The Wisdom Books

Job, Proverbs,
and Ecclesiastes

Translated with commentary

by Robert Alter

W.W. Norton. 560 pp. $35. nolead ends nolead begins


Reviewed by John Timpane


All this decade, Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, has been assembling one of the great poetic and scholarly achievements of our age: a fresh, contemporary translation of the books of the Hebrew Bible into American English responsible to the original language, the poetry, and the tradition of readership going back almost three millennia.

This collection is readable, masterfully translated, sensitive to the literary qualities of the original, and respectful. Job and Qohelet (the mysterious Hebrew name usually translated as Ecclesiastes), two of the best known, most debated texts of all time, bookend Proverbs itself, truly wise, truly surprising. Wisdom is the most challenging task Alter has taken on, in a decade of impossible tasks - and he does better here than he has ever done.

Not that everyone's going to like it. (Gary Anderson of Notre Dame once called Alter's versions an "Altering" of the text.) Next to Shakespeare, the 1611 authorized King James versions of these books are the best-known literary productions in English. So a lot of folks just won't be happy about any new forays.

Alter, the equal of the King James translators, has much to make straight and make right. He hears the poetry. Somehow - despite the irritating encroachment of scholarly notes, often more notes on a page than, say, Job - he gives us a lovely, readerly version.

So in this review, I won't refer to the King James. Alter honors it. He knows it's a triumph of English belief and English prose, and when it gets the spirit of the original - as it does in Qohelet - he's happy to say so. He also says so when the translation plays crazy or goes wrong. Love the King James, then, but let's assess Alter by and for Alter.

He knows when to let straightforward be straightforward ("A wise son gladdens his father, / But a foolish son is his mother's sorrow"). But when faced with expressive experimentation, he finds many serviceable equivalents. Here are three lines from Job 30:

In want and starvation bereft

They flee to desert land,

The darkness of desolate dunes

Nice. Alter's rhythms capture what happens in the Hebrew (I looked it up and sounded it out - my Hebrew is bad, but I know enough to hear the rhythms). The third line, as Alter tells us, is 'emesh sho'ah umesh'oah. The repeated m and esh, the repeated oah - this is a moment of music, of poetry. The translator doesn't have to give the exact sounds, but s/he should search for an equivalent. Alter's - employing repeated d's to give our ears at least a taste - is nice.

Plenty are such moments. Job is simply a fearsome book - in meaning and in poetic achievement. Alter is right: It's the poetic high point in the Hebrew Bible. Here's thunderous Leviathan:

His sneezes shoot out light,

and his eyes are like the eyelids of dawn. . . .

The folds of his flesh cling together;

hard-cast, he will not totter.

His heart is cast hard as stone,

cast hard as a nether millstone.

Rarely, if ever, has a translation brought us the power of one of the best poets in history, whoever s/he was. Feel the systole/diastole of the two-line Hebrew verse unit, the build, the repetition, the lucid originality.

Job also is an outrage, an affront - for its message is that the Lord is arbitrary. The Lord does not necessarily reward the just and punish the evil. The Lord belittles Job - rightly, as Job agrees, but also unfairly, given Job's suffering. At the end, Job isn't rewarded for his griefs - he's rewarded because he helps the Lord win the bet with the Adversary.

That brings us to the austere irony of these three books. Proverbs, an international anthology of sayings, is a monument of confident advice. Wisdom calls:

To you, men, I call out,

and my voice, to humankind.

Understand shrewdness, you dupes,

and fools, make your heart understand.

Listen, for I speak noble things,

my mouth's utterance - uprightness.

Compression and directness: Much of the verse really is like this.

Alter discusses at length the "consensus" in Hebrew culture about what is wise. The problem is, the edifice of Proverbs is bracketed by Job and Qohelet, who question central tenets of this alleged "consensus."

Job and Qohelet doubt that we can ever really achieve wisdom, or that life has any meaning. ("Merest breath, said Qohelet, merest breath. All is mere breath.") The Lord definitely gets involved in our lives (as the "consensus" teaches) - but how comforting can that be, given, in Job's case, Job's case? Or given, in Qohelet's case, our mad, frustrating, elusive lives, in which "much wisdom is much worry," the search for wisdom just one more waste of time? So much, say the Wisdom books, for the books of Wisdom.

And yet who can deny the penetration or insight of those books? Job is a brave, staggering look directly at God, and God's existence in a world that refuses to make human sense. Qohelet declares the ephemerality of all things. And yet we're told:

Everything He has done aptly in its time. Eternity, too, He has put in their heart, without man's grasping at all what it is God has done from beginning to end.

Qohelet and Job don't try to solve the conflicts and quandaries. That is wisdom, too.

As a scholar, Alter wants to do this job a certain way. He's trustworthy and judicious. Sometimes, however, he is just as airily dismissive, on grounds just as weak, as most scholars at some time or other. It's possible he overstresses the coherence and one-voicedness of the Wisdom "consensus." In works across hundreds of years of history, scattering, enslavement, and war, Hebrew thought may but rarely have been as unified as Alter has it.

Alter swoops down, for example, on any notion of an afterlife. Seems to me (humbly submitted, in the presence of a much greater scholar) that in the ancient Hebrew world there were many notions of what happens after death, as there are today. Why argue them down, as Alter often does? He wrestles with the coexistence of skepticism with afterlife notions in Qohelet - but why does Qohelet, or his/her audience, or the first assemblers of the Hebrew scriptures, have to think as we do? Why seek Western rationalism where it never could have existed? We already know these texts are far from us, written by people quite different from us. Why, then, test those texts according to the concerns of learned technocrats of 2010?

There may exist fair grounds for suggesting, further, that Job may not be as Hebrew as Alter writes - or at least not only Hebrew. Alter waves away suggestions that much of Job comes from other cultures, but he doesn't do too well with that pesky prose frame around the poetic heart. His argument runs something like "but the poetry's too good for this not to be originally Hebrew." It doesn't have to be originally anything. All it has to be is what it is.

And Robert Alter has done well in giving us these three precious, spectacular books as they are. Read his translations and savor them. What a gift, and at the right time, too.

Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com or twitter.com/jtimpane.