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Strong as Death is Love

Following Daniel out of the lion's den

    Strong as Death is Love

    Robert Alter
    Norton, £10.99

    Probably the only thing most of us know about Daniel was that he was thrown into a lion's den and lived to tell the tale. For the ordinary Jew in the pew, the book in which this episode appears must be one of the most unread in the Bible.

    It is, according to its latest translator Robert Alter, the Bible's "most peculiar" book. Not only is it written in both Hebrew and Aramaic, but the sometimes awkward Hebrew indicates that the author was not fully at home in the language. It contains enigmatic, apocalyptic visions hard to decode, more akin to the apocryphical books or the New Testament's Revelations than the imagery of earlier prophets.

    Alter's translation of Daniel appears in a collection, now out in paperback, of five biblical books which includes three megillot, The Song of Songs, Ruth and Esther, plus Jonah. Since the other books will be familiar to shul-goers as they are part of the festival liturgy, Daniel is the odd one out. If it seems a strange selection, it is because they are all later books written from the fifth to second century BCE.

    Although the Song of Songs is traditionally attributed to King Solomon, the Hebrew says otherwise, Alter explains. He celebrates its erotic content as one of the great love poems of world literature, unlike those who try to mask that under the veil of rabbinic allegory.

    Over the past 20 years, Alter has established himself as the leading contemporary translator of the Tanach, having now brought out English versions of the majority of its books. His style is marked by its lucidity and, as he is a literary scholar, care for language.

    His generous annotation will enhance the reader's understanding and appreciation of the creativity of Hebrew literature. In Daniel, he helpfully notes the allusions to the earlier story of Joseph. And when you are dealing with a biblical book as weird as much of this one is, you can do with all the help you can get.

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