Book Review

A Word to the Wise: New Translations of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes

With his 2009 translation of The Psalms, the great Biblical scholar Robert Alter set about to return to the original intentions of the authors of those songs, essential to Jewish and Christian liturgy, and if possible retrieve them from the imposed meanings of Christianity, particularly the salvational message revealed in Christ and emphasized in English translations from the King James Authorized Version to the present. His project also was to come as close as possible in English to the original, often multiple Hebrew meanings of each word. Those who believe his project succeeded seemed to have been as impressed by the conception —to wrest The Psalms away from Christian interpretation—as the actual accomplishment. Christians need to be reminded of how the Hebrew Bible was edited and rearranged in order to provide both genealogy and prophecy for Jesus Christ, and that even the Messianic prophets like Isaiah probably had someone in mind quite different from the child of Mary and Joseph born in Bethlehem when Quirinius was governor of Syria, that is, if they had a person in mind at all. Jack Miles in his 1996 God: A Biography performed this useful task by reminding a popular audience of how God is actually revealed and represented in the books of the Hebrew Bible. But Robert Alter’s aim is much more ambitious than educating the reading public, in particular the Christian reading public, about the original intentions of the many and varied authors of what is known as the Old Testament. It is rather to find in English a way ultimately to defer any association with the Christian meaning of these Biblical texts. He has continued this project with his new translation of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes.[1] The challenge to his skill as a translator is rather different from that of The Psalms since the English of the King James Version and its Christian associations is much more entangled with the expression of those poems than with these three books. The Wisdom Books, particularly Ecclesiastes, which Alter refers to by its original Hebrew name Qohelet, and Job have always presented a challenge to the Christian idea of eternal life and of a just and loving God. And yet Alter in his translation of Job, especially in those passages immortalized by Handel’s Messiah, still wishes to make the English reflect as little of any Christian meaning and as much of the original Hebrew meaning as possible.

The story of Job is more ancient than the rendition in the Bible. The folktale of a rich and pious man who loses everything, only to have it restored as mysteriously as it was taken, existed long before the poetry of Job was included in the Bible, to be bookended by prose accounts of the older tale. The poetry of Job while in Hebrew has enough Aramaic vocabularly that, Alter speculates, it situates the unknown author in the fifth or sixth century BCE, when Aramaic was becoming the common language of Judea. In his introduction to the translation, Alter admits that the key passage of the book, God’s answer to Job’s lament out of the whirlwind, is not quite the appropriate response to the “problem of undeserved suffering.” Nevertheless, he insists that it is not bullying, either. “Rather,” he argues, “it is a comprehensive overview of the nature of reality that exposes the limits of Job’s human perspective.” This does not seem to be that different from a Christian interpretation of God’s response, although again it is certainly not meant to look ahead to the apocalyptic visions of Revelation, when this reality is cracked open by the voice of Christ.

Alter’s translation is clear, down to earth, and willing to sacrifice music for meaning. Its purpose is obvious in the opening of Chapter 3 when Job in his condition of disease and impoverishment is joined by his three companions and starts the palaver with his lamentation. In Alter’s translation, as he does throughout, he observes the lines of Hebrew verse:

Annul the day that I was born

and the night that said, “A man is conceived.”

That day, let it be darkness.

Let God above not seek it out,

nor brightness shine upon it.

Here I think it would be helpful to listen also to the same passage from the King James Authorized Version, in which the same verses are rendered as prose:

Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night in which it was said there is a man child conceived.

Let that day be darkness; let not God regard it from above, neither let the light shine upon it.

Though I find the King James Version much more appealing as poetry, I have to note that the phrase “the night in which it was said” comes as such phrases do throughout that translation with the emphasis of italics on “in which.” This phrase has been added in English and does not include a parallel idiom in the original language. There is, then, a big difference between writing, accurately, as Alter does, “and the night that said, ‘A man is conceived’” and the almost fastidious addition of correct English attribution in writing “and the night in which it was said, a man child is conceived.” I think anyone can hear, as well, in the passive voice of “in which it was said,” the echoes of annunciation and the presence of a divinely human agent. These echoes are utterly lacking in Alter’s version, for the night itself speaks, in a personified form which actually seems bodiless, detached, and impersonal. The second verse as translated by Alter and the committee who composed the KJV is close enough not to quibble. But crucial to Alter’s argument about Job is his use of the legalistic word “Annul,” in “Annul the day that I was born.” Here the date becomes a mere feature of the calendar, albeit obliterated, neutralized, but also invalid or void. To say let the day perish, as the KJV does, though it also suggests destruction, has the meaning of death—biological death—and ultimately implies that time is a living entity in which the Christian God may be incarnate.

Alter’s legal interpretation in his translation reaches a key moment when he comes to the line made famous by Handel’s Messiah, and which, of all the lines in Job, is most clearly endowed with a Christian meaning. Responding to his companions, who have done little to comfort him and much to make him aware that he must have sinned in some way, Job responds, “Why do you hound me like God, / and of my flesh you are not sated?” Quick always to qualify he adds,

But I know my redeemer lives,

and in the end he will stand up on earth,

and after they flay my skin,

from my flesh I shall behold God.

Alter’s translation corresponds with and departs from the following translation in the KJV:

For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;

And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh I shall see God.

Once again, there is an important difference between seeing God in one’s flesh, with that promise of resurrection and redemption of the body, and beholding God from one’s flesh, especially in its destroyed state. But the corresponding word “redeemer” which Alter also uses is so suffused with Christian connotations, it really requires the useful scholarly and thoughtful footnote which characterizes so much in Alter’s translation:

This famous line, long the subject of Christological interpretation, in fact continues the imagery of a legal trail to which Job reverts so often. The redeemer is someone, usually a family member, who will come forth and bear witness on his behalf, and the use of “stand up” in the second verset has precisely that courtroom connotation.

No doubt Alter is correct. But wouldn’t “character witness” or “advocate” be a more accurate translation, at least for what he is describing in his footnote? It is one thing to translate by avoiding English words which have been imbued with their religious meanings and connotations for 400 years. It is another to use those words and try to explain away centuries of associated meanings. This gloss of the word “redeemer” may be accurate, but it is not convincing.

In his essay about Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, James G. Williams states the argument that motivates Alter in these recent translations. Williams admits that though the English of the KJV has cultural significance and is forceful as literature, still the actual poetry of the Hebrew may be insufficiently translated, despite the pleasing effect. Alter adds to this about Proverbs in particular that the book is not only “a collection of pithy sayings,” as The New Scofield Reference Bible would have it, but it is an “anthology of anthologies,” collecting the wisdom of many periods and the literary styles of many authors. This argument for the multivocal, stylistically complex, anthological nature of the Bible as a whole is one Alter makes in The Art of Biblical Narrative. In that book he offers as the closest modern analogy to the Bible’s widely varying styles James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is important to understand this deeply informed and learned sense of the Bible, since so many translations into English, starting with the King James Version, seek to offer a unified style and voice with a single ultimate message.

Alter divides Proverbs, traditionally attributed to the son of David, King Solomon, into five parts, with part five having five subsections. The first part, a sort of introduction, has been found by recent scholarship to be the last written. Part two or “the second grouping,” as Alter has it, is the longest in the book, and like the first grouping, attributed to Solomon but with a better claim to have been work if not by him at least of his period. The third grouping is a short unit which recasts an Egyptian text from 2000 BCE, and argues for “the international character of Wisdom literature.” Mostly the first three parts or groups offer sage advice of the way of moderation to a young man, sometimes in the voice of Lady Wisdom with a counterpoint from Lady Folly. The fourth grouping that follows seems to be the work of scribes who lived in the eighth century BCE and deals with the character of kings and with how to act in their presence. Finally the fifth and final part consists of what appear to be appendices to the book as a whole, perhaps as a bookend to the first part, and two of the four appendices are said to be by authors other than Solomon, including Agur, Son of Yaqeh, and Lemeul, king of Massa. The final grouping also includes the most variety of styles, from riddles to acrostics. The overall aim of Proverbs, which seems to be to educate young men and to warn them especially about the dangers of illicit sex and affirm the need for a happy home life, ends with a celebration of the ideal wife, which Alter calls “an interesting editorial choice for the conclusion of a book that . . . has repeatedly warned against seductresses and complained of shrewish wives.”

Like the entire collection of translations, Proverbs comes amply footnoted, each page divided often between a larger portion for footnotes than for translation. Here, as in his translation of Ecclesiastes, Alter does not have to be as preoccupied with what he calls the Christological reading of what he is translating. As a result, his English often seems more like a minor updating of the KJV. As in the following, from Chapter 5, verse 15:

Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well.


Drink water from your own well,

fresh water from your cistern.


The interesting thing, and it is the principal value of Alter’s book, is the note which he appends to this verse, taking what seems to be practical advice and giving it a symbolist reading. The note is elegant, clear, and reveals Alter’s strength as a close reader of comparative texts. Here it is in full:

The association of the well with female fertility and especially with the womb (or vagina) is reflected both in the Song of Songs and in the recurrent betrothal type-scene, where the young man encounters his future bride by a well. The pure waters of the well are an antithesis to the sweet honey and smooth oil of the seductress’s mouth. It is not clear whether the young man is already married or is being urged to enter marriage and its pleasures before he succumbs to the lure of the stranger-woman.

When Alter takes issue with other English translations, especially the King James Version, he makes not only a convincing argument but shows just how inaccurate the KJV can be and how inadvertently cryptic. Chapter 19:24 in the KJV reads, “A slothful man hideth his hand in his bosom, and will not so much as bring it to his mouth again.” While this does describe one so lazy he won’t feed himself, Alter’s version captures not only the irony of the original but its humor: “The sluggard hides his hand in the dish, / he won’t even bring it up to his mouth.” His note mentions that the literal translation of “hides” is “buries.” The lazy man with a handful of the food he might eat but does not eat is a sharply satiric image and makes much more sense in Alter’s English.

But Alter will admit, too, when a passage in the original is cryptic and a translation is therefore necessarily contingent. Chapter 13:23 in the KJV is just as hard to understand as it is, Alter admits, in his translation:

Much food is in the tillage of the poor, but there is he that is destroyed for want of judgment.


Much food from the furrows of the destitute,

and some are swept away without justice.


Rather like that lazy man who won’t bring the food he has to his mouth, the poor, in Alter’s interpretation, are not able to farm their land successfully to yield according to its potential. What I find odd about this proverb is the element of non sequitur in the second line, which neither translation accounts for. And yet it is the second line that does not seem cryptic or even paradoxical. It is a reminder of the ancient injustice of natural disasters, which as the preacher of Ecclesiastes is fond of reminding us, befalls rich and poor alike.

Alter’s introduction to his translation of Ecclesiastes begins by explaining the possible meanings of Qohelet, the title he chooses for the book, which is the original Hebrew title. Since its meaning ranges from an assembly of sayings to an assembly of disciples, presumably gathered by a priest or preacher, he has chosen not to translate it but to point out that the traditional title Ecclesiastes is derived from a Greek version of Qohelet. Still Alter refers to Qohelet as “he” just as it would be proper to refer to Ecclesiastes as the preacher. It is still unclear to scholars just how this “most peculiar book,” as Alter calls it, made it into the canon. Little of the wisdom of Proverbs seems to be relevant to the author of Qohelet. In fact, Alter observes, though Qohelet in a few passages does sound as if he is offering the sort of practical advice one finds in Proverbs, his “maxims are subversive in content” and they “seem to be citations of traditional maxims that are challenged or undermined by the next context in which they are set.” After all, nowhere in Proverbs do we find the sentiment which opens Qohelet, “All is mere breath,” Alter’s translation of what the KJV has famously offered as “All is vanity.” And when in Job he even hints that he shares this desperate and near nihilistic view, he is rebuked, ultimately by God himself. In other words, to paraphrase William Carlos Williams, the morals of Proverbs are, for Qohelet, “the memory of success that no longer succeeds.” Qohelet is, according to Alter, something of a philosopher, “inviting us to contemplate the cyclical nature of reality and of human experience, the fleeting duration of all that we cherish, the brevity of life, and the inexorability of death, which levels all things.” Anyone with a sense of the Bible, whether it is the Hebrew Bible or the Christian with its Old and New Testaments, has to be aware of how anomalous Qohelet or Ecclesiastes is. The book has more in common with the thinking of the stoical emperor Marcus Aurelius than with the teachings of Moses or Jesus.

Alter admits that the KJV “is still the most adequate English rendering of Qohelet’s style,” but he faults it for falling short of Qohelet’s accuracy, rhythm, and for unreliability at points which are obscure in Hebrew to begin with. Alter bases his choices as a translator on Qohelet’s tendency to be concrete in all things, rather than abstract. So where the KJV would give us “vanity of vanities” and another translator might give us “absurdity of absurdities,” Alter argues for “Merest breath.” Whereas “merest” is a translation of a Hebrew intensifier, “breath” or “vapor” is the most accurate translation of the Hebrew noun, which refers to “something utterly insubstantial and transient,” and implicitly to life itself. So he obviates the long held misreading of “vanity” as a reference to human conceit, but loses the still recognized meaning of futility, as being vain or in vain. The word “breath” certainly conjures life and its brevity in this context, but the word has so many positive connotations in English that, once again, I am not convinced, however accurate it may be, that it is the word that will suffice. “Vapor” retains that hissing fricative of vanity and in this context would have more of vanity’s negative connotation. Nevertheless, neither breath nor vapor has the impact of the KJV translation.

Looking again at my New Scofield Reference Bible, that red-lettered, footnoted, and Sunday schoolish variorum of the KJV, I see several anxious notes throughout Ecclesiastes, one of the most pertinent occurring at the beginning of the famous chapter three: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” The word “time” is glossed in this way: “God’s sure purpose must not be confused with fatalism, a theory proved false by God’s appeals to men to repent and obey.” This is followed sixteen verses later by a refutation of the deism inherent in “I saw under the sun the place of judgment, that wickedness was there; and the place of righteousness, that iniquity was there,” and an assurance that God does intervene in human affairs. Clearly it is this sort of emphasis that Alter wishes to avoid in his translation, but since Ecclesiastes (Qohelet) is so intractable in his fatalism and deism, it is interesting to note the way Christianity, at a certain simplistic level, has struggled to explain away the preacher’s resigned but profoundly earthbound vision.

Alter’s translation of the opening of chapter three of Ecclesiastes seems deliberately flat but not that distant from the KJV. However, there are subtle changes of meaning at the level of the preposition. Where the KJV reminds us that there is “a time of war, and a time of peace,” Alter, with a pragmatist’s sense of proportion writes, “A time for war and a time for peace.” (Emphasis mine.) I ponder the different implied meanings of these resonant phrases and wonder about the attitudes toward war and peace in early seventeenth-century England and our attitudes toward these human enterprises today. I would say that for the Jacobean Christian, the times of war and of peace might really have been seasonal and therefore cyclical, coming in their time, but always going, naturally. Today times for war and peace have more the sense of being artificial occasions, of no predictable duration, and possibly existing simultaneously, ending who knows when. Once again it seems that the Jacobean Christian saw time as a living thing, with a life span, as seems to be reflected in the KJV’s translation. Alter’s translation may or may not be more accurate, but it certainly has nothing to do with Christian teleology.

The great value of this scholarly assembly of three books which, each in its own way, challenges the Biblical canon itself is to make us think again about the intentions of their original authors, who knew a few things about human nature more than two millennia ago but nothing, finally, about the future of humanity.

[1] THE WISDOM BOOKS: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, a Translation with Commentary, by Robert Alter. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. $35.00.