Whether rendering the Bible as wondrous or as strangely familiar, David Rosenberg’s magisterial translation forces us to ask againand at last in literary termswhy the Bible remains a crucial foundation of our culture.
Until today, translators have presented a homogeneous Bible in uniform styleeven as the various books within it were written by different authors, in diverse genres and periods, stretching over many centuries. Now, Rosenberg’s artful translation restores what has been left aside: the essence of imaginative creation in the Bible.
In A Literary Bible, Rosenberg presents for the first time a synthesis of the literary aspects of the Hebrew Biblerestoring a sense of the original authors and providing a literary revelation for the contemporary reader.
Rosenberg himself brings a finely tuned ear to the original text. His penetrating scholarship allows the reader to encounter inspired biblical prose and verse, and to experience each book as if it were written for our time.
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Read an Excerpt
Genesis is the literary and cultural foundation for the Hebrew Bible. Its human drama begins in the Garden of Eden, and from there until the birth of the first Jew, Abraham, the historical sources drawn upon include literatures already classical in Abraham's day, most prominently Sumerian. The history of Jewish ancestors proceeds to the end of Genesis, where some are living in Egypt and where Joseph has risen to the highest government office.
The cosmic theater of Genesis allows YHWH (pronounced Yahweh in this primary source and mispronounced Jehovah in the King James translation) to interact with humans on a common stage, in person and through disguises, in disembodied speech and via angels. YHWH, in short, is always uncanny; and very often, so too are his human counterparts.
Genesis contains two major literary sources — J from the ninth century BCE in Jerusalem, and E from the eighth century BCE in Samaria — and the minor source, P from the sixth century BCE in Jerusalem. J and E narrate roughly the same stories and histories, and have been interwoven in later times, along with P and fragments of other sources. One of the latter, which tells of Abraham as a warrior, is designated X — although it appears to be a translation from Akkadian, the language that Abraham would have spoken, and written close to his lifetime. I have translated this passage in particular because it belies the sour grapes scholarship that postdates the writings of J and E to the seventh century BCE, thereby throwing their historical accuracy into question.
But there is far more to the literary authenticity of J and E than scholarly analysis. Their styles, their archaisms and borrowings, their puns and wordplay, and their points of view are quite different. Scholars tend to avoid this and concentrate upon linguistic issues — upon the words designating God, for instance — and as a result, J and E are treated as if they are texts devoid of authorship. If there were flesh and blood authors, however, then there must have been a living culture that is also being avoided. This Hebraic culture was lost to the first modern scholars of Germanic and Christian provenance (as well as to coy scholars today) who were happy to designate the whole culture as "primitive" — with the exception of divinely inspired authors who needed no more grounding description than would angels.
Modern biblical scholarship arose in European universities, yet in religion departments from Geneva to Oxford, Jews were prohibited. The professors of Bible were of Christian belief or education. The nineteenth-century German scholars who developed the Documentary theories known as Higher Biblical Criticism were charmed by their natural Christian superiority into primitive misunderstandings of the Hebrew. We cannot blame them, since they could only read through the filter of their primary source, the New Testament.
Yet even today, the dismissal of a writer by professors of religion is disheartening. "There are too many internal contradictions within the J complex of texts to support the idea that they were the work of one person," writes James Kugel, a conventional Harvard scholar with an unfortunately tin ear for authorship. If Kugel knew how to read a modern author, he might have recognized his misstep. Would he say of a powerful author like Freud: "How could one man have written such seemingly contradictory texts as Moses and Monotheism, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, and The Ego and the Id? Impossible! It must have been many men and even women lumped under the name 'Freud.'"
When translating J, I nevertheless followed a conservative approach to the last hundred years of J scholarship. The general out-line of her narrative can be easily tracked in the popular British translation by James Moffatt, published in 1922, where all suspected J texts are printed in italics. I address J as a living writer in greater detail, as well as the Hebraic culture in which she attained her scholarship, in my previous books appearing after The Book of J (in particular, Abraham: The First Historical Biography, The Book of David, and The Lost Book of Paradise). And in the The Book of J, coauthored with Harold Bloom, I began to describe the textuality of J's narrative, while both Bloom and I first addressed the likelihood of J being a woman.
What made J a great writer was the imaginative power that anchors every scene. Not a phrase, not a single word is not played upon — sometimes in the same sentence. A translation should require that every English word also be chosen with an ear to its tone and weight — and with a healthy skepticism toward simplification. As a poet of narrative, J can make any sentence of description or dialogue sound as if nothing had been described or said before.
In Hebrew, J's sentences, like lines of verse, are strung together in stanzas rather than paragraphs. Since the conventional biblical chapter divisions are arbitrary, made by later editors, I gave J a sequence that more naturally follows the breaks in her narrative. Whether she or her editors are responsible for discontinuities, we can only imagine.
J's stories are told or retold in scenes: as if the author were there when they were happening, as if she were a witness. The King James translation embodies the standard for English diction but substitutes much of J's ironic stance — the way she shades meaning — with a less modulated grandeur. Some later translations, especially recent ones, give up both grandeur and irony in one fell swoop of reduction.
The rhyme in J's narrative is shaded, an off-rhyming in Hebrew, primarily assonance and consonance. To parallel it in English requires an ear for ironic repetitions as well, since a greater range of variations on word roots is possible in Hebrew. A harmonics of repetition and a sophisticated sense of parallelism characterize J's writing.
When it comes to E, I've translated passages that most indicate his later origin and his Canaanite sources, especially the scenes concerning the near-sacrifice of Abraham's son, Isaac. J did not narrate dreams as a rule, but the E writer considered it more "modern" to do so. Thus, the story of Abraham and Isaac unfolds as a nightmare, both in style and substance, and with the sight of a natural ram caught in a thicket providing the moment of waking.
Before a plant of the field was in earth, before a grain of the field sprouted — Yahweh had not spilled rain on the earth, nor was there man to work the land — yet from the day Yahweh made earth and sky, a mist from within would rise to moisten the surface. Yahweh shaped an earthling from clay of this earth, blew into its nostrils the wind of life. Now look: man becomes a creature of flesh.
* * *
Now Yahweh planted a garden in Eden, eastward, settled there the man he formed. From the land Yahweh grew all trees lovely to look upon, good to eat from; the tree of life was there in the garden, and the tree of knowing good and bad.
* * *
Out of Eden flows a river; it waters the garden, then outside, branches into four: one, Pishon, winds through the whole of Havila, land with gold — excellent gold, where the bdellium is, the lapis lazuli. The second, named Gihon, moves through the length of Cush; Tigris, the third, travels east of Asshur; and Euphrates is the fourth. Yahweh lifts the man, brings him to rest in the garden of Eden, to tend it and watch. "From all trees in the garden you are free to eat" — so Yahweh desires the man know — "but the tree of knowing good and bad you will not touch. Eat from it," said Yahweh, "and on that day death touches you."
* * *
"It is no good the man be alone," said Yahweh. "I will make a partner to stand beside him." So Yahweh shaped out of the soil all the creatures of the field and birds of the air, bringing them to the man to see how he would call them. Whatever the man called became the living creature's name. Soon all wild animals had names the man gave them, all birds of the air and creatures of the field, but the man did not find his partner among them. Now Yahweh put the man into a deep sleep; when he fell asleep, he took a rib, closed the flesh of his side again. Starting with the part taken out of the man, Yahweh shaped the rib into woman, returned her to the side of the man.
"This one is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh," said the man. "Woman I call her, out of man she was parted." So a man parts from his mother and father, clings to his wife: they were one flesh.
And look: they are naked, man and woman, untouched by shame, not knowing it.
* * *
Now the snake was smoother-tongued than any wild creature that Yahweh made." Did the God really mean," he said to the woman, "you can't eat from any tree of the garden?"
"But the fruit of the trees we may," said the woman to the snake. "Just the tree in the middle of the garden, the God said. You can't eat from it, you can't touch — without death touching you." "Death will not touch you," said the snake to the woman. "The God knows on the day you eat from it your eyes will fall open like gods, knowing good and bad."
* * *
Now the woman sees how good the tree looks to eat from, how lovely to the eyes, lively to the mind. To its fruit she reached; ate, gave to her man, there with her, and he ate.
And the eyes of both fall open, grasp knowledge of their naked skin. They wound together fig leaves, made coverings for themselves.
* * *
Now they hear Yahweh's voice among the evening breezes, walking in the garden; they hide from the face of Yahweh, the man and his woman, among trees of the garden. "Where are you?" Yahweh called to the man.
"I heard your voice in the garden," he answered. "I trembled, I knew I was smooth-skinned, I hid."
"Who told you naked is what you are?" he asked. "Did you touch the tree I desired you not eat?"
"The woman you gave to stand beside me — she gave me fruit of the tree, I ate."
* * *
"What is this you have done?" said Yahweh to the woman.
"The smooth-tongued snake gave me, I ate."
"Since you did this," said Yahweh to the snake, "you are bound apart from flocks, from any creature of the field, bound to the ground, crawling by your smooth belly: dirt you shall taste from first day to last. I make you enemy to woman, enmity bound between your seed and hers. As you strike his heel, he shall strike your head."
* * *
To the woman he said: "Pain increasing, groans that spread into groans: having children will be labor. To your man's body your belly will rise, for he will be eager above you."
To the man he said: "You bent to your woman's voice, eager to eat — from the tree of which you knew my desire: "'You will not eat from it.' Now: bitter be the soil to your taste; in labor you will bend to eat from it, each day you live.
"Thorns and thistles will bloom before you; you will grasp the bitter herbs the field gives you.
"As you sow the sweat of your face so you will reap your bread, till you return to earth — from it you were taken. Dust you are, to dust you return."
* * *
The man named his wife Hava: she would have all who live, smooth the way, mother.
Now Yahweh made clothes from skins of the wild animals for the man and woman, dressed them.
* * *
"Look," said Yahweh, "the earthling sees like one of us, knowing good and bad. And now he may blindly reach out his hand, grasp the tree of life as well, eat, and live forever."
Now Yahweh took him out of the Garden of Eden, to toil — in the soil from which he was taken.
The earthling was driven forward; now, settled there — east of Eden — the winged sphinxes and the waving sword, both sides flashing, to watch the way to the Tree of Life.
* * *
Now the man knew Hava, his wife, in the flesh; she conceived Cain: "I have created a man as Yahweh has," she said when he was born. She conceived again: Abel his brother was born. Abel, it turned out, was a watcher of sheep, Cain a tiller of soil.
* * *
The days turned into the past; one day, Cain brought an offering to Yahweh, from fruit of the earth. Abel also brought an offering, from the choicest of his flock, from its fat parts, and Yahweh was moved by Abel and his holocaust. Yet by Cain and his holocaust he was unmoved. This disturbed Cain deeply, his face fell.
"What so disturbs you?" said Yahweh to Cain. "Why wear a face so fallen? Look up: if you conceive good it is moving; if not good, sin is an open door, a demon crouching there. It will rise to you, though you be above it."
* * *
Cain was speaking to his brother Abel, and then it happened: out in the field, Cain turned to his brother, killing him.
Now Yahweh said to Cain: "Where is your brother, Abel?" "I didn't know it is I," he answered, "that am my brother's watchman."
* * *
"What have you done?" he said. "A voice — your brother's blood — cries to me from the earth. And so it be a curse: the soil is embittered to you. Your brother's blood sticks in its throat.
"You may work the ground but it won't yield to you, its strength held within. Homeless you will be on the land, blown in the wind."
"My sentence is stronger than my life," Cain said to Yahweh.
"Look: today you drove me from the face of the earth — you turned your face from me. I return nowhere, homeless as the blowing wind. All who find me may kill me."
"By my word it will be known," said Yahweh, "any killer of Cain will be cut to the root — seven times deeper." Now Yahweh touched Cain with a mark: a warning not to kill him, to all who may find him.
Cain turned away from Yahweh's presence, settled in a windblown land, east of Eden.
* * *
Now Cain knew his wife in the flesh; she conceived, Hanoch was born. The days turned into the past: he has founded an ir — city — calling it by the name of his son, Hanoch.
Now Irad — a city lad — was born, to Hanoch; Irad fathered Mehuyael; Mehuyael fathered Methusael; and Methusael, Lamech.
* * *
Lamech rose up and married two wives for himself; one was named Adah, the second, Tzilah.
Adah bore Yaval, who became father to tent dwellers, watchers of flocks.
Yuval was his brother's name, father to musicians, masters of flute and lyre.
Tzilah also gave birth: Tuval-Cain, master of bronze and iron, to whom Naamah was sister.
"Hear my voice," sang Lamech to his wives, to Adah and Tzilah, "hear what's sung to Lamech's wives: A man I've killed if he wounded me; a boy too, for a blow — merely. If Cain's justice cuts seven deep — for Lamech, it reaches down seven and seventy."
* * *
Now Adam still knew his wife in the flesh; she bore a son, called him Seth — "God has settled another seed in me, reaching beyond Abel, whom Cain cut down" — which became his name. Now Seth grew to father a son, Enosh by name — "sweet mortal," he called him. And in that time began the fond calling by name of Yahweh.
* * *
Now look: from the earthling's first step man has spread over the face of the earth. He has fathered many daughters. The sons of heaven came down to look at the daughters of men, alive to their loveliness, knowing any they pleased for wives.
* * *
"My spirit will not watch man so long," Yahweh said. "He is mortal flesh." Now his days were numbered: to one hundred and twenty years.
* * *
Now the race of giants: they were in the land then, from the time the sons of heaven entered the rooms of the daughters of men. Hero figures were born to them, men and women of mythic fame.
* * *
Yahweh looked upon the human, saw him growing monstrous in the land — desire created only bad thoughts, spreading into all his acts. Now Yahweh's pain was hard, having watched the man spread in the land; it saddened his heart. "I will erase the earthlings I created across the face of earth," said Yahweh,"from human creature to wild beast, crawling creature to bird in the air — it chills me to have made them." But innocent Noah warmed Yahweh's heart.
* * *
"Come — you, your household," said Yahweh to Noah." Enter the ark. It was you my eyes found upright in this generation, righteous before me.
"Gather in seven by seven — seven male and female mates — from each of the clean creatures; from the unclean creatures a male and female mate; also from the birds of the air, seven by seven, male and female: to spread life's seed over the whole face of earth.
"In another seven days rain spills on the land unceasing: forty days, forty nights. I will erase all that rose into living substance, spreading over the face of earth — all which I made."
Now Noah did it, all as Yahweh desired. Noah and his sons, his wife, the sons' wives — all came with him to the ark, facing the flood water.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Literary Bible"
Copyright © 2009 David Rosenberg.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
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