Tag Archives: the bible

“The Book of Psalms,” translated by Robert Alter.

I have now read all of Robert Alter’s translations of the Old Testament.  The last book of his translations I was yet to read is “The Book of Psalms.”

book of psalms by robert alter

The Music of the Psalms

But it makes me very sad I will never hear the psalms. Because they are songs, and we have lost the sheet music.

Even basic questions, such as which words are intended to be song and which are directions, are lost to us.

Consider Psalm 118:1-4

Acclaim the LORD, for He is good forever in His kindness
Let Israel now say: forever is His kindness
Let the House of Aaron now say: forever is His kindness
Let those who fear the LORD now say: forever is His kindness

Israel presumably (possibly?) refers to natural born Jews, “the House of Aaron” to the Priests, and “those who fear the LORD” to gentile converts, so is this call-and-response? Is “let… now say” a stage direction that was silent? We don’t know.

We have some idea of the instruments used, but a naive read would be wrong. For instance, it seems sensible to think that lyres would be used along with some Psalms. But couches and axes are presumably not (Psalms 149:5-7)

Let the faithful delight in glory
sing gladly on their couches
Exultations of God in their throat
and a double-edged sword in their hand

We are left with imagination, separated by millennia from the First Temple, Exile, and Second Temple periods in which these psalms were composed.

king david plays the zither

Psalms and Hip Hop

In the ambiguous instrumentation and focus on the word, Psalms appear to be the ur-genre of hip hop music, which wiki defines as “music genre consisting of a stylized rhythmic music that commonly accompanies rapping, a rhythmic and rhyming speech that is chanted.” The basic components of a psalm are (a) description of one’s mistakes in the past, (b) enthusiastic descriptions of one’s dedication to the Lord, (c) enthusiastic defense of one’s homeland, (d) and praise to God. “Deliverance,” by Bubba Sparx, has all these elements

Can you recall a time people loved you unconditionally?
Toast in the New South: “This one is for history!”
Then I slipped fell and caused the number’s injury
Called the same people and it’s, “Yo, you just missed them, B.”

That hip hop piece has the the same format (a recollection of the indomitable past, a lamentation of the intolerable present) as Psalms 44:8-11

For You rescued us from our foes,
and our enemies You put to shame.
God we praise all day long,
and Your name we acclaim for all time, selah
Yet You neglected and disgraced us
and did not sally forth in our ranks
You turned us back from the foe,
and our enemies took their plunder


Sometimes even the analogies are the same, such as the traveling road in Bubba Sparx’s “Comin’ Round

To see you coming ’round the bend
I just can’t think of anything
That could make me smile like you can
When you’re coming ’round the bend

I’ve been in love a time or two before
And all of that experience allows me to be sure
That you’re the one
Sure as darkness brings the rising sun

And traveling on the road in Psalm 123:1-3

A song of ascents.
To You I left up my eyes
O dweller in the heavens.
Look, like the eyes of slaves to their masters,
like the eyes of a slavegirl to her mistress,
so are our eyes to the LORD our God
until He grants us grace

The Translator

Robert Alter, the translator, brings to this translation is the same many strengths and the same few weaknesses as in other translations. His notes contain withering scorn for the idea that Psalms are simply translations of Canaanite songs (one might as well say Paradise Loss is a “translation” of the Odyssey!), or over literal interpretations (such as the claim that any Psalm with a prison reference was meant exclusively for prisoners.).


But Alter is allergic to christological (what in The Five Books of Moses he referred to as pre-monotheistic) interpretations, which sometime mean that important cultural context is lost. Parts of the Hebrew Bible as quite “new” — the Book of Daniel is probably as close to the Nativity in time as is the Book of Revelations — and certainly both friends and enemies of the early Christians considered them to be a collection of “The House of Israel” and “Those who fear the LORD.” So what to make of Psalms like Psalms 69:18-19

And hide not Your face from Your servant
for I am in straits. Hurry, answer me.
Come near me, redeem me.
Because of my enemies, ransom me.

Or Psalms 130:

I hoped for the LORD, my being hoped, and for His word I waited
My being for the Master — more than the dawn-watchers watch for the dawn
Wait, or Israel, for the LORD,
and with the LORD is steadfast kindness,
and great redemption is with Him,
and He will redeem Israel
from all its wrongs.

Might Dr. Alter chose this moment to describe the forming of Hebrew messianic traditions or… no, no he won’t.

Final Thoughts

Unlike most of the Old Testament there is no plot, no heroes, no villains, no prose. Psalms is a collection of poems and songs. It feels like it serves as a bridge between the Temple from the latter parts of Kings to the wisdom literature in Job and Ecclesiastes. The Book of Job ends with God declaring the sea monsters, ancient foes of the Canaanite deities, to be His pet.

And that, at its heart, was Job’s mistake. Job was good as sarcastically quoting Psalms and Proverbs. But the monsters of the world are God’s pet too. They praise him too. The sun and the moon, the snow and the smoke, the sea monsters and the mountians all things praise the LORD

Praise the LORD from the heavens
praise Him on the heights
Praise Him, all His messengers
praise Him, all His armies.
Praise Him, sun and moon,
praise Him, all you stars of light.

Praise the LORD from the earth,
sea monsters and all you deeps.
Fire and hail, snow and smoke,
stormwind that performs His commands
Palms 148:1-3,7-8

killer whale in alaska

I read The Book of Psalms in the kindle edition.

Review of “The Art of Biblical Narrative,” by Robert Alter

I finished The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter.


Genre Conventions

Alter argues understanding of the Hebrew Bible is impossible without understanding the literary conventions that its human authors and audience were used to. Alter gives a funny analogy, of a future world in which only ten surviving Westerns remained. Nine featured a gunslinger who could also draw before this enemy. A tenth featured a gunslinger with a broken right arm, who uses a rifle with his left. In that future world, “scholars” of Westerns would conclude, either

1. in the Old West, a hereditary caste of gunslingers (With a genetic predisposition for quick drawing) were given political office, or
2. Westerns are actually garbled retellings of an ancient Aztek legend of creature that shot fire from its arms

and that all scholars would agree the tenth Western (the sheriff with the lame right arm) came from a different tradition and was inadvertently included as a “Western”


Of course, all those interpretations would be nonsense. A fast-draw gunslinger is a genre convention of a Western. It provides important information about the identity of the hero the audience is supposed to follow. It demonstrates the protective masculinity of the hero. And in the tenth story the genre convention is there by its absence: the hero overcomes adversity to protect the town in spite of his lameness.

Types of Conventions

Alter breaks down Biblical conventions into a few categorizes, including

1. lead words — repeated words of word-routes that provide information about a character at a particular time, like heavy use of “stone” after Jacob flees Esau
2. first words – the first direct quote of a character provides special insight into their concerns or personality
3. themes — a pattern repeated situations with one or more characters, like the firstborn’s loss of inheritance in Genesis
4. type scenes — specific complicated scenes that repeat with different characters, like the meeting of future spouses (the “betrothal type-scene”) or the promise of a son by God

Type scenes are the most interesting, because by seeing small (or large!) variations we get more insight into characters. Abraham’s betrothal type-scene with Sarah is diplomatic, long-winded, formal, and intentional, befitting his character. In Isaac’s type-scene with Rebecca, Isaac is passive while Rebecca is running the throw, like in their marriage. And in Saul’s type-scene with the young women — the scene is broken off, while Saul runs after Samuel… a tragic comment on a tragic king.


The tragedy of Saul is compounded by his first words — searching for his flock, he is overcome with concern for his family, and asks his servant if they should simply go back. A good, but weak, man, Saul will be overcome and is completely unfit for kingship.

A Minor Complaint

Alter elsewhere stated that the Book of Samuel (1 Samuel 1 thru 1 Kings 1) is the best story in the Hebrew Bible. Having read his translations, I agree. But in Samuel he sees two contradictions/inexplicable duplications that to me are not only consistent, but are vital to understanding Saul.


In chronological order, these are

A1. As a test of his future Kingship, Samuel observes that Saul strips off his clothes and writes on the ground. Thus the old saying, “Is Saul, too, among the prophets?”
B1. Saul meets David for the first time, as a lute player who soothes Saul’s madness
B2. Saul asks who David is, after David slays Goliath
A2. As the war between Saul and David rages, Saul goes to Samuel. But during the meeting he stripes off his clothes and writhes on the ground. Thus the old saying, “Is Saul, too, among the prophets?”

  1. Samuel uses the “test of prophecy” to confirm Saul is a fit king.
  2. The reader sees the first hint of madness, that Saul is emotionally unstable
  3. The reader sees an even greater sign of madness, that Saul’s memory is impacted
  4. The reader realizes the “test of prophecy” was misinterpreted: Saul was mad from the beginning and Samuel is a terrible judge of kingship

Alter repeatedly uses analogy to film or Western literature, but completely misses the near perfect analogy to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Repulsion is shocking because the main character (a sympathetic young women) is mad for the entire duration of the whole time. But (unlike The Sixth Sense) this does not depend on a character forgetting the past and (unlike Turn of the Screw) the narrator is reliable. The “first hints” of madness are not this or that quirk at the middle of the film: the first hints of madness are the very activities that seemed to confirm the main character was worth rooting for.

The same seems to be true of Saul.

The Narrator

Alter concludes the book not with a dry summary, but an arresting observation: the Narrator of the Hebrew Bible is omniscient (and even knows God’s internal dialog with Himself!) but repeatedly excludes critical information from us. Why don’t we have access to David’s thoughts until the death of his son? Why don’t we know if David promised the kingship to Solomon (all we know is that Bathsheba and Nathan told him he had)? Why don’t we know if David massacred Israelite villages for the Moab king?



Because if we did — suggests Alter — we would know which characters are good and which are evil, like God. We would be able to see with the heart. We would know the truth.

Instead, we see with our eyes. Like young Saul we are forced with multiple conflicting priorities — the flock we are responsible for, our loved ones at home, the young women at the well, the prophet somewhere in the distance — and we must choose where to walk, knowing that God has a plan He has not shared with us.
I read Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative in the Kindle edition.

Largest Bible Publisher in the World is in China

Macartney, J. (2007). The book they used to burn now fires new revolution of faith in China. Times Online. December 8, 2007. Available online: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article3019026.ece.

Amity Printing, which has a monopoly on legal printing of the Bible in China, is expanding its facilities to keep up with increased purchases:

Demand for the Bible is soaring in China, at a time when meteoric economic growth is testing the country’s allegiance to Communist doctrine. Today the 50 millionth Bible will roll off the presses of China’s only authorised publisher, Amity Printing, amid public fanfare and celebration.

In the past, foreign visitors were discouraged from bringing Bibles into the country in case they received some heavy-handed treatment from zealous Customs officials.

Such is the demand in China for Bibles that Amity Printing can scarcely keep pace. Early next year it will move into a new, much larger factory on the edge of the eastern city of Nanjing to become the world’s single-biggest producer of Bibles.

Most Bibles are for the internal domestic marketing, and are printed both in Chinese characters and minority languages. The hottest selling bibles are small-print, and thus target young adults

New Zealander Peter Dean, of the United Bible Societies, bustles between the humming state-of-the-art presses. Mr Dean, who has been in China at Amity since 1991, said: “This platform has been built as a blessing to the nation. It will print Bibles for China for as long as it takes to do it.” Authorities at the officially approved Protestant and Catholic churches put the size of China’s Christian population at about 30 million. But that does not include the tens of millions more who worship in private at underground churches loyal to the Vatican or to various Protestant churches.

Of the 50 million Bibles Amity has printed, 41 million were for the faithful in Chinese and eight minority languages. The rest have been for export to Russia and Africa. Sales surged from 505,000 in 1988 to a high of 6.5 million in 2005. Output last year was 3.5 million and is expected to rise in 2007.

One of Mr Dean’s bestsellers is a pocket Bible, a version not suitable for the older generation to read and which may indicate a rapid expansion in the number of new, younger believers. He cited a surge in demand during the Sars crisis in 2003, but refrained from commenting. The enterprise has clearly flourished through its discretion and careful adherence to China’s laws that prohibit evangelizing.

Religious freedom is still lacking in China, and the rest of the article describes some of the obstacles Christians face in the country. Yet a paragrpah later in the article provides hope for the faith, too:

Then they are finding that they need to satisfy their spiritual needs, to look for happiness for the soul. In addition, they are seeing a breakdown in the moral order as money takes over. Thus, more and more people are turning to Christianity.”

Christianity is old in China — one of the patriarchs of the Assyrian Church of the East (Mar Yaballaha III) was even a Beijinger. Yet for the first time, Chinese christians can easily communicate with the rest of the faith, and the Chinese people are no longer forced between emperor worship and local superstitions.

If the 21st century becomes a Christian Century, a big part of the reason why will be because of China.