The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary
by robert alter
w.w. norton, 560 pages, $35
The appearance of Robert Alter’s translation and commentary on the Psalms is being treated as a major literary event, with a lengthy review in the New Yorker of all places. What other biblical commentary of recent memory has been reviewed in that esteemed publication? Literary figures of many different stripes have come forward to hail The Book of Psalms as an achievement of renown. The publisher adds to the hype by binding in a ribbon, suggesting that this is not simply another translation but a sacred work in its own right.
The translator must be used to this level of acclaim. Alter is a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, with primary expertise in modern literature. And in that field he is a master. Over the years, however, he has been trying his hand at biblical interpretation.
His first book, The Art of Biblical Narrative, appeared in 1981 and made a considerable splash. He followed that volume with a book on poetry in 1985 and then edited a “literary commentary” on the entire Bible in 1987. So successful were those volumes that he began to work on entire books—Genesis, Samuel, the Pentateuch as a whole, and now the Psalms. Such output would be considered prolific for a biblical scholar; for someone outside the field, it is phenomenal.
That initial work on narrative prose was greeted, at the time, as a breath of fresh air in what many considered a stuffy environment. The field of biblical studies often tends toward the insular and pedantic. Sometimes it puts much too much confidence in its own reconstruction of sources than is merited. But more tiresome is the fact that biblical scholars—and their numbers are legion—write in an impenetrable scholarly jargon. More than a few curious laypeople have arrived at a library to check on a verse that puzzled them, only to leave far more perplexed. For readers such as these, Alter offered intelligent and enlightening access to what had become an inaccessible book. Dozens upon dozens of college courses titled “A Literary Approach to the Bible” followed in the wake of Alter’s work.
Yet the attraction has cooled over the years, at least for me. In part this was due to my discovery of more competent readers of the biblical texts (Meir Sternberg and Yair Zakovitch, for example). But it was also the case that, as Alter moved from making brilliant observations about a small selection of texts to writing large commentaries on entire biblical books, the weaknesses of his scholarship became more visible.
These weaknesses have become all the more evident in Alter’s Book of Psalms. The Psalms are certainly—in spite of their widespread appeal and familiarity—among the most difficult texts of the Bible to translate and comment on. Part of the reason is that they are poetic texts and often use metaphors and similes we no longer grasp. But another, more vexing reason is the numerous textual corruptions. Any good edition must include numerous annotations along the lines of “the Hebrew of this verse is obscure” or “the translation reflects the Greek.” To his credit, Alter often acknowledges the difficulty in the Hebrew and makes clear in the notes why he has chosen to go the way he has. But he has no knowledge of other ancient versions, and the resources he can use are limited.
For that matter, Alter sometimes makes blunders in lines where the Hebrew is clear. One of my favorites is Psalm 126, recited during the grace after the main Sabbath meal. (Alter rarely makes reference to how the Psalms function in Jewish life.) The central part of the psalm is a plea that God restore the fortunes of his people. Alter renders it:
Restore, O Lord, our fortunes like freshets in the Negeb.
They who sow in tears in glad song will reap.
He walks along and weeps, the bearer of the seed-bag.
He will surely come in with glad song bearing his sheaves.
Why the overly literal translation of the last lines? As Alter observes in a note, these lines are a classic example of antithetical parallelism. But if so, why not let the reader in on the secret: “Though he goes along weeping, . . . he shall come back with songs of joy.” It is true that there is no word for though in the original, but that is because biblical Hebrew doesn’t use such words. It is the task of the translator to provide them.
More troubling is Alter’s rendition of verse four: “Restore our fortunes like freshets in the Negeb.” I much prefer watercourses to the archaic and precious freshets. In his commentary, Alter writes: “The reference is to wadis or dry water gulches that with the onset of the rainy season are filled with streams of water. It is an apt image for restoring the previous condition of a desolate Zion.”
OK, true enough. But the power of the image is not the transformation of the environment but the stunning image of how this will come about. As the notes to The Jewish Study Bible explain, “The wadis fill suddenly.” Indeed, every year in Israel thrill-seekers rush to the desert after a storm to watch this remarkable transformation from an arid gulch to a torrent of water. And every year the suddenness of the change is as unexpected as it is powerful (with the tragic result that some onlookers are carried away by the waters and die). Clearly it is the miraculous power and suddenness of these waters that inspired the psalmist, and Israeli radio regularly warns of the dangers conjured by this psalm—which is how the eschatological redemption of Israel shall unfold.
Other problems occur in the translation and commentary. Psalm 15 begins with a question: “Who will sojourn in Your tent, who will dwell on Your holy mountain?” And the answer is a litany of moral virtues: He who walks blamelessly and does justice, etc. Many commentators understand this text as grounded in a ritual that took place as pilgrims made their way to the Temple. Alter waves this off this suggestion without any recourse to argument: This psalm “need not be understood literally, as some scholars propose, as a kind of entrance quiz for people coming into the temple.” But then, in Psalm 24, a similarly structured composition, he adopts the idea without hesitation: “One can easily imagine a procession of pilgrims ascending the temple mount while a chorus chants these questions, perhaps with an antiphonal response.”
He also observes that the first line of Psalm 15 contrasts a temporary residence (“who will sojourn in your tent”) with the solid structure of the Temple (“who will dwell on Your holy mountain”). This may be the case, but not for the reasons Alter gives. He argues that the Hebrew word for dwell indicates a permanent sort of building. Yet that same word is the preferred term to describe God’s habitation in the Tabernacle in the Book of Exodus.
One of the most striking features of the Psalms is the way the I at the beginning of a psalm often turns to a we at the end. For example, Psalm 3 begins, “Lord, how many are my foes, many who rise up against me,” and then concludes, “Rise Lord! Rescue me, my God, for You strike all my foes on the cheek, the teeth of the wicked You smash”—only to add one last verse abandoning the first person in favor of a plea for all Israel: “Rescue is the Lord’s! On Your people Your blessing.”
This editorial addition is of considerable theological importance. It transforms the concerns of an individual into an affair of the community as a whole. Just a brief perusal of traditional Jewish commentaries will indicate how influential this move has been. As the rabbis put the matter: “Whatever David says in his book pertains to himself, to all Israel, and to all times.”
Yet Alter is deaf to this kind of theological transformation. In his commentary on Psalm 3:9—“Rescue is the Lord’s! On your people, your blessing”—he writes that “the sudden appearance of a national perspective at the conclusion of an exclusively first-person poem looks odd. One may suspect that this is a textual tag from somewhere else introduced in redaction, perhaps because of the initial words, ‘Rescue is the Lord’s.’” This half-hearted attempt to pass this theological transformation off as a form of wooden textual redaction sounds like the type of pedantic scholarship from which Alter is supposed to save us. He repeats this type of annotation several times over the course of his book.
Still, for the task of reading this most difficult of biblical books, Alter’s Book of Psalms gives us another window—and the more, the better. Alter’s ability to turn a good phrase yields a number of memorable moments. But the reader should be wary of the commentary and aware that deeper questions of biblical grammar and syntax are not his area of expertise. In my opinion, the translation and annotations in The Jewish Study Bible make a far better place to begin reading the Psalms.
Gary A. Anderson is professor of Old Testament at the University of Notre Dame.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash. Image cropped.