“When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.”
*welter and waste. The Hebrew thou wabohu occurs only here and in two later biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one. The second word of the pair looks like a nonce term coined to rhyme with the first and to reinforce it, an effect I have tried to approximate in English by alliteration. Thou by itself means emptiness or futility, and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert.
– Genesis 1:1, translated by Robert Alter, with commentary
I’m not really a reader of commentaries, nor have I been a reader of the Bible for the past few years, but I grew up in an intensely biblical religious tradition, full of sermons that referenced original Greek and Hebrew meanings, and twisted them to one agenda or another. I have enough distance from that part of my life now to want to just read the stories, without someone telling me what to think or squeezing lessons out of stories that don’t always contain them. This book was perfect for that. There’s no doctrine in it whatsoever, no conclusions drawn about its effect on our lives, just a clear, beautifully worded translation that contains much of the formality, poetry, and weightiness of King James English, without its sometimes dubious 17th century politics or antiquated diction interfering.
I was able to recover the childhood part of myself that loved these stories because they were good stories, and found them fascinating because they were so ancient and yet still incredibly relatable- humans have really changed very little in the last few thousand years. The same things drive us- jealousy, lust, hunger… domination, control of resources, the longing to continue the genetic line. Fathers still feud with sons, siblings still sense which child is favored, spouses meet, fall in love, lie to each other. A friend and I used to have a joke where we would pretend to write book reviews of the Bible, saying things like, “epic,” “vast in scope,” “a dizzying array of characters,” “destined to be a classic for the ages,” and I won’t attempt to do that here. I’ll just say that anyone interested in the formation of western civilization should read Genesis, and this translation wouldn’t be a bad follow-up.
The footnotes are intense, and if you’re a compulsive footnote reader like I am they can be distracting, but that’s what commentaries are for, and they dealt with questions like, “what are angels supposed to be anyway?” that I had never thought to ask. Questions that don’t need to be answered, and are fun to ponder, and then move on from, are new to me when looking at biblical texts, and Alter would sometimes offer his opinion and those of a couple of other Hebrew scholars before plowing on to the next ambiguous word or cultural reference from ancient Egypt. It’s obvious that he’s an incredibly thorough and well-educated scholar, and yet he rarely gets lost in dry obscurities- his word choice, even in the footnotes, is clear, concise, and emanates respect for the text and interest in the characters. His notes on the techniques of ancient storytelling were especially fascinating to me as a lover of literature, and he keeps a good hold the overall story arc as he deals with each word.
It took me about two years to read this, since I was just picking it up between (or during) other things, but I often found myself sitting with it for much longer than intended, unable to let go of Joseph while he was still enslaved, or Jacob before he made peace with Esau, riveted by new information about words as familiar to me as my own body, marveling at the skill with which those words have been stitched together, picked apart, and re-connected for thousands of years.