The Hebrew Bible

First off, why am I reading this?

This NYT article about Robert Alter’s translation at the same time I had been curious to explore religious texts in more depth. The Bible is one of the most influential books of all times. Although I’ve read or listened to meaningful parts of it by attending church in my child & teenage years, I haven’t read it as an adult with the intent to learn from it. My resentment with religion from my teenage years made me label the book as irrelevant and put it away. In contrast, I learn valuable lessons from many other books, both fiction and non-fiction, which I read for pleasure with the intent to learn. I can do this despite disagreeing with parts of it.

My goal now is to come back to read the Bible with fresh eyes, and to be as generous with it as I am with other texts. I will let the content simmer as I read it and let the valuable lessons sink in, while graciously rejecting what may not serve me well. I decided to start with the Hebrew Bible, or as I used to call it the Old Testament, with this version and will later on read the New Testament from the King James Version.


Robert Alter diligently explains why existing versions of the Bible don’t do justice to the original text. He cites a combination of stylistic problems, how the translations in trying to keep with English writing norms did a disservice. For example, by always varying a word to avoid it being repetitive, as it’s common practice in English, where in the original text the repeated usage of the same word served an important purpose.

Alter also cites examples of where other versions went beyond translating into interpreting the text and the translated text doesn’t truly reflect the original.

Adler points out that there is variability in the Bible’s writing styles which is often diluted when translated to English as the translators use a single, indifferent level of diction.

When Laban berates Jacob for running off with his daughters, he says, “What have you done, … driving my daughters like captives of the sword?” (Genesis 31:26). All the ENglish versions represent the verb as “carrying away” or some approximation thereof, but nahag is a term for driving animals and is used precisely in that sense earlier in this very chapter (verse 18). To translate it otherwise is to lose the edge of brutal exaggeration in Laban’s angry words.

There are also parts of the biblical text that have more distinctive poetic and sometimes archaic vocabulary. Other translations don’t try to represent this. This version tries.

The enigmatic notice about the Nephilim, the human-divine hybrids of the primeval age, concludes with these words: “They are the heroes of yore, the men of renown” (Genesis 6:4). This line could conceivably be a fragment from an old mythological poem; more probably, it reads in the original as a kind of stylistic citation of the epic genre. The clearest clue to this in the Hebrew is the word “they,” which here is hemah rather than the standard hem.

As such, Alter in that passage used “of yore” rather than what KJV or others use, “of old”.

Also, rhythm was lost. Although KJV is pretty good.

The name of God, in Hebrew original, is YHWH. Many translated that as Yahweh, while that’s not necessarily correct. Used Lord with “ord” in small capital letters, to represent it as a substitution for YHWH, similar to KJV.


Genesis was woven together from 3 different literary sources. The exact of who and when they were written is debated. Alter has commentary and annotations, but doesn’t seek to address the various sources. Instead, he focuses on the redacted Genesis as it has come down to us.

Genesis has two literary units: Primeval History (chapters 1-11) and Patriarchal Tales (chapters 12-50). Primeval history tells the tale of creation focusing on past events, while the Patriarchal Tales will be more forward looking and make it clear that parenthood, multiplying, is filled with frailties and difficulties.


Chapter 1

And God said, “Let us make a human in our image, by our likeness, to hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and the cattle and the wild beasts and all the crawling things that crawl upon the earth.And God created the human in his image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.

Two interesting notes:

  1. Why does God speak of us, in the plural, when it is a singular God?
  2. God creates human to “hold sway over…” the animals that move. There is no mention about dominating, really, simply holding sway, directing nature so to speak. There seems to be a discrepancy here between the Masoretic Text and the Syriac version, Masoretic using “all the earth” while Syriac preferring “wild beasts”. Chose wild beasts for this version as it is in the midst of moving animals catalogue.

Chapter 2

The Lord God “fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature.”

Note how God didn’t just say “let there be humans” in this chapter, but rather took steps to “fashion” the human, “blow the breath of life”.

He then “planted a garden in Eden” to the east in which he then placed the human fashioned.

A river runs out of Eden to water the garden, which splits off into four streams: Pishon (land of Havilah, gold), Gihon (land of Cush), Tigris (east of Ashur), and Euphrates.

“The Lord God took the human and set him down in the garden of Eden to till it and watch it.” God didn’t intend the human to do nothing.

Interestingly, when God tells the human not to eat from the tree of knowledge, the warning is that “…for on the day you eat from it, you are doomed to die.” It is interesting to note that without knowledge it is possible that man would still die, like animals do, but it may not have been a “sure thing” that the man is aware of. Without knowledge, animals don’t suffer about the certainty of future death.

The Lord God fashioned animals and creatures to be “a sustainer beside him” so the human isn’t alone.

First words of the human are found when God built (not fashioned, since He’s working with hard material) the woman.

“This one at last, bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,“This one shall be called Woman,for from man was this one taken.”

“And the two of them were naked, the human and his woman, and they were not ashamed.”

The last verse in Genesis chapter 2 foreshadows what is going to happen to this human and his woman, by ending with the remark about them not being ashamed of their nakedness.

Chapter 3

“Serpent was most cunning…” in hebrew cunning (arum) plays against naked (arumim).

The serpent says they won’t die by eating from the tree of knowledge, instead they will … “…your eyes will be opened and you will become as gods knowing good and evil.”

The definition given to Eve about gods, not the God, is simply someone knowing good and evil?

When God finds out what happens he curses the three in order: the serpent first, making it and its heir enemies with humans (the woman specifically, it seems); the women next, making child bearing painful and making her long for her ‘man’ and ‘he shall rule over you’; for the man he cursed the soil and he’d need to sweat and labor to eat bread until “… you return to the soil, for from there you were taken, for dust you are and to dust shall you return.”

Then the human called “his woman’s name Eve”.

Then God clothed them with skin garment? Drove them out to till the soil where they came from (were made out of before placed in the Garden of Eden?) and guarded the tree of knowledge.

God said when banishing them: “Now that the human has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, he may reach out and take as well from the tree of life and live forever.” Which makes me wonder:

  • Who is “us” referring to, those who know good and evil? Not just God?
  • Take from the tree of life and live forever… so is a God simply someone who knows good & evil and can live forever?

Chapter 4

“I have got me a an with the Lord” the woman said, indicating that she saw herself as being a partner to God in man-making. It’s a bit puzzling of a thing to say, particularly since, well, they’d be Adam’s kids.

Cain, older one, was a tiller of the soil.

Abel became a herder of sheep.

They both gave an offering to God, a gift, and God only favored Abel’s. Cain then killed his brother Abel.

God exiled Cain and told him that henceforth “If you till the soil, it will no longer give you its strength. A restless wanderer shall you be on the earth.”

God placed a mark on Cain so that whoever found him would not slay him.

To note, from the annotations, is that Genesis seems very focused on the topic of exile and of agriculture as a blessing that can easily turn into a curse.

Cain then had a wife, conceived a child, Enoch.

Cain was the builder of a city and called it like his son, Enoch.

Cain -> Enoch -> Irad -> Mehujael -> Methusael -> Lamech

Lamech took two wives, Adah and Zillah.

Adah had Jabal and Jubal. Zillah had Tubal-Cain and Naamah.

Note that the bible talks about how each of these in the lineage were first of something, when it comes to Lamech’s children, except the rolls don’t mention Naamah, the only female mentioned in the lineage. Some theorize that there might have been something in the original that was later removed.

And Lamech said to this wives

Adah and Zillah, O hearken my voice, You wives of Lamech, give ear to my speech. For a man have I slain for my wound,a boy for my bruising. For sevenfold Cain is avenged, and Lamech seventy and seven.

Lamech was 7th generation, with 1st being Adam & Eve. Which I find interesting given the mentions to “sevenfold Cain is avenged” and then again “seventy and seven”. Also, what’s up with this confession of slaying men and children?

Adam and Eve again conceived a 3rd child, Seth, at this point. (7 generations after?)

Seth had a son, Enosh.

The chapter ends with the statement that it was here when the name Lord was first invoked.

Chapter 5