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The Five Books of Moses

4.55  ·  Rating details ·  463 ratings  ·  61 reviews
Through a distinguished career of critical scholarship and translation, Robert Alter has equipped us to read the Hebrew Bible as a powerful, cohesive work of literature. In this landmark work, Alter's masterly translation and probing commentary combine to give contemporary readers the definitive edition of The Five Books. Winner of the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Tra ...more
Paperback, 1060 pages
Published October 17th 2008 by W. W. Norton Company (first published 2004)
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4.55  · 
Rating details
 ·  463 ratings  ·  61 reviews

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Jun 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2013, shelved-for-now
After a disastrous go at Genesis using the NIV Bible translation I arrived at Alter's translation . What a beautifully wrought work. The introduction alone is worth the cost of admission. Robert Alter transformed into a richly woven narrative, what had been for me just a quaint collection of odd little stories told in either a wildly anachronistic and culturally discordant language (KJV) or a sadistically boring translation that made it nearly impossible to believe that anyone would find it in a ...more
Apr 11, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Robert Alter is the great Hebrew scholar who gets the reader as close to the ancient text as possible: no flinching, no fussy over-interpretation, no apologetics, no softening harsh judgments. He draws on Masoretic cantillation, Ugaritic parallels, the Qumran fragments, Septuagint, Akkadian cognates, medieval rabbinic interpretations, modern archeological research. Alter's explanatory notes are about the same length as the translation text, and one gets the sense that he is keeping his comments ...more
Henry Sturcke
Jan 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I purchased this book soon after it appeared and placed it on a shelf with other reference works. Over the years, I would look something up in it from time to time.
When preparing a sermon, I usually wait until I’m pretty far along in the process before checking commentaries; I like to struggle with the passage on my own first. Recently, after working with a passage, I had some questions I couldn’t resolve. I looked up what Alter had to say and was struck by how judicious both his translation an
Pater Edmund
Oct 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: scripture
Robert Alter's is simply the best translation of any part of the Bible in English. As Alan Jacobs puts it:

It is a rare thing to find scholars willing not only to treat another text as a master work, but also to devote all their skill to illuminating that master work, revealing it in its best and clearest light. Robert Alter is a masterful scholar and a critic of exemplary sensitivity and tact who, both as translator and as commentator, has placed himself wholly in the service of the artfulness o
Mar 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
I have rated this book five stars based on the quality of the translation and the fact that this is the Torah (the first five books of the Christian Bible), upon which modern Western literature as we know it was built. (Along with the ancient Greek classics.) The Alter translation and footnotes make what is obscure, cryptic or downright confusing, much clearer. (Though it seems no amount of scholarship can clear up some confusing passages.) I still love the KJV, but if you want to actually under ...more
Skylar Burris
Dec 07, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: bible, judaism
Alter embarked on this English translation of the Pentateuch because "there is…something seriously wrong with all familiar English translations…Broadly speaking, one may say that in the case of the modern versions, the problem is a shaky sense of English and in the case of the King James version, a shaky sense of Hebrew." It is this "shaky sense of English" exhibited by most modern translations that has always made the KJV my preferred devotional Bible; poetry speaks to the soul, and too much of ...more
Michael Austin
Nov 20, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-in-2013
Robert Alter's translation of the Five Books of Moses is one of those rare books that really is as good as everybody says it is. Alter's task in the book is huge: to make a meaningful translation of works that have been translated thousands of times and commented upon by hundreds of thousands of people from dozens of religious traditions. How in the world can one do anything new with the Bible?

Well, as it turns out, you can. Alter succeeds by sticking firmly to one core principle: to create a li
Jeff Joseph
Aug 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Im not sure the words to use to convey Robert Alters brilliance. For years now ive had this on my nightstand and most mornings i open it anywhere and read- not just the phenomenal translation but the annotations. He has made this english version pure wonderment. Im a reform Jew who has tried to learn more about the wisdom of my amazing religion. Ironically i initially spent my energy's on Christianity by way of Elaine pagels fascinating writing among other writers and things like documentaries. ...more
Dec 25, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Good heavens. It only took me 18 months, but I read every word of this incredible achievement. Years ago, when I first read the Pentateuch, I congratulated myself with the attitude that I had struck it off the list, and I had no intention of returning. Alter's translation and priceless explanation and exegesis captured my attention. I stopped after every 1-2 chapters to reflect on the clarity Alter gives (even when he's explaining that there is no clear translation of a particular passage). Can' ...more
Dec 30, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This translation of the first five books of the Old Testament (the Torah) by Jewish scholar Robert Alter is excellent--I never thought I'd enjoy reading some parts of Leviticus, Exodus, or Deuteronomy again, but Alter's translation is thoughtful and the footnotes are the best part of the book--insightful and chock full of enlightening commentary. I look forward to reading his translations of other books of the Old Testament.
Melting Uncle
A "literary" look at the first five books of the Old Testament
I came to this after reading R. Crumb's Book of Genesis which uses Robert Alter's translation.
This is a good way to read some of the most influential writing in the history of writing without feeling like somebody is trying to convert you to any religion.
Five stars for Robert Alter.
As for the Bible, it's bizarre. But don't take my word for it; read it for yrself and see what you think.
Jayne Benjulian
Feb 11, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Will be reading this one for a while--like years.
Reading alongside the poetry of Yehuda Amichai.
Ted Young
Jan 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm cheating quite a bit, since what I've read for right now is Alter's introduction and Genesis, which I find the most interesting book of the Torah. While I'm not Jewish or Christian, I've always had a fondness for Genesis, which us, for almost all of us in the West, the first attempt we see to make sense of the world around us. It also contains some of the first stories I learned (I was raised in a fundamentalist family), the two creation myths with the fall in Eden, the flood (in what seems ...more
Mar 13, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book contains translations of the first five books of the Bible (the Torah) along with commentary. The commentary is fine, but not particularly extensive, and mostly includes information that is available elsewhere.
Dean Simons
Apr 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating and ambitious work that is accessible for the secular reader. The translation is generally clear but the footnotes are the real treat - digging into sociology, classical history, archeological findings, more sober contextualisations, etc.
Dec 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion
As religious scholars agree, excellent poetic interpretation with intelligent commentary and explanations of translation choices.
Heresy of Explanation by Robert Alter
“philological clarity in literary texts can quickly turn into too much of a good thing. Literature in general, and the narrative prose of the Hebrew Bible in particular, cultivates certain profound and haunting enigmas, delights in leaving its audiences guessing about motives and connections, and, above all, loves to set ambiguities of word choice and image against one another in endless interplay that resist neat resolution. In polar contrast, the impulse of
Mary Overton
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
Scriptor Ignotus
Robert Alter's translation of the Torah/Pentateuch is a beautifully wrought and astutely commented rendition of a work which has produced many of the world's most enduring cultural motifs. I first read these books back when I was in high school; using, I believe, the New International Version. I enjoyed them back then, but I think Alter's translation, alongside the additional years i've lived since then, have far enriched the experience for me.

Genesis will always probably be one of my two or th
Brandon H.
I wish I could give it ten stars!! This is my favorite Bible translation. I know many people are passionate about their favorite translations for various reasons. I dare to suggest that if you read this one, you'll have a new favorite!

The translation and commentary Robert Alter provides is engaging, easy-to-read, at times shocking, but mostly beautiful. A must read for every pastor, Bible freak, and serious Christian.

Here's what others had to say -

"Alter's translation brings delight because it
Russell Fox
Oct 19, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Robert Alter's translations of and commentary upon the Pentateuch was easily the single most rewarding read I had all year. It's been 25 years since I last attempted to read the Old Testament all the way through, and that time I didn't make it to the end, bailing around Jeremiah. This time, though, no matter if it takes me all of 2015, I'm going to get it done--and Alter's tremendous work is one of the main reasons I feel such confidence. His version of The Five Books of Moses is not only unfail ...more
Nov 30, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Alex by: New York Times Book Review
I only got about a third of the way through this book, through Exodus 7, before I had to return it to the library, but I really enjoyed it and will probably buy it for myself. I heard of the book from the New York Times Book Review, which sparked my interest with statements like: Alter allows "us to see for ourselves how the Bible embeds its most acute ironies in wordplay and repetition."

Alter's commentary really is insightful, especially where it highlights wordplay, the meanings of names, and
Jul 16, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If you have questions about why the style of writing in the Bible is odd or shifting or not genre-specific, etc. etc., this is the book you want to read. I was interested in learning about a literary study of the Bible and was directed by our pastor to this writer/commentator. The writer relies on many Jewish rabbis and writers and commentators in this translation, but explains where and how he does. As a whole, I found it incredibly enlightening but very rich, so in the future I'll probably use ...more
Joseph Petrillo
Dec 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A translation of the Torah by this distinguished, clear-writing and clear-thinking scholar prompted me to finally read it in entirety. This rendering aims at trying to convey the Hebrew original as closely as possible in English. So you don't get the soaring poetry of the King James version or the jarring neologisms of some more accessible versions. Whether Alter succeeds is something I'm not qualified to judge, but his footnotes, which explain why he departed from other renderings and chose a d ...more
Jason Furman
Robert Alter's translation of the Five Books of Moses is stunning. There is something wonderful about reading them translated from scratch by a single person so that it embodies a fresh, singular vision rather than a committee that builds on previous translations (although the New Standard Revised Version has a lot to be said for it, and the other work of a single translator I once tried to read--Everett Foxx--was borderline unreadable). It is also a beautiful edition, nicely printed with excell ...more
Ben B
Mar 07, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: i-own
What Leon Kass did for my understanding of Genesis, Robert Alter did for my understanding of the whole Pentateuch. He talks about the documentary hypothesis and text criticism without getting too caught up in it all. His genius lies in his willingness to translate "seed" as "seed," "bread" as "bread," and "neck" as "neck." The Pentateuch is written in bold, colorful, earthy, concrete terminology, and Alter's translation allows the earthiness to show through. Where the Hebrew text seems to have b ...more
Aug 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew & Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of the world's pre-eminant scholars of Hebrew literature. Here he has done his own translation of Genesis through Deuteronomy, with wonderful commentary. His great contribution is not theological but literary, pointing out the beautiful artistry of biblical prose and poetry, helping us not only to understand the story, but why the story was told in the way that it was. After reading t ...more
Dec 09, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My favorite translation of the Bible. I don't know Hebrew, but Alter's introduction and (copious) footnotes convince me that he is as faithful as possible to the cadences of the original. He also makes a strong case for greater parataxis, rather than the English-language bias towards hypotaxis. Genesis is my favorite, but Alter makes even all the elaborations of rituals in Leviticus engaging. It was a big letdown when I finished Alter's translation then switched to the NRSV for my read-through o ...more
Feb 21, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
So every year, I tend to hunker down and read one big ass book. This year it was The Five Books of Moses, which was just amazing and brilliant due to the translation and comments by Robert Alter from UC Berkeley. Yes, it is the first five books of the Old Testament, and yes, it was fun and illuminating and challenging, except for Leviticus (do I really need to know every possible way to sacrifice an animal???), and yes, I learned that the Old Testament God could use a course on anger management ...more
Jul 23, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
really excellent translation - a brilliant scholar- uses the Masoretic, the Septuigent and its variations, along with the Peshitta, the Qumran scrolls and other ancient texts to come up with his very literal translation. and ,of course the KJB. Professor Alter uses big words in the commentaries, you will need a dictionary. I had only read protestant translations in my long life and was pleasantly surprised by the Catholic Jerusalem bible but this is even better. Thank you Mr. Alter
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  • The Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy : A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary: 1
  • Understanding Genesis
  • Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine
  • The Other Bible
  • Commentary on the Torah
  • The New Testament: A Translation
  • The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments
  • The Great Code: The Bible and Literature
  • From the Maccabees to the Mishnah
  • The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus & the Truth of the Traditional Gospels
  • Jesus: A Very Short Introduction
  • The Jewish Annotated New Testament
  • The Book: A History of the Bible
  • Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity
  • The Protestant Reformation
  • How We Got the New Testament: Text, Transmission, Translation
  • The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis
  • The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment
Robert Bernard Alter (b. 1935) was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Lifetime Achievement and the PEN Center Literary Award for Translation. He is the Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and has published many acclaimed works on the Bible, literary modernism, and contemporary Hebrew literature.