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Translator's Note: Edmond Fleg is a poet, so that to translate any of his works would be hard enough; but this work the vision of Moses, the servant of God, as it has come down through 4,000 years of Jewish tradition presents two peculiar difficulties. First, the problem M. Fleg has himself solved so exquisitely but which has to be solved anew in a translation, of combining into a harmonious style the loftiest passages of the Bible and the vivid, half-magical imaginations of some of the early Palestinian and Babylonian rabbis, as well as the profound enigmatic mysticism of some and the shrewd, practical, juristic or everyday commentary of others. Second, a problem arising exclusively for the translator into English, the language of the Authorized Version.
The first problem confronts every writer who treats of the magnificent language of the Hebrew Bible, wherein much is left to be worked out by the imagination of the hearer, in conjunction with the fuller, more elaborated style of the rabbis. The second problem is, that in certain parts of the book the translator cannot but suffer direct comparison with the inspired Authorized Version; for sometimes the first half of a sentence is taken from the Bible word for word and the second half is an addition with or without transmutation, from the Midrash or an original extension of the Biblical idea by M. Fleg himself; and sometimes one of the best-known Biblical passages is taken and so paraphrased or expanded by the inclusion of material from the Tradition, that the Bible narrative cannot be used in a conscientious rendering, though its majestic reverberation in the reader's memory must inevitably make the paraphrase seem somewhat flat.
A great and in part insuperable difficulty exists only for the translator into English. For the French Bible, though it has unique beauties of its own Comme un cerf brame apres des eaux courantes, ainsi mon ame soupire apres toi o Dieu! is, as a whole, nothing more than a reverent, dignified rendering of an obviously foreign idiom. But, with the possible exception of the Lutheran Bible, the Authorised Version alone in the world has influenced the whole literature, the whole imagination of a people for 300 years: so that the Star of Jacob and the burning bush and the law for the widow and the fatherless, are become part of the poetic fibre of the English language. When, therefore, that part of Balaam's prophecy immediately preceding the Star of Jacob is given in unfamiliar form, the reader cannot but feel a certain loss and confusion. Yet perhaps there is some compensation even here, for new elements are added to the familiar narrative and the very strangeness may, as with the retranslations of the Bible into modern idiom, serve to make the Authorised Version fresher and clearer.
Thus the translator was in great uncertainty as to what idiom to adopt: for the language of the Authorised Version could not be intermingled in the same paragraph with a simple, though poetic, modern prose, as could the French Bible with the modern French: and on the other hand, such archaisms as thee and thou and ye, for you, throughout the book and hath for has when the Lord or the Prophets speak, seemed essential, in order to suggest this distant time. Such modern versions of the Bible as Dr. Moffatt's, sincere and illuminating as they are, offer less help than might be thought. The translators of the Authorised Version, to whom the Bible in the vulgar tongue was still a strange thing, whereas to the Jews it had been daily bread through the centuries, sometimes refused to see that certain passages in the all-inclusive Book were prosaic and meant to be prosaic; they were determined to exalt every part to the utmost intensity, thereby sometimes mistranslating; but the present-day translator who calls the Princes Sheikhs and the Elders Notables and mitres turbans, with syntax to match, really misrepresents far more seriously, however great his scholarship and his piety: for the Bible is God's Word to His people and the total effect in English as in Hebrew, should be the highest attainable majesty. The translator has, however, followed Dr. Moffatt to a certain extent, for example by using Eternal in a good many places where the Authorised Version has the Lord (which should, really, be used relatively infrequently) and when Pharaoh or the Egyptians are speaking, by using Hebrews instead of Israelites.
This tedious list of the difficulties that were to be overcome is not meant to excuse the translator but to do justice to M. Fleg's achievement. In a style apparently very simple, almost, at times, naive, yet most subtly woven of clear, almost Greek perception and deep, imaginative sympathy, he does make Moses, the man of God, at whose death the earth and the heaven and the Lord God Himself wept, saying, There shall be no other Moses, emerge from the ages a figure no less majestical than in the Bible story. But his most sensitive modern mind, penetrating the ever-living tradition of four thousand years, reveals, through all the legends, the &'grave;simple man, humble in his heart,'' wistful in his human affections. —S.H.G.
A compilation of Midrash, Biblical, and legendary stories about the prophet Moses, who led the Children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt.
Author's Preface: I have the utmost respect for the learned. If, leaving aside the question of a divine revelation, their methods could reconstruct for us a true life of Moses, I would read it very gladly. But, in the present state of science, all they could offer us as a life of Moses would scarcely be more than a mass of hazardous assertion and unverifiable conjecture.
Must we, then, here simply repeat the Bible narrative, robbing it of its beauty? By no means. In the creative memory of Israel the Biblical Moses lives on, transfigured by a tradition rich in wonderful legends. Whilst critical exegesis, tracing back myths and rites to their supposed origins, would lead us to a primitive, savage Moses, wholly alien to our world of today, the religious, moral, poetical and satirical exegesis of our rabbis has, with its symbols and its anachronisms, drawn the prophet nearer to us from century to century. Doubtless the real life of Moses will never be known scientifically: but is not this life, as Israel has imagined it, interpreted it and felt it through the ages, also history? And is this history ended? Has not Israel the right still to prolong it?
The very humble heir of the story-tellers of the Talmud, of their spirit and their language, gathering their scattered fables, re-grouping, re-thinking and re-casting them and, where need was, paraphrasing in my turn their paraphrases, I have tried to follow in their footsteps and continue after their fashion the tradition they have perpetuated, so that I might write this story as it now re-lives in me.
In this attempt to make the past live on into the present I do not think I have in any way betrayed the spirit of the texts, but I have not troubled over much to follow them word for word. In the manner of our rabbis, I have imagined and created, or sometimes added variants to the occasionally numerous versions they give us of a single episode. The experts may take offence. But at least let them know that I have acted from choice, not ignorance and that my liberties with the Talmud in no way surpass the Talmud's own with the Bible.