The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary 
by Robert Alter.
Norton, 1064 pp., £34, November 2004, 0 393 01955 1
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In the beginning was not the word, or the deed, but the face. ‘Darkness was upon the face of the deep,’ runs the King James Version in the second verse of the opening of Genesis. ‘And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.’ Two uses of ‘face’ in one verse, and a third implied face, surely: God’s own, hovering over the face of his still uncreated world. The Almighty, looking into the face of his waters, might well be expected to see his face reflected: it is profoundly his world, still uncontaminated by rebellious man.

The committees of translators appointed by James I knew what they were doing. The face of God and the face of the world (or of mankind) will become a running entanglement throughout the five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Man will fear to look upon God’s face, and God will frequently abhor the deeds of the people who live on the face of his world. Once Cain has killed Abel, and has been banished by God, he cries out: ‘Behold thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid.’ When the Almighty decides to flood his world, he pledges to destroy every living thing ‘from off the face of the earth’. After wrestling with a divine stranger all night, Jacob ‘called the name of the place Peniel: For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.’ Jacob dies happy that he has seen his son Joseph’s face, and Moses, of course, spoke to God ‘face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend’. The Book of Numbers contains the little prayer so beloved of the Christian liturgy: ‘The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: The Lord make his face shine upon thee: The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.’ He casts his now kindly face upon ours. The Hebrew word for ‘face’ is the same in all these verses, so the 17th-century translators were being exact; but they were also perhaps telling us something about God’s circular ownership of his creation, his face above and his face below. Perhaps when they chose ‘the face of the waters’ they had in their ears John’s description of the Lord in Revelation: ‘and his voice as the sound of many waters’.

In his remarkable new translation of the Pentateuch, a monument of scholarship, Robert Alter eschews ‘face’ to describe the surface of the world at the start of Genesis, and I miss the cosmic implications, but his first two verses amply compensate with their own originality: ‘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.’ The King James Version has ‘without form and void’ for Alter’s Anglo-Saxonish ‘welter and waste’, but Alter, as throughout this massive work, provides a diligent and alert footnote:

The Hebrew tohu 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. Tohu by itself means ‘emptiness’ or ‘futility’, and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert.

Alter brings this kind of sensitivity to bear on moment after moment of his translation, and the result greatly refreshes, sometimes productively estranges, words that may now be too familiar to those who grew up with the King James Bible. The Pentateuch, or Torah, contains the great narratives of our monotheistic infancy. It tells the stories of the creation; of Adam and Eve and their children, Cain and Abel; of the Flood and Noah’s escape and God’s promise never to destroy the earth again; of Abraham and God’s covenant with him and his people; of Isaac and his sons Esau and Jacob; of Jacob’s wrestle with God and God’s anointing of Jacob as Israel; the story of Joseph and his brothers; the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt and their exodus, led by Moses; the handing down of the law from the mountain at Sinai; the elaboration of the law or teaching (torah means ‘teaching’); and finally the death of Moses as his people are on the verge of the promised land.

Biblical style is famous for its stony reticence, for a mimesis that Erich Auerbach called ‘fraught with background’. This reticence is surely not as unique as Auerbach claimed – Herodotus is a great rationer of explanation, for example – but it achieves its best-known form in the family stories of Genesis. The paratactic verses with their repeated ‘and’ move like the hands of those large old railway station clocks that jolted visibly from minute to minute: time is beaten forward, not continuously pursued. Yet it is often the gaps between these verses, or sometimes between the clauses of a single verse, that constitute the text’s ‘realism’, a realism created as much by the needy reader as by the withholding writing itself. For example, after the Flood, Noah starts a new occupation: ‘And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.’ Noah is a lush. This is not without crooked humour of a kind, and the gap-filled rapidity of the narration is the reason for the smile it raises.

Likewise, though generating pathos rather than comedy, the laconic report of Joseph’s response to his brothers works by starving us of information. Joseph, installed by Pharaoh as his right-hand man in Egypt, receives in an official capacity his brothers, who have travelled from Canaan in search of food. He recognises them but disguises himself. Three times he weeps, twice turning away from them and a third time openly. The first time, ‘he turned himself about from them, and wept.’ The second time is more agitated: ‘And Joseph made haste; for his bowels did yearn upon his brother: and he sought where to weep; and he entered into his chamber, and wept there.’ Finally, after various ruses, he can stand it no longer, and asks his servants to leave him alone while he ‘made himself known unto his brethren. And he wept aloud: and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard.’ The beauty is that the final episode, the apparent climax, is as terse as the first: secret weeping is no different in this account from public weeping, and revelation is as hidden as disguise. Joseph is no longer hidden from his brothers but he is still hidden from the reader: that surely is the thrust of the narration. And note, too, how our desire to witness this open crying, to bathe in authorial emotion, is reticently, and very movingly, transferred to another, less involved audience: ‘and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard.’

I quoted from the King James Version here, but Alter’s translation honours both the text’s grave simplicity and its almost novelistic attention to different literary registers. Abraham’s wife, Sarah, is for a long time barren, so she proposes that her maid Hagar sleep with Abraham to provide him with an heir. Hagar conceives, and when she sees that she is pregnant, ‘her mistress was despised in her eyes.’ It is one of those intensely human biblical moments: the servant, proud of her plump fertility, cannot but help look down on her withered mistress. But Alter improves on the King James Version’s ‘despised’: ‘And she saw that she had conceived and her mistress seemed slight in her eyes.’ That ‘slight’, for obvious reasons, is very subtle.

Or take the little adjustment Alter makes to the Jacob and Esau tale. Esau is so hungry for the lentils that his brother has that he sells his birthright for a mess of pottage: ‘And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage: for I am faint.’ Alter’s version is more literal, and more natural: ‘And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me gulp down some of this red red stuff, for I am famished.”’ In a footnote, he explains his choice:

Although the Hebrew of the dialogues in the Bible reflects the same level of normative literary language as the surrounding narration, here the writer comes close to assigning substandard Hebrew to the rude Esau. The famished brother cannot even come up with the ordinary Hebrew word for ‘stew’ (nazid) and instead points to the bubbling pot impatiently as (literally) ‘this red red’. The verb he uses for gulping down occurs nowhere else in the Bible, but in rabbinic Hebrew it is reserved for the feeding of animals.

There are many examples like this of choices deeply pondered and painstakingly explained; reading Alter’s scripture is a slow business only because one stops so often to put down into the well of one of his life-giving footnotes.

Though the King James Version is sometimes inaccurate, it is generally thought to be, of all English translations, the one that best captures the quiddity of the Hebrew. Early 17th-century English – and mid-16th-century English, since the KJV stands on the shoulders of Tyndale, Coverdale and Cranmer – was not afraid of anti-sentimental reticence (my favourite is perhaps Exodus 13.17, ‘And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword’); it followed the parataxis of the Hebrew narration, the ‘and’ that so often begins a new verse or clause; it understood, as a literary principle, that to repeat a word can be enrichment not exhaustion, and that repetition subtly changes the sense of the repeated word if not its sound (modern versions, like the flat Revised Standard Version, invariably flee from repetition); and it relished the pungent physicality of Hebrew, which often inheres in the verbs.

Alter’s translation brings delight because it follows the precepts of the committees of King James, but is founded on a greatly deeper conversance with Hebrew than the great 17th-century scholars could summon. (No Jew was involved in the King James committees.) And Alter, who has been at the forefront of the rise of what might be called literary biblical studies, and who has educated two or three generations of students and readers in the art of biblical appreciation, brings to his own English a scholarly comprehension of the capacities of literary usage. In his introduction he rightly says that among the great 20th-century English stylists like Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov, Faulkner – he might have added Lawrence, by far the most biblical writer of 20th-century English – ‘there is not one among them whose use of language, including the deployment of syntax, even vaguely resembles the workaday simplicity and patly consistent orderliness that recent translators of the Bible have posited as the norm of modern English.’ Thus Alter is happy to follow the precedent of the KJV when he feels that it cannot be bettered: his Adam also ‘knew’ Eve, and his Israelites also ‘murmured against’ Moses in the wilderness and lament that they have left behind ‘the fleshpots’ of Egypt. As ever, he usefully defends his reasons. About the ‘fleshpots’, he writes: ‘The Hebrew indicates something like a cauldron in which meat is cooked, but the King James Version’s rendering of “fleshpots” (“flesh” of course meaning “meat” in 17th-century English) has become proverbial in the language and deserves to be retained.’ Well, it became proverbial, but is it still? The word always makes me smile because when I was growing up, albeit in a highly scriptural household, my family used to talk of my grandparents’ house – where I was allowed unlimited sweets – as the ‘fleshpots of Egypt’.

Especially fine is the way Alter seems to dig into the earth of the Hebrew to recover, in English, its fearless tactility. When Pharaoh has his first dream, of seven good ears of corn and seven bad, ‘his heart pounded’, which, Alter informs us in a footnote, follows the Hebrew, whose literal meaning is ‘his spirit pounded.’ (The usually concrete KJV has the softer ‘his spirit was troubled.’) The dream comes to pass, and there are seven fat years and seven lean years. ‘During the seven plenteous years the earth brought forth abundantly,’ runs the Revised Standard Version, itself a wan starveling of the more robust and accurate KJV: ‘And in the seven plenteous years the earth brought forth by handfuls.’ But Alter is more daring, and more literal: ‘And the land in the seven years of plenty made gatherings.’ A footnote girds the apparent oddity of ‘gatherings’:

The Hebrew qematsim elsewhere means ‘handfuls’, and there is scant evidence that it means ‘abundance’, as several modern versions have it. But qomets is a ‘handful’ because it is what the hand gathers in as it closes, and it is phonetically and semantically cognate with wayiqbots, ‘he collected’, the very next verb in the Hebrew text. The likely reference here, then, is not to small quantities (handfuls) but to the process of systematically gathering in the grain, as the next sentence spells out.

Or take the moment at the end of Chapter 2 of Exodus, where the Bible-writer tells us that God began to hear the groaning of the Israelites in their Egyptian bondage: ‘So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them,’ says the New International Version. The King James has: ‘And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God had respect unto them.’ Alter has: ‘And God saw the Israelites, and God knew.’ Notice that the New International Version shies away from repeating the word ‘God’, something that fazes neither the KJV nor Alter. But Alter’s reading is at once elegantly emphatic – ‘and God knew’ – and accurate. He informs us that the Hebrew verb has no object, and that Greek translators mistakenly tried to ‘correct’ it. How majestic and indeed divine that objectless ‘knew’ is. And Alter’s version allows one to make new connections with biblical-sounding texts. Saul Bellow, who grew up reading the Hebrew Bible, and whose English was profoundly influenced by both the Tanakh and the King James Version, was very fond of that objectless verb ‘knew’. Tommy Wilhelm, the hero of Seize the Day, is haplessly surrounded by people he fears are the kinds of people who ‘know’ (as opposed to the confused hero): ‘Rubin was the kind of man who knew, and knew and knew,’ Tommy thinks to himself. Mr Sammler’s Planet ends with the eponymous hero reflecting that he has met the terms of his life-contract, those terms ‘that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know’. This always sounded biblical to me, but Alter’s translation of the line in Exodus has given me chapter and verse.

To read the Pentateuch right through, as Alter’s fluid modern version encourages, is an extraordinary education in early theology. These five books revert obsessively to questions of fertility, rebellion and polytheism, and the three concerns are tightly linked. Again and again, Yahweh tells his people that they must worship no other gods but him, and that the consequences for failing this charge will be death and destruction. God’s chosen people repeatedly failed to keep this law, most famously at Sinai, when Aaron persuaded them to worship the golden calf, saying: ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from Egypt.’ The five books are anxiously shadowed by the threat of polytheism, which surrounded the Israelites in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and which provided some of the mythic texts that Genesis and Exodus seem to remember. God goes by several names in the Torah, some of the differences having to do with different Bible-writers working in different centuries. He first appears in Genesis as Elohim, but is switched to Yahweh Elohim (usually translated as ‘the Lord God’). When he appears in Chapter 17 of Genesis to tell Abraham that he will be ‘a father to a multitude of nations’, he announces himself as ‘El Shaddai’, an archaic name used five times in the Pentateuch that may have associations with fertility or mountains. In Numbers, the word ‘El’ seems to be used as a synonym for Yahweh: El is a Hebrew word meaning God but it is also the name of the chief of the Canaanite gods. And after the parting of the Red Sea, when the Israelites give thanks in their Song of the Sea, the following verses occur (in Alter’s translation):

You blew with Your breath – the sea covered them over.
They sank like lead in the mighty waters:
Who is like You among the gods, O Lord,
Who is like You, mighty in holiness?

As Alter remarks in a note, this ancient poem, probably written around 1000 BC or earlier, seems to shows that ‘Hebrew writers had no difficulty in conceding the existence of other deities, though always stipulating, as here, their absolute inferiority to the God of Israel.’ (My only quibble with Alter is that his historical footnotes like this one often fail to cite sources, and his bibliography is niggardly and heavily weighted towards literary criticism rather than ancient history.)

At times like these, and in its insistent warnings against worshipping other gods, the Pentateuch reflects the effort of wrenching monotheism out of the polytheistic context: monotheism is known nowhere else in antiquity and is, on the face of it, a peculiar notion (so peculiar, perhaps, that one chosen god must be matched by one chosen people). It cannot have been easy to have renounced – if indeed such a renunciation took place – the comforting cosmogony wherein various parts of the natural world were represented by different all-powerful gods, and junior ‘personal’ deities looked after one’s daily interests. Frank Moore Cross and Jean Bottéro, among many others, have shown the Pentateuch’s indebtedness to Egyptian and Babylonian mythic narratives. In Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, Bottéro gives an account of the Atrahasis, a Mesopotamian poem written, most likely, before 1700 BC. In it, the gods meet in council and agree to follow the god Enki’s plan to create human beings out of clay. In these early years, as in the days of Noah, people live for hundreds and even thousands of years. But mankind multiplies so effectively that its noise disturbs the sleep of the irascible king of the gods, Enlil, who decides to destroy the pesky humans. He sends epidemic, illness and famine, but each time the humans escape, aided by Enki, their ‘inventor’. Enlil, still enraged, sends a flood, but Enki saves the race by placing one man, Atrahasis and his family, in an unsinkable boat. After the flood, in order to appease Enlil, Enki reduces the lifespan of each person to the length we know today, and introduces sterility and infant mortality to keep the numbers down.

Clearly, this is an ancient account not just of the origin of the world, but of the origin of evil, of human suffering and death, in which the mark of man’s rebelliousness is in part his sheer fertility. It is like peering into the crucible of theodicy. Notwithstanding the enormous difference of monotheism, we see something very similar in the early chapters of Genesis (the Israelites would have shared with the Mesopotamian Semites a traditional Semitic culture). In the first chapter of Genesis, God (Elohim) creates man in his own image and charges him to be fruitful and multiply. But in the second chapter – thought to be a different narrative strand – the Lord God (now called Yahweh Elohim) threatens Adam and Eve with death if they eat of the tree of good and evil. They fail the test, and mortality and sin enter the world. Sin is palpable: in Alter’s wonderful phrase, God warns the disgruntled Cain that ‘at the tent flap sin crouches,’ and in the very next verse Cain rises up and slays his brother. Man ‘began to multiply over the earth’ and to sin, and the Lord repents of his decision to create humans, and sends a flood to eliminate all but Noah and his family. After the flood, he makes a covenant never to destroy his creation, and human lifespans are reduced to 120 years. The stories of the patriarchs now begin, but God cannot cede what seems an anxious desire to control human fertility: men must be circumcised, and the wives of the early patriarchs (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel) are barren until the Lord chooses to permit them to breed. He will threaten his people again with complete destruction when they follow Aaron’s encouragement to worship the golden calf. Promiscuous fertility and polytheism seem to be connected menaces, captured in Yahweh’s command in Exodus that the Israelites make no covenant with any of the peoples they vanquish and displace, who ‘whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods’.

There is an ironic Midrashic commentary, mentioned by Emmanuel Levinas in Nine Talmudic Readings (1990), in which the Talmudists placed demons – spirits without bodies – inside Noah’s Ark. ‘These are the tempters of postdiluvian civilisation,’ Levinas remarks, ‘without which, no doubt, the mankind of the future could not be, despite its regeneration, a true mankind.’ Evil has entered the earth for ever and cannot be expunged, even by flood: but how did it get there? What is so fiercely at stake in Genesis and Exodus is the old question best phrased by Boethius in the Consolation: ‘If there be a God, whence cometh so many evils? And if there be no God, whence cometh any good?’ Much has been canonically laid at the feet of Adam and Eve, who were, so said the early Christian fathers, created free, and freely chose to rebel, thus inaugurating the calamity of original sin. But this merely pushes on the argument by one easy increment, for God gave them their freedom, and as the 17th-century sceptic Pierre Bayle comments in his Historical and Critical Dictionary, why would God bestow on mankind a capacity – free will – which he knows in advance man will abuse, even to his eternal doom? Around the biblical writings themselves hovers, of course, the heretical notion that evil proceeds from God. An ‘evil spirit from God’ is said to descend upon Saul in 1 Samuel 16:23, and in the Book of Isaiah the Lord says: ‘I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil. I the Lord do all these things.’ Even the early church father Origen, a staunch opponent of such thinking, seems flummoxed by this verse, and casts around for a suitable metaphor:

Now God has not created evil if by this is understood evil properly so called: but some evils, though really there are few by comparison with the order of the whole universe, followed as a secondary consequence upon his primary work, just as spiral shavings and sawdust follow as a consequence upon the primary activity of a carpenter, and as builders seem to ‘make’ the waste stone and mortar which lie beside their buildings. It may be granted that God sometimes creates some of these ‘evils’ in order that he may correct men by these means.

But this leaves the problem exactly where it was, so that various dualisms, like Gnosticism and Manicheanism – wherein God is opposed by and does battle with a separate, satanic source of evil, or is rivalled by a false god, a demiurge – do indeed seem to be the best explanations of the problem. The Bible itself, of course, uses a kind of dualism to explain Job’s suffering: it is Satan who puts God up to the game of testing his righteous servant. Some of the early Jewish commentators were so perturbed by Abraham’s various trials – the famine, Sarah’s barrenness, his nephew Lot, the command to sacrifice Isaac – that they conjectured that God, as with Job, might have received a challenge from Satan or some other envious angel. In an extraordinary moment in Genesis, Abraham pleads with God to spare the innocent inhabitants of Sodom. Would God wipe out the city and not spare fifty innocents? God agrees to spare the entire city for the sake of fifty. How about forty-five? asks Abraham. God agrees to spare the city for the sake of forty-five. And forty? Yes. And thirty? Yes. And so on, down to ten. What is striking is how openly Abraham cajoles Yahweh: ‘Far be it from You! Will not the judge of all the earth do justice?’ Abraham seems, here, to be holding God accountable to an ethical standard independent of God himself, trying to force his creator to accept the radical idea of sparing even the guilty in order to protect the innocent.

It is interesting to note those cruxes, those moments of stress, when God’s ethical incomprehensibility makes the early biblical commentators and rewriters anxious. God’s activity in Egypt is one such case. The Lord has promised to lead his people out of Egypt, but first he must teach the Egyptians that ‘there is none like Me in all the earth . . . so as to show you My power, and so that My name will be told through all the earth.’ To this end, God says, he will ‘harden Pharaoh’s heart’ against releasing the Israelites, and send horrid plagues. Again and again Moses appeals to Pharaoh to let his people go, yet each time God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and another plague descends. Only when every first-born of Egypt, from Pharaoh’s first-born to ‘the first-born of the slavegirl who is behind the millstones’, has been slaughtered do the Israelites escape. But why would God institute a lengthy stubbornness that only inflicts suffering on those who might freely have avoided it? Ancient writers and annotators conjectured that God had not impelled Pharaoh to resist Moses, but had only kept him in a state of ignorance. Or perhaps, went another line of inquiry, this was proper punishment for all that Egypt had done to the Israelites? Either way, sense had to be made of the impossible.

The best example of the incomprehensible in the Pentateuch is God’s command to Abraham that he sacrifice his son Isaac. The brevity of the account is searing, as if the text itself flinches from the unreason, is shocked into wordlessness. Alter’s version is terrifying:

And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham. And He said to him: ‘Abraham!’ And he said: ‘Here I am.’ And He said: ‘Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the Land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall say to you.’ And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey and took his two lads with him, and Isaac his son, and he split wood for the offering, and rose and went to the place that God had said to him. On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar.

Auerbach rightly noted that the phrase, ‘On the third day Abraham raised his eyes,’ is the only indication we have that time has passed: the journey is frozen. One can add to Auerbach that Abraham’s gesture, of raising the eyes, though a formulaic one in biblical narrative, takes on here a great power of dread, as if Abraham can hardly bear to look upon the chosen site. Kierkegaard’s inspired, appalled rewriting of this scene in Fear and Trembling emphasises its unspeakability. The tragic hero, he says, renounces himself in favour of expressing the universal. He gives up what is certain for what is more certain, he gives up the finite to attain the infinite, and so he can speak publicly about it, he can weep and orate, secure that at least someone will understand his action. But Abraham ‘gives up the universal in order to grasp something still higher that is not the universal’, because what he is obeying, what he is grasping for, is barbarously incomprehensible. So Abraham is utterly alone and cannot speak to anyone of what he is about to do because no one would understand him.

It is suggestive, then, that one of the major early rewriters of this scene, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, labours to turn Abraham precisely into a tragic hero. In Jewish Antiquities, his enormous history of the Jews from earliest times, he inserts long speeches in which Abraham eloquently apologises to his son before binding him, and moreover promises him that his death will not really be death: ‘Accordingly, you, my son, will not die, not in any common way of going out of the world, but sent to God, the Father of all men, beforehand, by your own father, in the nature of a sacrifice.’ Isaac, in Josephus’ account, is of such a ‘generous disposition’ that he willingly offers himself up, and then to cap this warm little drama, God, intervening to save Isaac, speaks to Isaac to make clear that ‘it was not out of a desire of human blood’ that Abraham ‘was commanded to slay his son . . . but to try the temper of his mind’. Kierkegaard seems admiringly terrified of God’s command, but Josephus, ornamenting the unspeakable with explanation, seems merely terrified, and at pains to moisten the hard ground of God’s behaviour by ensuring that everyone involved, human and divine, is at least pleasant.

The Pentateuch ends with Moses’ death. On the brink of the promised land, he addresses his people, and reminds them that they were chosen not for their righteousness but because other nations were wickedly following strange gods. Thus ‘thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.’ If they follow the Lord, then blessings will flow; but if they swerve away from the Lord, then curses will flow. Alter writes appreciatively in his introduction of the majesty of the Hebrew of Deuteronomy, and his English cascades into foul brilliance, as Moses, speaking on behalf of the Lord, threatens a hell in which the Israelites will not even be competent slaves:

And it shall be, as the Lord exulted over you to do well with you and to multiply you, so will the Lord exult over you to make you perish, to destroy you, and you will be torn from the soil . . . And your life will dangle before you, and you will be afraid night and day and will have no faith in your life. In the morning you will say, ‘Would that it were evening,’ and in the evening you will say, ‘Would that it were morning,’ from your heart’s fright with which you will be afraid and from the sight of your eye that you will see. And the lord will bring you back to Egypt in ships, on the way that I said to you, ‘You shall not see it again,’ and you will put yourselves up for sale there to your enemies as male slaves and slavegirls, and there will be no buyer.

God takes Moses up a mountain to see the land he himself will not live in: ‘I have let you see with your own eyes, but you shall not cross over there.’ Because God several times seems to prepare for Moses’ death, the surmise later arose in commentaries that Moses did not want to die; Josephus has him weeping before his death, though the typically terse biblical account makes no mention of such theatrical inflammations. James Kugel, in The Bible as It Was (1997), reproduces an extraordinary medieval poem, now in the Bodleian, in which Moses’ death marks not the serene triumph of the longed-for possession of Canaan, but becomes the scene of an anguished lament for the great impossible questions of the entire Pentateuch. Why are you afraid to die? God asks of Moses, and Moses goes to Hebron and summons Adam from the grave and cries:

Tell me why you sinned in the Garden
[Why] you tasted and ate from the tree of knowledge.
You have given your sons over to weeping and wailing!
The whole garden was before you, yet you were not satisfied.
Oh why did you rebel against the Lord’s commandment?

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Vol. 28 No. 5 · 9 March 2006

James Wood suggests that one reason the 17th-century scholars who translated the King James Bible made the odd mistake was that ‘no Jew was involved’ on the committees supervising the translation from Hebrew (LRB, 23 February). The fact is that the Jewish population had been expelled from Britain by Edward I’s Edict of Expulsion in 1290. In 1655, Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel from the synagogue in Amsterdam arrived in London to negotiate their return with Oliver Cromwell. Ben Israel’s absence from Amsterdam was much regretted by his star pupil, Baruch Spinoza, who was at the same time tried for blasphemy and excommunicated from the Jewish community. It might all have been avoided, he said, had Ben Israel not been in London.

Terence Kelly

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