September 24, 2007


Desert Storm: Understanding the capricious God of the Psalms: a review of The Book of Psalms translated by Robert Alter (James Wood October 1, 2007, The New Yorker)

Alter’s translation is especially helpful in these cases, because he is determined to remind his readers that they are reading ancient texts with hybrid origins, not Christian prayers with dedicated destinations. The Psalms (like the Book of Job) were relentlessly Christianized by the King James translators. Nefesh, meaning “life breath” and, by extension, “life,” was translated by Jerome in the Latin Vulgate as anima and then as “soul” in the K.J.V., even though, as Alter points out, soul “strongly suggests a body-soul split—with implications of an afterlife—that is alien to the Hebrew Bible and to Psalms in particular.” The ancient Hebrew word for the shadowy underworld where the dead go, Sheol, was Christianized as “Hell,” even though there is no such concept in the Hebrew Bible. Alter prefers the words “victory” and “rescue” as translations of yeshu‘ah, and eschews the Christian version, which is the heavily loaded “salvation.” And so on. Stripping his English of these artificial cleansers, Alter takes us back to the essence of the meaning. Suddenly, in a world without Heaven, Hell, the soul, and eternal salvation or redemption, the theological stakes seem more local and temporal: “So teach us to number our days.” Psalm 23, again, is greatly refreshed by translation. Everything is clearer, seeming to have been rinsed not in the baptismal water of the New Testament but in the life-giving water of the desert. Verse 3 of the K.J.V. has “He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Alter offers “my life He brings back. / He leads me on pathways of justice / for His name’s sake.” God saves not our souls but our lives, in Alter’s version. And instead of God anointing our heads with oil, as in the K.J.V., in Alter’s English “You moisten my head with oil.” A footnote points out that the Hebrew verb is not one used for anointment, “and its associations are sensual rather than sacramental.” By its end, the psalm is no longer an extended Christian analogy (Christ as the Good Shepherd, anointing his flock) but the giving of thanks by a vulnerable tribe to a deity for its protection. The K.J.V. has the last half line of the psalm as “and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.” Alter slaps a term limit on the eternal, and suggests “And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD / for many long days.” Again, a footnote anchors the decision: “The viewpoint of the poem is in and of the here and now and is in no way eschatological. The speaker hopes for a happy fate all his born days.”

But Alter is musically and poetically sensitive, too, and when the King James translators get something right he lets it be. Psalm 137, my favorite in the book, was written during or after the Babylonian exile of the sixth century B.C.E., when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians and the Judeans deported. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion,” as the K.J.V. has it. The psalmist goes on to say that their captors taunted them: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” But the exiles had hung their harps on trees rather than “sing the LORD’s song in a strange land.” It is an exceptionally beautiful and complex lament, in which the poet pledges never to forget Jerusalem (“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning”) even as he claims to find it impossible to sing of Jerusalem while in exile. And, in a further twist, the psalm itself represents just such a song of Jerusalem, a remembrance. These paradoxes combine in an electrifying moment in verse 7, when the poet reminds his readers of the awful day when the Babylonians, the enemies of the Jews, razed Jerusalem to the ground:

Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

A few months ago, I was reading this psalm, in the King James Version, and wondering about the powerful repetition of “Rase it, rase it,” and as I said the words out loud I was struck by the genius of the Jacobean translators, who knew, working in the age of Shakespeare, a thing or two about puns and double meanings. “Raze it, raze it” is also, in English, “Raise it, raise it.” It is inconceivable that the seventeenth-century translators did not intuit this doubleness, which is what the poem is about, anyway: even as we remind ourselves that Jerusalem was razed, we are raising it up. Even as we refuse to sing a song of Zion, we are singing a song of Zion. Even as we stay silent, we are making music. There is a splendid anthem by William Byrd, written in the fifteen-eighties, which sets to music a Latin text, later translated into English: “Bow thine ear, O Lord, and hear us: let thine anger cease from us. Sion is wasted and brought low, Jerusalem desolate and void.” The anthem proceeds by repeating a downward series of five notes, and this series creates a falling, dirgelike effect, as it is taken up by all five parts. (The five notes are attached to the words “Bow thine ear, O Lord.”) But when the music reaches the word “Jerusalem” the soprano part lunges upward, an interval of a perfect fifth between “Je” and “rusalem.” The anthem goes down and up at the same time, exactly as the psalm both laments the loss of Jerusalem and finds Jerusalem impossible to lose.

The translator of the Anchor Bible edition of the Psalms exchanges “Rase it, rase it” for the simpler, more brutal “Strip her, strip her,” but Alter, without explaining why, retains “Raze it, raze it, / to its foundation.” I can’t be sure, but I have an idea that this fine literary scholar, with one ear perfectly cocked for English poetry and the other for Hebrew poetry, instinctively understood the verbal power of “Raze it, raze it.”

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 24, 2007 8:07 AM

Jesus did not try to strip the Old Testament of "Heaven, Hell, the soul, and eternal salvation or redemption".

Lu 24:44 And he [Jesus] said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.

But, then again, what did He know?

Posted by: Randall Voth at September 25, 2007 12:49 AM

Alter's new translation of the Psalms has led me to a new appreciation of the New Revised Standard Version (though I still bristle over the way it champions politically correct gender inclusiveness over accuracy in many places).

Posted by: Dave W at September 25, 2007 5:11 AM