Our ever-wayward ancestors

The portrait of the Hebrews in Robert Alter's 'Ancient Israel' is one of collective villainy - and a rewarding read.

Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings
(photo credit: Courtesy)
THIS REVELATION will hardly burnish my reputation, but for the past 15 years or so I have taken part in a weekly Torah class. Prior to the commencement of something like the ninth or tenth iteration of our annual journey through the Five Books of Moses, I ventured to suggest to the rabbi that for a change perhaps we could shift our focus from the Pentateuch to the biblical books that follow it.
Not, I was quick to assert, that we had exhausted interpretations of the Torah – far from it. It was just that I and presumably some others in the group were interested in what happened after the passing of Moses.
Or to be frank about it, I had never read Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, all that. Now and again I had peeped at bits, vaguely knew something about Saul and David, Ahab and Jezebel. I knew Byron on Sennacherib, and okay, I’d seen Samson in the movies. But that was about it. In other words, I was quite ignorant of a huge portion of the bible. Might we, maybe for one year, study those other books? The rabbi demurred. Those other books were “interesting,” he allowed, but – and then he trailed off into some vagaries about how the Torah was the really important stuff, and that was that. Well, I was used to being shot down by the rabbi; this happened every time I deigned to open my mouth in class. So with resignation (been there done that), I followed the class into another cycle of Torah, and once again ended up, like Moses, only looking into the Promised Land but unable to enter it.
All this changed with the publication in 2013 of Robert Alter’s “Ancient Israel.”
So primed was I for this book, and soon so enthralled by both the biblical narratives and by Alter’s illuminating notations, that I forced myself to consume it slowly and carefully over a period of many weeks. The result is one of the most rewarding reading experiences I’ve had in a long time – and one of the most depressing. Like the theater-lover who said he’d give anything to see “Hamlet” again for the first time, I had the thrill of genuine discovery. But I also understood why the rabbi was so reluctant to consider study of these books.
The portrait of the Hebrews in Joshua, Samuel, etc. is one of collective villainy. The Chosen are an unrelievedly bloodthirsty lot.
Initially this means laying waste to their “enemies,” most of whom were guilty of nothing more than existing in their communities.
This warfare usually entailed killing every last man, woman, child, sheep and donkey, burning towns, destroying crops and even uprooting orchards – and all of this under Divine instruction. (When Saul fails to slaughter all of his opponents’ sheep, as the Lord had commanded, God “repents,” in Alter’s translation, for having selected Saul as king.) BUT THERE’S worse to come. No sooner are Israel’s enemies subdued than the Hebrews turn on each other. The amount of Jewish blood spilled in intertribal warfare is staggering. Add to this treason, assassination, murder, suicide, dismemberment, beheading, abuse of corpses, cannibalism, child sacrifice, rape, incest, adultery, idolatry, witchcraft, spiritualism and just about any other human corruption one can think of.
And the leaders are among the worst of the lot. With only one or two exceptions, every king of Israel and Judah is either seriously flawed, murderous, avaricious, lustful, idolatrous, mad, or all of the above. And for every Divinely inspired prophet, the hills are alive with the sound of dancing, babbling religious ecstatics. Finish with civil war, the looting of the Temple, famine, national destruction, exile, slavery, and try to digest it all.
No amount of parental guidance could make this material suitable for children.
(Elisha has two she-bears rip apart 42 children because the kids jeered at his baldness; enough said?) Nor is it exactly uplifting history for adults. With numbing regularity, chapters begin, “And the Israelites once again did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” Or: “And the king did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord.” No matter how many times God punishes and then gives the Hebrews a second chance, they never, ever learn, never, ever give up their fascination with idolatrous cults and practices. What are we to make of our ever-wayward ancestors? What are we to make of their angry, prickly, jealous God? Robert Alter, the eminent biblical translator and commentator and professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, does not spend much time on such questions, busy as he is parsing the Masoretic, Septuagint and Qumran texts in an effort to enlighten readers of English to all this breathtaking domestic and national drama. And the parsing proves as compelling as the narratives.
Again and again, Alter points out what surely are scribal errors in our received texts, either transposed letters, wrong names, missing words, scrambled time sequences, and so on. (One example: “Saul was a year old when he became king, and two years he reigned over Israel.”) Reconciling contradictory, illogical and obscure wordings in variant texts, as well as weighing the best English representations thereof, must have been a grueling labor of love.
No translation of course ever satisfies everyone, and I have my quibbles and queries.
Sometimes Alter is jarringly earthy, as when he describes humans eating excrement or when he refers to “the pissers against the wall.” (The King James sayeth “pisseth.”) In some instances he is disconcertingly modern, as in his repeated references to “military gear.” (The Latinate “equipment” sounds much better to me.) At other times he strains for literary loftiness, with such terms as “goodly oil” or “no man of Israel was goodlier than he.” (Alter reveals in one note his affection for “a fine old locution coined by the King James translators.” While we acknowledge the pervasive appeal of the King James to English readers, what it offers in poetic power it often lacks in accuracy, and Alter might have done well to better resist its charms.) Occasionally Alter’s translation seems purely novel, as when he opts for “ghostwife” rather than “witch” of Ein-Dor. And at times his notes are puzzling; for example, when Rahab hides the two spies amid the flax piled on her roof, is this really “reminiscent of baby Moses hidden among the bulrushes,” just because the same verb for “hidden” is used in each reference? None of this will matter to Orthodox Jewish readers, for whom any translation is essentially treyf. And while I would have much appreciated having the Hebrew text on opposing pages, I recognize this would have made Alter’s already huge book unwieldy.
Alter in any event is not writing for Orthodox or any other readers of Hebrew; his ideological positions, as revealed in his concise but thoughtful introductory essays to each of the biblical books, are decidedly nondenominational and doggedly scientific.
“Ancient Israel” ultimately proved a veritable book of revelations for this reader, both for good and for ill. Along with all the linguistic information in the notes, there’s all that content that was new to this ignoramus: that the murderous Queen Athaliah makes Medea seem like a doting mom; that the two mothers who claimed the same infant before Solomon were prostitutes; that the manna continued to fall from heaven until the day after the Hebrews entered the land; that at least one Israelite had the unfortunate name of Dodo; that God struck the entire population of a Philistine town with “tumors in their secret parts”; that the Philistines once captured the Holy Ark and held it for seven months; that they returned the Ark along with a guilt offering, prescribed by their priests, of five golden tumors and five golden mice; that the slain Goliath somehow lived to fight another day, only to be slain again by Elhanan son of Jair; that children make fun of the tonsorially challenged at the risk of their lives; and, oh yes, that it seems advisable to think twice about ignoring the laws of Moses.
Back to my Torah lessons.