Mary Overton's Reviews > The Five Books of Moses

The Five Books of Moses by Robert Alter
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's review
Apr 05, 2012

Read in March, 2012

Genesis 2:4-7,17
".... This is the tale of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
"On the day the LORD God made earth and heavens, no shrub of the field being yet on the earth and no plant of the field yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not caused rain to fall on the earth and there was no human to till the soil, and wetness would well from the earth to water all the surface of the soil, then the LORD God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature."
"And the LORD God said, 'It is not good for the human to be alone, I shall make him a sustainer beside him.'"
Kindle 1072-1091

"The biblical conception of a book was clearly far more open-ended than any notion current in our own culture, with its assumptions of known authorship and legal copyright.... The biblical term that comes closest to 'book' is sefer. Etymologically, it means 'something recounted,' but its primary sense is 'scroll,' and it can refer to anything written on a scroll - a letter, a relatively brief unit within a longer composition, or a book more or less in our sense. A scroll is not a text shut in between covers, and additional swathes of scroll can be stitched onto it, which seems to have been a very common biblical practice. A book in the biblical sphere was assumed to be a product of anonymous tradition...."
Kindle location 885-895

"I am deeply convinced that conventional biblical scholarship has been trigger-happy in using the arsenal of text-critical categories, proclaiming contradiction wherever there is the slightest internal tension in the text, seeing every repetition as evidence of a duplication of sources, everywhere tuning in to the static of transmission, not to the complex music of the redacted story.
"The reader will consequently discover that this commentary refers only occasionally and obliquely to the source analysis of Genesis. For even where such analysis may be convincing, it seems to me a good deal less interesting than the subtle workings of the literary whole represented by the redacted text. As an attentive reader of other works of narrative literature, I have kept in mind that there are many kinds of ambiguity and contradiction, and abundant varieties of repetition, that are entirely purposeful, and that are essential features of the distinctive vehicle of literary experience. I have constantly sought, in both the translation and the commentary, to make this biblical text accessible as a book to be read, which is surely what was intended by its authors and redactors. To that end, I discovered that some of the medieval Hebrew commentators were often more helpful than nearly all modern ones, with their predominantly text-critical and historical concerns. Rashi (acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Itsaqi, 1040-1105, France) and Abraham ibn Ezra (1092-1167...) are the most often cited here; they are two of the great readers of the Middle ages, and there is still much we can learn from them."
Kindle location 931-946

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