The Wisdom Books

Book Review
The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter

Robert Alter, well known for his translations of The David Story (I and II Samuel), The Psalms, and The Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), takes on another section of the Hebrew Bible: the three Wisdom Books of Job, Proverbs, and Qohelet (Ecclesiastes). As Alter mentions in his introduction, what makes these books unique amongst the canon is their universal, philosophical aim. Relatively unconcerned with the Temple cult of Israel, these books make general observations on life, both descriptive and prescriptive.

The truth is, Job and Qohelet are a lot more fun to read, as they topple the banal moralisms of traditional piety. In both these books, life just doesn’t make a lot of sense most of the time, but we humans still have to figure it out somehow. As longsuffering Job tells us after God and the Adversary have teamed up to strip him of everything he has:

If only my hope were fulfilled,
and my hope God might grant.
If only God would deign to crush me,
loose his hand and tear me apart.

Or Qohelet, lamenting life’s unfairness:

I returned to see under the sun that not to the swift is the race and not to the mighty, the battle, nor to the wise, bread, not to the discerning, wealth, nor to those who know, favor, for a time of mishap will befall them all. Nor does man know his time, like fish caught in an evil net and like birds held in a trap, like them the sons of man are ensnared by an evil time when it suddenly falls upon them.

Of all the books in the Hebrew Bible, these two look life squarely in the face and consider its possible meaninglessness. There’s something in them that especially resonates in the early 21st century, after so many traditional structures have been ripped down.

The bulk of Proverbs, by contrast, consists of witty formulations of reverential sayings, such as, “When the Lord is pleased with the ways of a man, even his enemies will make peace with him” (16:7). A number of these sayings are flatly contradicted by Qohelet and Job. To be fair, though, Proverbs does not attempt to present any sort of unified worldview. Many contradict one another (e.g., 26:4-5), and many are simply pragmatic observations without any moral overtones. See, for example, 21:14: “A gift in secret allays anger, and a stealthy bribe, fierce wrath.”

Furthermore, the book of Proverbs actually contains several distinct sections. It opens with an extended (nine-chapter) praise of Wisdom, which many commentators have taken to be an allegorical figure or a cosmic principle. Christian interpreters, for instance, would later align some traits of cosmic Wisdom with the Logos (the Word) of John 1. Proverbs also contains two distinct sections that appear to be adaptations of Egyptian maxims (22:17-23:11 and 23:12-24:34), as well as (among other parts) what appears to be a confessional from someone named “Agur, son of Yaqeh” (30:1) and an acrostic poem about an ideal wife (31:10-31). In all, it’s a bit of a hodgepodge, and though the praise of Wisdom is fascinating, the rest is about as fun as reading a collection of Ben Franklin’s sayings.

As for Alter’s translation, he has focused on recapturing the peculiar qualities of Hebrew poetry: concise rhythm and vivid physical imagery. At times he does this well, as with Proverbs 27:19: “Like water face to face, thus the heart of man to man.” At others, he fails, as with the famous refrain of Qohelet 1:2: “Merest breath, said Qohelet, merest breath. All is mere breath.” Of course, I don’t blame his failures – he is writing in the shadow of perhaps the most important book in the English language: the King James Bible. Not wanting to mess with a good thing, Alter occasionally repeats the wording of the King James Version. Compare, for example, their versions of Job 38:1-4, in which God finally responds to Job’s cries of desperation:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said,
Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.
Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.

And the Lord answer Job from the whirlwind and He said:
Who is this who darkens counsel
in words without knowledge?
Gird your loins like a man,
that I may ask you, and you can inform Me.
Where were you when I founded earth?
Tell, if you know understanding.

One further point of interest in this volume is the extensive footnotes providing commentary. While they occasionally intrude unnecessarily (such as in explaining a proverb that’s fairly clear, or telling the reader that a given proverb is banal), they often provide great insight into textual and translational difficulties. As a translator of ancient texts myself (Chinese), I appreciate his lifting the veil a bit. All ancient texts are riddled with tiny scribal mistakes, the Bible included. The scholar, therefore, must compare versions, ancient translations, consider the possibility of mistaking one letter for another, etc., in order to produce the best version possible. I don’t see this as a subversive act; in fact, I see it as a holy one. If you respect a text, you want to figure out what it’s trying to tell you, what belongs there, etc. How much more so if you revere that text.

That said, textual criticism is always somewhat subjective. While some things can be proven with a reasonable degree of certainty (“this passage wasn’t originally here because the language is from a later date”), others are guesswork (“this passage wasn’t originally here because its tone/message is different from the rest”). This is nothing new. Even the King James translators made guesses in the face of a corrupt text (such as in Proverbs 24:21). Alter, for his part, remains fairly conservative, not proposing corrections unless they’re absolutely necessary. My only beef with him (and the “strong consensus of scholarship” which he follows) is in regarding the final portion of Qohelet (12:9-14) as an editorial addition. The basis for this is not linguistic or archaeological, but the fact that the section contains a pious message, one which seems at odds with much of the rest of the book. However, the whole book of Qohelet, as Alter himself points out, brims with paradox and contradiction, an attempt to capture the vast inward contours of a human being. Why shouldn’t such a writer, after all is said and done, come to the conclusion that it is best to “fear God and keep His commands” (12:13)? One suspects that modern scholars reject this passage as authentic in a projection of their own beliefs: they don’t believe a deep thinker, wrestling with doubt, could conclude in reverence. And that, indeed, is a vanity of vanities.

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