The Bible as bedtime storybook. Phrasing is simplified without loss of meaning

The Bible as bedtime storybook? Why not? asks novelist and translator Lore Segal.

To prove her point, Ms. Segal has drawn from German, Hebrew, and various English translations of the Old Testament - including the poetics of the 17th-century King James Version of the Bible - to produce an updated ``modern English'' collection of stories from the Pentateuch.

The Book of Adam to Moses, told by Segal and illustrated by Leonard Baskin (Alfred A. Knopf, $13.95, all ages), aims to make the Bible's central characters more accessible to today's young readers and listeners.

As she recounts Abraham's sojourn in Egypt, Noah's building of the ark, Jacob's dream, and Joseph's reunion with his brothers, Segal retains the beauty of the original translations, while giving them a more contemporary expression.

Read aloud, for example, the King James Version of Moses' meeting with God at the Tent of the Congregation: ``And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend. ... And Moses said unto the Lord, See, thou sayest unto me, Bring up this people: and thou hast not let me know whom thou wilt send with me.... And he said, My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.'' (Ex. 33:11-14).

Now compare it with Segal's rendition: ``...and the Lord spoke with Moses, face to face, like a man speaking with his friend. Moses said to the Lord, Look, Lord, You have told me to lead this people, but You don't say whom You will send to go with me. The Lord said, It is My Presence that will go before you. It will lighten your burden.''

Instead of condescending to adult perceptions of what young ears may want to hear or trying to simplify sometimes difficult texts, the author offers a rich sampling of the lyricism of biblical language, minus its occasional obscurity. ``And we have sacrificed some of the repetition that constitutes the Bible's natural mode, because it seems to be a roadblock to the modern reader,'' she adds.

The intent of her work is to encourage a deeper reading of the remaining Old and New Testament books: ``We mean the reader to run, afterward, and read the whole Bible.''

Segal's text is such a success in its re-creation of biblical humanity and wit that the pen-and-ink drawings by Caldecott Honor winner Leonard Baskin appear dark and immobile by contrast.

There's a brooding heaviness to them, and young children especially may be frightened by his staring beasts, burning bush, and overpowering winged angels.

All the more reason, perhaps, to save these gracious tales for reading aloud at bedtime, when the lights are turned down low.

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