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The ‘Counter-Revelation’ of the Wisdom Books

October 29, 2010

The great literary critic, Robert Alter has just put out his newest set of English translations of the Hebrew Scriptures. He had already published translations of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers), as well as translations of Samuel I and II and the Psalms. But now he has published his take on the Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (though he calls it by its ambiguous Hebrew name, Qohelet).

I am a huge fan of Alter’s interpretive work regarding the story-telling styles used in the Bible, and I’m also a big fan of his earlier translations of scripture–so this is big news to me. Job and Qohelet, in particular, are two of the most fascinating and most provocative books of scripture, in my opinion, containing thoughts and ideas and themes rarely if ever expressed anywhere else in the Christian or Jewish canons. And Alter, in his work as a translator, has always managed to render the texts in a very blunt and modern style without straying from the true meaning of the original Hebrew.

As The New Republic‘s Adam Kirsch puts it (in a review of Alter’s new translation),

[The Wisdom Books] are the Biblical books that speak most directly to the modern, skeptical, secular reader. If the Torah is revelation—an ostensibly factual account of God’s actions and commandments—the Wisdom Books are a kind of counter-revelation: an emphatically human expression of the impossibility of knowing God or believing in His justice… What makes the Wisdom Books stand out so starkly from the rest of the Bible is that, in asking such primal questions, they implicitly or explicitly reject the answers that the Hebrew Bible usually gives… It is enough to make you wonder how the Wisdom Books came to be a part of the Biblical canon in the first place. It would seem that, as Alter writes, “there must have been Hebrew readers…who were not willing to let go of Qohelet,” who cherished its literary power and human insight in spite, or maybe even because, of its “subversive skepticism.”

And regarding Alter’s new translations of these texts, Kirsch writes:

Alter’s versions are not destined to replace the King James Version; they are meant to strip away its familiarity, to help us see the Biblical text more closely and accurately… [Alter’s translations help us to see that] the poets who wrote these books, and the editors and scribes who assembled and preserved them, are never more alive than when we can see them as suffering and questioning human beings.

A few months ago, I focused a sermon on the Book of Qohelet (what we more commonly call Ecclesiastes), especially its angst-ridden questioning of whether life has any meaning, and gave particular attention to the issue of how best to translate the text. Click here for that complete sermon.

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