I’ve had a number of people ask my opinion of Alter’s new translation. I haven’t read it. I also had several people send me the recent Wall Street Journal review by Blaire French. (Thanks to all of them!) I’ve reproduced it below. It’s a good (and important) illustration of how Alter misses the boat in his (French’s words) “attempt to de-Christianize” some things (this criticism has popped up in other reviews in regard to different items).
Has the soul been taken from the Hebrew Bible? In the King James version, the word “soul” is very much in evidence. Perhaps most memorable is Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd. . . . He restoreth my soul.” But no more.
Recently the word has gone out of fashion with scholars and translators. They argue that the traditional Hebrew word for soul—nefesh—should be translated as “life breath,” “the essence of a human being” or “person.” According to the new consensus, soul is too Greek: It connotes something separate from the body. Christian thought largely has accepted body-soul dualism. Yet it is alien to the ancient Israelite worldview, which considered the nefesh to be inextricably bound to life in the flesh.
Berkeley scholar Robert Alter, in his new translation of the Hebrew Bible, has made a decisive statement against soul. Nowhere in the text does he render nefesh as soul—because he believes it would import Christian beliefs into the Hebrew text. Mr. Alter’s Psalmist declares, “The Lord is my shepherd. . . . My life He brings back.”
In the attempt to de-Christianize the nefesh, however, Mr. Alter and others create a metaphysical gulf between the Hebrew Bible and traditional English translations. Nefesh has a range of meanings—many of which indicate that it is indeed intrinsic to corporeal existence. Animals and humans, at the moment of their creation, are called a “living nefesh” in the book of Genesis. In Numbers, a “dead nefesh” is a corpse. The word is also found in Sheol, the shadowy underworld populated by the deceased described in Psalms 49 and 88. This raises the specter of a nefesh unbound by flesh.
Then there is the prophet Elijah. When calling on God to bring a child back to life, he requests the return of the boy’s nefesh. It re-enters the child and he revives (1 Kings 17:21-22). However the verse is parsed, the nefesh exists apart from the body.
There is also inconsistency in the current effort to exclude a transcendent dimension of nefesh. The Hebrew word ruach, often translated as “spirit,” has not been excluded in the same way. Like nefesh, ruach straddles the material and the ethereal. It may be understood as “breath,” as when Job laments, in the midst of his afflictions, that his ruach has become repugnant to his wife. But it refers also to something not tied to the body.
Take, for example, Mr. Alter’s translation of God’s speech in Isaiah 42:1: “I have set My spirit [ruach] on him, he shall bring forth justice to the nations.” This line is part of an extended parallel. According to the New Revised Standard Version, the first half reads: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul [nefesh] delights.” The new translation eradicates entirely any reference to a nefesh: “Look, My servant, I have stayed him up, My chosen one, I have greatly favored.” This lets God keep his spirit but takes away his soul, diminishing the poetic beauty of the original.
Since God has a nefesh, it cannot only be tied to earthly flesh. Dualism is not foreign to the Hebrew Bible. To exclude “soul” as a definition for nefesh because it sounds too Christian does not do justice to the original text. Emphasizing the Hebrew Bible’s concrete approach to life should not obstruct its occasional reach toward otherworldliness. Nefesh deserves to have its soul restored.
Ms. French is an adjunct lecturer in biblical Hebrew at the University of Virginia.