Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Symbolism of the Psalms and a Review of the Psalms by Robert Alter

I recently purchased the book The Hebrew Bible by Robert Alter, a professor of Hebrew at U.C. Berkeley. I compared Alter's translation of the Psalms with my own translation of the Psalms, which are published in a three volume work with a full commentary from the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. I surprisingly found that while Alter has some rather good insights into the Hebrew language he makes some very basic fundamental mistakes, and many are quite unforgivable. Even in terms of dividing the verse into their proper poetic lines he makes mistakes. For my own work I had consulted the massive three volume work Cantos and Strophes in Biblical Hebrew Poetry by Pieter Van der Lugt. That latter work costs $1000 in itself, however the best of the research is embedded in the work of my translation, where one can see not only the poetic structure of each line but also the large stanzas in each Psalm.

Below are embedded links to my three volume work, where one can preview them in this blog. I compared Alter's translation with volumes 2 and 3 with Robert Alter and made some minor updates, which is now available on Amazon. Below the links I will leave readers with some initial findings after I looked over Alter's translation of Psalms 42-150.


For Alter's translation I focused on Psalms 42-150, which are the Psalms of volumes 2 and 3. First thing that became obvious: the second verse of Psalm 42 is divided into two bicolons (it is actually one bicolon). Alter is perhaps paying attention to the number of syllables in the original Hebrew, or perhaps wants to make it look good in English, but the odd thing about poetry in Hebrew is that each poetic line is not determined by syllable or word count. It is determined by parallelism: a poetic line will contain a parallel thought to the parallel line. Swedenborg discusses at length the spiritual reason behind this: one line will focus on love and the parallel line will focus on truth. Together they form a unified whole, as love and truth correspond to the will and thought of the mind.

In verse 4 of Psalm 42, we see a basic mistake: Alter mistranslates the word "soul" as "heart" - even though Hebrew has a different word for "heart." And this is an explicit decision Alter has made: throughout the entire Bible he has mistranslated the word for "soul" so that it no longer exists, perhaps due to a personal bias. Instead he has replaced with other words such as "being" or sometimes "life." He does make a good case where in certain contexts the word for "soul" has the meaning of "neck." Even so, it is a connotation that should be relegated to a footnote. The Hebrew language does have another word for neck, and if scripture uses the word "soul" there is a reason for it.

This translation choice by Alter has bad consequences. For example, Ps. 66:9 should literally be translated something like this:

Who puts our soul in life

But wait, Alter sometimes uses the word "life" for "soul." So what does he do? He completely omits the word soul:

Who has kept us in life

This was a intentional choice by Alter. In Hebrew the soul is represented by breath and the afterlife is represented by a grave (Heb. sheol), so some Jews believed there was no afterlife, thus there is no soul apart from the physical body. So perhaps he is reflecting that kind of Jewish thought. This way of thinking pervades the modern scientific world and has invaded even the churches, and this was the purpose of the revelations given to Swedenborg: to let people know that indeed there is a life after death, that our souls are eternal.

So, lets move on. There are some basic editorial mistakes where Alter could have used a second pair of eyes. For example, Psalm 53 is a near duplicate of Psalm 14, except that the name Jehovah has been replaced by the word "God" (Heb. Elohim). But in Ps. 53:2 Alter still retained the name Jehovah when in fact it should be God. In Psalm 57, lines in verses 3 and 4 are omitted. There is another online review which also found that Alter had skipped a verse.

Now, beyond that, I can continue with some other mistranslations, but the real advantage of Alter's translation is that the original Hebrew word order shines through. So I found it useful to compare with my own translation. In most cases it leads to an awkward sentence in English so those cases I ignored - I would still prefer good English in the final translation (if its awkward people wont read it). In other cases, the word order is important as it determines what goes in the first and second parallel lines in a verse, so in two or three cases I took note and made a correction to the word order.

There is one interesting case where Alter's knowledge of Hebrew led him to amend the text. The first half of Ps. 55:19 should read something like this:

God shall hear and afflict them,
Even He who dwells of old.

Alter makes a slight emendation to the original text and does this:

Ishmael and Jalam and the dweller in the east,

Which is completely different. The NET Bible is notoriously bad at this: it almost prefers translations that make clever emendations to the original text.

Now, despite the negative feedback here I would like to point out some gems where Alter's knowledge of Hebrew shines through in the text. These are cases of poetic ellipsis, where the original Hebrew implies a word that is not present in the text and are thus easy to miss. One is in Ps. 60:3, which is typically translated like this:

You have made Your people to see hard things,
You have made us drink the wine of reeling.

The Hebrew word for "hard" (Heb. qasheh) is similar to a word for "cup" (Heb. qasah). There is a hidden word in the first line, omitted through poetic ellipsis:

You have made Your people to see a hard cup,
You have made us drink the wine of reeling.

The word is omitted in the original text, but it is implied. Poetic ellipsis is used here because it talks of something God gives but we do not want to ever see: hard punishment for sin. This is a poetic method in the original Hebrew and it took me a while to notice it. I used it for Ps. 20:7, which literally reads like this:

Some in the chariot and some in horses

There is literally a missing verb. Most Bibles supply the word "trust." But the missing word can be restored by poetic ellipsis, where the word is similar to the previous word:

Some swear in the chariot and some swear in horses

This references to the enemies of Israel taking an oath of alliance, to supply horses or chariots in battle. It is viewed as a false oath, an oath against Jehovah, thus it is omitted by poetic ellipsis for stronger effect - words have power, by omitting it that would give the power of breaking the alliance. This is the translation used in volume 1, it is fully documented in another work, The Mistranslations of the Psalms.

There is one other clever use of poetic ellipsis in Ps. 110:6 which literally reads like this:

He shall fill with dead bodies

From poetic ellipsis, we can find the missing word:

He shall fill valleys with dead bodies

The word "valleys" is hidden by poetic ellipsis. Why? For a better effect: once one has filled a valley with dead bodies the valley will disappear.

Now, most corrections from Alter were minor, such as an additional pronoun such as "I" or "as for me" or "You" that was missed. But the most beautiful correction was in Ps. 78:39. I originally had this:

And He remembered that they were but flesh,
A wind that passes away and returns not.

From Alter, I changed it to this:

And He remembered that they were but flesh,
A spirit that passes away and returns not.

The Hebrew word can be translated as both "wind" or "spirit." Both are correct, but spirit is a better parallel word to the word flesh. It also speaks to our temporary nature here on earth, how we depend on our eternity from the Lord alone.