yet another translation of the Bible.

In the end, the wisdom transmitted by Job’s theological argument with his three adversaries and God, the collection of Proverbs dictating “that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” and the book of Qohelet’s “reflections on the ephemerality of life, the flimsiness of human value, and the ineluctable fate of death,” are the elements of wisdom elucidated by these books of the Bible. Robert Alter identifies the books of Job, Proverbs, and Qohelet as unique in their singularity. “The Book of Job is in several ways the most mysterious book of the Hebrew Bible,” he writes. Proverbs, “like Job and Qohelet, [is] not altogether a likely book for inclusion in the canon.” Finally, “Qohelet is in some ways the most peculiar book of the Hebrew Bible.” His placing of each book in its historical, cultural, theological, and philosophical position in human history makes for fascinating reading. Unfortunately, his translation does not move our understanding of the books forward, although it is a painstakingly meticulous work on its own.

The result of Alter’s labors is two books really, and one is infinitely more intriguing for this reader. He traces the history of western wisdom from the dawn of Judeo-Christian culture, and like a crystal-clear voice across millennia, we listen, we hear, and we are enlightened.

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