Home for Purim

Review: Robert Alter’s ‘Strong as Death is Love’

Rembrandt's 'Ahasuerus and Haman at the Feast of Esther'
Rembrandt's 'Ahasuerus and Haman at the Feast of Esther' / Wikimedia Commons

The Book of Esther has had a good week. It is, at the moment of writing, the Jewish holiday of Purim, an account for which the biblical Esther provides. Purim celebrates the salvation of the Jews from a plot against them fomented by a faction of the ancient Persian Empire—which under current circumstances makes it an appropriate text for Benjamin Netanyahu to name-check, something he did speaking to Congress on Tuesday:

We're an ancient people. In our nearly 4,000 years of history, many have tried repeatedly to destroy the Jewish people. Tomorrow night, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, we'll read the Book of Esther. We'll read of a powerful Persian viceroy named Haman, who plotted to destroy the Jewish people some 2,500 years ago. But a courageous Jewish woman, Queen Esther, exposed the plot and gave for the Jewish people the right to defend themselves against their enemies. The plot was foiled. Our people were saved.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran, took exception to this interpretation, claiming in an interview with NBC’s Ann Curry that, "If you read the Book of Esther, you will see that it was the Iranian king who saved the Jews … It is totally regrettable that somebody plays such a distortion of reality, not only of contemporary reality, but even of Biblical reality, and of the scripture to which they claim allegiance."

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In addition to this high-level confluence of statecraft and biblical exegesis, the latest installment of Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible was published this week, the release no doubt timed to coincide with Purim. Alter’s latest includes Esther, among other late biblical texts: The Song of Songs, Ruth, Jonah, and Daniel.

Alter’s translations, which began with an edition of Genesis in 1996, have met widespread praise—one would be tempted to employ the formula, "uniform praise," but for the appearance of a distinctively curmudgeonly John Updike essay in the New Yorker back in 2004. Updike had a few complaints, but his main objection to Alter took the form of blanket skepticism towards the utility of any modern literary translation, considering the fine work of King James committee back in 1611. 

It is no hit on Alter to observe that the King James, as a matter of English prose and poetry, is in no danger from his work. It never has been, and Updike’s complaint seemed to miss entirely the point of translations, which are ephemeral performances, tied to a time, a people, and their dialects. Translations are particular, originals are universal. Some translations are more accurate and some are more beautiful (often in inverse proportion—though Alter makes an impressive go at both qualities) but a fine performance in no way ought to foreclose on the possibility of later efforts.

Alter’s comfort with the alien quality that comes with close translation leaves more than a few passages sounding like an updated version of the King James. Consider the 1611 translation of the Moabite Ruth’s famous pledge to her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi, who after the death of their husband and son tells Ruth to go back and make a life among her own people:

Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.

In Alter, this becomes:

Do not entreat me to forsake you, to turn back from you. For wherever you go, I will go. And wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people is my people, and your god is my god. Wherever you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. So may the LORD do to me or even more, for only death will part you and me.

There is power in the unadorned parallelism of those promises, and both translations give it to us straight, even if the literary dialect of the King James committee is striving for a slightly artificial archaic quality, even for 1611. This observation leads to an interesting question—Alter argues that the author of Ruth is also imitating what, for him, would have been the archaic Hebrew of Judges. So what is the translator to do? Put the thing into archaic sounding English? (Silly and far too clever, but there’s a case for it.) Or serve it up, like Alter does, plain?

Decisions, decisions—there’s no end to them for a translator, and each decision murders some sound or sense that is present in the original, even as it gives some other dimension life. We should be grateful for Alter, not to mention Fox and Rosenberg and Lattimore and all those committees that have produced the myriad of interpretations for use by their communities of faith. Unless you read fluently in Hebrew (and Aramaic, and Greek, etc.) the variety of the available performances is necessary, and not at all superfluous. 

Among the literary efforts, Alter’s stands out not only for its style but also for the rich and extensive notes, which often occupy more of the page than the text itself. True, some have found them overly pedantic (well, actually, only two entities known to me have said so: my former undergraduate students, and John Updike) but it is a distinctly pleasant variety of pedantry. The notes provide a simulation of sitting in Alter’s office at Berkeley and working one's way through the original with him, hearing an urbane commentary on issues of interpretation and context that—unlike the common experience of graduate school—you can turn on or off at your leisure.

It is a secular-liberal commentary, to be sure, a Midrash of the higher criticism. Only because Alter has been doing this for so long (even before the translations began, he published two fascinating volumes on Biblical narrative and poetry, in 1981 and 1985, respectively) is one inclined to place a little trust in interpretations that, from a younger scholar, might seem overly subjective, if not arbitrary: that King Ahasuerus’ scepter suggests a phallic undertone, and the text of Esther as a whole implies that the Persian king might be facing some issues in the area of… performance, while in Ruth, the charged scene of the heroine uncovering Boaz’s feet and lying on the threshing floor all night with him implies nothing beyond a chaste, if adjacent, nap. If anyone has the sense of these things, it’s likely to be Alter.

At other moments Alter’s observations can be revelatory, with apologies for using the term in such a context. His 1999 edition of First and Second Samuel, published as The David Story, made an extended comparison of the project there to Shakespeare’s history plays, in their shared royalism, chronological distance from the events in question, and quality of humane vision. It is not every critic with both the guts and analytic talent to give real substance to what is typically a cliché comparison—"Shakespeare and the Bible."

The contents of the present volume are more diverse than Alter’s earlier releases, and on a basic level are associated by, in Alter’s view, their late authorship. The confident nationalism of the Torah and the First Temple period has been superseded by themes of exile, compromise, conversion, and forgiveness. Even the destruction of the enemies of the Jews in Esther comes through the secretly Jewish queen’s successful manipulation of the Persian king, and results in the elevation of her kinsman Mordecai to power within a foreign empire. (This is what Foreign Minister Zarif was alluding to when he disingenuously argued that, "it was the Iranian king who saved the Jews." Zarif omits that before Esther’s intervention, the king—for all intents and purposes, the same man as Herodotus’ Xerxes—is quite happy to see all of the Jews slaughtered, and that he is sensuous, isolated, and an evident fool.)

You could say that this volume contains echoes of present-day events, except that what is here is too loud to be an echo. Daniel puts one in mind of Iran as much as Esther does, and in Jonah the enemies of Israel are concentrated in Nineveh, the ruins of which are next to present day Mosul, now occupied by the genocidal Islamic State. It is hardly an apocalyptic or forced observation to note that the political patterns of the Iron Age appear little changed in the Nuclear Age. It is also hardly reassuring.