The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (Vol. Three-Volume Set)

Author: Robert Alter
This Month Reddit 2


by UnableFaithlessness   2019-08-24

You should read the new Alter translation. It is a genuine pleasure to read.

by Naugrith   2019-08-24

>when instead of a comma…comma instead of a period after earth

Both are interpretive choices. Literally speaking, neither are in the text. There is no punctuation or “when”. The text is written in a way that is very difficult to translate. It literally reads “In the beginning of (‘beresit’) he created (‘ba-ra’) god (‘elohim’) the heavens and the earth and the earth was formless and void and darkness over the face of the deep and…” Obviously the first three words are nonsensical as literally rendered into English so some translation choices need to be made. The NSRV interprets this to be scene-setting, while the ESV interprets this as a direct statement of creation.

Both interpretations are possible, but both are bringing their own theological interpretations into the passage. I believe that the NRSV makes the more accurate interpretation. I think it is more accurate to render the passage something like “In the time when God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth…” rather than “The first thing that happened was God created the heavens and the earth.”

(For a detailed explanation of the issue with the first three words, see here for an interesting post)

>wind from God swept over instead of Spirit of God was hovering over

Again, both are interpretive choices. The text literally reads “…and breath god grew soft over the face of the waters”. But this makes little sense and so some interpretive choice needs to be made. “Grew soft” is an idiom for resting or brooding over. I cannot see how “swept over” is warranted, as it indicates to me a degree of sudden activity, which is opposite to the meaning of the word, which indicates restful activity. I can see how “hovering over” is more warranted, though this is more of a poetic interpretation than truly accurate translation.

The choice of “wind from” or “Spirit of” are both interpretive choices. The word “ruach” can equally refer to both, as wind, breath, or spirit, were commonly understood to be the same thing. In ancient thought the breath or wind that moves within us is itself the lifeforce that animates us. But to choose “wind” ignores this deeper meaning as the word in the English language doesn’t convey the same meaning of a personal animating force as the Hebrew. Choosing “breath” at least distantly conveys the sense that it is a part of God’s being, but “wind” is probably the worst possible option, being utterly impersonal. I think that “spirit” is more reflective of the author’s intended meaning behind the word.

Whether it is “from” or “of” God, is again a necessarily interpretive choice. I don’t think there’s a massive distinction; although “from” further gives the impression that it is not a part of God, but a product from Him, which I don’t think is the most accurate reflection of how the author would have seen it. I think “of God” makes more sense. But it would be better to not choose either and just say “God’s spirit”.

Incidentally Robert Alter translates these two verses in his new translation as: “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’.” Alter purposely tries to convey the poetry of the Hebrew (notice the lovely alliteration) rather than a strictly literal translation. But even so, I think he does a much better job of conveying the literal meaning than any of the popular translations.