The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary


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Yea, though the 23rd Psalm walks through the valley of a new translation, it shall fear no evil...but it might get carried away in a flash flood of commentary.

Biblical scholar, professor, and author Robert Alter, well known for such works as his translation of the Five Books of Moses and books on the Bible as literature, has delivered another work as both scholar and poet: The Book of Psalms.

In Alter’s hands, this beloved book of prayers and songs gets a distinctive new style. It’s no slim collection of songs buried in the middle of the Bible; instead, it’s a fat 518-page volume with a sedate blue cover. Page 78 holds only the first three verses of Psalms 23, with twice as much commentary in small print. The plain ol’ reader (who, like me, is neither a biblical languages scholar nor an expert on the study of the Bible as literature), may pause with one eyebrow raised doubtfully. Can I still revel in the psalms, letting them resonate with my own praise and pain? Or is this not a book for the plain reader?

The introduction helps to clarify the purpose. And really, it’s about one thing: honesty.

Due to a slight impediment (the fact that we don’t read Hebrew), most of us have never experienced the psalms as Hebrew poetry. Translators have sought to make the psalms accessible to English readers by making them look and sound like English poetry. But Alter devotes himself to a harder task: letting us experience elements of the cultural and linguistic world that created these works. He explains, “What I have aimed at in this translation—inevitably, with imperfect success—is to represent Psalms in a kind of English verse that is readable as poetry yet sounds something like the Hebrew.”

This is most apparent in the compact lines. Alter points out how the first line of Psalms 23:4 (“Yea though I walk...”) comes, in the Hebrew, to eight words or 11 syllables. In the King James Version? Seventeen words, 20 syllables. Alter comes closer to the concise rhythms of the Hebrew with 13 words: “Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadow, / I fear no harm.”

The result of honoring the Hebrew rhythms, of language that seeks to be honest to the people who wrote these lines long before Shakespeare and Tennyson, is that the translation stands out. The face of each psalm is familiar, but these are no NIV or KJV psalms. Their clothing looks different; the trimmings a little less elaborate, the fit a little less Western, and the colors a little brighter.

In addition to his dedication to the rhythms of the line, Alter consciously integrates other distinctive Hebrew language habits. The Hebrew psalms’ tendency to use concrete terms, rather than abstractions, for example, led him to choose words such as “crime and “wrongdoing” rather than “transgression” or “iniquity.”

He also strives for honesty to the theological setting of the psalms. Words such as “soul” and “salvation,” he argues, are laden with theological implications that were nonexistent in the world of the psalms. So he uses “being” rather than “soul,” and “rescue” rather than “salvation” as a means to “reground Psalms in the order of reality in which it was conceived.”

This honesty carries over to the practical act of translation, in which one encounters textual problems. Occasionally, when a “stretch seemed too extravagant, and no viable emendation was available,” Alter even left the incoherence in. “These moments will be a perhaps disconcerting novelty for English readers of Psalms,” Alter writes, “but they are intended to remind the audience of this translation that there are spots and patches where unfortunately we do not have the text that the poets originally wrote.”

The new richness that results from Alter’s honesty to Hebrew literary elements—combined with his fairly good sense of English poetry, so the psalms keep their impact and beauty—can draw even the ordinary reader through the weighty commentary. I found that I could read the translation in two modes: One as “study,” in which I enjoyed the detailed, clear, and often revealing commentary; and one as plain reader, in which I mostly looked past the notes and experienced the power of the psalms as poetry and prayer in their new wardrobe, their heart shining through in unexpected turns of language.

Neither, I suppose, is a very typically Adventist style of reading. We’re so rooted in the Truth of the scriptures and our careful, long-established methods of literal reading and application, a reading style that doesn’t work out so well with poetry—and doesn’t work out so well with Alter’s commentary, which reveals the many possibilities, variations, and errors of the text and points out its various cultural influences. Here we are accepting Robert Alter’s version of the Word of God—a man whose belief (or lack thereof) in a personal God is at odds with our basic perspective on the deity. That could be a bit of a threat to cherished Adventist safety.

As Pacific Union College English professor John McDowell remarked when discussing The Book of Psalms, “[Adventists] are people of the Book—but yet we’re not people of the Book.”

So these are good challenges for us. Good to remember that we can place more trust in a qualified translator who’s dedicated to honesty to the text, than in a translator who will tweak difficult passages to say what established Christianity expects. And good for us to read and experience this book for what it is: poetry, which has long served its compelling role in society to express, to heal, to weep, and to worship.

To boil it down, The Book of Psalms is not your best bet for a light read as a devotional book, not a book you can pull out of your pocket and flip to the dog-eared Twenty-third when you need to feel that the Shepherd’s rod and staff are nearby. But if you’re looking for the psalms in a truly beautiful new wardrobe sewn in the fabric of its Hebrew roots, or if you’re interested in exploring the Bible from a more literary perspective that’s accessible even to the non-scholarly reader, then I recommend it highly.

Thanks to Alter’s honesty, we find that instead of drowning in scholarly commentary, the psalms in their new clothes are equally powerful, equally personal—and yes, equally fearless. Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadow, I fear no harm, for You are with me.

Lainey S. Cronk is a writer and poet from Angwin, California.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/449