Off the shelf | New books about the Bible worth reading more than once

Three new books illuminating the Bible represent continuations of projects that began years ago, and once again merit our attention and appreciation.

Robert Alter entered the field of biblical translation 18 years ago with his annotated English rendering of the Book of Genesis. It was an unexpected turn for a scholar who had made an enormous impact as a critical interpreter of literature ranging from the Bible to modern fiction.

But translation is interpretation, and perhaps we should not be surprised that this endeavor should have become the central project of Alter’s later years. The U.C. Berkeley professor has now translated most of the Hebrew Bible, with his newest volume, “Strong As Death Is Love: The Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah, and Daniel,” amply displaying his analytical and creative gifts.

Alter has been animated largely by the desire to deliver an English version that does more to reflect qualities of the original Hebrew, including the formal dimensions of biblical verse. His text is accompanied by commentary and clarifying notes that are of great value even to Hebrew readers who might not otherwise depend on an English translation. His notations also provide insight into the process of translation, as Alter is refreshingly direct in revealing some of his decision-making.

Alter’s sublime rendering of the Song of Songs is characteristic of his approach: He is concerned with representing the language of the poem as written, and does not devote great attention to the later glosses that present the poem as an allegory of the love between Israel and its deity. 

In contrast, University of Chicago professor Michael Fishbane, in the newly released “The JPS Bible Commentary: Song of Songs,” presents the biblical text in the context of its subsequent interpretation. 

Fishbane’s enormous commentary, which dwarfs the original text, summons the traditional Jewish taxonomy of interpretation known by the acronym “Pardes”: Peshat (plain sense of the text), Remez (philosophical allegory), Derash (midrashic exegesis), and Sod (mystical reading).

For each passage of the Song of Songs, Fishbane includes insights drawn from sages from throughout the centuries, organized according to each of these four interpretive modes. In this Jewish Publication Society tome, the sensual shares these pages with the mystical and spiritual.

It is easy to take for granted “The JPS Bible Commentary,” now more than a quarter-century old. New titles emerge at a trickle amid little fanfare, and the books’ shared design elements can make it difficult to register the appearance of a new volume. But this series is an indispensable resource, and Fishbane’s new work is among the most rewarding entries.

The volume I have consulted more than any other in the JPS series is the masterful commentary on the Book of Numbers by the late Jacob Milgram (who taught at U.C. Berkeley alongside Alter) — both because it is full of tremendous insights and because, frankly, there is simply not that much available in English on the Book of Numbers. 

This is one reason why I was pleased to see the publication of Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s new book, “Bewilderments: Reflect-ions on the Book of Numbers.”

Her first book, “Genesis: The Beginning of Desire,” made a huge impact, winning a National Jewish Book Award and attracting people who otherwise might not have been drawn to biblical study.

Drawing on her background as a literary scholar with a doctorate from Cambridge, Zornberg demonstrated the art of drawing meaning from the biblical text through the insights of classical Torah commentators as well as modern psychologists, philosophers and poets.

Two decades later, her merging of these disparate intellectual worlds has become part of the interpretive landscape, but we should experience no less awe at the emergence of her latest work.

Zornberg takes on a particular challenge here. In contrast to Exodus, whose dramatic narrative arc stretches from enslavement to liberation and revelation, the Book of Numbers can feel like the scattershot record of a people who have lost their way, both spiritually and geographically, with the relatively short journey from Sinai to the Promised Land becoming a 40-year odyssey that the original sojourners from Egypt will not survive.

However, the author draws on a particularly varied set of rabbinic commentators to offer a reading that acknowledges not only the evident bewilderment (a play on the Hebrew title of the Book of Numbers, Bamidbar, which translates to “in the wilderness”), but a process of spiritual development that can perhaps only emerge from a painful journey.  

Admittedly, I have found each of Zornberg’s books to be enormously challenging. But I have learned to tell myself that it is OK when I simply cannot grasp her arguments, and promise myself to make a return visit.

All three of these new books are ones I will be picking up again.

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a project of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

“Strong As Death Is Love: The Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah, and Daniel, A Translation with Commentary”
by Robert Alter (W.W. Norton & Co., 256 pages)

“The JPS Bible Commentary: Song of Songs”
with commentary by Michael Fishbane (Jewish Publication Society, 400 pages)

“Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers”
by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg (Schocken, 400 pages)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.