Commentary Magazine

How to Read the Bible

In encountering a new translation of the Bible, one often thinks first of the changes one can expect to find from the most beloved of earlier renderings, the King James Version of 1611. But there are broader issues which we are led on to explore in any version.

The new translation to be discussed here is that of the Jewish Publication Society of America, now complete with the publication of the third section, The Writings (Kethubim),1 which is a miscellany of thirteen books starting with Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. On the question of changes, I might mention that shortly after receiving The Writings I happened to be sitting in a 14th-century English village church, reading, for the joy of the lingo, a discussion in the preface to the Book of Common Prayer (revised, 1662) of the pros and cons of altering an accepted text. How, the authors ask, does one “keep the mean between the two extremes, of too much stiffness in refusing, and of too much easiness in admitting any variation”?

For, as on the one side common experience sheweth that where a change hath been made of things advisedly established . . . sundry inconveniences have thereupon ensued, and those many times more and greater than the evils that were intended to be remedied, so on the other side . . . it is but reasonable that, upon weighty and important considerations, such changes and alterations should be made . . . as seem either necessary or expedient.

But if there are two sides to change, one danger is always to be avoided, that of falling into the hands “of such men as are given to change, and have always discovered a greater regard to their own private fancies and interests, than to that duty they owe to the publick.”

One has to admit that there are occasional whiffs of this in the new JPS version of the Bible (hereafter JPSV), even if, as a whole, it is majestic, scholarly, and readable. In a review of the second section, Prophets, that I published in these pages a few years ago (“The Prophets in Modern Idiom,” March 1979), I briefly compared a number of passages with the King James Version (KJV) and the earlier JPS version of 1917, to see what had happened to them, and to the elements of poetry and nostalgia with which they have become encrusted. If one examines The Writings in the same way, one can conclude sometimes that a change activated mainly by scholarly precision may have lost more than it has gained.

To take a few examples: in the 23rd Psalm, the KJV “He leadeth me beside the still waters” becomes in the new JPSV “He leads me to water in places of repose.” “I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” becomes “for many long years,” which may be more correct for l’orekh yamim, but sounds far less confident.

On the other hand, there are innumerable verses in Psalms where a change establishes the sense more positively. In Psalm 26, the old meaning of “reins” or “kidneys” as the seat of emotion prompts the new translators to offer “test my heart and mind” instead of the puzzling “try my reins and my heart.” In the same way we no longer read, in Psalm 29, that the voice of God “discovereth the forests” but “strips the forest bare.” Two Psalms later, KJV’s “set my feet in a larger room” becomes “grant me relief.”

In spot checks like this—always interesting and sometimes to be enjoyed like a game—the issue alternates between literary echoes and the demands of content. Why should a new generation of Bible readers lose “I lift mine eyes unto the hills” (Psalm 121), in favor of “I turn my eyes to the mountains”? And how about the loss of “As the hart panteth after the water brooks / So panteth my soul after thee” (Psalm 42)? It is no more correct and certainly less pleasing to find this turned into “Like a hind crying for water / My soul cries for You.” On the other hand, the directness of the new JPSV is often very effective, as in the opening of Psalm 45: “My heart is astir with gracious words,” instead of the vagueness of KJV: “My heart is inditing a good matter.”



But one soon tires of awarding marks in this way, for the central issue raised by a new Bible translation, the issue of the content of the Bible, is much bigger than the appositeness of individual words. Repeatedly, one is driven back from considering the correctness or euphony of any new translation toward two quite separate questions about reading the Bible: what did the words mean when first spoken; and what did they come to mean over the centuries? Not that these are the only or even the main questions that arise on reading the Bible, but they offer a way into the subject.

The opening verse of Psalm 45 which I have just quoted is a good illustration of the first question. The long title of the Psalm ends with the words shir y’didoth—“a love song,” and its seventeen verses are indeed full of phrases which have the lyrical excitement of the Song of Songs. Since God and “the king” are mentioned several times, the KJV turns the Psalm into a kind of love song to God as king. The Catholic “Jerusalem Bible” (1966) likes this, and indeed takes it further. It says in a note that while some scholars now see the Psalm as quite secular—a wedding song addressed to a king—the religious intent is not to be ruled out:

The Jewish and Christian tradition understand it as celebrating the marriage of the messianic King with Israel (prefiguring the Church), and the liturgy develops the allegory still further by applying it to our Lady and to the Virgin Saints.

Not all Catholics, one might mention, feel the need to read allegory into a happy love song. The Jesuit Father Mitchell Dahood, who edited Psalms in 1966 for the Anchor Bible, treated Psalm 45 quite flatly as a royal wedding song. And this is the line adopted by the new JPSV as well. The translators clearly feel that this is how it was first heard, and are happy to manipulate the references to God and “the king” to present their reading.



This, however, is still only translating the words themselves. We often understand the Bible better when light is thrown on something behind the words through suggestions from anthropology or comparative religion. There is a neat illustration of this in a comment on Psalm 45 by Theodor H. Gaster in his book, Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament (1969). This love song, he says, is not a theological allegory or a royal wedding song. It is a minstrel’s song, sung at an ordinary wedding in which the bridegroom is described as a king and the bride as a princess, both of them radiating a “majesty” which is quite “divine.” It was a common convention, we learn, in the ancient Near East and elsewhere for minstrels to be given their head in this way. To read this “psalm” properly, then, we should not think of our solemn and traditional Psalmist but of a bard improvising an extravagant toast, which begins (in Gaster’s lively but accurate translation):

My heart is a-flutter—
    oh joy!
‘Tis for a king himself
I am now to indite my

The words of the new JPSV are not far off this, but we get extra vitality out of them when we break out of the traditional solemnity with which we read the Bible to feel a populist echo of the time.



I have often noted that scholars expounding individual verses in this way are somehow able to produce a convincingly lively tone that is absent in translations of whole books. Robert Alter achieves this effect frequently in his The Art of Biblical Narrative.2 A good example is his translation of a puzzling verse in Job (7:12) that reads in the KJV: “Am I a sea, or a whale, that thou settest a watch over me?” Alter explains that the epics discovered at Ugarit in Syria, from 1929 on, tell of battles between the land god Baal and the sea god Yamm (the word means “sea,” of course), and that through this “a whole spate of dimly apprehended allusions in Psalms and Job come into focus,” notably “the recurrent imagery of God’s breaking the fury of the elemental sea or shackling a primordial sea monster.” In this verse, therefore, Job is not asking rhetorically whether he is the sea (yam),

but with a pointed sardonic allusion to the Canaanite myth, he is saying: “Am I Yamm, am I the Sea Beast, that you should set a guard over me?”

The new JPSV, it must be said, loses the sharpness of this verse completely with: “Am I the sea or the Dragon?” On the other hand, it does well to stick to the traditional rendering of Job 5:7 as “Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward,” instead of following the Anchor Bible’s mythological reference: “Man is born to trouble, and Reshef’s sons wing high,” which is meaningless without a commentary.

In dealing with the assortment of books in The Writings, one makes no apology for concentrating heavily on Psalms and Job, for with most of the other eleven books—Esther, Ruth, Lamentations, Proverbs, etc.—the original or later meaning is relatively clear. This is not to say that there is no room in these books for evaluating the new JPSV in verbal terms. There are in fact many things to admire, as in the euphonious ending to Chapter 2 of the Song of Songs, where some neat changes now yield:

When the day blows
      gently and the shadows
Set out, my beloved,
      swift as a gazelle
         or a young stag,
For the hills
    of spices.

But, as always, one has some reservations. Do we gain anything in Ecclesiastes by replacing the famed opening, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” with “Utter futility! All is futility!” And surely it must be thumbs down for the new translation of Ecclesiastes 1:10: “Sometimes there is a phenomenon of which they say: Look, this one is new!” For all its many successes, the new JPSV can at times be too literal. In Ecclesiastes 7:8 we are offered “Better a patient spirit than a haughty spirit.” The Jerusalem Bible is neater with “Better patience than pride.”



If one moves on from considering individual verses of this miscellany to its place in the Bible, the real problem of The Writings is that, despite the marvels it contains, the collection feels sometimes like the tag-end of a fantastic otherworldly experience documented in the preceding two sections of Torah and Prophets, and to that extent of secondary importance when it comes to the ultimate issue of how to “read,” to experience, the Bible.

At first glance, it will no doubt seem absurd to describe as in any sense “secondary” the religious lyricism of Psalms, the uniquely powerful language of Job, or the wild visions of Daniel. What is meant in this kind of judgment is that the literary variety of The Writings still leaves something out; and this reminds us in turn that the Bible is not to be analyzed or read solely as literature. It only achieves this status—to our delight—because three or more thousand years ago a people began to emerge with stories and writings similar in verbal construction to what was being said in the world around them but totally different in character, and instilling convictions about life that were to be a lever of history forever. How this happened is a mystery to which I, for one, have no explanation; and in a sense how it began is of infinitely less moment than the living out of this experience in the manifold forms through which it has been received and understood over the millennia.

Robert Alter makes this point effectively when he says in The Art of Biblical Narrative that the rubric of “literature” applied to the Bible is condescending. For’ him, the Bible offers “a complete interfusion of literary art with theological, moral, or historiosophical vision.” But there is a paradox in his approach; for though he gives us a brilliant analysis of how the biblical writers achieved their literary effects, he is vague on the anterior question, which is why this literary style projected a content which was to be unique and immortal. At one point he says that it is the subtleties of characterization, as in the patriarchal stories, which “suggest the endlessly complicated ramifications and contradictions of a principle of divine election intervening in the accepted orders of society and nature.” But this seems to have the elements of a non sequitur, introduced to cope with the baffling fact we are all aware of: that the Bible tales, paralleled in many other primitive literatures, had some peculiar quality that makes sense if you accept revelation but is inexplicable otherwise. On the same page we are told—as a conscious paradox?—that it is the “rigorous economy” of the biblical tale which leads us to ponder the complexities of human life “because these are essential aspects of its vision of man, created by God, enjoying or suffering all the consequence of human freedom.”

Such an emphasis on the centrality of human freedom might arise very properly in a discussion of a highly sophisticated work like Job; but it is really not the idée maîtresse in the basic Torah, where God’s will is projected as a law of the universe, with the people of Israel expressing it through obedience. Abraham is not making a free choice when he agrees to “bind” Isaac: he is obeying God. Obedience, it is true, is often expressed in the form of a covenant—a quid pro quo; and within God’s direct commands in the Law there is often an “explanation,” related to a moral system, of why He wants Israel to behave in a given way (e.g., in being kind to strangers). But the theme of the Bible, which every Jew has been aware of since it was first put together, is the overwhelming power and mystery of the relationship between God and Israel; without this the narrative skills and poetry and moral grandeur would never have emerged or persisted.

Because this theme is so startling, it has been a base for marvelous commentary—rational, legal, poetic, and mystical—in every generation. But all this will pass over one’s head unless one first reads Genesis, or Deuteronomy, with total simplicity. We bring much more history and knowledge of history to our reading now than did those who listened to Isaiah, or Jesus, or Rabbi Akiba expounding the text; but in the acceptance of the stories we must be the same. The rationale of the Bible’s power is apt to mislead unless something like faith is taken for granted.



Faith is not the same as fundamentalism. It is more like what Coleridge called “a willing suspension of disbelief.” And there is an apt demonstration of the importance of this kind of receptivity to the Bible in a new book called The Story of the Stories by the eminent novelist Dan Jacobson.3

Jacobson offers a thesis in his book which might be described, to use his own phrase, as how to read the Bible without faith. Giving up everything “natural” in the story as it is normally read, he propounds the idea that the Hebrews produced the Bible to express “a deep-seated historical and moral tension or anxiety within the Israelite folk memory” based on the fact that they had ruthlessly dispossessed the Canaanites of their land and possessions. In turn they would themselves lose, reacquire, and lose their land and possessions in a recurrent cycle, reflecting the swings in God’s favor. There was a sense, Jacobson writes, in which it was comforting for the Hebrews to ascribe their helplessness to God’s turning to other peoples as His instruments of power, but basically they were embarked on a retreat from reality, expressing through the Bible their sense of guilt and self-rejection. Equally unreal were the stories Jews told at later phases of the cycle of winning and losing:

What has to be taken into account, therefore, is that the biblical story was able to act as it has on men’s lives for centuries and millennia precisely because its untruth appealed to their imaginations at a depth the facts could never reach.

Jacobson has moved swiftly, here, from a psychological analysis of the origins of the Bible to a projection of unending guilt as the message that Jews have drawn from the Bible throughout history. So unreal is this as a way to read the Bible that one feels the structure of the argument to be upside-down. Far from beginning with the Canaanites, Jacobson seems to have in the forefront of his mind the guilt that today’s Jews should feel, and perhaps he himself does feel, for “dispossessing” the Palestinians. Now that large forces in the world are once again, after a brief post-Holocaust interlude, engaged in what Ruth R. Wisse has called the delegitimation of Israel, one also notices an increase among Jews themselves of the doubt and self-rejection that Jacobson feels was a comforting—if dangerous—myth of the early Hebrews. John Carey, a distinguished English critic, seems to have sensed something of this kind when, in a review of The Story of the Stories, he noted sardonically that Jacobson’s book gives the “impression that the whole thing was cooked up rather rapidly by a harassed Israelite propaganda team on the run from Yahweh’s latest mark of favor.”

The odd thing about the power of the Bible, however, is that even when Jacobson is devising this psychological strait jacket, he finds himself commenting over and over again on the freshness and fruitfulness that the Bible projects when it is read “straight.” He records his earlier discovery, when writing his novel The Rape of Tamar, that every phrase, virtually every word, in the relevant chapter of 2 Samuel was like a seed:

Dry, hard, small, compressed, apparently lifeless, it was capable of astonishing growth, if it was planted in one’s mind and saturated with whatever capacity one had for imaginative response and understanding.

Even on the subject of Hebrew guilt Jacobson sees an enlivening side. The Jews, always in a cycle of losing and winning, forged “an irrefragable identity or community of human feeling” between themselves and their enemies. He recognizes too that in the relationship of Yahweh to Israel, the “laws” which governed the domains of historical reciprocity and reversibility were far from mechanical or impersonal:

They are moral . . . a precipitate of profound conflicts of desire and anxiety on the part of the writers. They are born out of a conviction—often a reluctant or angered conviction—of an ineluctable similarity of sentiment between all men, of their common vulnerability to misfortune, and of the likelihood that they will feel their misfortunes in an identical way.



One of the ways in which the Bible’s universality emerges for Jacobson is in the freedom of the prophets to move about the streets speaking to the populace, entering the palaces of kings to denounce them to their face, and leaving behind the imperishable record of what they said. Accepting this, one ceases to look at a new translation of the Bible for accuracy or style, and thinks more generally, as Jacob-son does, of “the incalculable influence that these writings have had, still have, and will continue to have, on the course of world history.” This, then, is the context in which he accepts, even applauds, “the profoundly energizing uneasiness” that the story often reveals:

In its way, that seems to me quite as original, and as provocative, morally speaking, as what the story tells us of the qualities that enable God to exercise choice: His invisibility, His transcendence, and His solitude.


1 The Writings (Kethubim): Third section of a new translation of the Holy Scriptures, Jewish Publication Society, 634 pp., $10.95. Earlier sections are The Torah (1962, revised 1967) and The Prophets (1978). As with the two earlier sections, translation of The Writings is mainly the work of a committee of scholars, in this case Professors Moshe Greenberg (Hebrew University), Jonas C. Greenfield (Hebrew University) and Nahum M. Sarna (Brandeis), associated with three rabbis “representing the three sections of organized Jewish religious life.” Chaim Potok served as secretary of the committee.

2 Basic Books (1981). Substantial portions of this book appeared earlier in COMMENTARY.

3 Harper & Row (1982). Reviewed in COMMENTARY, September 1982.

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