Alter’s translation of Genesis allows me to be swept into the mystery–both the mystery of God’s presence and his striking absence. So often, my faith is more characterized by a blind bumbling than a sure-footed, celebratory march. I can explain these times away “in my head,” and can point to a thousand examples (so, let’s start with Hebrews 11) of semi-silly saints like me who kept trudging nonetheless. But somehow, Alter’s words are like a gift–something like Frederick Buechner’s “whistling in the darkness:” they speak to me at a soul-level, and have a profound way of speaking into the silence of my doubt.
I’m ready to say that “…faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Yet, by reading Alter, I can see just a glimpse of something I hadn’t before. I am given the eyes of someone who inhabits ancient Mesopotamia, someone who wrestles with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Aspects of the original language become powerful vehicles of meaning, and otherwise hidden markers of the God-man relationship take form.
Maybe what I appreciate the most is that Alter views translation not “as a vehicle for explaining the Bible,” but of “representing it in another language” (xii). In other words, Alter views original poetic rhythms, play-on-words, and conscious repetition as vehicles of meaning in themselves. In many ways, it’s as if Alter’s preservation of the original linguistic tendencies of ancient Hebrew permits contemporary Christian English-language readers to experience moments of tension that have often been lost in translation. Alter’s translation leaves raw, human emotions completely in-tact, and celebrates loose ends that call for a sort of “blind trust.” Yet, it’s as if these moments of tension set the stage beautifully for God’s presence and control. It’s the “loose ends” and rough-ness that makes this such a powerful book—one that is a vehicle for God to speak anew through Scripture using themes most of us haven’t recognized in our English translations.
For readers who experience the Christian life as a sort of “blind trust,” this is a translation that feels honest, and that honors the unknowability of God. Unlike other scholars of biblical exegesis, Alter’s translation ardently insists on the mystery of God’s encounters with us. A prime example is Genesis 15, when God reveals His covenant to Abraham. So many of us have experienced periods of the kind of darkness Abraham experiences. God puts him into a deep sleep, and the Hebrew word for darkness, chosek, in verse 12 has a double meaning I can appreciate. It can mean literal darkness, but also “misery, destruction, death, ignorance, sorrow, wickedness” (Strong’s, 2821). So often I’m faced with some or many of these, yet in this same all-too-familiar darkness, God reveals His covenant: not a smooth road by any means, but a promise that somehow holds without sway. The enacting of the covenant itself, too, is dark and mysterious. But, isn’t God a mystery? Yet, through Alter’s translation, I at least come to appreciate the mystery of it all, a kind of mystery that fills me with awe, even if it doesn’t necessarily result in a perfectly resolved set of circumstances. Moreover, one advantage, here, of preserving the mystery is that it allows for “God discoveries” that are part of a continual process.
In his Introduction, Alter sets forth several distinct guidelines that tend to inform his translation:
- Retaining original presentation and syntax. Alter frequently highlights original structure through “parataxis,” or the presentation of parallel clauses linked by “and.” Alter calls it the “essential literary vehicle of Biblical narrative,” perhaps because it’s all about joining the unexpected—something that so often marks the story of God’s interactions with us.
- Recognizing human body metaphors. Original metaphors such as “hand,” “head,” “seed” and “foot” repeat throughout the entire unfolding of a story. These words, rich in meaning, allow us to note intentional patterns linking chain of events, as well as to allow the reader to locate significant, conflicting play-on-words.
- Acknowledging breaks in diction. Surprisingly, much of Genesis displays striking, intentional use of every day vernacular, which seems to cut violently through formal Rabbinic speech, such as when Esau begs Jacob to give him some of that “red, red stuff!” (xxiv). Lines of poetry inset into the text also help emphasize important points.
- Preserving meaningful repetition.
Each of these four guidelines are interrelated: for me, they allow meaning to break through in fresh ways, they let loose an active, new discovery of God’s presence throughout the story, and they highlight key relationship dynamics between God and humankind I may not otherwise be
One such dynamic that surfaces is between God and “flood-battered Noah.” (39). Though he consistently assures him of his promises, he needs reassuring three times, even in the form of a rainbow before he believes. When we see God establishing His covenant with Noah, we read it in the form of parataxis. In other words, we read a string of phrases linked by “and:” “And God said…And God said…” without any response from Noah (Gen. 9.12, 39). For me, this is so true to my own faith experience(s). Even when I don’t know what to say, He keeps speaking. In this way, parataxis helps emphasize the listener’s silence (39), whether it stems from resistance, confusion, or disbelief. How often have I felt this way, kneeling before God and His Ways, His Words, His Promises! Sometimes, they may be either too overwhelming for me to understand, or I’m in a state of confusion and battered doubt, and like Noah, need his reassurance.
I have to credit Alter preserving the original linguistic structure, here, for making this striking theme come through: even as I am bewildered, God is faithful. Alter sees the Hebrew linguistic structure as a vehicle for meaning, and here, quite appropriately, parataxis allows Noah’s faltering and God’s steady, continual faithfulness to coexist. Whereas our English language structures often insist on logical order and subordination, Hebrew does not insist on this. Fittingly, then, Alter doesn’t either. Another theme highlighted by parataxis, here, is Noah’s emotions before God. So, two seemingly competing themes surface beautifully: our stunned silence, and God’s speaking into that silence of our disbelief.
What’s perfect here is that Alter’s translation allows a breaking-through of the majesty and power of God, both in the story as well as in the language itself. It is not unlike suddenly being struck, both literally and figuratively, by His Presence despite difficulty and confusion. For example, when God is instructing Noah, Alter comments that “the writer also uses the speech as a vehicle for realizing God’s awesome presence in the story: the language is not arranged in actual verse but it sounds a drum roll of formal cadences, stressing repeated terms and phrases that are rhythmically or semantically parallel” (6:13-21, 29). Yet, despite mine Noah’s–or my own–confusion and wallowing, His Majesty, Goodness, and unchanging power, though undeniable, can form the basis of our existence–an anchor for our souls–if we let it.
Likewise, Alter picks out other linguistic patterns that help me understand how God spoke through the text to its original readers. Another helpful theme is the metaphors of the human body, which highlight for me a sort of darkness and terror that coexists with the inexplicable majesty and omnipotence of God. For instance, there is a violent laying on of hands when Joseph’s brothers throw him into the pit, he is bought from the hands of the Ishmaelites, when his master’s wife tries to seduce him, he leaves the garment in her hands; yet, further references to hand or hands in the story refer to Joseph’s God-ordained mastery, when twice, everything “is left in his hands” (xiv-xvi). For me, these faithful representations of intentional repetition serve as a “focal point:” they bring me fresh insight into the reality of human struggle that is interlaced with God’s divine plan, which stays true no matter which version of “hands” holds true in any given moment.
But it’s not just the constancy of God who sees, who hears, who sustains, who calls, who fulfills promises—it’s seeing Him when one’s experiences seem convoluted, contradict each other, and/or are frustrating at best. When the “in the meantime” seems to pale, or even mock at, what He has promised. Take, for example, Alter’s careful rendition of the word “laugh” in Sarah’s story. When Isaac is finally born, the significance of Sarah’s response is highlighted by a poetic inset:
“Laughter has God made me,
Whoever hears will laugh at me” (Gen. 21:6, 97).
Admittedly, Isaac, which means “he-who-laughs” fulfills of one of God’s biggest promises to his people. Yet, despite this huge show of God’s faithfulness, the play on the word “laughter” is what brings Sarah’s doubts to the forefront. Her laughter could be triumphant, of the kind of Isaac’s namesake (“he-who-laughs”). Yet, others might as easily laugh at her as with her, since tsehoq, as Alter points out, also means “mockery” (6, 97). For instance, sentences later Sarah sees Ishmael laughing, or as Alter argues, may be taken as “Isaac-ing it”—that is, Sarah sees Ishmael presuming to play the role of Isaac, child of laughter, presuming to be the legitimate heir” (9, 98). Caught up in the very word used to deliver the promise, then, is doubt.
Alter also helps English language readers to find repetitions of themes that have been lost in translation, themes that deserve greater prominence in the text. One example is the theme of listening to human voices. The worst of this situation is realized when, as a result, Sarah sends the child and his mother, Hagar, off to the desert to die. Yet, amidst the uncertainty of human experience, doubting, and trying to desperately take care of things ourselves, the same words that acknowledge the shakiest of circumstances also beg us to recall his faithfulness despite them. For instance, Alter highlights the importance of the phrase “listen to her [Sarah’s] voice,” which God tells Abraham to do in this case, but echoes it later when, after Hagar flings him in the bushes, we read the amazing words “Fear not, for God has heard the lad’s voice where he is” (Gen. 21: 17). Ishmael, whose name means “God will hear” again repeats the phrase. And, even though Sarah refuses to name him and the naming is suppressed to the end, Alter claims that “the ghost of its etymology—‘God will hear’—hovers at the center of the story” (17, 100).
Here, once again, it’s as if Alter’s translation opens doors for me to be “struck” with God’s presence in the unexpected, even dark, places. It’s what I like to call the “Jacob phenomenon:” he wakes up after wrestling with God, and says “Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know.” (Gen. 28:16, 149). Similarly, Alter allows me to experience God’s presence in the text in unexpected and powerful ways. Parataxis, which allows for both meaningful repetition and play-on-words, is somehow perfect for expressing and describing the kind of experience that, though fraught with complications and contradictions, seems to be a necessary test of faith. That trouble and certainty can coexist-this is what Alter’s careful preservation of tactics like “parataxis” bring home for me. It’s through Alter’s translation that that mystery, tension and steady faithfulness of God are allowed to interrelate and intersect in stunning ways.