Monday, June 27, 2005

Welter and waste

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.

I just picked up Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses: A Translation With Commentary at the Library. 1060 pages, hardcover. But if one wants to know "the mind of Christ," one has to try to understand the way Christ saw things, don't you think?

And to me, that means a close reading of the Pentateuch. So, here I go. Anyway, the stories are great: wildly colorful characters - Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Esau, Moses, etc. As a plus, God strolls around on earth quite a bit early on, even appearing to Abraham "sitting by the tent flap in the heat of the day."

Further, I wanted to look more closely into the "Azazel/Atonement" thing that James Alison was riffing on. (Derek, here is a paper on the Jewish roots of "atonement" by someone at Marquette - Margaret Baker - that sort of covers similar ground. The paper's filed under a section called Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism - a graduate seminar given by the theology department, apparently.)

Here's a Cynthia Ozick review of the book. Excerpt:
The literary approach, writes Robert Alter, "directs attention to the moral, psychological, political, and spiritual realism of the biblical texts, which is a way of opening ourselves to something that deserves to be called their authority, whether we attribute that authority solely to the power of human imagination or to a transcendent source of illumination that kindled the imagination of the writers to express itself through these particular literary means."

The quotation is from Alter's volume The World of Biblical Literature, which appeared in 1991. Along with The Art of Biblical Narrative, The Art of Biblical Poetry, and related earlier works, this can in retrospect be seen as the arduously analytical preparation for an undertaking of such ambitiousness that to call it uncommon hardly suggests how very rare it really is. "Ethical monotheism," Alter sums up, "was delivered to the world not as a series of abstract principles but in cunningly wrought narratives, poetry, parables, and orations, in an intricate patterning of symbolic language and rhetoric that extends even to the genealogical tables and the laws." And in the most succinct summary of all, he cites the Talmudic view: "The Torah speaks in human language."

Ozick finds the book "historically astounding," and I suppose with good reason. She continues:
Human language, yes, but who would dare to render Scripture single-handedly, all on one's own? In fact, in the entire history of biblical translation, there have been only three daredevil intellects, each inspired by profound belief, who have achieved one-man renditions: the Latin of Jerome, the German of Luther, and the English of William Tyndale. Tyndale, who was burned at the stake for his presumption in desiring the Bible to be accessible in the vernacular, is generally regarded as the forerunner of, or influence on, the King James Version--a work that is distinctly a committee enterprise. Though Jerome and Luther each had occasional rabbinical consultants, and Luther was advised also by Melancthon, a Reformist scholar, their translations stand as monuments to the power of individual rhetoric and intent. Luther in particular impressed on German as inexhaustible a linguistic force as the King James Version left on English. In English, notably, all biblical translation since Tyndale's sixteenth-century version, without exception, has been by committee. Until now.

It's a good point.


LutheranChik said...

You might also want to pick up Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts, edited by Barry W. Holtz. This was our reference text for the online Torah/Talmud/Mishnah class I took, and it was most helpful.

bls said...

Thanks! I need all the help I can get!