'The Five Books of Moses': From God's Mouth to English
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By Judith Shulevitz
- Oct. 17, 2004
THE FIVE BOOKS OF MOSES A Translation With Commentary. By Robert Alter. 1,064 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $39.95.
DON'T be deterred by the unfamiliar name. If you've never heard of the Five Books of Moses (not actually composed by Moses; people who believe in divine revelation see him as more secretary than author), you've heard of the Torah and the Pentateuch, the Hebrew and Greek names, respectively, for the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The story starts with the creation of the world, and ends with Moses dying on the wrong side of the Jordan and being buried in an unmarked grave. In between these extremes of possible experience, between the magnificent birth of the universe and the anonymous death of the human being, lies a tale that still has the power to astonish: "The encounter between a group of people and the Lord of the world in the course of history," in Martin Buber's phrase.
But this encounter has such enormous implications, and the story in which we read of it is so frank about what it means to enter into a relationship with the Lord, that for two millenniums readers have preferred to veil its details in allegory. Who wouldn't rather construe Abraham's knife as a metaphor for all the things that test our faith or a foreshadowing of the Cross than as a big sharp blade held by a father over his son's throat? Raw images like these must be what made theology necessary. Only by universalizing or typologizing the life stories of the biblical protagonists could most people stand to think about them.
Robert Alter, who has come up with this remarkable translation of the Five Books after decades of writing some of the most convincing analyses ever produced of the Hebrew Bible, is a critic with the strength of mind to resist the urge to uplift. Luckily for us, he is equally skeptical of what usually replaces homily in modern commentary, namely history. Scholars who study the Bible, of course, don't try to determine what "really" happened, as passionate amateurs do. Instead they attempt to reconstruct how the books must have been assembled. But Alter, along with critics like Frank Kermode, Harold Bloom, David Damrosch and Gabriel Josipovici, has spent the past quarter-century rejecting both the preacherly and the historicist approaches to the Bible and devising one that would allow us to grapple with it as literature.
Not that Alter overlooks the Bible's moral and spiritual dimensions; he could hardly do so, given that roughly half the Five Books is made up of laws, and the other half -- the narrative half -- is concerned with working out the covenants made by God with his chosen people. Nor does he ignore the work of scholars who valiantly attempt to isolate historical voices in this blended text. As a matter of principle, though, he declines to chop stories into pieces, reassigning parts to "J" or parts to "P" for the purpose of resolving apparent contradictions. What Alter does with the Bible instead is read it, with erudition and rigor and respect for the intelligence of the editor or editors who stitched it together, and -- most thrillingly -- with the keenest receptivity to its darker undertones.
In the case of the binding of Isaac, for instance, Alter not only accepts a previous translator's substitution of "cleaver" for the "knife" of the King James version but also changes "slay" (as in, "Abraham took the knife to slay his son") to "slaughter." Moreover, in his notes, he points out that although this particular Hebrew verb for "bound" (as in, "Abraham bound Isaac his son") occurs only this once in biblical Hebrew, making its meaning uncertain, we can nonetheless take a hint from the fact that when the word reappears in rabbinic Hebrew it refers specifically to the trussing up of animals. Alter's translation thus suggests a dimension of this eerie tale we would probably have overlooked: that of editorial comment. The biblical author, by using words more suited to butchery than ritual sacrifice, lets us know that he is as horrified as we are at the brutality of the act that God has asked Abraham to commit.
Translators often win praise for their attention to nuance, but in the case of the Hebrew Bible subtlety has hurt more than it has helped. Biblical Hebrew has an unusually small vocabulary clustered around an even smaller number of three-letter roots, most of them denoting concrete actions or things, and the Bible achieves its mimetic effects partly through the skillful repetition of these few vivid words. The translators who gave us the King James version appear more or less to have understood this, but many 20th-century English-language translators have not. In their desire to convey shades of meaning brought out by different contexts or, perhaps, to compensate for what they perceived as the primitiveness of the ancient language, they replaced biblical Hebrew's restricted, earthy lexicon with a broad and varied set of often abstract terms.
Not Alter. As he explains in his introduction -- an essay that would be worth reading even if it didn't accompany this book -- the Hebrew of the Bible is, in his view, a closed system with a coherent literary logic, "a conventionally delimited language, roughly analogous in this respect to the French of the neoclassical theater," though plain-spoken where neoclassical French is lofty. Alter's translation puts into practice his belief that the rules of biblical style require it to reiterate, artfully, within scenes and from scene to scene, a set of "key words," a term Alter derives from Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, who in an epic labor that took nearly 40 years to complete, rendered the Hebrew Bible into a beautifully Hebraicized German. Key words, as Alter has explained elsewhere, clue the reader in to what's at stake in a particular story, serving either as "the chief means of thematic exposition" within episodes or as connective tissue between them.
All this repetition would be merely repetitive if Alter didn't tie it to a precise notion of what's going on in nearly every passage. The art of the translator, like the art of the narrator, lies in knowing when to paraphrase and when not to. What makes Alter's "Five Books" more engrossing than most other modern translations is that he bases this decision on more than instinct. Like Rashi and Abraham Ibn Ezra and the other great commentators whose insights fill his superb commentary, Alter has thought these stories through to their shocking ends. Often enough his choice to be literal stems from the rare resolve not to look away from the text, even when it dismays us, or ought to.
Take Alter's treatment of the cycle of stories in which the first two matriarchs, Sarah and Rebekah, conspire against elder sons for the benefit of younger ones. Sarah insists that Abraham drive Ishmael, his firstborn, and Ishmael's mother, Hagar, into the desert to die, to protect the inheritance of Sarah's son, Isaac. Rebekah tells her son Jacob to trick his father, the now elderly Isaac, into giving him a blessing rightfully owed to Esau, Jacob's ever-so-slightly older twin brother. The matriarchs' behavior is indefensible, yet God defends it. He instructs Abraham to do as Sarah says, and after Jacob takes flight from an enraged Esau God comes to Jacob in a dream, blesses him, and tells him that he, too, like Abraham and Isaac before him, will father a great nation.
Alter doesn't try to explain away the paradox of a moral God sanctioning immoral acts. Instead he lets the Bible convey the seriousness of the problem. When Abraham balks at abandoning Ishmael and Hagar, God commands, "Whatever Sarah says to you, listen to her voice." Rebekah, while instructing Jacob on how to dress like Esau so as to steal his blessing, echoes God's phrase -- listen to my voice" -- not once but twice in an effort to reassure him. As we read on in Alter's translation, we realize that the word "voice" ("kol" in Hebrew) is one of his "key words," that if we could only manage to keep track of all the ways it is used it would unlock new worlds of meaning. In the story of Hagar and Ishmael, God's messenger will tell Hagar that God will save them because he has heard the voice of the crying boy. And the all but blind Isaac will recognize the sound of Jacob's voice, so that although his younger son stands before him with his arms covered in goatskin (to make them as hairy as Esau's), and has even put on his brother's clothes (to smell more like a hunter), Isaac nearly grasps the deceit being perpetrated against him.
If voices help those who know how to listen to them penetrate illusion, if voices express or summon up the will of God, what are we to think when God says to listen to the voices of the matriarchs as they advance their nefarious schemes? That their truth is God's truth? Does the biblical author mean to imply that the ethical strictures governing family and tribal life fade before the importance of choosing a person capable of carrying the blessing unto the next generation? What kind of family-unfriendly message is that?
Alter doesn't answer such questions; he doesn't even raise them. But by allowing us to see for ourselves how the Bible embeds its most acute ironies in wordplay and repetition, he affords us a fuller glimpse than we are usually given of the dark and often surprisingly unpious sensibility that essentially invented Western religious life. The great philologist E. A. Speiser, by contrast, whose 1962 translation of Genesis offered the best textual analysis of the time, failed either to see or to communicate this alarming vision of the deity when he had God telling Abraham "Do whatever Sarah tells you." The translators of the New Jewish Publication Society edition of Genesis missed it when they translated Rebekah's echo of God's phrase as, first, "listen carefully as I instruct you," then, "do as I say." (The King James Version astutely preserves "voice" throughout, though it doesn't catch Rebekah's echo; it has God telling Abraham to "hearken" to Sarah's voice but Rebekah telling Jacob to "obey" hers.) Alter, on the other hand, knew exactly what was going on in these passages. He saw that they brought the reader straight to the chilling mystery at the heart of the Hebrew Bible. As he wrote in 1992, "Divine election is an exacting and perhaps cruel destiny that often involves doing violence to the most intimate biological bonds."
Alter, it should be said, is not the only recent translator of the Hebrew Bible attuned to its uncanny power. Another recent English translation of the Five Books of Moses, published in 1995 by the Jewish studies scholar Everett Fox, also preserves its key words and archaic texture. Fox pays explicit tribute to Buber and Rosenzweig in his introduction, and his "Five Books" are in some ways truer to the Hebrew -- to the full measure of its foreignness -- than Alter's. But Alter's translation is better. His brilliant commentary, in footnotes on the bottom half of each page, draws on insights from the rabbis as well as modern scholars, adding depth to his own readings. And his biblical prose is fresher and more immediate. Fox, who wished to capture the intense aurality of biblical Hebrew (originally meant, after all, to be read aloud), as well as the dense cluster of meaning carried by individual words, wound up inventing a long-winded, much-hyphenated and gerund-filled English that can cast a weird antique spell over the reader but does not have the gorgeous terseness, what Alter calls the "poise and power," of the original. By contrast, Alter's largely Anglo-Saxon English -- neither overly colloquial nor ornate, musical yet direct -- sounds as if it could be spoken today.
Alter does stumble on occasion, most often when he tries to reproduce some Hebrew pun in English. For instance, to parallel the pun in the creation story that plays off "adam" and "adamah," human and soil, an echo that conveys the humbleness of humanity's origins, Alter gives us "humus" and "human," which is instructive but not felicitous. Fumbles like these, though, are minor when measured against his usual sureness of touch. Alter's magisterial translation deserves to become the version in which many future generations encounter this strange and inexhaustible book.
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Five Books of Moses
Five books of moses.
The Five Books of Moses include Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These books make up the story of the Jewish people. Dedicate the Book of Torah that has special meaning to you or someone special in your life. If you prefer, we will gladly select one for you.
Dedicate one of The Five Books of Moses here . To dedicate more than one book, please call (239) 455-3030.
GENESIS – BERESHEIT (be-ray-SHEET)
Beresheit means “In the beginning.” It deals with Creation; Adam and Eve; the Flood; the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs of the Jewish people and ends with the descent of Jacob and his family to Egypt. It also contains the commandment of circumcision, and God’s promise to Abraham that he would receive the Land of Israel and that his descendants would be a major, positive influence on the entire world.
EXODUS – SHEMOT (sh-MOTE)
Shemot, meaning “Names,” refers to the names of the Jews who entered Egypt with Jacob. It deals with their exile, slavery and suffering; the life of Moses, and his initial prophecies; the Ten Plagues and the Exodus. It also describes the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, where the Jewish people received the Ten Commandments, and the Torah. Exodus closes with the building of the Tabernacle (Mishkan), a portable Temple that housed the Holy Ark containing the Tablets of the Law.
LEVITICUS – VAYIKRA (va-yikRA)
Vayikra means “He called.” God calls to Moses and informs him in detail of the laws regarding the festivals, Priests (Kohanim) and the Temple service. Much of the Jewish code of morality, ethics and charity appears in Vayikra, including the famous commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
NUMBERS – BEMIDBAR (ba-midBAR)
Bemidbar, “In the desert,” details the travels, battles and struggles of the Jews during their 40-year sojourn in the desert after the Exodus. It records a census of the tribes, the positioning of each tribe when they camped and traveled, Korach’s rebellion, and the events surrounding sending the spies to Israel. Bamidbar ends with the capture of the East Bank of the Jordan River and the subsequent settlement there of the tribes of Reuben and Gad.
DEUTERONOMY – DEVARIM (d’vaREEM)
Devarim, “Words,” refers to Moses’ address to the Jewish people before his death. This prophetic farewell includes rebuke, encouragement, warnings and prophecies. In it, many commandments that would only apply in the Land of Israel and that govern interaction with other nations are explained, and new commandments are given, many of which concern the courts and justice system. After his farewell, Moses wrote 13 complete copies of the Torah, gave one to each tribe, and placed one in the Holy Ark. The Five Books close with the death of “the greatest of all prophets” and “the most humble of all men,” Moses.
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The Five Books of Moses
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Although it has many different names, the Five Books of Moses are the most central origin texts for the whole of Judaism and Jewish life.
Meaning and Origins
The Five Books of Moses are the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. There are a few different names for the Five Books of Moses:
- Pentateuch (πεντάτευχος): This is the Greek name, which means "five scrolls."
- Torah (תּוֹרָה): Although Judaism has both a Written Torah and an Oral Torah, the term "Torah," meaning "to guide/teach" is used across the board to refer to the first five books of the greater Jewish canon known as Tanakh, which is an acronym for Torah, Nevi'im (prophets), and Ketuvim (writings).
The origin for this comes from Joshua 8:31-32, which references the "book of the law of Moses" (סֵפֶר תּוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה, or sefer torah Moshe ). It appears in many other places, including Ezra 6:18, which calls the text the "Book of Moshe" (סְפַר מֹשֶׁה, sefer Moshe ).
Although there is plenty of controversy over the authorship of the Torah, in Judaism, it is believed that Moses was responsible writing the five books.
Each of the Books
In Hebrew, these books have very different names, each taken from the first Hebrew word that appears in the book. They are:
- Genesis, or Bereishit (בְּרֵאשִׁית): Bereishit means "in the beginning, and this is the Hebrew word that kicks off the five book narrative of the Israelite nation.
- Exodus, or Shemot (שְׁמוֹת): Shemot means "names" in Hebrew. Exodus starts by naming the 11 tribes that went with Jacob into Egypt: "And these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt; with Jacob, each man and his household came: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin. Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. Now all those descended from Jacob were seventy souls, and Joseph was in Egypt."
- Leviticus, or Vayikra (וַיִּקְרָא): Vayikra means "And He called" in Hebrew. This book begins with God calling for Moses. God then relays that Moses should share with the Israelites the bulk of the laws and the services of the Levites and the Priests or Kohanim. Among the many laws told are those of sacrifices; forbidden relationships; the major holidays of Passover , Shavuot , Rosh Hashanah , Yom Kippur , and Sukkot ; and more.
- Numbers, or BaMidbar (בְּמִדְבַּר): BaMidbar means "In the wilderness" in Hebrew. This book chronicles the Israelites' journey through the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt.
- Deuteronomy, or Devarim (דְּבָרִים): Devarim means "words" in Hebrew. Devarim has Moses chronicling and retelling the journey of the Israelites as he prepares to die without entering the Promised Land. At the end of Devarim , Moses dies and the Israelites enter the land of Israel.
In Judaism, the Five Books of Moses are traditionally recorded in scroll form. This scroll is used weekly in synagogues in order to read the weekly Torah portions. There are countless rules surrounding the creation of, writing of, and use of a Torah scroll, which is why the chumash is popular in Judaism today. The chumash essentially is just a printed version of the Five Books of Moses used in prayer and study.
Residing at the University of Bologna for decades, the oldest copy of the Torah is more than 800 years old. The scroll dates to between 1155 and 1225 and includes complete versions of the Five Books of Moses in Hebrew on sheepskin.
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Ezra was "a skilled scribe in the Law of Moses" (Ezra 7:6).
Ezra was "a skilled scribe in the Law of Moses" (Ezra 7:6). The New Testament tells us that Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and many scriptures show us that Moses was responsible for the first five books of the Bible. These books are usually called the Torah, a Hebrew term, and sometimes referred to as the Pentateuch, a Greek expression. According to Jewish tradition, another hand, possibly that of Joshua or Ezra, added the account of Moses' death to the end of Deuteronomy—and made other adjustments to complete the text we read today.
Early Jewish tradition is unanimous in accepting Moses' authorship of the Torah. The last of these books tells us that this prophet wrote the law in a book and gave it to the priests so they could read it to the people (Deuteronomy 31:9-13). It was also placed at the side of the ark of the covenant (verse 26). Although it is presented in five parts, the Torah is one integral book.
In all four Gospels Jesus Christ repeatedly referred to Moses as the giver of the law (Matthew 8:4; 19:8; Mark 1:44; 7:10; 10:4-5; 12:26; Luke 5:14; 20:37; John 1:17; 5:46; 7:19).
What did God tell Moses to do? Did he obey the Lord's instructions?
"Then the LORD said to Moses, 'Write this for a memorial in the book' . . ." (Exodus 17:14).
"Then the LORD said to Moses, 'Write these words' . . ." (Exodus 34:27).
"And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD" (Exodus 24:4). Although these are limited commands to write specific portions of God's Word, the principle is clear. Moses is the prophetic scribe through whom God worked. Remember that he "was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds" (Acts 7:22).
Does Numbers, the fourth book attributed to Moses, say anything about his literary activity?
"Now Moses wrote down the starting points of their journeys at the command of the LORD" (Numbers 33:2).
Although some scholars question Moses' authorship of Numbers, this passage near the end of the book cannot be dismissed (compare Numbers 36:13). The Bible attributes this whole section to Moses. Many other sections of Numbers begin with the words "the LORD said to Moses . . ." The book of Leviticus does not specifically mention its author, but the contents from first to last record God speaking directly to Moses (Leviticus 1:1; 27:34).
At the time of Moses the art of writing had been developed in Egypt and the Mesopotamian region. Permanent museum records inscribed on obelisks and cuneiform tablets provide clear evidence that writing was well established before and during the time of Moses.
What is different about Genesis?
The historical activities recorded in the book of Genesis occur before Moses was born. Clearly, he had access to written records or accurate oral traditions, or God dictated the contents to him.
Genesis is a Greek word meaning "beginning." What is the significance of the name of this biblical book?
Is there an obvious genealogical structure to the book of Genesis?
" This is the history [ 'These are the generations,' KJV ] of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens" (Genesis 2:4).
" This is the book of the genealogy of Adam. In the day that God created man, He made him in the likeness of God" (Genesis 5:1).
" This is the genealogy of Noah" (Genesis 6:9; compare 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9; 37:2).
Here we have the literary structure of Genesis in briefest outline. It is made up of 11 "books" or "genealogies." Genesis tells of the beginning of all things, how the population of the earth grew and how God began to work through one man's family, that of the patriarch Abraham. The Genesis story is told through the framework of family histories.
Genesis is the beginning of the knowledge of God. It has been preserved down through the ages for our benefit. It begins the precious knowledge of God's great purpose that we can learn from no other source. Genesis doesn't contain all knowledge, but it represents the essential spiritual foundation that is fundamental to the understanding of the rest of the Bible.
It reveals, for example, that we are created in the very image of God and that Adam and Eve chose a path that would take them and their descendants—every one of us—away from a relationship with God. The prophets had much to say about this latter point.
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Five books of Moses - Chumash
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