In a brutal antithesis, worthy of some ancient Gnostic, Franz Kafka wrote, “The Bible, sanctum; the world, sputum.” In this formulation, the world is something spewed out, a vile off-scouring—quite literally, a “shit-hole” (Scheißtum)—a matrix of infected matter, over against which stands, as its polar opposite, the Word, pristine and incontaminate. Of course, the tuberculosis from which Kafka suffered all his life, and which killed him in the end, gives the second half of his dictum a certain savage poignancy. The distance between sputum and sanctum, only accentuated by the assonance, must be immeasurable; and yet, if this is so, where are we to live? The cruelty of the paradox is not that it disparages the world in favor of the Bible, but that it leaves us no in-between we might comfortably inhabit. Even so, as any attentive reader of Kafka knows, the Bible stands in a subtle continuum with that world of his whose sordid processes and meticulous strictures are as perplexing as anything to be found in Leviticus. On the evidence of his later journals, Kafka often dwelt, if only in daydream, in the land of Canaan; in more prophetic moments, he even saw himself as a latter-day Moses. Moses was permitted to behold, but not to enter, that region of milk and honey; like Moses, Kafka could spy beneath the spittle-lineaments of this fallen world a dimension of existence that moved to the sway of other laws, palpable though hidden from us.

This is a book people have died for, often haplessly, often bravely. I’m not aware that anyone has gone to the stake over a deviant reading of Proust (or at least, not yet).

I note this at the outset of a discussion of translation because Kafka’s dichotomy seems to me to go to the heart of the enterprise, particularly when a sacred text is involved. In the case of the Bible, translation is unusually thorny (though certain of the same problems vex the translator of the Koran). The meanings of ancient words, questions of textual accuracy, the very weight of centuries of previous commentary and analysis—all these, and other problems, complicate the task enormously; these are the same hurdles that the translator of Gilgamesh or Pindar or Lucretius or Kalidasa must somehow leap. But the translator of scripture confronts another order of difficulty.

The difficulty is succinctly exposed in a remark by the historian David Daniel in his superb 2003 study, The Bible in English: Its History and Influence, where he states bluntly that “a religion is a revelation of God or it is nothing.” If the Bible is just a collection of good yarns or a repository of quaint prescriptions, why should we read it rather than, say, The Decameron or The Arabian Nights or The Stories of O. Henry? The standard answer, of course, is that most of our common heritage, and especially our literature, is incomprehensible without a knowledge of the Bible. True enough—and yet, this cannot really suffice as a reason for immersion in the scriptures. To hunt down the biblical references in “Lycidas” or Moby-Dick, while a worthy project, strikes me not only as a diminishment of the Bible but also as a misapprehension of the whole point of reading classic literature. The English and American authors inspired by the Bible from Langland and Chaucer onwards were not composing acrostics for graduate students; they were themselves possessed by scripture in ways we can hardly now comprehend. The force of a biblical allusion lies in the fact that it has been assimilated into the text and is apprehended instinctually by the reader; its impact depends on spontaneous recognition of its source. When Milton speaks of “the pilot of the Galilean lake,” it helps me to know the New Testament source of the phrase; the power of the phrase, however, comes not from mere textual recognition but from the more-than-literary authority the words possess.

Moreover, the Bible is enmeshed with the world of human experience in a way that makes it ultimately quite unlike mere literary masterpieces, however it may incidentally resemble them. It teems with exempla who have a strange extra-textual autonomy of their own. For anyone brought up on the Bible, the world quite often seems peopled by Jobs and Josephs, Rebeccas and Ruths and Rachels, and even the occasional Moses. As a child I for one was constantly being admonished by reference to Elijah and the bear or the Prodigal Son, and our neighbors were often apparelled in biblical disguises that would have astonished them; there was more than one long-suffering Jacob or duped Esau and even, in the person of a blowsy good-time girl, a “whore of Babylon.” My wretched piggy bank was “the widow’s mite” or worse, “the buried talent,” and even the scruffy donkey in the petting zoo could in a flash reveal himself “Balaam’s ass.” Such exempla were not drawn only from the Bible. I got to know quite a few Micawbers and Uriah Heeps as well, not to mention a full array of Snopeses (this was still the South). I would argue, even so, that these personages drew their strength not entirely from the brilliance of their creators, but because they possessed a moral dimension that derived ultimately from biblical precedent, however tacit. They are literary creations who transcend mere literature to become part of life itself.

Robert Alter’s new translation of the Hebrew Bible prompts such uneasy thoughts.1 His approach is overwhelmingly literary, and even though his premises seem justified by his results (which are generally quite magnificent), a certain uneasiness remains. It would be simplistic, if not misleading, to review a fresh translation of the Hebrew Bible as if it were another new version of Homer or Cervantes, although many of the problems of such translation—technical as well as substantive—are identical. Whether we like it or not, the Bible isn’t, and cannot be, a neutral book. Even if it has played no part in one’s personal history, its formulations, tales, injunctions, and prohibitions bear on virtually every important human issue, and are still in play today, often excruciatingly so. This is a book people have died for, often haplessly, often bravely. I’m not aware that anyone has gone to the stake over a deviant reading of Proust (or at least, not yet).

That said, Alter’s accomplishment is immense. He has produced a translation of the Pentateuch that respects and captures the beauty and majesty of the original; he is unfailingly alert to matters of tone and diction, cadence and tempo, in the Hebrew, to a degree not attained by any previous translator into English. He knows that the virtually unsurpassable King James version tends to doom all rivals; he also knows that translation is too often incorrect both in its interpretations and its tone. Those who proclaim it “inerrant” merely proclaim their own ignorance. His approach therefore has been to model his own version closely on the King James while correcting, modifying, and emending it wherever necessary in accord with philological as well as stylistic dictates. In his translation and in the rich commentary which accompanies it, Alter makes use of the findings and insights of textual criticism, as it has been applied to the Biblical text for almost two centuries now, although he is anything but slavish in his acceptance of either its methods or its discoveries. He is as likely to draw on Rashi or David Kimchi or Abraham ibn Ezra as on contemporary exegetes; the results prove that he has been right to do so. Since his guiding principle is aesthetic, he is free to dispense with the picayune quibbling that disfigures so much scriptural commentary; instead, he homes in on the insight—ancient, medieval or modern—that best illumines the passage at hand from a literary standpoint.

Alter published his translation of Genesis in 1996; he then brought out a version of 1 and 2 Samuel in 1999 under the title The David Story. He has now added the remaining four books of what is, rather confusingly, called the Chumash (Hebrew), the Pentateuch (Greek), or, quite simply, the Five Books of Moses; that is, the first, and arguably most important, portion of what Jews know as the Tanakh (an acronym for Torah, Neviim, and Ketuvim: Torah or “rule,” Prophets, and “Writings”). His translations embody the principles which he has been elaborating over decades, in essays and books, as to how one should read the Hebrew Bible. These might be summarized as follows: approach the text as a conscious literary artifact, subject to the same artistic motives and techniques found in other great works of literature; approach it, moreover, as a coherent body of narrative and prescription, not a mere assemblage of disparate texts. Though he accepts emendations to the Hebrew, and even suggests some himself, and though he draws freely on the findings of the “Higher Criticism,” his overriding concern is with the Torah as a literary masterpiece, the supreme such masterpiece. His reverence for the Hebrew Bible is not worn piously on his sleeve but rather, exemplified in hundreds of shrewd, astute, profound, and often witty instances of felicitous translation and elegant commentary. His approach has been surprisingly influential; an Orthodox Jewish colleague has told me that Alter’s analyses have finally vindicated the traditional view of Moses as the single author of the Five Books against the textual dissecters, a vindication all the more persuasive because it is based on internal evidence.

The chief merit of Alter’s now-complete translation lies in his stubborn fidelity to the Hebrew original. This faithfulness is most impressive not merely in his scrupulous accuracy in rendering the meaning of the text, but also in his sensitivity to the shape and sound and timbre and heft of Biblical words. He is scathing in dismissing the prevalent practice of translating by context—what he terms “the heresy of explanation”—clinging instead to the relentlessly tangible and physical nature of the original. His tenacity produces wonderful results at times. In Genesis 25:30, when Esau haggles with Jacob over the price of his birth-right and is finally tempted by the stew which Jacob, cunning upstart, has prepared, Esau blurts out, “Let me gulp down some of this red red stuff, for I am famished.” Esau’s exclamation is crude, and crudely rendered, and this is right. Alter comments, “The famished brother cannot even come up with the ordinary Hebrew word for ‘stew’ (nazid) and instead points to the bubbling pot impatiently as (literally) ‘this red red.’ The verb he uses for gulping down occurs nowhere else in the Bible, but in rabbinic Hebrew it is reserved for the feeding of animals.” The text continues, “Therefore is his [Esau’s] name called Edom.” And Alter comments, “The pun, which forever associates crude impatient appetite with Israel’s perennial enemy, is on ‘’adom ’adom,’ ‘this red red stuff.’” The King James, by contrast, translates Esau’s outburst as “Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint; therefore was his name called Edom.” The only reason I can see for keeping “pottage” is that the phrase has become proverbial (I was always being warned as a child not to “trade my birthright for a mess of pottage”). Otherwise, Alter’s rendering is manifestly superior; it makes the old passage spring alive again for us, as though suddenly we were reading the Hebrew itself. The pun on Edom/’adom has, of course, been noted before, but through his commentary, Alter gives that too new pith and force.

As it turns out, even the repetition in such a phrase as “red red” is significant, for repetition is a signature feature of Biblical style. Alter is rightly caustic about what he calls “the modern abomination of elegant synonymous variation.” Throughout his version, with a few exceptions, he retains the repetitive features of the narrative, using his commentary to elucidate the important effect each of these produces. Again, the result has been to strip away the insidious periphrasis that so often muffles the power of the Hebrew in previous translations (including the King James). Alter also defends, and preserves, the parataxis so characteristic of Biblical style (all those “ands”: “And Jacob saw that there were provisions in Egypt, and Jacob said to his sons, ‘Why are you fearful?’ And he said …”)

In this respect I had rather hoped that Alter might restore the mighty opening of Genesis (which the King James version so memorably recreates), but here, rather disappointingly, he follows the interpretation first advanced by the great Biblical scholar and exegete E. A. Speiser (of whom, as a translator, he is elsewhere quite critical, and rightly so). Speiser argued that the famous opening verses were not truly paratactic—a sequence of consecutive declarative sentences linked by the Hebrew conjunction wa or “and”—but a sentence with a subordinate clause. The King James, echoing the Hebrew, has: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” Alter translates: “When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.” In my view, this attempt to have it both ways doesn’t really work; suspending the phrases within the clausal structure introduces a laxity into the phrasing that misrepresents the original while failing to improve the King James. Nor does the phrase “welter and waste” adequately convey the Hebrew tohu wa-bohu. In his notes, Alter suggests that the second word of the phrase is a kind of “nonce term.” If so, why not “helter-skelter?” (I’m tempted to suggest “welter-shmelter” but know it hasn’t got a prayer.) Alter notes that while “bohu” is meaningless, “tohu” connotes “emptiness” and “is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert.” (He might have noted too that the word is cognate with the Arabic tihun, which does mean “desert.”) In the end, even if “without form, and void” isn’t ideal—it’s a perfect example of Alter’s bête noire, the “heresy of explanation”—it has the near-invincible advantage of having become embedded in our language, as tohu wa-bohu is in Hebrew.

Within the jurisdiction of divine law, nothing is trivial.

Again, in translating Genesis 2:7, Alter tries to reproduce a famous “etymological pun” in the original. Adam—not a proper name here but the generic term for “human”—derives from ’adamah, “earth” or “soil.” Alter cleverly comes up with “then the Lord God fashioned the human, humus from the soil” to give the feeling of the Hebrew. I don’t think that this succeeds, for all its ingenuity. “Human” and “humus” aren’t connected etymologically; more importantly, the tone is wrong: the collocation of a horticultural with a universal term knocks the pun askew.

Of course, nothing warms the cold heart of a reviewer more than to be able to tweezer out and hold up for display the occasional nit in an otherwise immaculate work. Alter doesn’t invariably hit the mark—his translations of Biblical poetry are clumsy to my ear—and he makes the occasional factual error. To note but one: when he describes the Hebrew consonant ‘ayin, he describes it as “a glottal stop that might sound something like the Cockney pronunciation of the middle consonant of ‘bottle’” and he goes on to characterize it as “a gulping sound produced from the larynx.” The ‘ayin, which is still pronounced in Arabic but not in Hebrew, isn’t a glottal stop but what linguists call a pharyngeal; students struggling to learn to pronounce it are often advised to mimic a choking camel, not a Cockney.

Alter succeeds best in rendering tone. The majesty of the King James tends to elevate every episode and to lend a deceptive loftiness of tone, even to scabrous passages (in this, it is unlike such forerunners as Wycliffe and Tyndale). Contemporary translations, whether individual efforts such as Speiser’s or Edward Everett Fox’s bizarre literal rendering (inspired by the German version of Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber) or collective productions such as the New English Bible or the Jewish Publication Society’s more recent version or—the worst of all, in my view—the ghastly Jerusalem Bible, homogenize the scripture to lethal blandness by the relentless use of conceptual rather than physical language—a modern form of euphemism. Alter’s translation in its sheer physicality of word-choice and diction shows how fluid in tone and mood the Hebrew original actually is. He alerts us to those moments when the scripture is sarcastic or ironic or downright crude. He is also very good on what he calls the “scary” side of scripture; that is, those moments in which God suddenly displays an inscrutable and murderous aspect of his nature, moments which seem to arise from some earlier and more primitive stratum of belief. Take Exodus 4:24–26, for example:

And it happened on the way at the night camp that the Lord encountered him [Moses] and sought to put him to death. And Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched it to his feet, and she said, “Yes, a bridegroom of blood you are to me.” And He let him go. Then did she say, “A bridegroom of blood by the circumcising.”

Alter’s commentary on this spooky passage—which far surpasses Kafka in both concision and frightfulness—takes up five times as much space as the two verses. Why does God want to kill Moses? What—shades of Josef K.!—is Moses’s sin? Is the circumcision some sort of bloody, expiatory substitute? And why the “blood-wedding” overtones? Alter remarks, “There is something starkly archaic about the whole episode. The Lord here is not a voice from an incandescent bush announcing that this is holy ground but an uncanny silent stranger who ‘encounters’ Moses, like the mysterious stranger who confronts Jacob at the Jabbok ford, in the dark of the night.” Alter is especially curious about the “bridegroom of blood” (the King James, following Tyndale, settles, not so successfully, for “a bloody husband”) and has much to say that is pertinent on the role of blood in Exodus. Best of all, he respects the enigma without sidestepping its implications; he comments, “The deity that appears here on the threshold of the return to Egypt is dark and dangerous, a potential killer of father or son.”

In reading this, and other such disturbing passages throughout the Five Books, I was reminded of a remark which E. M. Cioran made, in an essay on Joseph de Maistre: “You understand nothing about religion if you think that man runs from a fickle or malevolent or even a ferocious god, or if you forget that man loves fear to the point of frenzy.” Scripture should startle, should unnerve, us; Alter’s translation, unlike blander and more soothing versions, prompts such salubrious shivers in abundance. The literary approach, it turns out, yields other benefits. Alter views Biblical personages, not as rigid exemplars, but as characters who undergo transformation over time, growing better or worse according to their vicissitudes or God’s unsearchable designs. The gradual delineation of the character of Moses, from foundling to roughneck to stammering emissary of the Almighty, becomes in Alter’s hands something at once moving and mighty.

That Alter is exceptionally good at translating the narrative portions of the Torah—what he terms the “Patriarchal Tales” in Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—comes as no surprise. Not only Jacob, but all the ancient personages from Abraham to Moses, from Sarah to Rachel, Leah and Rebecca, emerge from his handling as complex and many-sided figures, with all their shadows intact. Their rough strength, but also their poignancy, comes through, not in a rush but cumulatively; even so coarse a character as Laban reveals new depths. And as in a novel, we witness these prophets and seers and mothers of nations, at once majestic and oddly bumbling, change and grow so that when we encounter them yet again in some new guise—the rough Esau, years later, become a “kind of prince”—the effect is not unlike that of sporadically re-encountering the characters in a novel by Balzac or Proust or Anthony Powell, all novelists who have taught us that character can be comprehended only as a sort of mosaic compounded out of successive, and fragmentary, moments over a whole lifetime. Of course, this aspect of the Torah was always there, and was implicit in earlier translations, but it is perhaps the finest aspect of Alter’s accomplishment that it comes through so vividly and freshly in his version.

In Genesis and Exodus, one seems to stand “before the Law,” as in Kafka’s parable, only to be admitted, unexpectedly and to sovereign bafflement, in Leviticus. Later, bristling with prohibitions, one can proceed to Numbers and Deuteronomy and maybe even catch a glimpse of the Promised Land. Here, though, all is law; and not law in our secular sense, but law governing the most minute and intimate details of daily life, from the rules on permitted and forbidden foods to menstruation and nocturnal emissions to the distinction and treatment of skin diseases to the elaborate protocols of the priesthood and the temple rites. It’s a signal trait of this law that its every commandment is equal; the author of Leviticus could never say, De minimis non curat lex. Within the jurisdiction of divine law, nothing is trivial. This is Kafka’s “sputum world,” in all its profuse and suspect detail, brought under sacred sway.

The eruption of ritual and proscription characteristic of Leviticus occurs throughout the Koran, often in the very midst of the most sublime passages. This is but one of the features of its 114 chapters, or suras, that disconcerts first-time readers. For all its similarities, and debts, to the Hebrew Bible, the Koran is an intrinsically different book. Where the Bible is linear and propelled by narrative, the Koran is circular; it circles insistently over certain spiritual, moral, and cultic themes which recur in an order more akin to music, with its motifs and refrains, than to logic. Its unity comes not from the linear coherence of a historical account but from a certain consistency of voice. That voice may be God’s or it may be Muhammad’s, but it displays a distinctive timbre, at once earthy and ineffable (and unlike anything else in Arabic), that led Muslims early on to describe it as inimitable and to make that inimitability an article of faith.

We aren’t likely to see anthologies along the lines of “The Koran to be Read as Living Literature,” such as were once popular with the Bible. The Koran does not lend itself well to this sort of presentation. But such an approach would be more in keeping with the Islamic than with the Jewish scripture, if only because the Koran is explicitly and consciously regarded by Muslims as a pronouncement of supreme beauty; the Hebrew Bible is often overwhelmingly beautiful, most notably in the Psalms or the Book of Job, but we don’t generally have the impression that its authors were motivated by aesthetic intent. But the beauty of the Koran is held to be a guarantor of its divine origin. “God is beautiful and loves beauty,” runs a famous Islamic tradition. One of the most conspicuous aspects of this beauty resides in God’s actual speech, which is what the Koran ultimately is believed to be.

Though the Koran is deemed uncreated and eternal, while the world is created and temporal, both contain the signs of divine wisdom, and both are susceptible of exegesis.

The task of the translator of the Koran is easier than that of the Biblical translator, for the simple reason that it is impossible. No King James version stands in the way; though earlier English versions, such as those of Arberry, Dawood, Pickthall, Bell, or Yusuf Ali, have their merits, none is completely satisfying. Now the Egyptian-born scholar M. A. S. Abdel Haleem has tried his hand, to impressive effect.2 Abdel Haleem, who teaches at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and is the editor of the Journal of Qur’anic Studies, is unusually well qualified; he knows the text inside and out, having memorized it as a child, and he commands a clear and robust English style. His is certainly the best translation to date. It possesses much of the driving urgency of the original; in certain passages it even manages to reproduce the cascading effect of the Arabic, in which phrase builds upon phrase to an incantatory pitch. Here, for example, is his version of sura 22, verses 5–6:

People, remember, if you doubt the Resurrection, that We created you from dust, then a drop of fluid, then a clinging form, then a lump of flesh, both shaped and unshaped: We mean to make Our power clear to you. Whatever We choose We cause to remain in the womb for an appointed time, then We bring you forth as infants and then you grow and reach maturity. Some die young and some are left to live on to such an age that they forget all they once knew. You sometimes see the earth lifeless, yet when We send down water it stirs and swells and produces every kind of joyous growth: this is because God is the Truth; He brings the dead back to life; and He has power over everything.

This is admirably succinct, though wordy compared with the terse original (literally: “O people, if you are in doubt about Resurrection—lo, We created you from dust, then from a drop, then from a clot, then from a gobbet …”). And it fails to reproduce one of the signal beauties of the Arabic: the contrast between the string of inert states (drop, clot, gobbet) at the beginning and the sudden sprouting of the revivified earth at the end which is “abuzz” (ihtazzat in the Arabic) with growth. Even so, it captures what Alter would call the “momentum” of the original.

But the impossibility of the task lies in the very nature of the Koran. It is an “Arabic Koran,” as stated in 42:7 and elsewhere. The fact that it is in Arabic is not incidental but central. And though it is an Arabic of a particular time and place—the early seventh century in the Hijaz—and of a particular tribe—the Quraysh, of which Muhammad himself was a poorer member—the language is itself part of the revelation which it conveys. The Koran is not simply considered to be “inerrant” in content; the style of the Koran is itself sacrosanct, and not solely its “message.” The few audacious souls who dared to imitate it were cast out as blasphemers and came to sticky ends. Moreover, the Koran is deemed to be God’s actual speech. As such, it is held, at least by traditional Sunni Muslims, to be “uncreated,” that is, eternal. In the preface to a 1997 Arabic-English Koran produced in Riyadh, we read that the Koran contains “the actual words of Allah—not created, but revealed by Him through the angel Gabriel to a human messenger, Muhammad …” Therefore, “the words of Allah can never be translated literally.”

Of course, Arabic, like any other language, can be translated, often accurately and sometimes well. But by removing the content of the Koran from its medium, a fundamental and irreparable distortion occurs. Abdel Haleem is aware of this problem (for which there is no solution), and does his best to translate not only accurately but also with a sensitivity to the penumbra of certain Koranic terms; he supplies brief annotations on individual words, an excellent introduction, and a running commentary drawn from the immense exegetical literature in Arabic. To give a sense of the strengths and the limitations of his version, here is an excerpt from sura 29:41–44:

Those who take protectors other than God can be compared to spiders building themselves houses—the spider’s is the frailest of all houses—if only they could understand. God knows what things they call upon beside Him: He is the Mighty, the Wise. Such are the comparisons We draw for people, though only the wise can grasp them. God has created the heavens and the earth for a true purpose. There truly is a sign in this for those who believe.

It is a strange and fascinating aspect of the Koran that like certain crystalline structures, any section taken tends to mirror the whole. Here we find repeated emphasis on “signs.” In a certain sense, contrary to popular impression, the Koran is the thinking man’s scripture; it is incessantly enjoining mankind to consider or reflect or ponder. The universe is an immense system of signs, human intelligence an exercise in semiosis. The spider’s house is a sign, as are the heavens and the earth, and signs are meant to induce understanding. Belief provides the decipherment of creation; unbelief blinds. This little passage is built upon contrasts: the fragile house of the spider stands opposed to “the heavens and the earth”; God is wise, and only the wise grasp His “comparisons”; those who rely on other than God are set in contrast with “those who believe.”

Abdel Haleem tends to engage in Robert Alter’s “heresy of explanation.” In the Arabic, the sentence which he translates as “God has created the heavens and earth for a true purpose” reads “God created the heavens and the earth in truth.” What this means has been debated by theologians and mystics for centuries and has led to some quite finely spun metaphysics. By settling on “for a true purpose,” he has limited the resonance of the original phrase; he has also committed himself to a particular theological stance: there is no suggestion of “purpose” in the Arabic; for many Sunni Muslims, to assign purpose to God’s actions is suspect. Again, in translating 22:41, he writes, “God controls the outcome of all events” when the Arabic says, more simply, “God’s is the outcome of events” (or: “the outcome belongs to God”), not necessarily the same thing. In such small touches throughout his translation, Abdel Haleem acts more as an interpreter than a translator, often imparting tiny, almost inconspicuous, spins to recurrent phrases.

He is exceptionally good at sorting out the different voices of the Koran. It is clear in his version when God is speaking to Muhammad or to Himself, or when Muhammad is speaking either to God or to his flock. In this respect, in any number of passages, the Koran seems almost to represent God’s interior monologue. Sometimes He even muses over past events and seems to be offering a gloss on His own actions. For example, in sura 28, God comments on His decision to rescue the Israelites from Egyptian bondage and says, “We wished to favour those who were oppressed in that land, to make them leaders, the ones to survive, to establish them in the land, and through them show Pharaoh, Haman, and their armies the very thing they feared.” So prevalent is this tendency throughout the Biblical narratives of the Qur’an that it might even be read as a kind of divine editorializing on the prophetic past.

The Koran is even less separable from the world than the Hebrew Bible. Though the Koran is deemed uncreated and eternal, while the world is created and temporal, both contain the signs of divine wisdom, and both are susceptible of exegesis. Once while working in Rabat, I met a young doctoral student who had just published his thesis, a copy of which he gave to me. To my surprise, it was a systematic exposition of the secret correspondences between the verses of the Koran and the natural world; the idea was prompted by the fact that the Arabic word for “verse” and for “sign” is the same (ayah). This world is the “lower world” (al-dunya) and not to be compared with scriptural revelation, but it too has its chapters and its verses crying out for decipherment. This student would have found Kafka’s statement not only comprehensible but perhaps even acceptable. For a world tissued with scriptural interleavings is, in the end, little more than a ghostly palimpsest of the Word.

  1.  The Five Books of Moses: a translation with commentary, by Robert Alter; W. W. Norton, 1114 pages, $39.95.
  2.  The Qur’an: a new translation, by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem; Oxford University Press, 464 pages; $27.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 2, on page 23
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