Review: The Wisdom Books

A wise choice for Bible readers

By Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild, May 12, 2011

A translation with commentary by Robert Alter, W.W.Norton, £25

Biblical wisdom literature is part of an ancient near-eastern tradition that raises questions of value and moral behaviour, of the meaning of life and the proper conduct of that life. However, it remains theological rather than philosophical and never systematises the questions but offers instead a practical and even didactic guide to life.

While some wisdom literature can be found in other parts of the Hebrew Bible, the three books of Job, Proverbs and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) are fully fledged works. Each of them is different from other biblical books, and each has a unique approach, evidence according to Alter that the Hebrew Bible is "not a book, but an anthology spanning almost a millennium and incorporating widely different views of human nature, God, history and even the natural world".

This edition is a new translation by Alter accompanied by his own introductions and commentary. The translation is, as befits a professor of Hebrew language and comparative literature, clear, thoughtful and close to the Hebrew - though for those who enjoy the poetic licence taken in the King James translation, it can take some getting used to.

But I recommend it for precisely that reason; Alter's translations are accurate, scholarly and sensitive to the original, and therefore of far more use to the reader who seeks understanding of the text through the language of its formation. The notes, too, are a joy. Alter brings us into the thinking he does for the choices he makes, directs us to other usages and points out parallels in both Hebrew and other wisdom texts. All this with a lightness of touch so that one can read the texts or search deeply into them.

A lovely addition to one's library.

Sylvia Rothschild is joint rabbi of Wimbledon Reform Synagogue

Last updated: 11:29am, May 12 2011