Review: Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter

Review: Alter, Robert. 2007. The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. New York:  W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 518 pages.

This essay discusses how Robert Alter enters into the scholarly debate of analyzing the Book of Psalms and places it in its historical context; the method by which Alter proceeds with his scholarly endeavour is to highlight the social history, archeological evidence, and mythological precedents that inform the authors of the psalms. Alter appears to be interested in demonstrating that the wider ancient anthropological context is paramount to understanding the original meaning of these hymns.

Alter, when translating the psalms, states his objective clearly, “For all the power of these Hebrew poems to speak with great immediacy in many tongues to readers of different eras, they are in their origins intricately rooted in an ancient Near Eastern world that goes back to the late Bronze Era (1600-1200 BCE) and that in certain respects is quite alien to modern people” (2007, xiii). That is, Alter is highlighting that centuries of interpretation of these ancient texts are viewed in terms of the concerns of the particular reader of his or her day; the original context and meaning is either unknown or irrelevant to the subsequent readers throughout the centuries. Alter, then, attempts to place the poems within the concerns of the authors’ day, and states the historical, social, and anthropological links throughout his commentary. He notes the wider tradition of cultic hymns and songs to the gods in Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Syro-Canaanite texts (ibid). The Psalms emerge from this same environment, including narratives about polytheistic worship and tribal warfare, as well as rituals for the temple cult (xvi), mandates for morality and human behavior (xvii), and songs about Zionism (xviii). Alter continuously reminds us of this context, and reflects the historical circumstances with his translations and commentary.

Typical examples of this anthropological endeavour can be found throughout. For instance, in psalm 29: 3, “The Lord’s voice is over the waters. The God of glory thunders,” Alter claims that the naturalistic overtones (water and thunder) are recollections of ancient Canaanite myths (99). In psalm 138:1, “I acclaim You with all my heart, before gods I hymn to You,” the commentary states that the plural “gods” has perplexed later interpreters (479). So much so, that they attempted to translate it – unconvincingly, according to Alter – as “judges.” Instead, Alter suggests that it is either a polytheistic remnant or a statement against polytheism, wherein the claimant defiantly hymns to the monotheistic God in the presence of polytheistic persons (ibid). A final example can be found in psalm 18:14, “The Lord thundered from on high. Elyon sent forth His voice – hail and fiery coals” (55). Alter notes that Elyon is the name of a Canaanite deity that has been adapted by the monotheistic poet, a translation that “suggest[s] the archaic effect of the original” (ibid).

Alter is also concerned with the physical evidence referenced in the psalms. Examples are: psalm 139:8, “fetters” and “iron chains,” which refer to prisoner bindings around the feet or neck, confirmed in Mesopotamian bas-reliefs (513); psalm 133:2, which depicts the physical pleasure of being anointed with scented olive oil, like in the Israelite time, “as in ancient Greece” (462); and in psalm 150: 4, Alter describes the translation of the word “flute” as a meaning significant to modern Hebrew, but that “it is probably some straight flute, as archeological evidence from Egypt suggests” (516).

In all six examples (there are many others) Alter presents his readers with the broader social and archeological frameworks of the psalms’ geographical and literary birthplace. By focusing on the historical context from which the psalms emerge and by claiming that modern readers are divorced from these ancient understandings, Alter implicitly rejects all subsequent interpretations. He does not make any explicit claims to the question of legitimacy or authority of the psalms; however, he does somewhat lament latter exegeses.

There are multiple instances of Alter’s critique of later interpretations, which he phrases in slightly reproachful terms. For example, in psalm 99:1, wherein the word “cherubim” is found, Alter reproaches, “Readers should be reminded that these are not the dimpled darlings of Christian iconography but fierce mythological beasts” (346). In psalm 104:3, “Setting beams for His lofts in the waters,” Alter notes that this line confuses contemporary readers, but that the cosmological reference would have resonated with the earliest audience who saw the heavens as the “upper waters” (363). In psalm 139:18, “I awake, and am still with You,” Alter challenges a later translation – “I come to the end, I am still with you” (NRSV) – and brands the link of the verb qets with “end” as “dubious” (482). The modern tendency to interpret psalm 143:12, “devastate my enemies…destroy all my bitter foes,” as a corollary to darkness, Alter claims is it a “questionable inference” (494).

Throughout Alter’s commentary, his reader is repeatedly reminded that these poems derive from a particular ancient culture, and that the modern reader must be careful not to impose their contemporary notions of these hymns unto historic ideas and texts. Alter’s agenda appears to be to freeze the psalms in time, highlight their surrounding cultural inheritance, and reject later interpretations he deems inaccurate.

This is a legitimate, common, and worthy scholarly pursuit. I suggest, however, that by reproving later interpretations (by using such words as “dubious” and “questionable”), Alter does not equally criticize the psalms themselves as interpretations of earlier works. The psalms’ authors also engage in translations and exegeses of previous ideas and texts, as Alter often reminds us. The commentary on psalm 148:4, regarding crossing primordial seas, “He set them a border that could not be crossed,” reads, “Behind this image lies the old Canaanite myth of the conquest of the sea god, but it has been thoroughly integrated into a monotheistic conceptual framework” (510). Similarly, Alter emphasizes that these poems have been adapted (55), borrowed (363), drawn from (ibid), co-opted (446), and are remnants (479) from earlier works.

Given Alter’s unbalanced critique – that is, that later interpretations are not as highly valued as the interpretative nature of the psalms themselves – Alter is, perhaps, a purist. He is attempting to mark the moment of their genesis, and judging it to be more accurate, or, at the very least, more worthy of scholarly interests. Despite this, Alter does not completely shy away from romantic notions of the psalms’ later influence, as he closes with a poetic thought on their resonance with the human imagination throughout history: “One can see how the Book of Psalms has spoken to people through the ages across the borders of nations, languages, and sectarian divisions” (516).

Work Cited

Alter, Robert. 2007. The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. New York:   W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.