Five Blessings from Reading (Really Reading) the Five Books of Moses

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

A few months ago, I began reading the Old Testament, a book of scripture which I have never before been able to read all the way through (the closest I ever came was 25 years ago while on my mission in South Korea; reading from Joseph Smith’s Inspired Version of the Bible, I made it all the way through Jeremiah, at which point I simply couldn’t take it any more and gave up). This reading, once I determined that I was going to do it right, involved my trusty Revised English Bible (my favorite translation out of the four or so I own) and Robert Alter’s wonderful translations and commentary. Just before Christmas I finished working through his largest chunk of the Old Testament, The Five Books of Moses, and I figured I ought to be able to come with at five statements of gratitude for my reading of this, the oldest and most foundational text of the whole Western religious and philosophical tradition.

1) It’s good to be able to see OT fragments for what they are. I’m not particularly well-schooled in the documentary hypothesis, nor the criticisms of it, but I know enough to know that the earliest–in terms of the internal narrative–parts of the Old Testament not only couldn’t have the sole authors so often attributed to them in Sunday School, but they couldn’t have been entirely written at the times stipulated by their place in that internal chronology either. Reading the King James Version of the Old Testament (even the KJV as slightly amended by Joseph Smith) makes it hard to do more than shake one’s head at these obvious inconsistencies and fissures, since that version presents the whole of the OT in the same–beautiful, but to our eyes and ears today also almost impenetrable–heightened and archaic English tense. But by reading Genesis (and, to a lesser but still important degree, the other four books of the Pentateuch as well) in a translation with more careful and contemporary language, the reasons why scholars ever came up the idea of that one can discern distinct narrative and documentary traditions behind these five books–namely, the famous Yahwist (J), Elohist (E), Deuteronomist (D), and Priestly (P) sources–becomes fairly obvious. You can see that at one point God is referred to one way, then later in the story He is referred to differently, and then later yet He is referred to in the previous way again. God–Yahweh, or El Elyon, or Shaddai–takes on warrior forms, is sometimes peaceful and sometimes murderous, appears and then disappears from the overall story, is acknowledged by and then is unknown to the many rival peoples which the descendants of Abraham contested with, and so forth. I’ve known intellectually for years that the creation of scripture is a far more happenstance, complicated, and prolonged process than the faith-promoting stories of revelation that so many Christians like myself were raised with often imply, but in reading these first five books of the OT, and being able to really see how different perspectives and traditions overlapped, borrowed from each other, and in some case eventually died (or were edited) out, I can see the process in a way I never had before.

2) It’s good to be able to appreciate the myths sprinkled throughout the OT. There are, as anyone who has read it knows, many strange stories in the OT, particularly in Genesis. Some of them might be categorized as “miraculous” in the sense of demonstrating God’s providence in the later religious sense, but many others just stand out, obviously important to the ancient transcribers and redactors of these once-oral traditions, but whose significance to the overall epic of Israel is by no means obvious today. You have Lot’s daughters, Jacob wresting with an angel, God attempting to kill Moses, giants in the land, and much more. Seeing these stories better connected with the rhetorical traditions out of which they came helped make them sensible to me, or at least more so. The tribal realities, violent contests, sexual tensions, physical sufferings, aspirational hopes, and desperate fears of a wandering people, thousands of years ago, who became the carriers of what eventually emerged as our understanding of a loving and omnipotent God, are at least partially captured in these strange mythological tales. It deepened my appreciation of what the OT can teach us overall by seeing, as clearly as possible, some of the rudimentary building blocks of the stories they told themselves and preserved, generation after generation.

3) It’s good to get to know the OT patriarchs and prophets as human figures. The basics of the life stories and relationships of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses–along with all their supporting wives, children, siblings, allies, enemies, and more–weren’t unknown to me, but there were so many details that I’d never noticed or didn’t understand before (the whole story of Tamar, Onan, and Judah, or the rebellion against Moses, for example, had never made much sense to me previously). Getting a better sense of how, in these stories, these men were presented as arguing, striving, scheming, begging, or confessing deepened my appreciation of them as figures of inspiration, warning, or moral teaching, despite the enormous historical (and epistemological) gap which separates them from readers like myself today.

4) It’s good to be caught up in the overall drama of the OT again. I can remember as a child first hearing so many of these stories in Primary classes on Sunday, and finding them amazing, bizarre, exciting, frightening, and–most of all–important. Abraham taking his son Isaac to Mt. Moriah to be sacrificed, Rebekah fooling the aged and blind Isaac into blessing Jacob instead of Esau, Joseph playing a trick on his brothers to test their repentance, the detailed construction of the Ark of the Covenant, Joshua’s dangerous trip with the spies into Canaan, and more; the Old Testament is littered with these tales, all half-remembered and–when remembered and returned to through our approved Sunday school lessons–usually proof-texted to death. I’m sure I’m not alone in having found it harder and harder to take them seriously–whether historically or morally–as the years went by. The language of the King James Version is so deeply entwined with how we have come to understand Christianity that to be able to see these stories in all their audacity, pathos, horror, ambiguity, and majesty requires that one–or at least, required that I–find an entirely new set of lenses in order to view them. Through the REB and Alter’s commentary I was able to do that. Abraham became again a canny and desperate man, dealing with an unpredictable divine power; the relationship between Joseph and his brothers became again one of real anger, genuine confusion and doubt, and sincere change; and Moses became again a towering, demanding, but also always self-doubting figure, the very archetype of one who is forever changed–greatly empowered, but also in some ways also shattered–by being in the presence of the eternal God. I finished the Pentateuch, and I truly felt that I’d read an epic, a series of tales and adventures and revelations woven together around the construction of a people that, in all its deep and captivating meaningfulness, could stand alongside the creations of Homer, Dante, or Tolkien. And that was a truly great feeling.

5) It’s good to bring the OT into my faith life again. For decades, the New Testament has been my favorite collection of scripture–and honestly, I don’t expect that to change. The stories of Jesus told by the canonical gospels, and the stories about His teachings told in the writings of Paul and others, are just too important to me. But reading–really reading–the OT over the past months has done something to my prayer life; made me more grateful for this enormous, often incomprehensible, regularly vicious, but never not beautiful world which I am part of, I think. Joseph Smith produced a revelation supposedly from Moses, in which he recognizes his own nothingness before God, and that scripture has played a major role in my own thinking over the years. But honestly, far beyond any declaration, the Five Books of Moses show Moses himself–as well as every other figure of significance in the Bible constantly being thrown back, reproved and altered and stunned, by a God whose omnipotence is revealed, as it were, sideways. It turns out, as the stories are repeated and rethought again and again by the whole host of Israel, that God just possibly already had plans in place for Lot even as Abraham was haggling with the Almighty for his life, or that God was maybe moving in Judah’s life at the exact moment that he acquiesced to the selling of Joseph into Egypt. I don’t take these stories literally as history, but I take them literally as stories, and stories about God is all we have–as if anyone us actually need (or could likely handle) anything other that! The overall epic of the OT, thus far anyway, has shown me a story of a God who was always already there, however it is that we may suddenly, unexpectedly, be able to see Him–and, perhaps paradoxically, that hasn’t made more hesitant in my faith, but more confident. Really, I may have no idea what is going on, but the seemingly always unanticipated answer of these stories at the heart of the tradition is always that something is going on. And that something–so far–is good enough for me. As I continue in the new year into Joshua and Judges and beyond, I can only hope that conviction continues.


  1. John McFerrin says:

    Also recommended along these lines: The Schocken Bible, which covers similar ground and offers similar depth in commentary.

  2. John McFerrin says:

    (Forgot an important part of the comment)

    The main difference between The Schocken Bible (which also covers the first 5 books of Moses) and other similar in-depth translations is that this version makes no attempt to put the text into any sort of modern English parlance. Instead, it goes completely the other way; it attempts to replicate in English the various Hebrew-isms of the original text, emphasizing the word games and alliterations of the original text and emphasizing the idea that large chunks of the text were intended to be memorized or even sung. Even something so familiar like Genesis 1 sparkles in a completely new light.

  3. I’m also a fan of The Schocken Bible . The author just released volume II, covering Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings.

    There’s a sample, Genesis 22 with translation and notes here.

    Glad to see someone rediscover the OT. It’s my favorite of all four standard works, because it is a mystery to be unraveled. My Dad has spent the year reading through the – Jewish Study Bible , and has really enjoyed it. I went with him to a bookstore before Christmas, where he picked up a NRSV+ notes in the form of the Harper-Collins Study Bible.
    He and you have both gotten a great deal out of the process, it seems, and are modeling personal scripture study in a very positive way.

  4. Thanks for the kind words, John and Ben.

    Regarding the Schocken Bible…

    this version makes no attempt to put the text into any sort of modern English parlance. Instead, it goes completely the other way; it attempts to replicate in English the various Hebrew-isms of the original text

    …it’s worth noting that Alter also does this, though perhaps not as much as Schocken does (I’ve not read from that translation before, so I’ll have to take your word for it). Alter makes a particular point in his introduction how he’s trying not to “smooth away” the literary qualities of the Hebrew by substituting in their place similar literary devices as might be found in a similar text written in English. The results are interesting, especially when I read them alongside the REB (which I really like as a genuine attempt to find a kind of appropriately “high” and literary English language for the Bible, only while making use of 20th-century English and its forms, rather than the 16th-century ones of the KJV).

  5. Review of Vol II of Schocken Bible is at Ben S recently brought the 2d Edition of the Jewish Study Bible to my attention and his enthusiasm for Alter caused me to revisit him with a far greater appreciation. His new volume (March 2015) will cover Esther, Song of Solomon, Jonah and Daniel. The Daniel is awesome!

    As for the REB, its also my favorite. I reviewed it for a newspaper in Kansas and a lady saw my comments, tracked me down at my office (I was in the military at the time) and wanted to come to my Gospel Doctrine class. She got nervous when I told her where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was and said she’d come. Sadly, she didn’t make it, but the seeds were planted.

  6. One caveat about Alter which I’ve said many times (and which is one of the main reasons I begin with Fox as I said in my review of Volume II of Fox is that Alter tends to be quite a bit more “secular”. As an example (which is extremely important to me) his treatment of the creation of the Ark and its “cover” in Exodus 25:17. Fox translates the lid as “purgation-cover” in an attempt to refer to both meanings. The note provides “Heb. kapporet.” and then refers to “expiation” or “mercy-seat” (which is what the KJV uses) and “plain cover”. On the facing page (p.398) Fox provides a note, but acknowledges that the kapporet was “apparently the holiest spot in the Israelite cult system”.

    In his treatment of the same, Alter simply says, “And you shall make a cover of pure gold” (Alter Five Books of Moses, p. 362) and then goes on. His note doesn’t refer to any other usage for the word than “cover”. This is what I mean about his “humanist” treatment at times, particularly of the extra sacred. Even an admitted atheist like Propp (Anchor Yale Bible Vol. 2A [2006] p. 722 is one of a few comments about his atheism) covers the differing meanings of kapporet. He refers to the LXX version “hilasterion epithema “Propitiatory Lid” and acknowledges that “Still today, some consider kapporet a ritual term describing purification and atonement; for others, it simply means “cover”. He then treats the root “kpr” which “most often connotes ritual purification, expiation and reconciliation” and uses the word “Clearing” for his translation. (Propp, p. 385) In spite of this, he acknowledges the sacred words and explains that, as the items for the sanctuary got more “sacred”, they were constructed of more precious materials or materials. The “lid” is made of pure gold while the ark itself is gold-plated wood. Alter does indicate that God will speak, “from above the covering between the two cherubim that are on top of the ark of the covenant,” (Alter, Five Books of Moses, p. 463), but, for some reason, does not explain his choice.

    The Jewish Study Bible, 2d Edition also merely uses the word “cover” without a note about the kapporet, but the annotation does acknowledge its sacred nature because of the cherubim, and its symbolic representation of the throne of God. Of course, the JSB isn’t going to comment on the Christian uses of this, but even their annotation should use the LXX which does say “mercy seat” or “propitiation” (Gurtner, Commentary on LXX Exodus, Brill, 2013, pp. 113, 413)

    Having said all that, Alter’s knowledge of Hebrew poetry and his literary analysis are valuable, if not unparalelled; but, like all tools, we should know his limitations.