Saturday, May 9, 2009

Review: Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms

Robert Alter’s recent commentary on the Psalms provides a fresh translation and an accessible introduction to the Psalms for the non-specialist. He effectively summarizes his earlier work on biblical poetry and describes the difficulties of translating Psalms.

As a literary critic, Alter’s readings are nuanced and insightful; however when his insights hang on observations from the grammar of biblical Hebrew, some care is needed. His observations about the Hebrew language, particularly dealing with semantics, are overly simplistic and amount to little more than etymologizing – simplifying the meaning of a term down to the basic concrete element of the root. He justifies the use of concrete language by relegating abstract spiritual concepts to the dustbin as “not within the purview of these Hebrew poets” (xxxiv). The notion that “primitive” peoples cannot think abstractly because their language is rooted in concrete terms has largely been abandoned as a relic of 19th century Rationalism.

Alter’s translation provides a fresh alternative to mainstream English versions, and his attention to preserving Hebrew poetic rhythm and balance in English translation is commendable though awkward at times (e.g., Alter's Psa. 30:6 – “But a moment in His wrath, / life in his pleasure.” vs. NRSV Psa. 30:5 – “For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime.”)

His bibliography is slim, and his notes do not often refer to specific secondary literature, leaving unclear who exactly is being invoked when he explains a verse with an appeal to the “scholarly consensus” (as in the note for Psa. 24:7, p. 82). The bibliography is actually just suggestions “For Further Reading”, and while I was pleased to see S. E. Gillingham made Alter’s short list of recommended readings, I was disappointed to see that her name was misspelled as “Gillingham, C. E.” (p. 517). Even so, Alter’s Psalms commentary would be an excellent choice for an undergrad textbook for a course on Psalms.

For a more in-depth review from back in 2007, read Christopher Tayler.

The book is available from Amazon, along with almost anything else you could possibly think of buying.


  1. I am very amenable to Alter's work. His The Art of Biblical Narrative is a foundational piece in the shift to more literary interpretations. These other volumes, however (on Genesis, Psalms, etc.) I have found to be less helpful. Alter on methodology is Alter at his best.

  2. Thanks for this, Douglas. Could you provide the note for Ps 24:4? I'm working through this Psalm at the moment (and will be for the next year!).

  3. Phil,

    Sorry for the delay but I didn't have the book handy until now. I've just noticed that I had a typo in the post. My reference to "scholarly consensus" was actually from the note just below on Psa. 24:7. I'll correct the post.

    But since you asked for 24:4:

    Alter's translation -- The clean of hands and the pure of heart, / who has given no oath in a lie / and has sworn not in deceit.

    Comment -- given no oath in a lie. The Masoretic text reads nafshi, which would yield the literal meaning of "has not borne My self [name?] in a lie." Several manuscripts, however, read nafsho, "his self," to "bear onself" meaning to take an oath. There is really no place in this question-and-response structure for God's speaking in the first person. [p. 82]