Friday, October 5, 2007

Translating the Psalms

Desert Storm

Understanding the capricious God of the Psalms.

by James Wood October 1, 2007

Alter’s translation yields an ancient text stripped of Christian ideas.

Alter’s translation yields an ancient text stripped of Christian ideas.

What is God like? Is he merciful, just, loving, vengeful, jealous? Is he a bodiless force, a cool watchmaker, or a hot interventionist, a doer with big opinions, a busy chap up in Heaven? Does he, for instance, approve of charity and disapprove of adultery? Or are these attributes instead like glass baubles that we throw against the statue of his invisibility, inevitably shattering into mere words? The medieval Jewish thinker Maimonides thought that it was futile to belittle God by giving him human attributes; to do so was to commit what later philosophers would call a category mistake. We cannot describe his essence; better to worship in reverent silence. “Silence is praise to thee,” Maimonides wrote, quoting from the second verse of Psalm 65.

Whatever one thinks of Maimonides’ chilly rigor, it is cannily paradoxical that even as he advises silence he quotes from the noisiest book in the Hebrew Bible. And, not only that, but from the very book that dramatizes, again and again, the gap between our language and the indescribable God, between our certainty that God is with us and our anxiety that he has abandoned us, between his cosmic proportions and our comic littleness.

The Book of Psalms is the great oasis in which a desert people gathers to pour out its complaints, fears, hopes; the Psalms are prayers, songs, incantations, and perhaps even soliloquies. In them, the supplicants invoke God as their light, their water, their warrior, their scourge, their buckler, their rod, and their staff. But these images, these human metaphors, also expose the frailty of such supplication, since just as God is conjured into words he seems to disappear: many of the Psalms are like flares sent out into the night sky of appeal. Jesus cried out at his abandonment on the Cross by quoting the opening verse of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” The verses continue:

Far from my rescue are the words that I roar.
My God, I call out by day and You do not answer,
by night—no stillness for me.

The famous beginning of Psalm 19 announces that the heavens declare the glory of God and the sky declares his handiwork. Eighteenth-century deists were fond of these verses, because they seem to argue that we can infer God’s existence from the glorious evidence of his creation. But the psalm uncomfortably changes course a moment later:

Day to day breathes utterance and night to night pronounces knowledge.
There is no utterance and there are no words,
their voice is never heard.

Now the psalmist seems to say that, if the heavens speak anything, it is not language but possibly only a highly visual silence. Almost three thousand years before such modern doubt, we are briefly in the world of Melville, who complained of “that profound Silence, that only Voice of our God,” asking “how can a man get a Voice out of Silence?” This struggle between faith and doubt, hope and despair, is undoubtedly one of the features that have made the Psalms such a help to so many readers and writers, both believers and nonbelievers—and especially to Christians, who have appropriated this book like no other in the Hebrew Bible. The seventeenth-century poet George Herbert perfectly captures this dappled texture in his psalmlike poem “Bitter-Sweet”:

Ah my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament, and love.

Robert Alter’s new translation, “The Book of Psalms” (Norton; $35), is radical, at least to a reader brought up on the early-seventeenth-century King James Version.

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