Archive for the ‘The Old Testament’ Category


The Enduring Negative Proof – Hans Urs von Balthazar

March 25, 2014
Pietro lorenzetti, compianto (dettaglio) basilica inferiore di assisi  (1310-1329)

Pietro lorenzetti, compianto (dettaglio) basilica inferiore di assisi (1310-1329)

In the first section of this book, we took as our starting point the involvement of God. And we saw that in the world of the Bible, God, in moving out to meet us, stimulates in us the urge, deep-rooted in our being, to burst out beyond the bonds of earthly finitude toward him. In pagan religions, such longings after God have always something of a dreamlike quality and the images used to express them are clearly projections of the human imaginations.

But man knows the problems inherent in his use of imagination; and he is therefore in mystical and negative theology fully prepared to see these dream images as having only relative significance, to inquire into what lies beneath them and ultimately to get rid of them altogether. For neither fantasy nor concept can express the true object of man’s real longing. Nor can he know this of himself; for only God can reveal it to him.

In the world of the Bible, this is different. Here God is represented in the act of setting out in front of man on a journey into a future, unknown and yet assured. And man advances toward him, who himself is this unknown future. As God goes before man, as on the journey through the wilderness, he makes man live in a state of perpetual setting out toward that future which alone will bring him fulfillment.

For there is no longer any question of man’s psychosomatic unity being separated out into its constituent elements (as in pagan religions) by his agonizing longing for transcendence (here an immortal soul, there a discarded mortal body, neither of which is any longer “man”). It is a question rather of man being led by the God who goes before toward a genuinely human fulfillment — to a land “flowing with milk and honey”.

The prospect of this land he enters, however, fills him with disappointment. For new pictures of new lands and of this land transformed and altered are projected by the prophets for the future (most strongly by the Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah); and their vision is of an earthly Jerusalem, shining with the power and glory of God for all to see, which is to be the center of the world that will finally come.

Once more the fulfillment of his hopes eludes him, and the images of the promises to come fade away into nothingness; or, to put this better: the eschatological pathos, alive in Israel from the beginning, became more and more accentuated so that the visions of the prophets lapsed into being but symbols of their transcending dynamic for the future, as Israel’s real feeling for the eschatological emerged in late Jewish apocalyptic in its purest form.

Here man’s future, which hitherto had been thought of in terms of the horizontal prolongation of his history, is now seen clearly as breaking in from above into the old world, fallen and beyond redemption, which cannot transform itself from within, but needs recasting in her new and final shape by some power from on high.

In the Old Testament, then, a rift opens up more and more clearly that was at least latently present when God first made the promise, but which had widened to almost intolerable proportions by the time of late Judaism. One can see this in the writings of the Qumran community, which in the plans for the final battle at the end of the age, when the promised Kingdom of God will finally break in, depict a violent scene in which man’s final efforts toward this end (in the carefully drawn-up plan of battle, which in its attention to detail foreshadow the plans that Marxism designs for its campaigns) converge with the mighty acts of God, who intervenes in this very battle with his two Messiahs, and brings about the final victory.

Any idea, however, that the plans of men coincide exactly with the action prepared by God or rather that the divine involvement will draw all human striving into the sphere of its own operation belongs to the sphere of the Utopian and belongs to a dimension outside time (if one looks at this in the perspective of this-worldly history). For neither the place nor the time of God’s inbreaking can be calculated in advance.

The dialectical processes of the Old Covenant go yet further. On the one hand, it becomes continually more clear that the sorrows of our mortal condition are closely associated with a state of subservience to the law (which in this sense means being the servants of an omnipotent God who imposes this law on man). Already in the Book of Job we find that such a situation leads to a fundamental kind of rebellion. Job appeals to a higher court of justice superior to either him or the Lord God, basically for the removal of the heteronomy that expresses itself as much in that kind of suffering that ends in death as in the imposition of the law.

In Judaism, as late as the works of Kafka, this kind of rebellion against a heteronomous guilt pronounced against a man from without and against an incomprehensible Lord who conceals Himself recurs in many different forms. But is not perhaps this heteronomy [vocab: Subordination or subjection to the law of another; political subjection of a community or state; - opposed to autonomy] presented together with the irremovable difference between man who is finite and creaturely and the God who is infinite and the Creator?

The only alternative therefore (if we look at this from the perspectives of the Old Covenant) is to inquire behind the law (which after all, as St. Paul says, only came afterward; see Romans 5:20), and return to Abraham’s Utopian faith in the resurrection of the dead (see Romans 4:17-25), for this first driving force of the Old Covenant was already pregnant with the final result, it is at work in the background of all prophetic activity (see Ezekiel 37; Isaiah 26:19), and at the same time its final aim is the removal of the heteronomy we have been talking about, because God’s law is to be instilled into human hearts so that men may obey it freely (see Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel: 11:19), and man will relate to God, not as a servant to his master but as a friend to his friend or as a child to his parents (see John 15:15; 8:35).

Under the Old Covenant, however, such an outlook is altogether excessive; and when it is combined with those tendencies always latent in man to rebel against the Lord his God, the result in modern Judaism is man being represented as by origin an autonomous being who has given himself a heteronomous law (perhaps he had to do this, as Freud and the later Scheler suggest, in order to reach civilization), who, however, is able to see through the limitations he has imposed upon himself (cf. not only Freud but also Bergson and Simmel) and must loose his inhibitions (Marcuse) in order to reach the source of his inner drives and of his power.

In this kind of Judaism, where the law is criticized out of existence as being something that merely “came afterwards”, and in “negative thinking”, freedom has the last and perhaps most puzzling word (Horkheimer, Adorno) and there the hopes of man and his history thrust them out into the sphere of the merely Utopian (Ernst Bloch), completely overturning all existing situations for the sake of the absolutely new, which exists only then. (Ludwig Rubiner: “Dasein itself does not exist, that which subsists does not exist, we ourselves are the first to make everything” [Der Mensch in der Mitte, 1920, p. 142.1)

Alternatively one can, instead of pointing to the thinking without rules of primitive man (Levy-Bruhl), manipulate the law system from the standpoint of one's own freedom (Wiener) or even equate law and nature as being primitively a structure without subject (Levi-Strauss).

Such is the dialectic of Judaism (as Hegel saw it), the contradiction in human nature becoming seething and virulent through the coming of God, a nature that has been created for a purpose, and now realizes that it has been set in motion toward that end, which by its own powers it could not attain.

The end toward which the whole world is orientated is that unity of divine and human freedom in Jesus Christ, which God alone can effect, for in Christ man finds his own self and is taken up whole and entire into God, in him the urge of Jewish messianic hopes is set at rest, provided that it is agreed to accept the synthesis as being God's grace, and not the goal that Israel is able to reach by dint of its own messianic power.

For that driving force innate in the chosen people leads horizontally into the historical future, but it also leads to the transcendence of this horizontal line. Israel, however, cannot herself resolve this difference, for it is the hollow space in which the figure of the God-man is to be inscribed, who has fulfilled the destiny of all men, even to death and the hopelessness of hell, and transcends this destiny by his resurrection from the dead.

For this reason, Jewish ideology in its brisance [vocab: The shattering effect of the sudden release of energy in an explosion.] as in its dialectic remains the enduring negative proof for the necessity of the Christ event. Jewish thought presses for a change in the structure of the world and of society, because their present structures are so closely allied in principle with the laws of aggression and death. It is always, however, only the structures of this world and this society that Judaism feels must be changed, because the messianic promise is directed toward a temporal future. Should Judaism succeed in changing the structures from the roots upward and lifting the law imposed from above from its hinges, then by this it would in fact bring about a change of heart. The heteronomy of servitude would lie behind us; we would have passed into a realm of freedom, a world of the positively human (Marx).

It is impossible, however, to imagine such a step being taken; it belongs to the sphere of the Utopian, because it implies the removal of that which is to be changed. Judaism, above all religions, ought to have known how to wait in expectation for God to act.

But instead of having the faith to wait for God, she took the management of the messianic kingdom into her own hands and either transformed the meaning of the law promulgated by God as the way to freedom, so that it became a “work” involving the taxing and burdensome labors of man’s own resources (whereas, in fact, it is only by love in its fullness, as St. Paul shows, that the law can truly be fulfilled), or else in the light of the prophecies of Utopia, she has totally excluded all God’s part from the law and, taking prophecy into her own hands, has made it into an enormous human achievement.

We can now begin to see the originality of Christianity in what it brings with it, what it demands and in what in itself alone promises.


Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 5 – Robert Alter

February 14, 2014
Job 40:15–24 describes Behemoth, and then the sea-monster Leviathan, to demonstrate to Job the futility of questioning God, who alone has created these beings and who alone can capture them. Both beasts are chaos monsters destroyed by the deity at the time of creation, although such a conflict is not found in the creation account. Leviathan is identified figuratively with both the primeval sea (Job 3:8, Psalms 74:13) and in apocalyptic literature – describing the end-time – as that adversary, the Devil, from before creation who will finally be defeated. In the divine speeches in Job, Behemoth and Leviathan may both be seen as composite and mythical creatures with enormous strength, which humans like Job could not hope to control. But both are reduced to the status of divine pets, with rings through their noses and Leviathan on a leash.

Job 40:15–24 describes Behemoth, and then the sea-monster Leviathan, to demonstrate to Job the futility of questioning God, who alone has created these beings and who alone can capture them. Both beasts are chaos monsters destroyed by the deity at the time of creation, although such a conflict is not found in the creation account. Leviathan is identified figuratively with both the primeval sea (Job 3:8, Psalms 74:13) and in apocalyptic literature – describing the end-time – as that adversary, the Devil, from before creation who will finally be defeated. In the divine speeches in Job, Behemoth and Leviathan may both be seen as composite and mythical creatures with enormous strength, which humans like Job could not hope to control. But both are reduced to the status of divine pets, with rings through their noses and Leviathan on a leash.

Alter is working alone, the way a poet or novelist does, and the versions he produces carry the authority of imagination, of literature, rather than of religion. In his eyes, this is not a demotion but an elevation. Only if we approach the Bible as a work of literature, Alter believes, can we understand the full subtlety and intelligence of its stories. As he writes in his pioneering book The Art of Biblical Narrative: “As one discovers how to adjust the fine focus of those literary binoculars, the biblical tales, forceful enough to begin with, show a surprising subtlety and inventiveness of detail, and in many instances a beautifully interwoven wholeness. … The paradoxical truth may well be that by learning to enjoy the biblical stories more fully as stories, we shall also come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us about God, man, and the perilously momentous realm of history.”


Nature for the Job poet is not a Newtonian clock operating with automatic mechanism: The impulse to reproduce and nurture life depends upon God’s imbuing each of His creatures with the instinct or “wisdom” to carry it out properly. If the universal provider of life chooses in any case to withhold His understanding — as Job himself is said to lack wisdom and understanding — things can go awry.

In both structure and thematic assertion, Chapters 38-41 are a great diastolic movement, responding to the systolic movement of Chapter 3. The poetics of suffering in Chapter 3 seeks to contract the whole world to a point of extinction, and it generates a chain of images of enclosure and restriction. The poetics of providential vision in the speech from the storm conjures up horizon after expanding horizon, each populated with a new form of life.

Thus, in the second segment of the zoological panorama (38:5-12, though in fact cued by (38:4), we see a parade of animals moving outward into the wild, far beyond the yokes and reins of man: first the young of the mountain goats and gazelles, heading out into the open, then the onager and the wild ox that will never be led into a furrow.

In Chapter 3, only in the grave did prisoners “hear not the taskmaster’s voice” (3:18), and only there was “the slave free of his master” (3:19). But this, God’s rejoinder implies, is a civilization-bound, hobbled perception of reality, for nature abounds in images of freedom: “Who set the wild ass free, / and the unager’s reins who loosed, // whose home I made in the steppes, / his dwelling-place flats of salt? // He scoffs at the bustling city, / the driver’s shouts he does not hear” (39:5-7).

The way in which these various antitheses between Chapter 3 and chapters 38-39 are elaborately pointed may suggest why some of the subsequent major movements in Job’s poetic argument are not also alluded to here. In part, the reason might have been a problem of technical feasibility: it is manageable enough to reverse the key-terms and images and themes of one rich poem at the beginning in another poem at the end, but it might have become unwieldy to introduce into the conclusion allusions to a whole series of intervening poems.

More substantively, however, God chooses for His response to Job the arena of creation, not the court of justice, the latter being the most insistent recurrent metaphor in Job’s argument after Chapter 3. And it is, moreover, a creation that barely reflects the presence of man, a creation where human concepts of justice have no purchase.

We are accustomed to think of the radicalism of the challenge to God in the Book of Job, but it should be recognized that, against the norms of biblical literature, God’s response is no less radical than the challenge. Elsewhere in the Bible, man is the crown of creation, little lower than the angels, expressly fashioned to rule over nature. Perhaps that is why there is so little descriptive nature poetry in the Bible: the natural world is of scant interest in itself; it engages a poet’s imagination only insofar as it reflects man’s place in the scheme of things or serves his purposes.

But in the uniquely vivid descriptive poetry of Job 38-41, the natural world is valuable for itself, and man, far from standing at its center, is present only by implication, peripherally and impotently, in this welter of fathomless forces and untamable beasts.

The most elaborately described as well as the most arresting member of the bestiary in the first discourse is the war-horse. Few readers of the poem would want to give up these splendid lines, though some have wondered what this evocation of the snorting stallion has to do with Job’s predicament. Indeed, some have suspected that the vignette of the war-horse, like the clearly related portraits of the hippopotamus and the crocodile in the next two chapters, is really a sort of descriptive set piece that the poet brought in because he knew he could do it so well.

It seems to me on the contrary that all three beasts are intrinsically connected with the vision of creation that is God’s response to Job’s questioning. The stallion enters the poem through a verbal clue: if the foolish ostrich only had wisdom, we are told, it would soar into the sky and “scoff at the horse and its rider” (39:18).

This moves us directly into a consideration of the horse, which occupies the penultimate position in the first bestiary, before the concluding image of the hawk that will bring us back in an envelope structure to the initial picture of wild creatures caring for their young:

Do you give might to the horse,
do you clothe his neck with a mane?
Do you make his roar like locusts –
his splendid snort is terror.
He churns up the valley exulting,
in power goes out to the clash of arms.
He scoffs at fear and is undaunted,
turns not back from the sword.
Over him rattles the quiver,
the blade, the javelin, and the spear.
With clamor and clatter he swallows the ground,
and ignores the trumpets sound.
At the trumpet he says, “Aha, “
and from afar he scents the fray,
the thunder of captains, the shouts.

The passage is a rich interweave of heightening maneuvers and narrative developments between versets and between lines, as the warhorse itself is the vivid climactic image of the story the poet has to tell about the animal kingdom — before, that is, Behemoth and Leviathan, who, as we shall see, are a climax beyond the climax.

In other words, we perceive the stallion narratively, first snorting and pawing the ground, then dashing into the thick of battle; and we see, for example, his whole body aquiver in a first verset, then a startling focus in the second verset on his nostrils snorting terror. The stallion is a concrete embodiment of contradictions held in high tension, in keeping with the whole vision of nature that has preceded. Though fiercer than the onager and the wild ox, he allows his great power to be subjected to the uses of man; yet, as he is described, he gives the virtual impression of joining in battle of his own free will, for his own pleasure.

It would be naive to conclude from these lines that the poet was interested in promoting martial virtues, but the evoked scene of mayhem does convey a sense that a terrible beauty is born and an awesome energy made manifest in the heat of war. These qualities are continuous with the ravening lion that began the bestiary and with the meteorological poetry before it in which lightning leapt from the cloud and the LORD stored up cosmic weapons in the treasure-houses of snow and hail.

To be sure, the whole zoological section of the poem is meant to tell Job that God’s tender mercies are over all His creatures, but tonally and imagistically this revelation comes in a great storm rather than in a still, small voice, for the providence portrayed is over a world that defies comfortable moral categorizings. The most crucial respect in which such defiance makes itself felt is in the immense, imponderable play of power that is seen to inform creation. The world is a constant cycle of life renewing and nurturing life, but it is also a constant clash of warring forces.

This is neither an easy nor a direct answer to the question of why the good man should suffer, but the imposing vision of a harmonious order to which violence is nevertheless intrinsic and where destruction is part of creation is meant to confront Job with the limits of his moral imagination, a moral imagination far more honest but only somewhat less conventional than that of the Friends.

The strange and wonderful description of the hippopotamus and the crocodile, which after the introductory verses of challenge (40:7-14) takes up all of the second discourse, then makes those limits even more sharply evident by elaborating these two climactically focused images of the poem’s vision of nature.

There has been a certain amount of quite unnecessary confusion among commentators as to whether the subject of the second discourse is in fact zoology or mythology. Many have argued that the two beasts in question are nothing more than the hippopotamus and the crocodile. Others, like Marvin Pope in his philologically painstaking though somewhat sketchy treatment of Job,4 have claimed that both are mythological monsters.

“Leviathan” in fact appears in Chapter 3 as a mythological entity, and the word is clearly cognate with the Ugaritic Lotan, a kind of sea dragon. The argument for mythology is shakier for Behemoth because there is no extra-biblical evidence of the term as a mythological designation, and all the other occurrences within the Bible would seem to be as a generic term for perfectly naturalistic grass-eating beasts of the field, including an earlier use of the term in Job itself (12:7).

The either/or rigidity of the debate over Behemoth and Leviathan quickly dissolves if we note that these two culminating images of the speech from the storm reflect the distinctive poetic logic for the development of meanings that we have been observing on both small scale and large in biblical poetry. The movement from literal to figurative, from verisimilar to hyperbolic, from general assertion to focused concrete image, is precisely the movement that carries us from the catalogue of beasts to Behemoth and Leviathan.

The war-horse, who is the most striking item in the general catalogue and the one also given the most attention quantitatively (seven lines), is a way station in the rising line of semantic intensity that terminates in Behemoth and Leviathan.

The stallion is a familiar creature but already uncanny in the beauty of power he represents. From this point, the poet moves on to two exotic animals whose habitat is the banks of the Nile — that is, far  removed from the actual experience of the Israelite audience and even farther from that of the fictional auditor Job, whose homeland is presumably somewhere to the east of Israel.

The listener, that is, may have actually glimpsed a war-horse or a lion or mountain goat, but the hippopotamus and crocodile are beyond his geographical reach and cultural ken, and he would most likely have heard of them through travelers’ yarns and the fabulation of folklore. The hippopotamus is given ten lines of vivid description that place him on the border between the natural and the supernatural.

Not a single detail is mythological, but everything is rendered with hyperbolic intensity, concluding in the strong assertion that no hook can hold him (in fact, the Egyptians used hooked poles to hunt the hippopotamus). The evocation of the crocodile is then accorded thirty-three lines, and it involves a marvelous fusion of precise observation, hyperbole, and mythological heightening of the real reptile, and thus becomes a beautifully appropriate climax to the whole poem.

To put this question in historical perspective, the very distinction we as moderns make between mythology and zoology would not have been so clear-cut for the ancient imagination. The Job poet and his audience, after all, lived in an era before zoos, and exotic beasts like the ones described in Chapters 40-41 were not part of an easily accessible and observable reality. The borderlines, then, between fabled report, immemorial myth, and natural history would tend to blur, and the poet creatively exploits this blur in his climactic evocation of the two amphibious beasts that are at once part of the natural world and beyond it.

What is stressed in the description of the hippopotamus is the paradoxical union of pacific nature — he is a herbivore, seen peacefully resting in the shade of lotuses on the riverbank — and terrific power against which no human sword could prevail. (Thus, whether hippopotami could actually be captured is not important, for the needs to drive home the point that this awesome beast is both literally and figuratively beyond man’s grasp.) And with strategic effectiveness, the notion of muscular power — bones like bronze, limbs like iron rods — is combined with a striking emphasis on sexual potency, thus extending the images of generation and birth of the first discourse:

Look, pray: the power in his loins,
the virile strength in his belly’s muscles.
He makes his tail stand like a cedar,
his balls’ sinews twine together.

Biblical poetry in general, certainly when measured by the standard of Greek epic verse, is not very visual, or rather is visual only in momentary flashes and sudden climactic developments. But the definition of the crocodile is exceptionally striking in its sustained force, in keeping with its role as the culmination of this long, impressive demonstration of God’s searching vision contrasted to man blind view.

I shall translate the last twenty-two lines of the poem which follow the initial assertion that Leviathan, like Behemoth, is impervious to every hook and snare and every scheme of being subjected to domestication. The line numbers reflect verse numbers in the Hebrew text of Chapter 41, beginning with verse 5:

5 Who can uncover his outer garb,
come into his double mail?
6 Who can pry open the doors of his face?
All around his teeth is terror.
7 His back is rows of shields
closed with the tightest seal.
8 Each touches against the next,
no breath can come between them.
9 Each sticks fast to the next,
locked together, they will not part.
10 His sneezes shoot out light,
and his eyes are like the eyelids of dawn.
11 Firebrands leap from his mouth,
sparks of fire fly into the air.
12 From his nostrils smoke comes out,
like a boiling vat on brushwood.
13 His breath kindles coals,
and flame comes out of his mouth.
14 Strength abides in his neck,
and before him power dances.
15 The folds of his flesh cling together,
hard-cast, he will not totter.
16 His heart is cast hard as stone,
cast hard as a nether millstone.
17 When he rears up, the gods are frightened,
when he crashes down, they cringe.
18 Who overtakes him with sword, it will not avail,
nor spear nor dart nor lance.
19 Iron he deems as straw,
and bronze as rotten wood.
20 No arrow can make him flee,
slingstones for him turn to straw.
21 Missiles* are deemed as straw,
and he mocks the javelin’s clatter.
22 Beneath him, jagged shards,
he draws a harrow over the mud.
23 He makes the deep boil like a pot,
turns sea to an ointment pan.
24 Behind him glistens a wake,
he makes the deep seem hoary.
25 He has no match on earth,
made as he is without fear.
26 All that is lofty he can see.
He is king over all proud beasts.

The power of the crocodile is suggested both through a heightening of the descriptive terms and through a certain narrative movement. First we get the real beast’s awesome teeth and impenetrable armor of scales, then a mythologizing depiction of him breathing; smoke and fire and sneezing sparks of light.

This representation, moreover, of the fire-breathing beast is strangely reminiscent of the description of the God of battles in 2 Samuel 22 and elsewhere in biblical poetry.’ At the same time, the series of challenging interrogatives that has controlled the rhetoric of the divine discourse from the beginning of Chapter 38 glides into declaratives, starting in verse 7, as the poem moves toward closure.’

As elsewhere, the poet works with an exquisite sense of the descriptive needs at hand and of the structural continuities of the poem and the book. The peculiar emphasis on fire and light in the representation of the crocodile takes us back to the cosmic imagery of light in God’s first discourse, to the lightning leaping from the cloud, and beyond that to Job’s initial poem. In fact, the remarkable and celebrated phrase “eyelids of the dawn, which Job in Chapter 3 wanted never to be seen again, recurs here to characterize the light flashing from the crocodile’s eyes.

This makes us draw a pointed connection and at the same time shows how the poet’s figurative language dares to situate rare beauty in the midst of power and terror and strangeness. The implicit narrative development of the description takes us from a vision of the head, armor plate, and body of the beast (verses 13-24), to a picture of him rearing up and crashing down, brushing off all assailants, and then churning out of our field of vision, leaving behind a foaming wake that, like his mouth and eyes, shines (verses 25-32).

The language of sea (yam) and deep (tehom, metzulah) rather than of river water predominates in this final segment, that is in part because of the associations of the mythic Lotan with those terms and that habitat, but also because this vocabulary carries us back to the cosmogonic beginning of God’s speech (see in particular 38:16).

Job’s merely human vision could not penetrate the secrets of the deep, and now at time end we have before our mind’s eye the magnificent, ungraspable beast who lives in the deep, who is master of all creatures of land and sea, who from his own, quite unimaginable perspective “sees” all that is lofty. Leviathan is nature mythologized, for that is the poet’s way of conveying the truly uncanny, the truly inscrutable, in nature; but he remains part of nature, for if he did not it would make little sense for the poem to conclude, “he is king over all proud beasts.””

By now, I would hope it has become, clear what on earth descriptions of a hippopotamus and a crocodile are doing at the end of the Book of Job. Obviously, there can be no direct answer to Job’s question as to why, having been a decent and God-fearing man, he should have lost all his sons and daughters, his wealth, and his health. Job’s poetry was an instrument for probing, against the stream of the Friends’ platitudes, the depths of his own understandable sense of outrage over what befell him.

God’s poetry enables Job to glimpse beyond his human plight an immense world of power and beauty and awesome warring forces. This world is permeated with God’s ordering concern, but as the vividness of the verse makes clear, it presents to the human eye a welter of contradictions, dizzying variety, energies and entities that man cannot take in. Job surely does not have the sort of answer he expected, but he has a strong answer of another kind.

Now at the end he will no longer presume to want to judge the Creator, having been brought through God’s tremendous poetry to realize that creation can perhaps be sensed but not encompassed by the mind — like that final image of the crocodile-Leviathan already whipping away from our field of vision, leaving behind only a shining wake for us to see.

If Job in his first response to the deity (40:2, 4-5) merely confessed that he could not hope to contend with God and would henceforth hold his peace, in his second response (42:2-6), after the conclusion of the second divine speech, he humbly admits that he has been presumptuous, has in fact “obscured counsel” about things he did not understand. Referring more specifically to the impact of God’s visionary poem, he announces that he has been vouchsafed a gift of sight — the glimpse of an ungraspable creation surging with the power of its Creator:

By the ear’s rumor I heard of You,
and now my eyes have seen You.


Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 4 – Robert Alter

February 13, 2014
Perhaps the finest illustration of this nice match of meaning and imagery between the two poems is the beautiful counterbalance between the most haunting of Job's lines wishing for darkness and the most exquisite of God's lines affirming light.

Perhaps the finest illustration of this nice match of meaning and imagery between the two poems is the beautiful counterbalance between the most haunting of Job’s lines wishing for darkness and the most exquisite of God’s lines affirming light.

See Intro in first post.


This general turning of Job’s first affirmation of death into an affirmation of life is minutely worked out in the language and imagery of the poem that God speaks. Job’s initial poem, we recall, began by setting out the binary opposition between day and night, light and darkness, and then proceeded through an intensifying series of wishes that the light be swallowed up by darkness.

The opening verset of God’s speech summons Job as someone who “darkens counsel,” and the emphatic and repeated play with images of light and darkness in the subsequent lines makes it clear that this initial characterization of Job is a direct critique of his first speech and all that follows from it. (The allusion here to the poem in Chapter 3 is reinforced by the term God uses at the beginning of the second line in addressing Job, giver, “man,” which also occurs at the beginning of Job’s first poem — “the night that said, A man has been conceived.”

It is as though God were implying: you called yourself man, giver, now gird up your loins like a man and see if you can face the truth. Job, the Voice from the Whirl wind suggests, has gotten things entirely skewed in regard to the basic ontological constituents of light and darkness. The two in fact exist in a delicate and powerful dialectic beyond the ken of man, and the balance between them is part of the unfathomable beauty of creation. This point is intimated in many of the first thirty-seven lines of the poem and made explicit in verses 19-20:

Where is the way light dwells,
and darkness, where is its place,
That you might take it to its home,
and understand the paths to its house?

Job in Chapter 3 prayed for cloud and darkness to envelop the day he was born. Cloud and deep mist reappear here in a startlingly new context, as the matinal  [vocab: relating to or taking place in the morning.] blanket over the primordial seas, as the swaddling bands of creation (verse 9). Job wanted “death’s shadow (tzalmdvet) to cover his existence; here that term appears as part of large cosmic picture not to be perceived with mere human eyes: Have the gates of death been laid bare to you, / and the gates of death’s shadow have you seen? (verse 17).

In the one explicitly moral point of theodicy made by the Voice from the Whirlwind (verses 12-15), the diurnal rhythm of light succeeding darkness is taken as both emblem and instrument of God’s ferreting out of evildoers — an idea not present to the “Ecclesiastean” vision of Chapter 3, where evil and oppression are merely part of the anguished and futile cyclical movement of life.

It is not surprising that this particular passage should be terse and a little cryptic, for whatever God means to suggest about bringing; wrongdoing to light, He is not invoking the simple moral calculus used so unquestioningly by the Friends. Job in the ascending spirals of his pain-driven rhetoric sought to summon all forms of darkness to eclipse forever the sun and moon and stars. In response God asks him whether he has any notion of what it means in amplitude and moral power to be able to muster the dawn (verse 12) and set the constellations in their regular motion (verses 31-33).

Perhaps the finest illustration of this nice match of meaning and imagery between the two poems is the beautiful counterbalance between the most haunting of Job’s lines wishing for darkness and the most exquisite of God’s lines affirming light. Job, one recalls, tried to conjure up an eternal starless night:

Let its twilight stars go dark,
let it hope for light in vain,
and let it not see the eyelids of the dawn


God, near the beginning of His first discourse, evokes the moment when creation was completed in an image that has become justly famous in its own right but that is also, it should be observed, a counter image to 3:9:

When the morning stars sang together,
 and all the sons of God shouted for joy

(verse 7).

That is, instead of a night with no twilight stars, with no glimmer of dawn, the morning stars of creation exult. The emphasis in this line on song and shouts of joy also takes us back to the poem of Chapter 3, which began with a triumphant cry on the night of conception — a cry Job wanted to wish away — and proceeded to a prayer that no joyous exclamation come into that night (3:7).

Finally, the vestigially mythological “sons of God” — with the semantic breadth in Hebrew of “son,” this implies not biological filiation but something like “celestial company” – takes this back beyond Chapter 3 to the frame-story. There, of course, it was the Adversary who was the prominent and sinister member of “the sons of God.”

The discordant note he represented has been expunged here in this heavenly chorus of creation. What I am pointing to is not one of those contradictions of sources on which biblical scholarship has too often thrived but a culminating moment in which the vision of the poet transcends the limited terms of the folktale he has chosen to use.

There is a second set of key images in the first movement of God’s speech that harks back to Job’s initial poem, namely, the imagery of physical generation and birth. Since this imagery, unlike light and darkness, which are literal substances of creation, is imposed metaphorically by the poet as a way of shaping the material, it provides even clearer evidence of how the poem in Chapter 38 was purposefully articulated as a grand reversal of the poem in Chapter 3.

Job’s first speech begins with birth and conception and circles back on the belly or womb where he would like to be enclosed, where he imagines the fate of the dead fetus as the happiest of human lots. Against those doors of the belly (3:10) that Job wanted shut on him forever, the Voice from the Whirlwind invokes a cosmic womb and cosmic doors to a very different purpose:

Who hedged the sea with double doors,
when it gushed forth from the womb

(verse 8).

This figuration of setting limits to the primal sea as closing doors on a gushing womb produces a high tension of meaning absent from Job’s unequivocal death wish. The doors are closed and bolted (verse 10) so that the flood will not engulf the earth, but nevertheless the waves surge, the womb of all things pulsates, something is born — a sense made clear in the incipiently narrative development of the womb image into the next line (verse 9), where in a metaphor unique in biblical poetry the primordial mists over the surface of the deep are called swaddling bands.

One might note that in the anticipations of this passage in Job’s speech there are allusions to the Canaanite cosmogonic myth of a triumph by force over an archaic sea monster, while in God’s own words that martial story is set aside, or at the very least left in the distant background, so that the cosmogony can be rendered ins in terms of procreation.

What we are invited to imagine in this fashion is creation not as the laying low of a foe but as the damming up and channeling of powers nevertheless allowed to remain active. (The only clear allusion in the poem to God’s doing battle, verse 23, is projected forward in time to an indefinite, perhaps vaguely apocalyptic future.) The poet uses a rather unexpected verb, “to hedge in,” in order to characterize this activity of holding back the womb of the sea, and that is a double allusion, to God’s protective “hedging round” of Job mentioned in the frame-story and to Job’s bitter complaint toward the end of his first poem of having been “hedged in” by God.

The verb, in its various conjugations, is nowhere else in the Bible used for the closing of doors but generally suggests a shading or sheltering act, as with a wing or canopy. One usage that might throw some light on our line from Job is this verse in Psalms (139:13):

“For You created my innermost parts,
wove me [or hedged me around] in my mother’s womb.”

The Creator, that is, at the end of Job, is actively blocking off, bolting in, the surge of the sea, but the word carries after it a long train of associations having to do with protection and nurture, so that the negative sense of the verb in Chapter 3 is in a way combined with the positive sense which the frame-story uses it. What results is a virtual oxymoron, expressing a paradoxical feeling that God’s creation involves a necessary holding in check of violent forces and a sustaining of those same forces because they are also forces of life.

One sees in a single compact phrase how the terms of God’s poetry — which is to say, ultimately, His imagination of the world — transcend the terms of Job’s poetry and that of the Friends. When the poem moves on — as I have suggested, in an implicitly narrative movement — from cosmogony to meteorology, birth imagery once more introduced.

First Job is challenged sarcastically, “You know, for you were then born” (verse 21), which, in addition to the ultimate allusion to the beginning of the poem in Chapter 3, sounds ,quite like Eliphaz’s words to Job in Chapter 15. The crucial difference is that instead of being a rhetorical ploy in a petty contest of supposed longevity, this address is set against a background of cosmic uterine pulsations and leads into a thick cluster of birth images a few lines down (verses 28-29), so that we quickly grasp the ontological contrast between Job, a man born of woman in time, and the principle of generation infinitely larger than man that informs nature.

The two lines below that articulate this principle richly develop the implications of the birth imagery in a characteristically biblical fashion:

Does the rain have a father,
or who begot the drops of dew?
From whose belly did the ice come forth,
To the frost of the heavens who gave birth?

In each of these two lines we are carried forward from agent (fat her) or agency (belly) to the active process of procreation (begot, gave birth — in the Hebrew, two different conjugations of the same verb). Between the first line and the second, what amounts to a biological focusing of the birth image is carried out as we go from the father, the inseminator who is the proximate cause of birth, to the mother, in whose body the actual birth is enacted.

The interlinear parallelism of this couplet also plays brilliantly with the two opposed states of water, first liquid and falling or condensing, then frozen. In the first line, the haunted inapplicability of the birth imagery is a result of multiplicity: How could one imagine anyone fathering the countless millions of raindrops or dewdrops?

In the second line, the incongruity — which is to say, the chasm between man’s small world and God’s vast world — is a more shocking one (still another intensifying development) as the poet’s language forces us to imagine the unimaginable, great chunk of ice coming out of the womb. Figurative language is used here to show the limits of figuration itself, which, in the argumentative thrust of the poem, means the limits of the human imagination. The immediately following line (verse 30) is a focusing development this ice imagery: “Water congeals like stone, / and the face of the deep locks hard.”

The tension of opposites that is at the heart of God’s vision of the world is strongly felt here: fluid and stone-harp solid, white-frozen surface and watery depths. Having reached this point, the poet lays aside birth imagery, and after three lines devoted to the stars concludes the whole meteorological segment with a focusing development of the phenomena of natural precipitation we just observed in verses 28-30, which themselves capped a whole sequence on snow and rain that began with verse.

There remains of course, an implicit connection between fructification or birth and rain, as anyone living in the Near Eastern climate and topography would be readily aware, and as verse 27 reminds us quite naturalistically and verse 28 by a sort of riddling paradox (no one is the father of the rain, but the rain is the father of life). In any case, the concluding four lines of our segment — putting aside verse 36, whose meaning is uncertain — offer an image of downpour on parched land that is, at least by implication, a final turn of the screw in the poetic rejoinder to Chapter 3.

In Job’s initial poem the only water anywhere in evidence is the saltwater of tears (3:24), and clouds are mentioned only as a means to cover up the light. It is surely appropriate that God should now challenge Job to make lightning leap from the thickness of the cloud and that in His cosmic realm, as against Job’s rhetorical realm, the meaning of clouds is not darkness but a source of water to renew the earth with life.

The rest of God’s speech — the second half of the first discourse and virtually all of the second discourse — is then devoted to a poetic panorama of the animal life that covers the earth. The sequence of beasts, like the movement of the poem through space via metonymic links, is loosely associative but also instructive: lion, raven, mountain goat and gazelle, wild ass, wild ox, ostrich, war horse, hawk and eagle. The first two and the last two creatures in the sequence are beasts of prey whose native fierceness in effect frames the wildness of the whole catalogue.

The sequence begins, that is, with an image of the lion couching in ambush for its prey (38:39-40), determined to sate its keen appetite; and the sequence closes with this striking evocation of the eagle seeking food for its brood: “From there [the mountain crag] he seeks out food, / from afar his eyes look down. // His chicks lap up blood; / where the slain are, there he is” (39:29-30).

This concluding poem in Job is probably one of the most unsentimental poetic treatments of the animal world in the Western literary tradition and, at least at first thought, a little surprising coming from the mouth of God. But the violence and, even more, the peculiar beauty of violence are precisely the point of God’s visionary rejoinder to Job. The animal realm is a non-moral realm, but the sharp paradoxes it embodies make us see the inadequacy of any merely human moral calculus — not only that of the Friends, learned by rote, but even Job’s, spoken out of the integrity of suffering.

In the animal kingdom, the tender care for one’s young may well mean their gulping the blood of freshly slain creatures. It is a daily rite of sustaining life that defies all moralizing anthropomorphic interpretation. And yet, the series of rhetorical questions to Job suggests, God’s providence looks after each of these strange, fierce, inaccessible creatures. There is an underlying continuity between this representation of the animal world and the picture of inanimate nature in 38:2-38, with its sense of terrific power abiding in the natural world, fructification and destruction as alternative aspects of the same, imponderable forces.

That continuity is reinforced by the carryover of images of procreation from the cosmogonic and meteorological sections of the poem to the zoological section. In the two former instances, as we just saw, the language of parturition and progeny was first metaphoric and then both metaphoric and heavily ironic; among the animals, it becomes quite literal. The raven at the beginning of this section (38:41) and the eagle at the end are seen striving to fulfill the needs of their young.

Immediately after the raven, the birth process and early growth of the mountain goat and gazelle are given detailed attention:

Do you know the mountain goats’ birth time,
do you mark the calving of the gazelles?
Do you number the months till they come to term
and know their birthing time?
They crouch, burst forth with their babes,
their young they push out to the world.
Their offspring batten, grow big in the wild,
they go out and do not return.

The emphasis on time here in conjunction with the evocation of birth brings us back in still another strong antithesis to Job’s wish in Chapter 3 that he could wipe out his birth. There, one recalls, he cursed the night of his conception by saying, “Let it not enter the number of months” (3:6).

Here, in God’s poem, that same phrase (with the minor morphological shift in the Hebrew of “number” from noun to verb) recurs as an instance of how time becomes a medium fruition under the watchful gaze of the divine maker of natural order. Reproduction and nurturing are the very essence of a constantly self-renewing creation as the poet imagines it.

But even the universal principle of generation is not free from uncanny contradiction, as the strange case of the ostrich (39:13-18) suggests. That peculiar bird, at least according to the ornithological lore on which the poet drew, abandons her eggs in the dirt, unmindful of the danger that they may be trampled underfoot by wild beasts,

For God made her forgetful of wisdom,
and he did not allot her insight


Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 3 – Robert Alter

February 12, 2014
Blake follows the general outline of the story of Job in the Bible, but also incorporates into his designs many motifs representing his personal interpretation. At the beginning, Job and his family attend only to the letter, rather than the spirit, of God's laws. Job thereby falls under a false conception of God and into the hands of Satan. Job's sufferings are recorded in the first half of the series, culminating in his horrific vision of a devil-god in the eleventh design. Job's spiritual education and material restoration are pictured in the second half of the series. In the penultimate design, Job tells his story to his daughters; the entire family is restored to life in the final design. Some critics and biographers have interpreted the Job series as personal statements about Blake's own tribulations and the spiritual peace he found late in life.

Blake follows the general outline of the story of Job in the Bible, but also incorporates into his designs many motifs representing his personal interpretation. At the beginning, Job and his family attend only to the letter, rather than the spirit, of God’s laws. Job thereby falls under a false conception of God and into the hands of Satan. Job’s sufferings are recorded in the first half of the series, culminating in his horrific vision of a devil-god in the eleventh design. Job’s spiritual education and material restoration are pictured in the second half of the series. In the penultimate design, Job tells his story to his daughters; the entire family is restored to life in the final design. Some critics and biographers have interpreted the Job series as personal statements about Blake’s own tribulations and the spiritual peace he found late in life.

See Intro in first post.


How are the resources of poetry marshaled in the divine speech to give us an intimation of that omniscient perspective? Some preliminary remarks on the progression of the concluding poem may help indicate where it means to take us. The structure of the poem is expansive and associative (quite unlike the tight organization of Chapter 28), but it also reflects the sequential and focusing strategies of development that are generally characteristic of biblical poetry.

After the two brief opening lines in which God challenges Job (38:2-3), the poem leads us through the following movements: cosmogony (38:4-21), meteorology (38:22-38), zoology (38:39-39:30). This sequence is implicitly narrative: first God creates the world, then He sets in motion upon it an intricate interplay of snow and rain and lightning and winds, and in this setting He looks after the baffling variety of wild creatures that live on the earth.

God’s first discourse is followed at the beginning of Chapter 40 by a brief exchange between a reprimanding deity and a humbled Job) (40:1-5), and then the beginning of the second discourse, which again challenges Job to gird up his loins and see if he can really contend with God (40:6-13). (Scholarship has generally detected a scram-fling or duplication of texts in these thirteen verses, but I find that the various conjectural attempts to reassemble the text create more problems than they solve, while the lines as we have them do not substantially affect the larger structure of the poem.)

In the second discourse, we continue with the zoological interests that take up the last half of the first discourse. In accordance, however, with the impulse of heightening and focusing that informs so much of biblical poetry, the second discourse is not a rapid poetic catalogue of animals, like the last half of the first discourse, but instead an elaborate depiction of just two exotic beasts, the hippopotamus and the crocodile, who are rendered, moreover, in the heightened and hyperbolic terms of mythology as Behemoth and Leviathan.

These are the broad structural lines of the concluding poem, but in order to understand how it works so remarkably as a “revelation,” in both the ordinary and the theological sense of the term, it is important to see in detail how its language and imagery flow directly out of the poetic argument that has preceded. I shall quote in full the first two movements of cosmogony and meteorology, then refer without full citation to the naturalistic zoology before attending to the mythopoeic zoology at the end. Since the verse divisions here correspond precisely to the line division, I shall use the conventional verse numbers, starting with verse 2 of Chapter 38, where the poem proper begins.

2 Who is this who darkens counsel
in words without knowledge?
3 Gird your loins like a man,
that I may ask, and you can inform me.
4 Where were you when I founded earth?
Tell, if you know understanding.
5 Who fixed its measures, do you know,
or who stretched a line upon it?
6 In what were its sockets sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
7 when the morning stars sang together,
 and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
8 Who hedged the sea with double doors,
when it gushed forth from the womb,
9 when I made cloud its clothing,
and thick mist its swaddling bands?
10 I made breakers upon it My limit,
and set a bolt with double doors.
11 And I said, “Thus far come, no farther,
here halt the surge of your waves. “
12 Have you ever commanded the morning,
appointed the dawn to its place,
13 to seize the earth’s corner,
that the wicked be shaken from it?
14 It turns like sealing clay,
takes color like a garment,
15 and their light is withdrawn from the wicked,
and the upraised arm is broken.
16 Have you come into the springs of the sea,
in the bottommost deep walked about?
17 Have the gates of death been laid bare to you,
and the gates of death’s shadow have you seen?
18 Did you take in the breadth of the earth?
Tell, if you know it all.
19 Where is the way that light dwells,
and darkness, where is its place,
20 that you might take it to its home
and understand the paths to its house?
21 You know, for you were born then,
and the number of your days is great!
22 Have you come into the storehouse of snow,
the storehouse of hail have you seen,
23 which I keep for a time of strife,
for a day of battle and war?
24 By what way does the west wind2 fan out,
the east wind whip over the earth?
25 Who split a channel for the torrent,
and a way for the thunderstorm,
26 to rain on a land without man,
 wilderness bare of humankind,
27 to sate the desolate dunes
and make the grass sprout there?
28 Does the rain have a father,
or who begot the drops of dew?
29 From whose belly did the ice come forth,
to the frost of the heavens who gave birth?
30 Water congeals like stone,
and the face of the deep locks hard.
31 Can you tie the bands of the Pleiades,
or loose Orions reins?
32 Can you bring constellations out in their season,
lead the Great Bear and her cubs?
33 Do you know the laws of the heavens,
can you fix their rule on earth?
34 Can you lift your voice to the cloud,
that the water-spate cover you?
35 Can you send lightning-bolts on their way,
and they will say to you, `Here we are!”
36 Who placed in the hidden parts wisdom,
or who gave the mind understanding?
37 Who counted the skies in wisdom,
and the jars of the heavens who tilted,
38 when the dust melts to a mass,
and the clods cling fast together?

At the very beginning of the poetic argument, we entered the world) of Job’s inner torment through the great death-wish poem that takes up all of Chapter 3. These first thirty-seven lines of God’s response to Job constitute a brilliantly pointed reversal, in structure, image, and theme, of that initial poem of Job’s. Perhaps the best way to sense the special weight of the disputation over theodicy is to observe that it is cast in the form of a clash between two modes of poetry, one kind spoken by man and, however memorable, appropriate to the limitations of his creaturely condition, the other the kind of verse a poet of genius could persuasively imagine God speaking.

The poem of Chapter’ 3, as we had occasion to see in detail, advanced through a process of focusing in and in — or, to shift metaphors, a relentless drilling inward toward the unbearable core of Job’s suffering, which he imagined could be blotted out by extinction alone. The external world — dawn and sunlight and starry night — exists in these lines only to be canceled.

Job’s first poem is a powerful, evocative, authentic expression of mans essential, virtually ineluctable egotism: the anguished speaker has seen, so he feels, all too much, and he wants now to see nothing at all, to be enveloped in the blackness of the womb/tomb, enclosed by dark doors that will remain shut forever. In direct contrast to all this withdrawal inward and turning out of lights, God’s poem is a demonstration of the energizing power of panoramic vision. Instead of the death wish, it affirms from line to line the splendor and vastness of life, beginning with a cluster of arresting images of the world’s creation and going on to God’s sustaining of the world in the forces of nature and in the variety of the animal kingdom.

Instead of a constant focusing inward to ward darkness, this poem progresses through a grand sweeping movement that carries us over the length and breadth of the created world, from sea to sky to the unimaginable recesses where snow and winds are stored, to the lonely wastes and craggy heights where only the grass or the wildest of animals lives.

In Job’s initial poem, various elements of the larger world were introduced only as reflectors or rhetorical tokens of his suffering. When the world is seen here through God’s eyes, each item is evoked for its own sake, each existing thing living its own intrinsic and often strange beauty. In Chapter 3, Job wanted to reduce time to nothing and contract space to the small, dark compass of the locked womb. God’s poem by contrast moves through eons from creation to the inanimate forces of nature to the teeming life on earth and, spatially, in a series of metonymic [vocab: A figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated (such as "crown" for "royalty")] links, from the uninhabited wasteland (verse 26) to the mountain habitat of the lion and the gazelle (the end of Chapter 38 and the beginning of Chapter 39) and the steppes where the wild ass roams.


Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 2 – Robert Alter

February 11, 2014
Job Accepting Charity, William Blake, 1825.  William Blake (1757 – 1827) was an English poet, painter and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. His prophetic poetry has been said to form "what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language". His visual artistry led one contemporary art critic to proclaim him "far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced". In 2002, Blake was placed at number 38 in the BBC's poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. Although he lived in London his entire life (except for three years spent in Felpham), he produced a diverse and symbolically rich corpus, which embraced the imagination as "the body of God" or "human existence itself".

Job Accepting Charity, William Blake, 1825. William Blake (1757 – 1827) was an English poet, painter and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. His prophetic poetry has been said to form “what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language”. His visual artistry led one contemporary art critic to proclaim him “far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced”. In 2002, Blake was placed at number 38 in the BBC’s poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. Although he lived in London his entire life (except for three years spent in Felpham), he produced a diverse and symbolically rich corpus, which embraced the imagination as “the body of God” or “human existence itself”.

See Intro in previous post.


In Job’s complaint there are two extended anticipations of the Voice from the Whirlwind, 9:5-10 and 12:7-25. For the sake of economy I shall cite only the first, and shorter, of these two passages, with reference to the second. Job, in the midst of objecting that God is an impossible legal adversary because He is so overpowering, shifts his imagery upward from the arena of law to the cosmos:

Who uproots mountains and they know not,
overturns them in His wrath.
He makes earth shake in its setting,
and its pillars shudder.
He bids the sun not to rise,
and the stars He seals up tight.
He stretches the heavens alone,
and tramples the crests of the sea.
He makes the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the south wind’s chambers.
He performs great things without limit,

and wonders without number.

Job’s cosmic poetry, unlike that of the Friends, has a certain energy of vision, as though it proceeded from some immediate perception of the great things it reports. Most of the images he uses will reappear, more grandly, in God’s first discourse in Chapter 38.

There, too, God is the sole sovereign of the sun and the stars, the master of the very constellations and of the chambers of the wind mentioned here. There is, nevertheless, a decisive difference in emphasis between the two chapters, which leads me to infer that this and other passages in the poetic argument are in one respect patiently teaching us how to read God’s speech when it finally comes.

The Creator in Chapter 38 is distinguished by His ability to impose order. The Creator in Job’s poem is singled out first of all for His terrific, and perhaps arbitrary, power — tearing up mountains in His wrath, eclipsing the sun, and blotting out the stars. (The speaker, we should remember, is the same Job who had prayed for every glimmer of light to be swallowed by darkness.)

If both the present text and Chapter 38 allude indirectly to the Canaanite creation myth, in which the weather god conquers the primordial sea beast Yamm, what is stressed in Chapter 38 is God’s setting limits to the breakers of the of the sea, His bolting doors against the chaotic rush of the flood, while Job here gives us instead God the mighty combatant, treading on the back of the conquered sea. To be sure, there is also an element of celebration of the Creator in Job’s words, at least in the last two lines of the passage quoted, but his general perception of the master of the universe is is from the viewpoint of someone who has been devastated by His mastery.

This sense is made perfectly clear in the lines that introduce our passage (9:12-13), and the point is even more emphatic in the lines that follow it:

Look, He seizes — who can resist Him ?
Who can tell Him `What do You do?’
God will not relent His fury.
Beneath Him Rahab’s minions stoop


The analogous passage in Chapter 12 stresses still more boldly the arbitrary way in which God exercises His power.

Here, too, God, as in the revelation from the storm at the end, is imagined as the supreme, master of nature — a truth that, according to Job, we can learn from the very birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field (behemoth, a term that in a different acceptation will designate one of the featured attractions of the grand zoological show in the speech from the storm), And like the LORD Who will reveal Himself in the end to Job, God; here is imagined above all as the absolute sovereign of light and darkness: lays bare depths from darkness, / and brings out to light death’s shadow (12:22).

But this divine monarch as Job conceives Him show a singular inclination to capricious behavior, befuddling counselor, and judges, unmanning kings, humiliating nobles, using His prerogative over light and darkness to draw the leaders of nations into trackless wastes: they grope in darkness without light, / He makes them wander like drunken men (12:25). Job’s vision of God’s power over the world has an authority lacking in the parallel speeches of the Friends, but he sees it as power willfully misused, and that perception will require an answer by the Voice from the Whirlwind.

Somewhat surprisingly, the two extended anticipations of the concluding poem that show the greatest degree of consonance with it occur in the interpolated passages, the Elihu speech and the Hymn it Wisdom. This may seem less puzzling if we remember that in the ancient Near East a “book” remained for a long time a relatively open structure, so that later writers might seek to amplify or highlight the meaning of the original text by introducing materials that reinforced or extended certain of the original emphases.

In the case of Elihu, the immediate proximity to God’s speech is the most likely explanation of the high degree of consonance with it. That is, Elihu is an irascible presumptuous blowhard (images of inflation and evacuation cluster at the beginning of his discourse), and as such he is hardly someone to be in any way identified as God’s “spokesman.”

But as he approaches the end of his long harangue — as the poem ‘draws close, in other words, to the eruption of the Voice from the Whirlwind — he begins to weave into his abuse of Job images of God as the mighty sovereign of a vast creation beyond the ken of man. First he conjures up a vision of God Whose years are without number mustering the clouds and causing the rains to fall (36:26-33). Then, at the very end of his speech, in a clear structural bridge to the divine discourse that directly follows, Elihu asks Job whether he can really grasp God’s wondrous management of the natural world, invoking it as evidence of the moral perfection of the Divinity that man cannot fathom:

Hearken to this, O Job,
stand and take in the wonders of God.
Do you know when God directs them,
when His thunderhead’s lightning shines?
Do you know of the spread of cloud,
the wonders of the Perfect in Knowledge
When your garments feel warm
as the earth is becalmed from the south?
Will you pound out the skies with Him,
which are strong as a metal mirror?
Let us know what to say to Him!
We can lay out no case in our darkness.
Will it be told Him if I speak,
will a man say if he is devoured?
And now, they have not seen the light,
bright though it be in the skies,
as a wind passes, making them clear.
From the north gold comes;
over God — awesome glory.
Shaddai, whom we find not, is lofty in power,
in judgment and great justice — He will not oppress.
Therefore men do fear Him.
He does not regard the wise of heart.

Elihu’s cosmic poetry does not quite soar like that of the Voice from the Whirlwind (and this passage also involves several textual difficulties), and the second-rank poet responsible for his speeches never entirely escapes his weakness for boilerplate language. Even so, here the end it is something more than the rehearsal of formulas we saw in Eliphaz and Zophar.

The various items of his panorama of creation-the power over rain and thunder and the dazzling deployment of sunlight — will in a moment recur, more grandly, in God’s speech, and above all, the final emphasis on man’s inability to see the solar brilliance of the all-powerful God points toward the extraordinary exercise: of divine sight in which we are privileged to share through the poetry of God’s concluding speech.

The Hymn to Wisdom, Chapter 28, is in certain obvious ways cut from different cloth from the rest of the Book of Job. Lexically and stylistically, it sounds more like Proverbs than Job. Its celebration of divine Wisdom does not at all participate in the vehement argument on theodicy into which it is introduced. Structurally, the hymn is divided into three strophes of approximately equal length with the boundaries between them marked by a refrain; such explicit symmetry of form is servable elsewhere in the poetry of Job.

The imagery of precious that dominates the middle strophe has very few parallels else-in the book. But all these disparities may have troubled the audience a good deal less than they trouble us, with our notions of literary unity based on the reading of unitary texts produced by single who generally could be fully responsible for them from first draft to corrected page proofs. Whatever editor or ancient literary gremlin decided to insert this poem just after the completion of the rounds of debate with the Friends and before Job’s final Confession of Innocence (Chapters 29-31) chose the new material with a firm sense of could help tune up the proper attentiveness for God’s concluding speech.

That tuning up is a matter not just of emphasizing the vast scope of God’s Wisdom against man’s limited understanding but also of poetically defining a place where we can begin to imagine the unfathomable workings of the Creator. A whole world of sprawling expanses and inaccessible depths and heights is evoked in the poem — “A path that the vulture knows not, / nor the eye of the falcon beholds” (28:7), :unguessed realms of hidden recesses that only God can see or bring to light if He chooses.

The thematic stress on sight intimated at the end Elihu speeches is prominent here and made powerfully explicit in the concluding strophe. At the same time, specific details of the cosmic imagery that will begin the divine discourse are strategically anticipated (or, to think in the order of the editorial process rather than in the sequential order of the book, are strategically echoed):

And wisdom, from where does it come,
and where is the place of insight?
It is hidden from the eye of all living,
from the fowl of the heavens, concealed.
Perdition and Death have said,
“With our ears we heard its rumor.”
God grasps its way,
and He knows its place.

For He looks to the ends of the earth,
beneath all the heavens He sees,
to gauge the heft of the wind,
and to weigh water with a measure,
when He fixed a limit for rain,
and a way to the thunderhead,
Then He saw and recounted it,
set it firm and probed it, too.
And He said to man:
Look, fear of the Master, that is Wisdom,
and the shunning of evil is insight.
(Job 28:20-28)

The aphoristic concluding line is distinctly unlike the Voice from the Whirlwind not merely stylistically but also in the neatness of its sense of resolution. (Its formulaic pairing, however, of “wisdom” and “insight” is quite like the one God invokes in His initial challenge to Job.) In any case, the discrepancy in tone and attitude of the last line was no doubt far less important to whoever was responsible for the text of Job as we have it than the consonance of the hymn’s vision of God with the Voice from the Whirlwind — that is, a vision of God as the master of sight, searching out the unknowable ends of the earth.


Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 1 – Robert Alter

February 10, 2014
William Blake, Satan Smiting Job With Sore Boils 1825. The biblical ‘Book of Job’ addresses the existence of evil and suffering in a world where a loving, all-powerful God exists. It has been described as ‘the most profound and literary work of the entire Old Testament’.In ‘Job’, God and Satan discuss the limits of human faith and endurance. God lets Satan force Job to undergo extreme trials and tribulations, including the destruction of his family. Despite this, as God predicted, Job’s faith remains unshaken and he is rewarded by God with the restoration of his health, wealth and family.

William Blake, Satan Smiting Job With Sore Boils 1825. The biblical ‘Book of Job’ addresses the existence of evil and suffering in a world where a loving, all-powerful God exists. It has been described as ‘the most profound and literary work of the entire Old Testament’.In ‘Job’, God and Satan discuss the limits of human faith and endurance. God lets Satan force Job to undergo extreme trials and tribulations, including the destruction of his family. Despite this, as God predicted, Job’s faith remains unshaken and he is rewarded by God with the restoration of his health, wealth and family.

Three decades ago, renowned literary expert Robert Alter radically expanded the horizons of, Biblical scholarship by recasting the Bible not only as a human creation. But also as a work of literary art deserving studied criticism. In The Art of Biblical Poetry, his companion to the seminal The Art of Biblical Narrative, Alter takes his analysis beyond narrative craft to investigate the distinctive working of Hebrew poetry in the Bible. Learned and lucid, sometimes polemical but always with grace, here he writes about the Book of Job. Enjoy the superb translations.


THE POWER OF Job’s unflinching argument, in the biblical book that bears his name, has rarely failed to move readers, but the structure of the book has been a perennial puzzle. It begins, as we all recall, with a seemingly naive tale: Job is an impeccably God-fearing man, happy in his children and in his abundant possessions. Unbenownst to him, in the celestial assembly the Adversary — despite the traditional translations, not yet a mythological Satan — challenges God to test the disinterestedness of Job’s piety by afflicting him. When Job, in rapid succession, has been bereft of all his various flocks and servants and then of all his children, and is stricken from head to foot with itching sores, he refuses his wife’s urging that he curse God and die but instead sits down in the dust in mournful resignation.

At this point, the prose of the frame-story switches into altogether remarkable poetry. The poetic Job begins by wishing he had never been born. Then, in three long rounds of debate, he confronts the three friends who have come with all the assurance of conventional wisdom to inform him that his suffering is certain evidence of his having done evil. Job consistently refuses to compromise the honesty of his own life, and in refuting the friends’ charges he repeatedly inveighs against God’s crushing unfairness.

Eventually, God answers Job out of a whirlwind, mainly to show how presumptuous this human critic of divine justice has been. Job concedes; the prose frame-story then clicks shut by restoring to Job health, wealth, and prestige, at the same time symmetrically providing him with another set of children.

This ending has troubled many readers over the centuries. Even if we put aside the closing of the folktale frame, so alien to later sensibilities in its schematic doubling of lost property and its simple replacement of lost lives, the Voice from the Whirlwind (or more properly, Storm) has seemed to some a rather exasperating answer to Job’s anguished questions.

The common objection to what is clearly intended as a grand climax of the poetic argument runs along the following lines: the Voice’s answer is no answer at all but an attempt to overwhelm poor Job by an act of cosmic bullying. Job, in his sense of outrage over undeserved suffering, has been pleading for simple justice. God ignores the issue of justice, not deigning to explain why innocent children should perish, decent men and women writhe in affliction, and instead sarcastically asks Job how good he is at hurling, lightning bolts, making the sun rise and set, causing rain to fall, fixing limits to the breakers of the sea. The clear implication is that if you can’t begin to play in my league, you should not have the nerve to ask questions about the rules of the game.

Some modern commentators have tried to get around such objections by arguing that the very inadequacy of the solution to the problem of theodicy at the end of Job is a testimony to the integrity of the book and to the profundity with which the questions have been raised. There is, in other words, no neat way to reconcile ethical monotheism with the fundamental fact that countless innocents suffer terrible fates through human cruelty, blind circumstance, natural disaster, disease, and genetic mishap.

Rather than attempt a pat answer, then, the Job poet was wise enough to imply that there could be no real answer and that the sufferer would have to be content with God’s sheer willingness to express His concern for His creatures. This reading of the Voice from the Whirlwind is up to a point plausible, but it may glide too easily over the fact that God’s speeches at the end have, after all, a specific content, which is articulated with great care and to the details of which we are presumably meant to attend carefully.

It has also been suggested that the “solution” to Job’s dilemma is in the essential act of revelation itself, whatever we think about what is said. That does seem a very biblical idea. Job never doubts God’s existence, but, precisely because he assumes in biblical fashion that God must be responsible for everything that happens in the world, he repeatedly wants to know why God now remains hidden, why He does not come out and confront the person on whom He has inflicted such acute suffering. The moment the Voice begins to address Job out of the storm, Job already has his answer: that, despite appearances to the contrary, God cares enough about man to reveal Himself to humankind, to give man some intimation of the order and direction of His creation.

This proposal about the importance of revelation at the end brings us a little closer, I think, to the actual intent of the two climactic divine discourses. What needs to be emphasized, however, considerably more than has been done is the essential role poetry plays in the imaginative realization of revelation. If the poetry of Job — at least when its often problematic text is fully intelligible — looms above all other biblical poetry in virtuosity and sheer expressive power, the culminating poem that God speaks out of the storm soars beyond everything that has preceded it in the book, the poet having wrought a poetic idiom even richer and more awesome than the one he gave Job. Through this gushing of poetic expression toward its own upper limits, the concluding speech helps us see the panorama of creation, as perhaps we could do only through poetry, with the eyes of God.

I realize that this last assertion may sound either hazily mystical or effusively hyperbolic, but what I am referring to is an aspect of the book that seems to have been knowingly designed by the poet and that to a large extent can be grasped, as I shall try to show, through close analytic attention to formal features of the poem. The entire speech from the storm not only is an effectively structured poem in itself but is finely calculated as a climactic development of images, ideas, and themes that appear in different and sometimes antithetical contexts earlier in the poetic argument.

In saying this, I do not by any means intend to dismiss the scholarly consensus that there are composite elements in the Book of Job, that it is not all the work of one hand. The most visible “seams” in the book are between the frame-story and the poetic argument, but this evident disjuncture is not really relevant to our concern with the Voice from the Whirlwind, and it makes little difference whether one regards the frame-story as an old folktale incorporated by the poet or (my own preference, based on a few tell-tale indications of Late Biblical Hebrew in the frame-story) as an old tradition artfully reworked by the poet in a consciously archaizing style.

Within the poetic argument itself, there is fairly general agreement among scholars that the Hymn to Wisdom, which is Chapter 28, and the Elihu speeches, Chapters 32-37, are interpolations for which the original Job poet was not responsible. I am not inclined to debate either of these judgments, but I should like to observe that the later poet and, in the case of Chapter 28, the editor who chose the poem from the literature of Wisdom psalms available to him were so alive to the culminating function of the Voice from the Whirlwind that they justified the inclusion of the additional material at least in part as anticipations of the concluding poem.

In fact, the claim made by some scholars that Chapters 38-41 are themselves an addition to the original text seems to me quite inadmissible precisely because the poetry of this final speech is so intricately and so powerfully a fulfillment of key elements in the body of the poetic argument.

There are, to begin with, occasional and significant adumbrations of the cosmic perspective of God at the end in the speeches of both Job and the Friends. Sometimes, in the case of the Friends, this is simply a matter of getting divine knowledge backward. Thus Eliphaz, in a speech asserting complacent confidence that God invariably destroys the evil man, draws an analogy from the animal kingdom:

“The lion’s roar, the maned beast’s sound — ,
and the young lions’ teeth are ; smashed.
The king of beasts dies with no prey, 
the whelps of the lion are scattered”

The point, presumably, is that in God’s just world even the fiercest of ravening beasts can be disabled, as seemingly powerful evildoers in the human sphere will get their comeuppance.

But this is to draw a general moral rule from a rare zoological case, and when God Himself evokes the lion (38:39) along with other beasts of prey, He recognizes unflinchingly that the real principle of the animal kingdom is that the strong devour the weak to sustain their own lives and those of their young. It is that harsher, more inassimilable truth that He chooses to make an integral part of His revelation to Job concerning the providential governance of the world.

More frequently, the Friends, as self-appointed defenders of God’s position, touch on certain notions that are actually in consonance with the divine speech at the end, but both the terms in which such notions are cast and the contexts in which they are set turn them into something jejune and superficial. In this regard, the Voice from the Whirlwind is a revelation of the contrast between the jaded half-truths of cliché and the startling, difficult truths exposed when the stylistic mid conceptual shell of cliché is broken open.

Thus Eliphaz, in one of i he Friends’ frequent appeals to the antiquity of received wisdom, upbraids Job: `

Are you the first man to be born,
before the hills were you spawned?
Did you listen at God’s high council,
take away wisdom for yourself?”

Eliphaz’s heightening of a sarcastic hyperbole from verset to verset (first born man — created before the world itself — a uniquely privileged member of God’s cosmogonic council) leads us to a point in some ways similar to God’s overwhelming challenge to Job at the beginning of His great speech.

But Eliphaz invokes creation in the smoothly formulaic language of poetic tradition, which is quite different from the vertiginous vision of the vastness of creation that God’s bolder language will offer. And Eliphaz speaks smugly without suspecting that there might be a chasm between divine knowledge and the conventional knowledge of accepted wisdom. This immediately becomes clear as he goes on to reduce his cosmogonic hyperbole to a mere competition of longevity with Job:

“What do you know that we don’t know,
understand, that is not with us?
The gray-haired and the aged are with us,
far older than your father”

A little earlier, there is a speech of Zophar’s that sounds even more like an anticipation of the Voice from the Whirlwind, but again the stylistic and attitudinal differences between human and divine discourse are crucially instructive.

Can you find what God has probed,
can you find Shaddai’s last end?
Higher than heaven, what can you do, deeper than Sheol,
what can you know?
Longer than earth is its measure,
and broader than the sea.

In the biblical way of thinking, all this is unexceptionable, and it would seem to accord perfectly with God’s own words in Chapter 38 about the unbridgeable gap between powerful Creator and limited creature. But the very smoothness of the stereotyped language Zophar uses (heights of heaven, depths of Sheol, longer than earth, broader than the sea) is a clue that this is a truth he has come by all too easily.

This suspicion is confirmed when he immediately proceeds to move from an affirmation of God’s power to the usual pat assertion that the all-knowing Creator detects all evil — by implication, to chastise the evildoers:

“Should He slip away or confine or assemble,
Who can resist Him ?
For He knows the empty folk,
He sees wrongdoing and surely takes note”

The actual prospect of God as sole master of the heights of heaven and the depths of hell is a staggering one as the Voice from the Whirlwind will make awesomely clear. Zophar’s speech there is too facile a transition from the invocation of that prospect to the time-worn notion that God will never allow crime to pay.


Re-Reading the Story of Cain and Abel — Steven D. Ealy

January 30, 2014
Abel is slain by his brother Cain. Abel's leg, his left arm and Cain's curved body form part of a circle that makes the picture very dynamic. The effects of the dark sky and the threatening Cain are emphasized by the perspective, which suggests a low point of view. The painting is now in the church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice. It was originally made as a ceiling painting for the Santo Spirito in Isola. Titian made two other ceiling paintings for that church, one on David and Goliath and one on the Sacrifice of Isaac.

Abel is slain by his brother Cain. Abel’s leg, his left arm and Cain’s curved body form part of a circle that makes the picture very dynamic. The effects of the dark sky and the threatening Cain are emphasized by the perspective, which suggests a low point of view. The painting is now in the church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice. It was originally made as a ceiling painting for the Santo Spirito in Isola. Titian made two other ceiling paintings for that church, one on David and Goliath and one on the Sacrifice of Isaac.

Steven D. Ealy is a senior fellow at the Liberty Fund, a nonprofit foundation headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA which promulgates the libertarian views of its founder through publishing, conferences, and educational resources. The operating mandate of the Liberty Fund was set forth in an unpublished memo written by its founder, Pierre F. Goodrich “to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.” This is a review of The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony by the Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012. This is his review of The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony by the Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012.


At least since Augustine’s The City of God, the biblical account of Cain and Abel has been used to treat them as archetypes of humanity. Augustine argues that mankind is “distributed into two parts, the one consisting of those who live according to man, the other of those who live according to God.” This is the foundation of Augustine’s mystical understanding of the two cities, the city of man and the city of God. Cain was the first citizen of the city of man, while Abel belonged to the city of God.

Both Cain and Abel were “first of all born of Adam evil and carnal,” tainted with original sin. Only Abel, however, becomes a citizen of the city of God because after his carnal birth he “becomes good and spiritual … when he is grafted into Christ by regeneration.”

In Augustine’s reading, Abel’s status as a citizen of the city of God is not a matter of his actions or free choices; rather, he was “predestined by grace, elected by grace, [to be] a stranger below [in the city of man], and … a citizen above [in the city of God].” Based on Genesis 4:17, Cain is regarded as the builder of the first city, and therefore could be seen as the founder of the city of man. Augustine notes this in his discussion of the brothers: “Accordingly, it is recorded of Cain that he built a city, but Abel, being a sojourner, built none.

One of the pitfalls in using Cain and Abel (and perhaps in using other well-known biblical figures such as Abraham or Job) as types is the possibility of allowing the conclusion of the story to lead us into the development of predictable and oversimplified categories that miss the paradoxes and tensions contained in the original biblical story.

A recent work that examines Cain and Abel as types but attempts to avoid this trap is The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem. I want to outline Hazony’s discussion here for two reasons. First, Hazony’s work is an important contribution to understanding the dynamic of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Second, Hazony’s argument is important not just for understanding Genesis 4 but as a radical critique of the generally accepted understanding of the entire Hebrew Bible.

German theologian Paul Tillich became well known in the postwar period for arguing that the heart of Protestantism was “shaking the foundations” of traditional theology. Similarly, Hazony “shakes the foundations” of the accepted understanding by arguing that when it comes to the Hebrew Bible, things might not be as clear-cut as they appear to be. Hazony’s major focus in this regard, of which his treatment of Cain and Abel is but a small piece, is to dismantle the popular view that the Hebrew Bible cannot be treated as a serious intellectual document because it is based on revelation and not on reason.

Hazony seeks to establish the role of reason in the Hebrew Bible through a discussion of its structure and by highlighting and illustrating the array of techniques it uses to make arguments of a general nature that can be judged by reason. That is the larger context for Hazony’s treatment of Cain and Abel, which is my primary subject here.

In many engagements with Genesis 4, the focus is almost entirely on Cain, and any discussion of Abel is merely an afterthought. This is certainly the case when we come to the literary treatments of the biblical story as presented in Byron’s Cain: A Mystery and John Steinbeck’s monumental East of Eden. For both of these writers, Cain is the crucial figure. In Byron, he is treated as a Prometheus-like hero who establishes human freedom through his refusal to obey God’s orders.

In Steinbeck’s novel, Cain is also central to establishing the principle of human freedom, which is built around Cain’s discussion with God and the meaning of the Hebrew word “timshel,” which is translated by the house-servant Lee as “mayest.” Lee argues that God’s use of the word “may,” as opposed to “must,” contains the kernel of contingency and openness found at the heart of human freedom.

It is not unfair to say that for both Byron and Steinbeck, Abel is just a stage prop or part of the scenery, while the real action of the story swirls around Cain. This neglect of Abel is perhaps not surprising, and is even suggested in the biblical account in Genesis 4 by Abel’s name, which is related to the Hebrew for “vapor” and “puff of air” (according to translator Robert Alter) and signifies “something transitory” (according to translator Everett Fox).

Given the general treatment of the story, which emphasizes the relative importance of Cain and the relative unimportance of Abel, it is therefore somewhat surprising that the first mention of this story in Hazony’s work refers to Abel and that Cain is not mentioned at all.

In an overview of his entire book, Hazony writes, “The Bible is often said to advocate an ethics of obedience. But … this view involves a serious misreading of Hebrew Scripture.” The figures most celebrated in the Hebrew Bible, Hazony argues, “are esteemed for their dissent and disobedience — a trait the biblical authors associate with the free life of the shepherd, as opposed to the life of the pious submission represented by the figure of the farmer.” In a way, Hazony sets out to turn the tables on Byron’s understanding; for Hazony, Abel (as the type of the shepherd) will represent dissidence and disobedience, while Cain (as the type of the farmer) will represent conformity and submission.

The first line of resistance of shepherd dissidence is against corrupt human institutions, but it goes beyond this. Hazony writes, “Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and other biblical figures are at times portrayed as resisting not only man but God himself.” Note the importance Hazony attributes to Abel, placing him first in this list of biblical heroes. He concludes, “The biblical narrative endorses… an outsider’s ethics, which encourages a critique even of things that appear to be decreed by God in the name of what is genuinely beneficial to man.” From this biblical perspective, Hazony continues, “what is genuinely beneficial to man is that which will ultimately find favor in God’s eyes,” even if the idea will not originate with God and even if it was in opposition to God’s original plan.

Perhaps as surprising as Hazony’s emphasis on Abel is his characterization of Cain. Hazony’s introduction of Cain occurs when he places Cain’s story within the broader sweep of biblical history; he argues that it “is very uncertain ….that we can really understand the story of Cain, a farmer, murdering his brother Abel, who is  a shepherd, if we do not recognize that his first act of violence between farmers and shepherds is a premonition of the violence between farmers and shepherds that appears in the later story of Abraham, and then again in the story of Moses, and yet again in the story of David.”

As already noted, Hazony argues that Cain and Abel are presented as distinct theoretical types. Cain is a farmer “who represents tradition-bound and idolatrous societies such as Egypt and Babylonia” and “whose highest value is obedience.” Abel is a shepherd “who stands for the spirit of freedom in search of that which is the true good.” Abel represents the individual and the society “that is willing to forsake the might and riches of the great civilizations for the sake of personal freedom and the hope of something higher.”

Hazony situates the story of Cain and Abel in its biblical context. Cain and Abel are born to Eve after she and Adam have sinned and been expelled from the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 3, God says to Adam, “Cursed is the ground due to you, and in sorrow shall you eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it give forth for you, but you will eat the grasses of the field. By the sweat of your brow will you eat bread, until you return to the ground from which you were taken.”

God then sends them out of the garden “to work the ground from which he had been taken.” This passage emphasizes the “bitterness of the farming life” and is made even stronger by the words used to describe Adam’s fate. According to Hazony, the Hebrew term usually translated “till” or “work” the soil also means “serve.” Thus, “God has in fact punished man by sending him ‘to serve the ground’ — to become the servant and slave of the earth itself.”

In Genesis 4, we turn immediately to the story of Cain and Abel. The tale is told concisely: “Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock.

The text emphasizes that the idea of making a sacrifice to God is Cain’s. It is Cain who inclines toward piety, and thinks to make some of his meager supply of food, which he has scraped from the soil, and sacrifice it to God in gratitude.” Second, as a tiller of the soil, Cain is following the instructions God had given to Adam. Hazony writes. “He works the ground just as God had told his father to do. He submits to God’s will, and even, amid the curse and the hardship, finds it in his heart to be grateful to God for what he has.”

Hazony’s account of Abel is also different from the standard view. First, Abel merely follows Cain’s example in making a sacrifice. There is no suggestion that his offering is superior to his brother’s. Second, while Cain has followed in his father’s career and tilled the soil in accordance with God’s instructions, in becoming a shepherd “Abel has … found a way to escape the curse upon the soil.”

Hazony maintains that the biblical text emphasizes “the fact that this is about what Abel wants, first and foremost, rather than about what God wants.” So the pious and hard-working Cain’s sacrifice is rejected while the sacrifice of the self-indulgent Abel is accepted. How can this be brought into an understandable framework?

Hazony argues that the story is constructed so as to present readers with a stark choice concerning the best way of life: “Each archetype represents a way of life and an approach to living as a human being, to ethics.” First is the life of the farmer as portrayed in Cain. “Cain has piously accepted the curse of the soil … as unchallengeable. His response is to submit, as had his father before him…. In the eyes of the biblical author, Cain represents the life of the farmer, a life of pious submission, obeying in gratitude the custom that has been handed down, which alone provides bread so that man may live.”

Next is the life of the shepherd. “Abel takes the curse of the soil as a fact, but not as one that possesses any intrinsic merit, so that it should command his allegiance. The fact that God decreed it, and that his father had submitted to it, does not make it good. His response is the opposite of submission: He resists with ingenuity and daring, risking the anger of man and God to secure improvement for himself and for his children. Abel represents the life of the shepherd, which is a life of dissent and initiative, whose aim is to find the good life for man, which is presumed to be God’s true will.”

While God said nothing about shepherding when he ejected Adam and Eve from Eden, it develops that shepherding does fit within God’s plans. What God really wants, according to Hazony, is “an improvement in man’s station, a greater goodness which comes of man’s own unsolicited efforts.” Hazony concludes, “God accepts the offering of a man who seeks to improve things, to make them good of himself and his own initiative. This is what God finds in Abel, and the reason he accepts his sacrifice.” (I note in passing a point that Hazony does not make — this discussion of man’s improvement of his situation sounds much like Locke’s account of the divine origins of property in his chapter on property in the Second Treatise.)

Hazony concludes with a fascinating appendix titled What Is ‘Reason’? Some Preliminary Remarks. Here, having rejected the traditional distinction between reason and revelation, he draws on the Reformed philosophers Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga. Their perhaps unexpected appearance should serve as a hint to readers whose understanding of Scripture differs sharply from Hazony’s in some respects that they can nonetheless profit from time spent with this book.


Robert Alter And The King James Bible 2 – James Wood

November 26, 2013
Tintoretto, The Temptation of Adam. This work together with the Creation of Animals and the Murder of Abel, created between 1550 and 1553, was originally in the Scuola della Trinità. Adam and Eve are depicted not in a landscape thrown into confusion by the hand of the Creator but in a more serene, more human dimension. In the leafy arbor the two nude figures moving around the trunk of the tree form the parallel diagonals of the composition. A strong light gives a sculptural effect to their ivory-pink flesh. But in the background, on the right, the tranquility of the foreground scene gives way to the tumultuous epilogue to the fact of human disobedience to Divine will. With rapid brushstrokes Tintoretto evokes the fiery angel who drives Adam and Eve out into the distant desolate hills and plains. Eve, temptation personified, is pressing close to the tree of knowledge; her arms prolong the line of the serpent thrusting down from above. Tintoretto confidently shows that he has now perfectly mastered not only the sculptural structure of a muscular, sinewy male body (a particular strength of Florentine painters, especially of Michelangelo) but also the reproduction of female grace and tenderness (the domain of Venetian artists, particularly Titian).

Tintoretto, The Temptation of Adam. This work together with the Creation of Animals and the Murder of Abel, created between 1550 and 1553, was originally in the Scuola della Trinità. Adam and Eve are depicted not in a landscape thrown into confusion by the hand of the Creator but in a more serene, more human dimension. In the leafy arbor the two nude figures moving around the trunk of the tree form the parallel diagonals of the composition. A strong light gives a sculptural effect to their ivory-pink flesh. But in the background, on the right, the tranquility of the foreground scene gives way to the tumultuous epilogue to the fact of human disobedience to Divine will. With rapid brushstrokes Tintoretto evokes the fiery angel who drives Adam and Eve out into the distant desolate hills and plains. Eve, temptation personified, is pressing close to the tree of knowledge; her arms prolong the line of the serpent thrusting down from above. Tintoretto confidently shows that he has now perfectly mastered not only the sculptural structure of a muscular, sinewy male body (a particular strength of Florentine painters, especially of Michelangelo) but also the reproduction of female grace and tenderness (the domain of Venetian artists, particularly Titian).

Robert Alter has written some twenty-three books, and is noted most recently for his translations of sections of the Bible. Frequent New Yorker contributor James Wood turns his attention to Alter’s translations in contrast to the King James Bible.


To read the Pentateuch right through is an extraordinary education in early theology. These five books revert obsessively to questions of fertility, rebellion, and polytheism, and the three concerns are tightly linked. Again and again, Yahweh tells his people that they must worship no other gods but him, and that the consequences for failing this charge will be death and destruction.

God’s chosen people repeatedly failed to keep this law, most famously at Sinai, when Aaron persuaded them to worship the golden calf, saying: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from Egypt.” The five books are anxiously shadowed by the threat of polytheism, which surrounded the Israelites in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and which provided some of the mythic texts that Genesis and Exodus seem to remember.

God goes by several names in the Torah, some of the differences having to do with different Bible writers working in different centuries. He first appears in Genesis as Elohim, but is switched to Yahweh Elohim (usually translated as “the Lord God”). When he appears in chapter 17 of Genesis to tell Abraham that he will be “a father to a multitude of nations,” he announces himself as El Shaddai, an archaic name used five times in the Pentateuch that may have associations with fertility or mountains.

In Numbers, the word El seems to be used as a synonym for Yahweh: El is a Hebrew word meaning God, but it is also the name of the chief of the Canaanite gods. And after the parting of the Red Sea, when the Israelites give thanks in their Song of the Sea, the following verses occur (in Alter’s translation):

You blew with Your breath — the sea covered them over.
They sank like lead in the mighty waters:
Who is like You among the gods, O Lord,
who is like You, mighty in holiness?

At times like these, and in its insistent warnings against worshipping other gods, the Pentateuch reflects the effort of wrenching monotheism out of the polytheistic context: monotheism is known nowhere else in antiquity and is, on the face of it, a peculiar notion (so peculiar, perhaps, that one chosen god must be matched by or chosen people). It cannot have been easy to have renounced — if indeed such a renunciation took place — the comforting cosmogony wherein various parts of the natural world were represented by different all-powerful gods, and junior “personal” deities looked after one’s daily interests.

Frank Moore Cross and Jean Bottero, among many others, have shown the Pentateuch’s indebtedness to Egyptian and Babylonian mythic narratives. In Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, Bottero gives an account of the Atrahasis, a Mesopotamian poem written, most likely, before 1700 B.C. In it, the gods meet in council and agree to follow the god Enki’s plan to create human man beings out of clay. In these early years, as in the days of Noah, people live for hundreds and even thousands of years. But mankind multiplies so effectively that its noise disturbs the sleep of the irascible king of the gods, Enlil, who decides to destroy the pesky humans.

He sends epidemic, illness, and famine, but each time the humans escape, aided by Enki, their “inventor.” Enlil, still enraged, sends a flood, but Enki saves the race by placing one man, Atrahasis and his family in an unsinkable boat. After the flood, in order to appease Enlil, Enki reduces the life span of each person to the length we know today, and introduces sterility and infant mortality to keel the numbers down.

Clearly, this is an ancient account not just of the origin of the world but of the origin of evil, of human suffering and death, in which the mark of man’s rebelliousness is in part his sheer fertility It is like peering into the crucible of theodicy. Notwithstanding the enormous difference of monotheism, we see something very similar in the early chapters of Genesis (the Israelites would have shared with the Mesopotamian Semites a traditional Semitic culture).

In the first chapter of Genesis, God (Elohim) creates man in his own image and charges him to be fruitful and multiply. But in the second chapter — thought to be a different narrative strand — the Lord God (now called Yahweh Elohim) threatens Adam and Eve with death if they eat of the tree of good and evil. They fail the test, and mortality and sin enter the world.

Sin is palpable: in Alter’s wonderful phrase, God warns the disgruntled Cain that “at the tent flap sin crouches,” and in the very next verse Cain rises up and slays his brother. Man “began to multiply over the earth” and to sin, and the Lord repents of his decision to create humans, and sends a flood to eliminate all but Noah and his family.

After the Flood, he makes a covenant never to destroy his creation, and human life spans are reduced to 120 years. The stories of the patriarchs now begin, but God cannot cede what seems an anxious desire to control human fertility: men must be circumcised, and the wives of the early patriarchs (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel) are barren until the Lord chooses to permit them to breed.

He will threaten his people again with complete destruction when they follow Aaron’s encouragement to worship the golden calf. Promiscuous fertility and polytheism seem to be connected menaces, captured in Yahweh’s command in Exodus that the Israelites make no covenant with any of the peoples they vanquish and displace, who “whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods.”

There is an ironic Midrashic commentary, mentioned by Emmanuel Levinas in his book Nine Talmudic Readings, in which the Talmudists placed demons — spirits without bodies — inside Noah’s Ark. “These are the tempters of postdiluvian civilization,” Levinas remarks, “without which, no doubt, the mankind of the future could not be, despite its regeneration, a true mankind.” Evil has entered the earth forever and cannot be expunged, even by flood: but how did it get there?

What is so fiercely at stake in Genesis and Exodus is the old question best phrased by Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy: “If there be a God, whence cometh so many evils? And if there be no God, whence cometh any good?” Much has been canonically laid at the feet of Adam and Eve, who were, so said the early Christian fathers, created free, and freely chose to rebel, thus inaugurating the calamity of original sin. But this merely pushes on the argument by one easy increment, for God gave them their freedom, and as the seventeenth-century skeptic Pierre Bayle comments in his Historical and Critical Dictionary, why would God bestow on mankind a capacity — free will — that he knows in advance man will abuse, even to his eternal doom?

Around the biblical writings themselves hovers the heretical notion that evil proceeds from God. An “evil spirit from God” is said to descend upon Saul in 1 Samuel 16:23, and in the book of Isaiah the Lord says: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil. I the Lord do all these things.” Even the early church father Origen, a staunch opponent of such thinking, seems flummoxes by this verse, and casts around for a suitable metaphor:

Now God has not created evil if by this is understood evil properly so called: but some evils, though really there are few by comparison with the order of the whole universe, followed as a secondary consequence upon his primary work, just as spiral shavings and sawdust follow as a consequence upon the primary activity of a carpenter, and as builders seem to “make” the waste stone and mortar which lie beside their buildings. It may be granted that God sometimes creates some of these “evils” in order that he may correct men by these means.

But this leaves the problem exactly where it was, so that various dualisms, like Gnosticism and Manicheanism — wherein God is opposed by and does battle with a separate, satanic source of evil, or is rivaled by a false god, a demiurge — do indeed seem to be the best explanations of the problem. The Bible itself, of course, uses a kind of dualism to explain Job’s suffering: it is Satan who puts God up to the game of testing his righteous servant.

Some of the early Jewish commentators were so perturbed by Abraham’s various trials — the famine, Sarah’s barrenness, his nephew Lot, the command to sacrifice Isaac — that they conjectured that God, as with Job, might have received a challenge from Satan or some other envious angel. In an extraordinary moment in Genesis, Abraham pleads with God to spare the innocent inhabitants of Sodom. Would God wipe out the city and not spare fifty innocents? God agrees to spare the entire city for the sake of fifty. How about forty-five? asks Abraham. God agrees to spare the city for the sake of forty-five. And forty? Yes. And thirty? Yes. And so on, down to ten.

What is striking is how openly Abraham cajoles Yahweh: “Far be it from You! Will not the judge of gill the earth do justice?” Abraham seems, here, to be holding God accountable to an ethical standard independent of God himself, I Tying to force his creator to accept the radical idea of sparing even lie guilty in order to protect the innocent.

It is interesting to note those cruxes, those moments of stress, when God’s ethical incomprehensibility makes the early biblical commentators and rewriters anxious. God’s activity in Egypt is one such case. The Lord has promised to lead his people out of Egypt, but first he must teach the Egyptians that “there is none like Me in all the earth … so as to show you My power, and so that My name will be told through all the earth.”

To this end, God says, he will “harden Pharaoh’s heart” against releasing the Israelites, and send horrid plagues. Again and again, Moses appeals to Pharaoh to let his people go, yet each time God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and another plague descends. Only when every firstborn of Egypt, from Pharaoh’s firstborn to “the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones,” has been slaughtered do the Israelites escape.

But why would God institute a lengthy stubbornness that only inflicts suffering on those who might freely have avoided it? Ancient writers and annotators conjectured that God had not impelled Pharaoh to resist Moses, but had only kept him in a state of ignorance. Or perhaps, went another line of inquiry, this was proper punishment for all that Egypt had done to the Israelites? Either way, sense had to be made of the impossible.

The best example of the incomprehensible in the Pentateuch is God’s command to Abraham that he sacrifice his son Isaac. The brevity of the account is searing, as if the text itself flinches from the unreason, is shocked into wordlessness. Alter’s version is terrifying:

And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham. And He said to him: “Abraham!” And he said: “Here I am.” And He said: “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the Land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall say to you.” And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey and took his two lads with him, and Isaac his son, and he split wood for the offering, and rose and went to the place that God had said to him. On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar.

Auerbach rightly noted that the phrase “On the third day Abraham raised his eyes” is the only indication we have that time has passed the journey is frozen. One can add to Auerbach that Abraham’ gesture, of raising the eyes, though a formulaic one in biblical narrative, takes on here a great power of dread, as if Abraham cal hardly bear to look upon the chosen site.

Kierkegaard’s inspired appalled rewriting of this scene in Fear and Trembling emphasize its unspeakability. The tragic hero, he says, renounces himself in favor of expressing the universal. He gives up what is certain for what is more certain; he gives up the finite to attain the infinite; and so he can speak publicly about it, he can weep and orate, secure that at least someone will understand his action.

But Abraham “gives up the universal in order to grasp something still higher that is not the universal,” because what he is obeying, what he is grasping for, is barbarously incomprehensible. So Abraham is utterly alone and cannot speak to anyone of what he is about to do, because no one would understand him.

It is suggestive, then, that one of the major early rewriters of this scene, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, labors to turn Abraham precisely into a tragic hero. In Jewish Antiquities, his enormous history of the Jews from earliest times, Josephus inserts long speeches in which Abraham eloquently apologizes to his son before binding him, and moreover promises him that his death will not really be death: “Accordingly, you, my son, will not die, not in any common way of going out of the world, but sent to God, the Father of all men, beforehand, by your own father, in the nature of a sacrifice.”

Isaac, in Josephus’s account, is of such a “generous disposition” that he willingly offers himself up, and then to cap this warm little drama, God, intervening to save Isaac, speaks to Isaac tip make clear that “it was not out of a desire of human blood” that Abraham “was commanded to slay his son … but to try the temper of his mind.” Kierkegaard seems admiringly terrified of God’s command, but Josephus, ornamenting the unspeakable with explanation, seems merely terrified, and at pains to moisten the hard ground of God’s behavior by ensuring that everyone involved, human and divine, is at least pleasant.

The Pentateuch ends with Moses’death. On the brink of the promised land, he addresses his people, and reminds them that they were chosen not for their righteousness but because other nations were wickedly following strange gods. Thus “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” If they follow the Lord, then blessings will flow; but if they swerve away from the Lord, then curses will flow. Alter writes appreciatively in his introduction of the majesty of the Hebrew of Deuteronomy, and his English cascades into foul brilliance, as Moses, speaking on behalf of the Lord, threatens a hell in which the Israelites will not even be competent slaves:

And it shall be, as the Lord exulted over you to do well with you and to multiply you, so will the Lord exult over you to make you perish, to destroy you, and you will be torn from the soil … And your life will dangle before you, and you will be afraid night and day and will have no faith in your life. In the morning you will say, “Would that it were evening,” and in the evening you will say, “Would that it were morning,” from your heart’s fright with which you will be afraid and from the sight of your eye that you will see. And the Lord will bring you back to Egypt in ships, on the way that I said to you, “You shall not see it again,” and you will put yourselves up for sale there to your enemies as male slaves and slavegirls, and there will be no buyer.

God takes Moses up a mountain to see the land he himself will not live in: “I have let you see with your own eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Because God several times seems to prepare for Moses’ death, the surmise later arose in commentaries that Moses did not want to die; Josephus has him weeping before his death, though the typically terse biblical account makes no mention of such theatrical inflammations.

James Kugel, in The Bible as It Was, reproduces an extraordinary medieval poem, now in the Bodleian, in which Moses’ death marks not the serene triumph of the longed-for possession of Canaan, but the scene of an anguished lament for the great impossible questions of the entire Pentateuch. Why are you afraid to die? God asks of Moses, and Moses goes to Hebron and summons Adam from the grave and cries:

Tell me why you sinned in the Garden
[Why] you tasted and ate from the tree of Knowledge.
You have given your sons over to weeping and wailing!
The whole garden was before you, yet you were not satisfied.
Oh why did you rebel against the Lord’s commandment?


Robert Alter And The King James Bible 1 – James Wood

November 25, 2013
William Hole made his name with etchings in the early 1880s and was elected to the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers and the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour in 1885. He became a regular illustrator of books for Edinburgh and London publishers as well as a popular painter of scenes from Scottish history and the Bible. He spent some weeks in Palestine in 1901 with paints and a camera to create authentic costumes and settings for a series of 80 watercolours published as The Life of Jesus of Nazareth (1906). Eyre and Spottiswoode acquired the copyright and suggested a companion Old Testament volume, for which Hole returned to the middle east, spending three months in Egypt and Palestine. He completed 76 watercolors but the project was never completed.

William Hole made his name with etchings in the early 1880s and was elected to the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers and the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolor in 1885. He became a regular illustrator of books for Edinburgh and London publishers as well as a popular painter of scenes from Scottish history and the Bible. He spent some weeks in Palestine in 1901 with paints and a camera to create authentic costumes and settings for a series of 80 watercolors published as The Life of Jesus of Nazareth (1906). Eyre and Spottiswoode acquired the copyright and suggested a companion Old Testament volume, for which Hole returned to the middle east, spending three months in Egypt and Palestine. He completed 76 watercolors but the project was never completed.

Robert Alter earned his bachelor’s degree in English (Columbia University, 1957), and his master’s (1958) and doctorate degrees (1962) from Harvard University in comparative literature. He started his career as a writer at Commentary Magazine, where he was for many years a contributing editor. Alter has written twenty-three books, and is noted most recently for his translations of sections of the Bible. Frequent New Yorker contributor James Wood turns his attention to Alter’s translations in contrast to the King James Bible. There is something for us all to learn here.


In the beginning was not the word, or the deed, but the face: “Darkness was upon the face of the deep,” runs the King Jams Version in the second verse of the opening of Genesis. “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” Two uses of “face” in one verse, and a third implied face, surely: God’s own, hovering over the face of his still untreated world. The Almighty, looking into the face of his waters, might well be expected to see his face reflected: it is profoundly his world, still uncontaminated by rebellious man.

The committees of translators appointed by James I knew what they were doing. The face of God and the face of the world (or of mankind) will become a running entanglement throughout the five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Man will fear to look upon God’s face, and God will frequently abhor the deeds of the people who live on the face of his world.

Once Cain has killed Abel, and has been banished by God he cries out: “Behold thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid.” When the Almighty, decides to flood his world, he pledges to destroy every living thing “from off the face of the earth”

After wrestling with a divine strange all night, Jacob “called the name of the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” Jacob dies happy that has seen his son Joseph’s face, and Moses, of course, spoke to God “face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.” The Book of Numbers contains the little prayer so beloved of the Christian liturgy: “‘The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: The Lord make his face shine upon thee: The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”

He casts his now kindly face upon ours. The Hebrew word for “face” is the same in all these verses, so the seventeenth century translators were being exact; but they were also perhaps telling us something about God’s circular ownership of his creation, his face above and his face below. Perhaps when they chose “the face of the waters” they had in their ears John’s description of the Lord in Revelation: “and his voice as the sound of many waters.”

In his translation of the Pentateuch, Robert Alter eschews “face” to describe the surface of the world at the start of Genesis, and I miss the cosmic implications, but his first two verses compensate with their own originality: “When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.” The King James Version has “without form and void” for Alter’s Anglo-Saxonish “welter and waste,” but Alter, characteristically, provides a diligent and alert footnote:

The Hebrew tohu wabohu occurs only here and in two later biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one. The second word of the pair looks like a nonce term coined to rhyme with the first and to reinforce it, an effect I have tried to approximate in English by alliteration. Tohu by itself means “emptiness” or “futility,” and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert.

Alter brings this kind of sensitivity to bear on moment after moment of his translation, and the result greatly refreshes, sometimes productively estranges, words that may now be too familiar to those who grew up with the King James Bible.

The Pentateuch, or Torah, contains the great narratives of our monotheistic infancy. It tells the stories of the creation; of Adam and Eve and their children, Cain and Abel; of the Flood and Noah ;s escape and God’s promise never to destroy the earth again; of Abraham and God’s covenant with him and his people; of Isaac and his sons Esau and Jacob; of Jacob’s wrestle with God and God’s anointing of Jacob as Israel; the story of Joseph and his brothers; the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt and their exodus, led by Moses; the handing down of the law from the mountain at Sinai; the elaboration of the law or teaching (torah means “teaching”); and finally the death of Moses as his people are on the verge of the promised land.

Biblical style is famous for its stony reticence, for a mimesis that Erich Auerbach called “fraught with background.” This reticence is surely not as unique as Auerbach claimed — Herodotus is a great rationer of explanation, for example — but it achieves its best-known form in the family stories of Genesis. The paratactic verses with their repeated “and” move like the hands of those large old railway-station clocks that jolted visibly from minute to minute: time is beaten forward, not continuously pursued.

Yet it is often the gaps between these verses, or sometimes between the clauses of a single verse, that constitute the text’s “realism,” a realism created as much by the needy reader as by the withholding writing itself. For example, after the Flood, Noah starts a new occupation: “And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.” Noah is a lush. This is not without crooked humor of a kind, and the gap-filled rapidity of the narration is the reason for the smile it raises.

Likewise, though generating pathos rather than comedy, the laconic report of Joseph’s response to his brothers works by starving us of information. Joseph, installed by Pharaoh as his right-hand man in Egypt, receives in an official capacity his brothers, who have traveled from Canaan in search of food. He recognizes them but disguises himself. Three times he weeps, twice turning away from them and a third time openly. The first time, “he turned himself about from them, and wept.” The second time is more agitated:

And Joseph made haste; for his bowels did yearn upon his brother: and he sought where to weep; and he entered into his chamber, and wept there.” Finally, after various ruses, he can stand it no longer and asks his servants to leave him alone while he “made himself known unto his brethren. And he wept aloud: and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard.

The beauty is that the final episode, the apparent climax, is as terse as the first: secret weeping is no different in this account from public weeping, and revelation is as hidden as disguise. Joseph is no longer hidden from his brothers, but he is still hidden from the reader: that surely is the thrust of the narration. And note, too, how our desire to witness this open crying, to bathe in authorial emotion, is reticently, and very movingly, transferred to another, less involved audience: “and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard.”

I quoted from the King James Version here, but Alter’s translation honors both the text’s grave simplicity and its almost novelistic attention to different literary registers. Abraham’s wife, Sarah, is for a long time barren, so she proposes that her maid Hagar sleep with Abraham to provide him with an heir. Hagar conceives, and when she sees that she is pregnant, “her mistress was despised in her eyes.”

It is one of those intensely human biblical moments: the servant, proud of her plump fertility, cannot but help look down on her withered mistress. But Alter improves on the King James Version’s “despised”: “And she saw that she had conceived and her mistress seemed slight in her eyes.” That “slight,” for obvious reasons, is very subtle.

Or take the little adjustment Alter makes to the Jacob and Esau tale. Esau is so hungry for the lentils that his brother has that he sells his birthright for a mess of pottage: “And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage: for I am faint.” Alter’s version is more literal, and more natural: “And Esau said to Jacob, `Let me gulp down some of this red red stuff, for I am famished.” In a footnote, he explains his choice:

Although the Hebrew of the dialogues in the Bible reflects the same level of normative literary language as the surrounding narration, here the writer comes close to assigning substandard Hebrew to the rude Esau. The famished brother cannot even come up with the ordinary Hebrew word for “stew” (nazid) and instead points to the bubbling pot impatiently as (literally) “this red red.” The verb he uses for gulping down occurs nowhere else in the Bible, but in rabbinic Hebrew it is reserved for the feeding of animals.

There are many examples like this of choices deeply pondered and painstakingly explained; reading Alter’s scripture is a slow business only because one stops so often to put down into the well of one his life-giving footnotes.

Though the King James Version is sometimes inaccurate, is generally thought to be, of all English translations, the one that best captures the quiddity of the Hebrew Early seventeenth-century English — and mid-sixteenth-century English, since the KJV stands on the shoulders of Tyndale, Coverdale, and Cranmer — was not afraid of anti-sentimental reticence (my favorite is perhaps Exodus 13:17, `And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword’; it followed the parataxis of the Hebrew narration (the “and” that so often begins a new verse or clause); it understood as a literary principle, that to repeat a word can be enrichment, no exhaustion, and that repetition subtly changes the sense of the re peated word if not its sound (modern versions, like the flat Revised Standard Version, invariably flee from repetition); and it relished the pungent physicality of Hebrew, which often inheres in the verbs.

Alter’s translation brings delight because it follows the precepts of the committees of King James, but is founded on a greatly deeper conversance with Hebrew than the great seventeenth-century scholars could summon. (Of course, no Jew was involved in the King James committees.) And Alter, who has been at the forefront of the rise of what might be called literary biblical studies, and who has educated two or three generations of students and readers in the art of biblical appreciation, brings to his own English a scholarly comprehension of the capacities of literary usage.

In his introduction he says that among the great twentieth-century English stylists such as Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov, Faulkner — he might have added Lawrence, by far the most biblical writer of twentieth-century English — “there is not one among them whose use of language, including the deployment of syntax, even vaguely resembles the workaday simplicity and patly consistent orderliness that recent translators of the Bible have posited as the norm of modern English.”

Thus Alter is happy to follow the precedent of the KJV when he feels that it cannot be bettered: his Adam also “knew” Eve, and his Israelites also “murmured against” Moses in the wilderness and lament that they have left behind “the fleshpots” of Egypt.

As ever, he usefully defends his reasons. About the “fleshpots,” he writes: “The Hebrew indicates something like a cauldron in which meat is cooked, but the King James Version’s rendering of ‘fleshpots’ (‘flesh,’ of course, meaning `meat’ in seventeenth-century English) has become proverbial in the language and deserves to be retained.” Well, it became proverbial, but is it still? The word always makes me smile because when I was growing up, albeit in a highly scriptural household, my family used to talk of my grandparents’ house — where I was allowed unlimited sweets — as the “fleshpots of Egypt.”

Especially fine is the way Alter seems to dig into the earth of the Hebrew to recover, in English, its fearless tactility. When Pharaoh has his first dream, of seven good ears of corn and seven bad, “his heart pounded,” which, Alter informs us in a footnote, follows the Hebrew, whose literal meaning is “his spirit pounded.” (The usually concrete KJV has the softer “his spirit was troubled.”) The dream comes to pass, and there are seven fat years and seven lean years.

“During the seven plenteous years the earth brought forth abundantly,” runs the Revised Standard Version, itself a wan starveling of the more robust and accurate KJV: “And in the seven plenteous years the earth brought forth by handfuls ” But Alter is more literal: “And the land in the seven years of plenty made gatherings. A footnote girds the apparent oddity of “gatherings”:

The Hebrew qematsim elsewhere means “handfuls,” and there is scant evidence that it means “abundance,” as several modern versions have it. But gomets is a “handful” because it is what the hand gathers in as it closes, and it is phonetically and semantically cognate with wayiqbots, “he collected,” the very next word in the Hebrew text. The likely reference here, then, is not to small quantities (handfuls) but to the process of systematically gathering in the grain, as the next sentence spells out.

Or take the moment at the end of chapter 2 of Exodus where the Bible writer tells us that God began to hear the groaning of the Israelites in their Egyptian bondage: “So God looked on the Israelite., and was concerned about them,” says the New International Version The King James has: “And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God had respect unto them.”

Alter has: “And God saw the Israelites, and God knew.” Notice that the New International Version shies away from repeating the word “God,” something that fazes neither the KJV nor Alter. But Alter’s reading is at once elegantly emphatic — “and God knew” — and accurate. He informs us that the Hebrew verb has no object, and that Greek translators mistakenly tried to “correct” it. How majestic and indeed divine that objectless “knew” is. And Alter’s version allows one to make new connections with biblical-sounding texts.

Saul Bellow, who grew up reading the Hebrew Bible, and whose English was profoundly influenced by both the Tanakh and the King James Version, was very fond of that objectless verb “knew.” Tommy Wilhelm, the hero of Seize the Day, is haplessly surrounded by people he fears are the kinds of people who “know” (as opposed to the confused hero): “Rubin was the kind of man who knew, and knew and knew,” Tommy thinks to himself. Mr. Sammler’s Planet ends with the eponymous hero reflecting that he has met the terms of his life contract, those terms “that we all, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.” This always sounded biblical to me, but Alter’s translation of the line in Exodus has given me chapter and verse.


The Presence Of God– Jean Daniélou

May 2, 2013
After his short spell as a military chaplain ended with the fall of France in 1940, he devoted himself to the study of the Fathers of the Church, and with Fr. Henri de Lubac was one of the founders of Sources Chrétiennes, a popular yet scholarly series of key writings from the patristic period. Over the years, Daniélou produced a flow of books and articles on the worship and theology of the Early Church. Such was his reputation and influence that Blessed Pope John XXIII named him as a theological expert for the Second Vatican Council. In 1969 he was made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI, and elected to the Académie Française

After his short spell as a military chaplain ended with the fall of France in 1940, he devoted himself to the study of the Fathers of the Church, and with Fr. Henri de Lubac was one of the founders of Sources Chrétiennes, a popular yet scholarly series of key writings from the patristic period. Over the years, Daniélou produced a flow of books and articles on the worship and theology of the Early Church. Such was his reputation and influence that Blessed Pope John XXIII named him as a theological expert for the Second Vatican Council. In 1969 he was made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI, and elected to the Académie Française

An incredible essay which requires an intense reading by the late Cardinal Jean Daniélou, taken from The Presence of God, trans. Walter Roberts Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1960), ch. 1: The Cosmic Temple, 9-14. Jean Daniélou, S.J. (1905-1974), was an influential French theologian and author, one of the main movers of Vatican II.

This was one of our readings for the Boston Communio Study Group meeting at St. Clement’s Eucharistic Shrine in Boston. Our focus is the monthly Communio International Catholic Review. We each choose an article from the review and discuss. We discussed this essay along with another An Introduction To Jean Daniélou by Fr. Jonah Lynch. You are more than welcome to join us. We’ll be there next at 3:00pm on May 19th. Contact me and I will make sure you have the readings for the next meeting. We are a monthly reading group and if you like payingattentiontothesky you will love the Christian fellowship you will gain with the group.


Through man the silent litany of things becomes an explicit act of worship.


On the lowest level, which is not essentially Christian, but is part of the historical heritage of Christianity, though generally separated from it, the Christian mystery is the mystery of creation. I mean by its not only an original dependence of the universe in relation to a personal and transcendent God, but also the actual dependence of all things in his sight, and consequently a divine Presence which confers upon the whole cosmos a sacramental value.

At the birth of mankind, the whole creation, issuing from the hands of God, is holy; the earthly Paradise is nature in a state of grace. The House of God is the whole cosmos. Heaven is his tent, his tabernacle; the earth is his “footstool.” There is a whole cosmic liturgy, that of the source of the flowers and birds.

Multiplied blessings made an overflow,
The silence of the soul was a still pond.
The rising sun became a monstrance now,
Filling the heavens with a shining sound.
Smoke was a censer, and the cedar-trees
Composed an ever-mounting barricade.
Days of delight were as a colonnade
Fanned by the calmness of the twilight breeze.
Charles Peguy, “Eve,” in Ouvres Poetiques Completes (Paris: Gallimard, 1948), 710

The time of the patriarchs still retains something of this paradisal grace. The Spirit of God still broods upon the waters. Yahweh is not yet the hidden God, dwelling apart within the tabernacle. He talks with Noah on familiar terms. His relationship with Abraham is that of a friend:

And the Lord appeared to him in the vale of Mambre as he was sitting at the door of his tent, in the very heat of the day. And when he lifted up his eyes, there appeared to him three men standing near him: and as soon as he saw them, he ran to meet them from the door of his tent, and adored down to the ground. And he said: Lord, if I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away from thy servant: but I will fetch a little water; and wash ye your feet, and rest ye under the tree.
Genesis 8:1-4

Abraham has that parrhesia with God, that freedom of speech which, in the days of ancient Greece, was the right of a free citizen, and by which St. Paul and the brethren symbolized the liberty of the children of God with their Father. The whole of nature is still a temple consecrated to him. A group of trees, a spring of fresh water, these are fragments of Paradise in which he offers sacrifices; a rough stone is an altar dedicated to him.

This is the primitive level, common to all men, whose traces are still to be found, twisted, soiled, perverted, in every religion. So in Greek religion we have the sacred wood, the alsos, with its fountain; but polytheism has corrupted the primitive gesture. God “in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless he left not himself without testimony, doing good from heaven, giving rains and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.” [Acts 14:16-17]

Only the wise men continued to seek for signs in the heavenly Temple, contemplating, examining, and defining, according to the positions of the stars, the sites of towns and altars. The shepherds and the Magi are, as it were, the flowering in the Gospel of this underlying, primary stratum, which corruption has not altogether spoiled, nor Mosaic revelation destroyed.

For us today, it still constitutes the holy in its rudimentary form, which darkly hints at the Divine Presence in the silence of the night, in the shadows of the forest, in the vastness of the desert, in the lightning-flash of genius, in the purity of love. It is this basic level that was recognized by that Boer farmer to whom Otto refers, who in the solitude of the desert, where the sun poured forth its rays upon the plain, was aware of a voice speaking to him. It is this level that explains the religious awe with which the Earth deserves to be surrounded.

But this sacramental element has no meaning except in relation to a personal Presence. “Awe,” writes Peguy, “stretches forth indeed to encompass the whole universe. We too easily forget that the universe is creation; and awe, like charity, is due to every creature.” It is the personal Presence, at once hidden and revealed by signs, that awakens in us this holy dread.

In the cosmic Temple, man is not living primarily in his own house, but in the house of God. This is why he knows that he should revere those creatures who do not belong to him, that he can lay hands on nothing without permission. All is holy; the trees are heavy with sacramental mysteries. Primitive sacrifice is simply the cognition of the sovereign realm of God. He takes the first-fruits, and leaves the rest to man. But at the same time, man is part of creation and has his role to play in it. God has in some way left creation unfinished, and man’s mission is to bring it to fulfillment. Through his work he exploits unknown material resources, and thus work is sacred, being co-operation in the task of creation. Through knowledge and art he removes it from its ephemeral condition to enable it subsist spiritually.

[FN:  This is well expressed by P.J. Toulet:
Whispering woods, if I should die,
Perish without my artistry.]

Indeed, by sacramental use man confers on visible things their supreme dignity, not merely as signs and symbols, but as effective means of grace in the soul. So water effects purification, oil communicates power and unction, salt gives the savor of heavenly things. Man is thus the mediator through whom the visible universe verse is gathered together and offered up, the priest of that virginal creation over which God lovingly watches. Through man the silent litany of things becomes an explicit act of worship.

Nature without me is vain, it is I who give it a meaning;
All things become in me eternal, are laid on my altar.
Water now washes the soul, not only the travel-worn body;
My bread becomes for me the very substance of God.
Paul Claudel, Cinq Grandes Odes (Paris: Gallimard, 1936), 174.

Thus the whole of nature, as St. Paul says, expects that man will lead it to its end. The sacred character of love, in particular, is not derived from the shadowy presence of the race using individuals for its own ends, but from the Presence of God in the handiwork that love causes men to share. “When I was close to him I nearly always had the sense of God’s actual presence,” wrote Alice Ollé-Laprune of her husband.

Such is the innocence of creation. Creatures are holy, expecting that man will lead them to their goal. But man has the power to violate this order. When he turns away from God, when he profanes himself by ceasing to be a consecrated creature, he also profanes the world on which he imposes sacrilegious uses.

The material inventions that are meant to help men to free themselves from matter and bring to realization the community of mankind, we transform into instruments of hatred. The beauty of the body, which is the lovely reflection of the beauty of the soul, its visible “glory” which should awaken in us loving awe, we transform into an instrument of selfish pleasure. The blessings of culture, intended to help men to become more truly human by developing the powers of their minds, we transform into an instrument of perverted specialization and highbrow aestheticism.

But creation itself is free from all these faults, wherever she may “suffer violence.” She, too, rebels in her holiness and purity against such profanation by sacrilegious rites; and she expresses her rebellion by the resistance that she makes when we turn her aside from her goal. Between her and us there is a battle waged, which is the result of sin.

You know nothing in the vast universe
That may not be a means of unhappiness.
Charles Peguy, “Eve,” in Ouvres Poetiques Completes

This is the hostile world that we know so well, where everything is threatening; and the more sensitive we are, the more it is so. No one has felt this more acutely than Rilke:

The terrible in every breath of air,
You breathe it all too clearly
No citation was given in the original translated publication.

The rebellion of creatures is the cause of suffering, which is the resistance of matter to our will. It was unknown in Paradise, it will be unknown in Paradise Regained, and Jesus already restores this Paradise, mastering the winds and waves, healing the sick. It is the cloudiness of the world that, far from showing us God, hides Him from us and confines us to earth. So we become slaves, we that are called to be kings. What are the fires of hell but the rebellion of the creature, defined all too clearly?

How are we to rediscover the lost harmony, how are we to reconciled with things? Here is the nostalgia that lies perhaps at the center of poetry, which is a quest for the cosmic privileges of Paradise Lost, a glorification of the body without using the conversion of the heart as intermediary.

But everything depends on this conversion. Things themselves have never changed. They remain what they always were; they await us in brotherly innocence. It is we that are “underlings.” If I seek to rediscover the joys of Paradise, to move at ease amid created things, I must give them back their proper meaning, I must restore their honorable mission as servants of humanity. Then they will cease to burden me with silent reproaches, they will begin once again to chant before me:

None but the pure heart knows
The perfume of the rose
Paul Claudel, Figures et Paraboles (Paris: Gallimard, 1936), 28.

I must recover the purity of my glance. Then only will creatures once more become bearers of light from heaven. It is this paradisal reconciliation that we find in St. Francis of Assisi, in St. John of the Cross: “Yes, the heavens are mine and e earth is mine and the peoples are mine…. What more can you sire? What do you seek, my soul?”

Nothing remains of our prostration before the powers of the cosmos and history, those words of Damocles hanging over mankind. Cosmic fear is vanquished, the universe has become once more a Temple where we are at home with God in the cool of the evening, where man comes forward, silent and composed, absorbed in his task as in a perpetual liturgy, attentive to that Presence which fills him with awe and tenderness.


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