Robert Alter's "The Five Books of Moses" is both something new and something old. The text under his lens is something very old indeed, but his commentary includes a great range of material drawn from modern Bible criticism.
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy make up the core of the Jewish Bible. As the five books of Moses, they are the work of priests with a genius for, in Alter's word, "collage." In the sixth century BC during the Babylonian exile, they intertwined four major strands and several minor ones into a whole, thus connecting the nation with a multicultural past.
By referring to Moses in his title, Alter acknowledges one of the supreme inventions, a voice that resonates in time and defines, for many, the meaning of history to this day. Moses, after all, is known and loved by the several faiths - Jewish, Muslim, and Christian - that seem to be on a collision course in our time. Since the certainty of being on the side of God has become a pretense for realpolitik, Alter's Moses may speak to our condition now more than ever. As a person, Moses was notably uncertain of his path, though he was faithful to the commands of God.
In his introduction, Alter writes: "For the philologist, the great goal is the achievement of clarity." His notes are full of clarifications of the meanings of words. But he also allows for obscurity and even ambiguity. In the ancient Hebrew, Alter discovers a profound music. He can raise an already beloved text to new heights of resonance and reality. Listen, for instance, to the beginning of everything:
"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.' "
Based on a lifelong study of the Bible (Alter has written at least five major works on various aspects and edited a major collection of essays), this edition reflects a belief that the biblical word goes beyond mere belief. In the introduction, Alter writes, "Literature in general, and the narrative prose of the Hebrew Bible in particular, cultivates certain profound and haunting enigmas, delights in leaving its audiences guessing about motives and connections, and above all, loves to set ambiguities of word choice and images against one another in an endless interplay that resists neat resolution."
Taken together, Alter's text and commentary create a living text. For instance, he presents the dramatic opening of Exodus 4 like this:
"And Moses answered and said, 'But look, they will not believe me nor will they heed my voice, for they will say, 'The LORD did not appear to you.' And the LORD said to him, 'What is that in your hand?' And he said, 'A staff.' And He said, 'Fling it to the ground.' And he flung it to the ground and it became a snake and Moses fled from it."
In his commentary at the bottom of the page, Alter points out how the staff is transformed from the tool of the shepherd into a serpent, and later it will become a magician's wand as Moses's mission takes him into Egypt, "an international capital of the technology of magic."
Still later in the book, this staff will be called "God's staff" because it has "been transmuted into both the theater and the conduit of divine power."
Following the staff through these transformations, we grasp an underlying order and begin to see just why Moses continues to speak to us.
Alter's combination of a freshly minted text and splendidly concise commentaries makes the biblical words resonate. And as this example suggests, the reader of the King James Version of The Bible will not be disappointed by Alter's translation. He preserves what he calls the "direction" of that translation in its paradoxical combination of dignity and "homespun timelessness."
He chides modern translations for uniformity and blandness. Furthermore, the language of Moses is varied and discontinuous in a way not captured by traditional translations. Alter's English, especially when understood in light of his commentary, returns the variegated richness to the text.
Becoming alert to the complexities of the biblical text only strengthens one's understanding of its continuing relevance and beauty. For the Jews, for example, it provided a "permanent vehicle through which an approximation of the Sinai experience can be reenacted." For Alter's reader, the "Bible as literature" can mean "the Bible as experience."
• Thomas D'Evelyn, an editorial consultant in Providence, R.I., edited Paul Kuntz's 'The Ten Commandments in History' (Eerdmans).