Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Five Books of Moses

The first books of scripture to be written almost certainly weren't the "big five" of the Pentateuch.  Nevertheless they reign supreme in Judaism, the weightiest element in the Tanakh, and take pride of place in the Christian Old Testament.  Are they unparalleled works of literature or simply more trouble than they're worth?  Whatever you think, there's no denying that they're among the most influential compositions in human history.

Christians are arrogant sods, and I apply that as much to myself as anyone else.  When we cite Genesis, or quote the Ten Commandmants from Exodus, we invariably lean on our own pet translations and interpretations.  If you're an 'Evangelical', chances are that you'll trot out the NIV.  If you're Catholic it could well be the NABRE or New Jerusalem Bible.  Or if, like me, you're a wickedly depraved liberal, you'll be reaching for the NRSV or even, if you're up with the play, the new Common English Bible.

But Jewish scholars have been making up for lost time.  After all, the Torah is their scripture first and foremost, with a long history of commentary quite distinct from that of the church fathers.  How telling is it that, when the average Christian wants a Jewish insight into the Hebrew Bible they opt for a bastardized Messianic text such as David Stern's Complete Jewish Bible.

Putting aside the excellent JPS translation of the complete Tanakh (available as a fully featured Study Bible from Oxford), there are three contemporary versions of the five books of Moses from Jewish scholars which are well worth considering.

The Five Books of Moses, Everett Fox, 1995.
Commentary on the Torah, Richard Elliot Friedman, 2001.
The Five Books of Moses, Robert Alter, 2004.

All include a fresh English translation and a wealth of notes, and both Friedman and Alter are available on Kindle.  Friedman also includes the Hebrew text, and the book design follows the "back to front" Hebrew convention (though I'm not sure how this appears in the ebook format.)  Friedman renders the tetragrammaton as YHWH, and the usual English naming conventions are largely followed (e.g. Abraham and Moses.)

Fox's version is the most 'Hebraicized' and literal, though it is set out in the standard format.  Here the name of God is also rendered as YHWH, but names are adjusted (e.g. Avraham and Moshe.)

Alter has a truly distinctive style; Genesis 1:2a reads, for example, "and the earth then was welter and waste..."  (and yes, I rushed to the dictionary for welter). Names appear as they do in most translations (Abraham, Moses etc.), and Yahweh reverts to the LORD.

But it's the supporting features of all three that put the curry into the stew.  There's definitely nothing like this available in your NIV Study Bible!  If we're going to regard the Hebrew text of the Old Testament as normative (rather than follow the earliest church's practice of using the Greek LXX) then, like it or not, these are shared scriptures, and the myopic practice of reading the Torah backward from Revelation according to a fictive and highly problematic 'metanarrative' does no justice to that reality. That's where Fox, Alter and Friedman shine.


  1. Is Commentary on the Torah the same translation Friedman uses in The Bible with Sources Revealed? If so, it's one of the worst I've ever seen, terribly literal and full of bad English.

    1. Quite possibly - I haven't read the book you mention. Translation obviously isn't an easy task, and whatever strategy you take involves compromises. The New Living Bible reads beautifully, but it's cr@p.