21 October 2007

Genesis, translated by Robert Alter

Oh blog, I have been neglecting you. I will strive to be better. Which means that the quality of entries may well slide, because instead of writing a bit and deciding it's not worth posting, I'm gonna go ahead and throw it up anyhow. You've been warned.

So Robert Alter has done an absolutely incredible job translating Genesis. And writing a marvelous introduction to it. I suppose it's somewhat self-serving -translator's introductions tend to be a long explanation of why one's own work is so much better than anyone else's, but anyhow, he certainly makes a convincing argument. The really incredible thing about this edition though, is the army of footnotes that directs your attention to wordplay that may have gotten lost in translation, offers some insights derived from critical work on the text, points out repetitions in the text - they're fantastic.

So as you probably recall, Genesis describes the creation of the world and then the early exploits of people living on it. It's essentially a collection of stories, linked geneologically. What really struck me, reading it this time, is that the majority of the drama of the text comes from sexual politics. Who is sleeping with who, who is fertile - this motivates most of the action. And you realize, you know, in the early days of civilization, this probably was a pretty big deal. In other words, regulating sexual politics is probably one of the big steps of founding a civilization. Also, upon this reading, with a little nudge from Alter, I started wondering how many of these plagues and spells of infertility were references to epidemics of stds...

Another things that's kind of wild is how totally different many of these texts are from their more popular, widespread versions. Onanism, for instance, commonly refers to masturbation, but the story is actually about pulling out. And the _reason_ that Onan pulls out is because he has been instructed to impregnate his dead brother's wife, and he doesn't want his children to be raised as someone else's. Which seems pretty reasonable to me, honestly. But The Lord disagrees, probably because The Lord is a real stickler for obedience. Likewise, the Tower of Babel - it's commonly conceived of as men trying to build a tower to reach heaven, and God punishing their ambition. But actually, they're just trying to build a tower as tall as heaven, because they want a monument to themselves - and that's what pisses God off (or so one could argue) - their pride in themselves, not their ambition.

Whenever I read texts like this, that have had a major impact on people, I'm always kind of surprised at how they've managed to leave such a massive legacy. Genesis especially, is an incredibly fascinating work, but how it ended up being such a cornerstone of civilization is sort of beyond me.

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