Translations matter. Oddly, to recognize this fact, you have to reread a book. If the first time you ever read The Odyssey was the Fagles translation, you would have no idea how much the translator was important in making the book come alive. Now imagine a book you have read many times in many different translations. A new translation comes along. Same story that you have read many, many, many times. But, suddenly in this new translation, the book pops alive in new ways. The story feels fresh and exciting and like something you have never read before. That would be a good translation.
Enter Robert Alter, who has been praised many times before in this space and is hereby praised again. I recently finished his latest Old Testament translations. This set has a curious title: Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. (The Former Prophets is an odd moniker, but it fits.) I’ve read all those books before Alter came along. Many times. But, rereading each of the four books contained herein was a surprising experience.
As a book, this is an interesting history. Coupled with the Books of Moses, we now have Alter’s translation of the complete story of Israel from Creation to Captivity. It is not a pretty tale—one long descent of mankind.
Of the four books contained in this newest translation, there is no doubt that Samuel is the best. Indeed, it is cheating a bit to have included it here—Alter had previously published his translation of Samuel, so a good chunk of this book is simply the inclusion of a previously published stand-alone book. It makes sense to include it for the sake of completeness, but not all of this material is new. The Samuel narrative is beautifully written, a marvelous story—surely one of the Greats in World Literature. Indeed, I assigned Samuel in my Leadership and the Liberal Arts class last semester. David and Lincoln made an interesting pairing of biographies.
Kings, which I finally just got around to reading, was as tedious as I expected it to be. The Samuel narrative is beautiful literature. Joshua was a crisp tale followed by some legalese. Judges is replete with good stories. But Kings? It is so clearly a mishmash, a cobbling together of assorted stories, most of which are ripped out of some Court records chronicling the Civil War and long aftermath of Israel. The narrative high points are the antics of Elijah and Elisha—trickster prophets who relieve us from the tedium of yet another king who worshipped idols and displeased the Lord. Wash, Rise, Repeat. Quite honestly, by the end of Kings, I was glad the Babylonians came along and put us all out of our misery. Which, now that I think about it, is a rather interesting take on the point of Kings—maybe I was supposed to be glad that God finally put an end to the tedious nonsense. Maybe I am supposed to cheer for the Babylonians here. I don’t think that is heretical.
Writing a review of the Bible seems odd, by the way. It is also oddly difficult. What comes next? Here are some lessons I learned from the Bible? Here are some surprising tidbits from the Bible? Here are my favorite characters from the Bible? Here is the main point of the Bible? Here are the boring parts of the Bible? Here are some suggestions for improving the Bible so that it would be a better book? (OK, that one is heretical.) Why has nobody ever made a good movie of the material in Joshua, Judges, Samuel or Kings? (That question kind of interests me. There is surely a great movie, maybe even Peter Jackson trilogy, based on Samuel just waiting to be made. ( I saw the Richard Gere movie when I was in high school; I wish I could erase all memory of it.) Samson is another obvious movie waiting to be made. Action-hero Samson!)
There is already a noteworthy movie about Elijah. You can watch it here. It will be more entertaining than anything else I could add at this point.