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?