Great Poems of the Bible: A Reader's Companion with New Translations

Great Poems of the Bible: A Reader's Companion with New Translations

by James L. Kugel


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416589020
Publisher: Free Press
Publication date: 10/21/2008
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

James L. Kugel served as the Starr Professor of Hebrew at Harvard from 1982 to 2003, where his course on the Bible was regularly one of the most popular on campus, enrolling more than nine hundred students. A specialist in the Hebrew Bible and its interpretation, he now lives in Jerusalem. His recent books include The God of Old, In the Valley of the Shadow and the forthcoming The Great Change.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
Psalm 104
Bless the Lord, O my soul — O Lord my God, You are very great.
[At the creation:]
Clothed in glory and honor, You wrapped Yourself in light.
Then You put up the sky like a tent and covered it over with water.
The clouds You took as Your chariot and rode off on the wings of the wind.
The winds themselves You made messengers, and flames of fire Your servants.

Once You had set the earth on its struts, so it never would swerve or sway,
You cloaked it with water all over, water loomed over the mountains.
How they flee at Your cry, those waters, at the sound of Your thunder they jump back in terror,
running up mountains or down into valleys, to whatever place You established for them.
You drew lines for them never to cross, never again will they cover the land.
You set loose the springs that gush into rivers, cascading down between mountains,
watering all the life of the plain and slaking the animals' thirst.
Above them dwell the birds of the sky, calling out from the tops of branches.

You let water flow from Your upper abode, down the mountains to sop the earth,
Ripening grass for cattle and grains for people to harvest, bringing food from out of the dirt:
wine to gladden the hearts of men, oil to brighten their faces, and bread to fill their insides.

Let the trees of the LORD drink deep, the Lebanon cedars He planted.
This is where birds make their nest, the stork has her home in fir trees.
High mountains are for wild goats, and crags shelter the hares.
You made the moon to mark off the seasons, and You know the route of the sun.

When You bring darkness nighttime descends, and all the forest creatures come out.
Lions go roaring after their prey, seeking their food from God.
With the sun's first ray back they go, to lie down in darkened lairs.
People trudge off to work, toiling until the dusk.
How great are Your works, O LORD —
every one You made with wisdom, the world teems with what You created.

The huge, the broad-armed sea, where numberless creatures swim, tiny alongside of big —
here the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan You formed for amusement.
All of them look to You, hoping You'll give them their food in its time.
What You give them they gobble up; if You open Your hand they are fed.
But if You hide Your face, then they are dismayed.
Should You take back their spirits they perish and return to the dust of the earth.
Let loose Your spirit and their fatness comes back, the land's surface is made new again.

May the LORD'S glory endure forever, let the Lord rejoice in His creatures.
When He looks to the earth, it shudders; if He touches the mountains they smoke.
I will sing to the LORD as I live, praise my God as long as I breathe.
May my words be pleasing to Him, I truly rejoice in the LORD.
And let sinners be wiped from the land, let the wicked exist no more.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, Halleluyah.

A Place in the System
By the start of the twentieth century, the previous two hundred years' accumulating doubts about the existence of God had acquired a certain swirling momentum and had begun to look to many people — even the religious folk of the American prairie — like a menacing storm, a cyclone, off in the not-too-distant plain. It might seem odd to seek to identify that cyclone with another, the famous one that sent Dorothy off on her extraordinary voyage to the Land of Oz. Nevertheless, I am always struck when I read that book (or see the movie) by its undertone of theological questioning. Certainly, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a fable about disillusionment, about discovering that the one of whom all in the Emerald City speak in hushed tones of reverence does not exist in reality but is merely a human invention. Was it not the case that Oz's author, L. Frank Baum, had in the back of his mind another sort of disillusionment, the sort that most people at the start of the twentieth century still preferred not to talk about openly?
Dorothy and her companions — four people in difficult straits who set out on a pilgrimage in search of a miraculous cure — do not at first seem very different from the heroes of innumerable quest tales. Had this story followed the traditional scenario, it might indeed have been what Baum claimed it was in the preface to the first edition, a kind of non-frightening remake of the traditional fairy tale:

[T]he old-time fairy-tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as "historical" in the children's library; for the time has come for a series of newer "wonder tales" in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incident devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore, the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder-tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident. Having this thought in mind, the story of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" was written solely to pleasure children of today.

But what was truly different about Oz was not its avoidance of the "horrible and blood-curdling" (it is still pretty frightening to most children). Rather, it was that this was a quest tale that ends with the questers' discovery that their efforts have all been in vain. The thaumaturgical Oz, it turns out, is no supernatural manipulator of reality but merely the jerry-rigged front man for an ordinary mortal, nay, a humbug, and it is this discovery that is the central movement of the book, the conclusion of the quest itself. All is not lost, of course, after the questers find out the truth; they do eventually gain some measure of satisfaction, and Dorothy even finds her way back to Kansas. But the fundamental lesson that she and the others learn is that frauds do exist, and that most of the people can indeed be fooled — are being fooled — most of the time. Even the Emerald City, it turns out, was only emerald because the Wizard had rigged up little green-tinted spectacles for all the citizens to wear. "But isn't everything here green?" Dorothy asks. "No more than any other city," Oz replies. "But when you wear green spectacles, why of course everything you see looks green to you."
Oz himself is sometimes presented in ways designed to evoke the Almighty, albeit indirectly. "I am Oz, the Great and Terrible," he booms out to every visitor, and to readers of the Bible, the cadence of this greeting is unmistakable ("the great and terrible God" is virtually a biblical cliché, Deut. 7:21, 10:17; Dan. 9:4; Neh. 1:5, 4:8, 9:32). "Who are you," he continues, "and why do you seek me?" The word "seek" here is likewise Bible-ese and hardly standard English; indeed, now seeing Oz face to face, how could a visitor be said still to be seeking him at all? But "seek" in Oz's greeting is the English equivalent of the Hebrew baqqesh or darosh H' — usually mistranslated in English Bibles as "seek the Lord," but clearly intended in the sense of "seek the favor of the Lord" or "make a request of the Lord" (see Isa. 51:1, 55:6; Ezek. 20:3; Amos 5:4, 6; Ps. 40:16, 69:6, 105:3-4). To this inquiry Dorothy replies with her own pseudo-biblicism, "I am Dorothy, the Small and Meek."
Toward the end of the story, after completing their mission, Dorothy and her friends return to Oz's Throne Room only to find it empty:

Presently, they heard a Voice, seeming to come from somewhere near the top of the great dome, and it said, solemnly,
"I am Oz, the Great and Terrible. Why do you seek me?"
They looked again in every part of the room, and then, seeing no one, Dorothy asked,
"Where are you?"
"I am everywhere," answered the Voice, "but to the eyes of common mortals I am invisible."

Oz's invisible omnipresence (however fleeting) is another feature he shares with Israel's Deity. So when it turns out that the Voice is merely that of "an old man with a bald head and wrinkled face," I suspect that, especially among Sunday School graduates of a century ago, there must have been more than one or two who in their hearts identified this moment with the other one alluded to earlier, that still-largely-unexpressed disillusionment waiting somewhere at the back of America's spiritual closet.
Nowadays, people are less reticent about their doubts. It would be so nice, they say, if there really were a God. But in their hearts they know that it cannot be so, no matter what they tell their children. There comes a time in every life when some little Toto will always knock over the screen of transmitted fantasy and reveal the Deity to be of altogether human manufacture.

What is surprising is not that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, along with quite a few other books of the last few centuries, have in one way or another evoked the doubts that nag at people's faith. Rather, what is remarkable is that there is not some ancient Israelite equivalent, some text somewhere in the Hebrew Bible that, even if only as indirectly as Oz, at least raises the question of God's existence or delicately, allegorically, suggests that perhaps a great fraud is being perpetrated. But there is not. Job and Ecclesiastes question God's justice, Jeremiah may wish even to take Him to court, but His existence, it seems, was simply not open to question, not even perceived as a possible subject of discourse. The Bible does not hesitate to report blasphemous statements made about God by other nations or renegade Israelites — to the effect that some foreign deity is more powerful than Israel's God, or that God does not see the suffering of innocent people, or that God does not punish wrongdoers, or that God has abandoned Israel — but nowhere do these blasphemous statements ever include the simple assertion that God does not exist. Apparently, such a thought just never occurred to the blasphemers in question, nor to anyone else. On the contrary, God's being and fundamental nature seem everywhere simply to be assumed, a fact so well known as to require no further elaboration. For the same reason, it would seem, the Bible does not begin by defining God or demonstrating His presence in reality. There must have been no need.
Those who have sought to account for this state of affairs have sometimes chalked it up to a kind of intellectual inertia. People had always believed in "the gods," they say, so even after Israel had come along and replaced a plurality of deities with One, this alone did not necessitate a reexamination of the whole concept of divinity. God simply came to substitute for the gods without any more fundamental change. But such an answer hardly seems convincing. Inertia can carry the human spirit only so far; eventually, people do end up asking fundamental questions. Certainly life in the ancient world offered up its share of undeserved suffering; did not frequent droughts and famines, wars and natural disasters, as well as massive outbreaks of disease and an infant mortality rate that might have reached fifty percent — did not such things cause people to wonder who this God might be who was solely responsible for their fate? By what standards did He judge the world? Yet even Job's wife, seeing her husband's undeserved pains, can only say to him, "Curse your God and die." Why did she not say, "It seems you were wrong about God after all. He cannot exist if all this can happen to you"? It could hardly have been inertia that prevented one hundred percent of the people from ever considering such a possibility.
Nor, for that matter, do I think it has to do with any "primitive" state of thought that is sometimes alleged to have existed at that time. Primitive thought was left behind long before the time of biblical Israel, and there really is no indication that the ancient Israelites would have had difficulty in grasping our sort of conceptualizing or abstract thinking. People sometimes say, for example, that the argument from creation was inevitably persuasive to ancient societies: since anything like the theory of evolution was inconceivable to them, the world as it exists simply had to have a Creator somewhere minding the store. But even if such an argument is correct (and I do not believe it is), it would hardly account for the biblical evidence. After all, a divine Creator could certainly have made the world and then disappeared, ceased to exist, having set in motion the autonomous forces of the universe. In fact, this idea was advanced elsewhere in the ancient world; it was just never expressed, even by the greatest blasphemers, in the Bible.
Perhaps it is most natural for us today to explain the differences between our view of things and those of earlier civilizations by saying that in premodern times people simply did not know this or that fact, that they were under this or that misapprehension, from which we have now happily freed ourselves. No doubt there is some truth in this proposition. But it seems to me we ought at least to be prepared to entertain the opposite hypothesis as well, that however much progress the intervening centuries may have brought in some domains, they have also led us to lose a way of seeing that existed in former times. By "way of seeing" I mean to suggest something more than simply another point of view; perhaps people were actually enabled by this way of seeing to observe things that we no longer observe today. It is difficult for one who reads the Bible carefully, and takes its words seriously, not to arrive at such a conclusion: something, a certain way of perceiving, has gradually closed inside of us, so that nowadays most people simply do not register, or do not have access to, what had been visible in an earlier age. What we have — all we have — are those texts of the Bible that bear witness to that other way of seeing (and perhaps invite us, with the use of some spiritual imagination, to try to enter into it, open our eyes, and look).
One thing that is strikingly different in the biblical way of seeing — and it is certainly related to the matter at hand — has to do with the whole notion of the self that is found in the Bible and the way in which that self fits into the larger world. A human being just is very small, and God, as the opening line of this psalm asserts, is "very big." In other words, it is not (or not simply) that biblical man cannot conceive of the world without God for some mechanistic reason — because, for example, the world could not function without God. Rather it is first and foremost that he cannot conceive of himself without God, without, that is, some notion of how he and the rest of the little creatures down here fit into the much, much larger world. This is especially true of his own capacities. They extend only so far, and if he is to be able to understand anything of the world beyond them, he needs to fit himself into the world, he needs a form of reference beyond himself.
Psalm 104, like certain other psalms, is concerned essentially with this matter of fitting into the world. Characteristically, God's greatness — the psalm's announced subject — is not expressed in His own being. Apart from a phrase here or there ("Clothed in glory and honor, You wrapped Yourself in light."), the psalm really has nothing to say about what God Himself is like; it all has to do with what He has done, how He has arranged the universe. This description of God's deeds has at times something oddly light-hearted or whimsical about it, for that is how this world must look from God's point of view. So it is that God has, in most homey fashion, set up the universe like a tent or hut, thatching it up on top with the waters that descend on us from time to time in the form of rain. The mighty oceans and rivers (an ancient figure of disorder and threatening chaos) here cower and jump back at God's might, their precious liquids now tamed to be part of the great food chain. Nothing here is fearsome.

When You bring darkness nighttime descends, and all the forest creatures come out.
Lions go roaring after their prey, seeking their food from God.
With the sun's first ray back they go, to lie down in darkened lairs.
People trudge off to work, toiling until the dusk.

Those lions aren't really pious; they don't know that they are seeking their food from God, and there is something a little whimsical about saying they do. But such is the happy world of this psalm — for indeed, it says, were it not for divine generosity, the pious lions would certainly starve. They are another, equal member in the great machinery of God. So also for the leviathan. Its frightening, half-mythic, character may be its salient feature elsewhere in the Bible. But here, all the air has been let out of it; it is just a divine plaything, an utterly harmless curiosity in that great world that the great God has made. What is not subsumed? The roaring winds and flashing fire from heaven — these are God's angels, His own chosen messengers and intermediaries.

Since God is very big, man is very small. To put it another way, God's space begins precisely where man's ends, so that there is no temptation for man to fill the void. Thus, when Jacob's wife Rachel finds herself unable to conceive and she begs him, "Give me children!" he quite naturally replies, "Am I in God's stead?" What lies beyond human capacity or human reckoning is not simply part of some undefined wasteland: it is all actively part of a coherent space controlled by, defined by, God. There is like-wise no frontier, no outer space: "He counts off the stars by number, calls them all by name" (Ps. 147:4). That is, human ignorance in one matter or another does not mean that the thing is simply "unknown"; it is part of the coherent body of things known to God of which we humans possess only a small portion. Indeed, what is striking about the psalm from which this last line is cited — a hymn rather similar to Psalm 104 — is precisely how the cosmic and the historical, society's domain and a person's inner psyche, everything is jumbled together, all part of God's great machine:

The LORD rebuilds Jerusalem, gathering the scattered ones of Israel;
He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.
He counts off the stars by number, calls them all by name.
Great is our Lord, and mighty, His wisdom is unfathomable.
The LORD lifts up the lowly and humbles the wicked to the ground.
Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving, make melody to our God with the harp.
He covers the skies with clouds, preparing rain for the earth; He makes the mountains green with grass.
He gives food to animals, even to the crows when they caw.
He is not swayed by the horse's pull, or the strength in the legs of a man;
the LORD delights in those who fear Him, in those who yearn for His favor.
— Ps. 147:2-11

To feel, in this sense, part of God's world was the primary force that shaped the religious outlook of a great many psalms; indeed, it is found abundantly in other parts of the Bible as well. Biblical man, one might say, was fundamentally small, always part of a larger system. Another passage in the Psalms presents a little human hounded by God, unable to draw a breath or leave his house or even think a thought without bumping into the Impinging Deity:

O LORD, You search me out and know me.
You know when I sit around or get up, You understand my thoughts from far off.
You sift my comings and goings; You are familiar with all my ways.
There is not one thing I say that You, LORD, do not know.
In front and in back You press in on me and set Your hand upon me.
Even things hidden from myself You know, things that are beyond me.
Where can I go from Your spirit, or how can I get away from You?
If I could go up to the sky, there You would be, or down to Sheol, there You are too.
If I took up the wings of a gull to settle at the far end of the sea,
even there Your hand would be leading me on, holding me in its grip.
I might think, "At least darkness can hide me, nighttime will conceal me."
But even darkness is not dark for You; night is as bright as the day, and light and dark are all the same.
— Ps. 139:1-12

And so, biblical man is still Little Man, even if he is slightly less little than his predecessors (see "The Death of Baal"). That is how he is often glimpsed, from above, a little fellow who sometimes suffers from delusions of grandeur:

From the heavens the Lord looks out, seeing all of humanity.
From the place of His dwelling He looks down on all of earth's inhabitants.
He who made the hearts of all of them [likewise] perceives their every deed.
No king will triumph through force of arms, no mighty man through power.
The cavalry's useless for victory — no matter its force, it will not be saved.
But the Lord's eye is turned to those who fear Him, who trust in His beneficence.
— Ps. 33:13-18

This radical sense of smallness is crucial; it is, as suggested above, the very foundation of the religious consciousness of a great many psalms and other biblical compositions. Of course, to see the world in such a fashion may appear odd to some today (though it is always wise at least to consider the question of who, in any given circumstance, might be wearing the green spectacles). But it should in any case be noted that "small" is not quite all that the Psalms had to say about man's place in the universe.
The God of the Hebrew Bible is a who, not, even at His most remote, an unfathomably great force or a vector. Although this "who-ness" of God's has inspired some discomfort among mod-ern theologians, it is precisely that in which biblical Israelites, and even people in more recent times, took comfort. (The French philosopher Pascal is said to have had sewn into the lining of his jacket a little scrap of writing: "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob — not the God of the philosophers.") For, were it not for such a God, the "God of Abraham," there would scarcely have been any point in temples: God's grandeur might better have been grasped in sacred planetariums, and humanity's smallness a lesson drearily obvious there. But a line connected those two, God and man, a line sketched not in light-years across galaxies, but beaming into and out of the human heart. So, for all His grandeur, God did not disappear in the world of the Bible, nor did humanity, for all of its smallness:

When I see the heavens that Your fingers have fashioned, the moon and stars You have made:
What is a man that You should call him to mind, a human being that You should take note of him?
Yet You have made him almost a god, crowned him with glory and honor.
You set him over Your other creations, and put all of them at his feet.
— Ps. 8:4-6

This was the perfect equilibrium to which the author of Psalm 104 likewise gave expression. Humanity is fundamentally Little Man, part of a great Breughel canvas, trudging off to work in a corner somewhere as the lions head home after their night of roaming, each comfortable with his place in the system; elsewhere, leviathan and dinky ships frolic in the sea. Yet the God whose world this is, the God who is "very big," nevertheless calls Little Man to mind, indeed exalts him above the other little things "with glory and honor." That was all there was to human glory; it was never in danger of filling the sky.

The view of things described above is "biblical," but it certainly lives elsewhere; indeed, anyone who has traveled in the modern Middle East will not find it altogether foreign. Something quite akin to this biblical outlook, the sense of smallness, is still there, very much the way of seeing common to most people.
Actually, the religions matter little, Islam, eastern Christianity, or Judaism. Once I had the occasion to hear an Iraqi Jew describe the culture shock he experienced when, as a young man, he was forced to leave his native Baghdad to settle in the West. "In
Baghdad," he said, "there were all kinds of people, some very traditional, some — like my own family — modern." (By "modern," he gave me to understand, he meant that they were not particularly punctilious about keeping the Sabbath or other religious duties.) "But all of us, modern and traditional, knew one thing: God is very big and man is very little. Once, some years after I had left Baghdad and moved to Western society, I went one evening to hear a famous theologian speak. I hoped that he would give me some piece of wisdom. But the more he spoke, the more his ideas and my own swirled around together in my head and the more upset I became. I could not get out of my mind this new thought: Man is very big, and God is very far away."

Copyright © 1999 by James L. Kugel

Table of Contents

1. Psalm 104 "This is where birds make their nest"
A Place in the System
2. Psalm 42 "My soul longs for You"
The Double Agent
3. Psalm 29 "Listen! The Lord"
The Death of Baal
4. Amos 4:4 5:24 "Let justice roll down like waters"
A Prophet in Israel
5. 2 Samuel 1:19-27 "How the mighty have fallen!"
David's Lament
6. Job 28 "There is mine for silver"
Where Wisdom is Found
7. Judges 5 Deborah's Song
Tough Women
8. Psalm 51 David's Confession
A Pure Heart
9. The One-Line Poem
(chosen from Proverbs and Ecclesiastes)
Solomon's Riddles
10. Isaiah 11:1-9 "The wolf will dwell with the lamb"
An Ideal Time
11. Psalm 23 "The Lord is my shepherd"
"And Obscure as That Heaven of the Jews"
12. Jeremiah 12:1-6 "You always win, O Lord"
Why Do The Wicked Prosper?
13. Psalm 137 "By the rivers of Babylon"
The Fall of Jerusalem
14. Psalm 119 A Psalm of Devotion
To Know God
15. The Song of Songs Selections
Sea of Love
16. Micah 7:8-20 "Who is like You?"
God's Character
17. Isaiah 60 "Arise, shine!"
The Match
18. Ecclesiastes 12 "Remember your Creator"
For Everyone, a Season
Dates of Important Figures and Events
Notes on Translations
Brief Bibliography
Scriptural Index

What People are Saying About This

Hillel Halkin

Mr. Kugel's commentaries... are marvelous--fresh, original, deeply thought, deeply felt. They are the responses to the Bible of a scholar who, far more than just a scholar, is above all a reader and knows that, even more than knowledge, taste and discrimination, the most important thing to bring to a text is oneself: not a part of oneself, but the whole, entirely focused and entirely open, ready to give and take all. To be able to read in this way is a rare gift, and Mr. Kugel, who can also write, has it.


At first, the invitation to put together a selection of poems from the Bible seemed to have been addressed to the wrong person. I had actually begun writing about the Bible twenty years earlier by trying to show that the whole idea of biblical "poetry" is a bit off: biblical style is not really divided into two clearly different modes, verse and prose, so talking about the Bible's "poems" is, technically speaking, only an approximation (on this see below). What is more, I don't particularly like to talk about compositions like the psalms or prayers or prophetic speeches as poems, since this word is in any case likely to summon up a host of associations inappropriate to these texts. They are really not very much like what we think of as poetry in the mainstream Western tradition. And even the idea of making a selection -- sifting through the Bible to find its high points, as it were -- was bound to be somewhat repugnant to anyone who, like me, thinks of it all as sacred Scripture.

Still, there was something intriguing in the proposal. It would be a challenge to try to put together a small collection of texts that might serve as an introduction, and invitation, to the whole Hebrew Bible for those who are not familiar with its contents -- not its "high points," necessarily, but a group of different compositions that together embody some of the major themes of the Hebrew Bible and present them in striking and memorable form. And as for "poetry," even if applying the categories of poetry and prose to the Bible can be somewhat misleading, it is nonetheless true that the body of texts conventionally thought of as the Bible's "poetry" shares with our own poetry a vitality and directness that prose often lacks. Perhaps as well, the conventions in both traditions allowed for a little more freedom, and a greater expansiveness, than is usual in ordinary prose.

The idea of translating the texts afresh was also intriguing. Many great translations already exist, yet I confess I was drawn to the prospect of trying to establish a somewhat different tone in my translations, one that might strike the contemporary reader's ear a bit more closely to the way, I imagined, these texts had originally sounded to their first audiences.

The publishers of the present selection also invited me to append to each translation a few words of my own, an invitation that I have willingly accepted. The brief essays that accompany these translations are hardly to be considered biblical commentary, and this for two reasons. The first is obvious: while I try in each to refer to specifics from the biblical text involved, I have refrained from writing a detailed philological or other commentary on every word. Such commentaries abound, and it would be foolish to duplicate, even if modifying here and there, their hard work. The second reason, no doubt less obvious to some, is that this book is not offered as a work of biblical criticism in the usual sense. While I hope I have said nothing here that contradicts all that has been discovered about the Bible over the last two centuries -- its original historical setting, the history and culture of biblical Israel's neighbors, the stages and processes of the composition of individual books -- I have not sought to make such things my central focus. At the same time, I have also shied away from a strictly literary approach, that is, from writing about the Bible the sorts of things that are written about poetry in American or European literatures. Instead, my goal throughout has been to try to concentrate on what might be called the spiritual reality addressed by different biblical texts. I admit that this is a speculative and rather risky undertaking, but I believe it is worth trying precisely because it is so often neglected. And so, in commenting on one or another topic associated with the passages selected for this book, I have tried to understand the way of seeing that underlies each passage, to enter (with, I admit, a great deal of trepidation) the spiritual world in which biblical Israelites lived. If I may be allowed the immodesty of quoting myself, a paragraph from one of the brief essays that follow really speaks for the whole undertaking:

Perhaps it is most natural for us today to explain the differences between our view of things and those of earlier civilizations by saying that in premodern times people simply did not know this or that fact, that they were under this or that misapprehension, from which we have now happily freed ourselves. No doubt there is some truth in this proposition. But it seems to me we ought at least to be prepared to entertain the opposite hypothesis as well, that however much progress the intervening centuries may have brought in some domains, they have also led us to lose a way of seeing that existed in former times. By "way of seeing" I mean to suggest something more than simply another point of view; perhaps people were actually enabled by this way of seeing to observe things that we no longer observe nowadays. It is difficult for one who reads the Bible carefully, and takes its words seriously, not to arrive at such a conclusion: something, a certain way of perceiving, has gradually closed inside of us, so that nowadays most people simply do not register, or do not have access to, what had been visible in an earlier age. What we have -- all we have -- are those texts of the Bible that bear witness to that other way of seeing (and perhaps invite us, with the use of some spiritual imagination, to try to enter into it, open our eyes, and look).

The biblical texts that appear in this volume have not been chosen to answer to a single standard or criterion. Some, like Psalm 23 or Psalm 137, are simply old favorites. Others, like the Song of Songs, or Deborah's Song, or David's Lament, have long ago been singled out as the Bible's poetry par excellence; no book on this topic might reasonably do without them. Still others have been chosen partly, though not chiefly, for their representative value, so that readers might find here a sampling of passages from both early and late in the biblical period, as well as examples of different sorts of elevated writings, from prophetic speeches to songs of praise, and from the one-line poems of biblical wisdom to the extended supplications of the Psalms. And, since this book aims as well at providing something of an introduction to the Bible as a whole, I have chosen one or two passages because they raise interesting questions or shed light on topics of general interest to readers of the Bible. Whatever other considerations I have had in mind, however, I have also tried to come up with a selection that works well as poetry, a series of texts that can speak to readers directly and, I hope, evocatively, movingly, in English.

Readers of some of my previous books may be puzzled by something in the present work, namely, its steadfast insistence on reading these texts afresh, without reference to the great interpretive tradition that has accompanied the Bible through all its meanderings. My own thoughts on the relevance of that tradition have not changed: our Bible is inevitably the Traditional Bible, that is, its meaning will always be mediated by the traditions of reading and interpretation that have accompanied it from ancient times. But what I wanted to do here -- not terribly different, in fact, from what many a medieval Jewish interpreter of the Bible did -- was to offer a kind of obiter dictum, a speculative engagement with a group of biblical texts in an attempt to reveal something new about the biblical roots of our postbiblical faith, perhaps something as well about a moment, or series of moments, in the history of our apprehension of God, moments whose reality can sometimes slip away now that we are safely on the other side of them.

Before turning to the texts themselves, however, there are two topics to which I should address myself here: the choices I have had to make in translating these biblical texts, and the nature of biblical poetry.

Any translator faces a host of choices. There is almost always more than one way to say something, so the translator has to decide: Should I say it in the most elevated style available or in some ordinary, down-to-earth sort of speech? Should I make the text sound as if it were being uttered today, or give it the flavor of something a little older, even out-of-date? Should I make it sound as if it were being spoken by one of us, or try gently to remind readers that this is still a foreign text, written in a language and culture quite different from our own? With regard to the Bible specifically, additional questions pose themselves. Does the sacredness of the text mean that I should strive to translate as literally as possible, even if that means saying things that are just not said in my own language? Or should I, on the contrary, try to come up with something that will sound to readers nowadays pretty much the way the biblical text must have sounded to its original audience, even if that means translating a bit freely here and there?

To such questions there are never hard-and-fast answers, and biblical translations in particular run the gamut of the possibilities mentioned. When the Jews of ancient Alexandria translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek starting in the third century B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), they produced a translation that sounded fairly natural in Greek but that here and there, quite intentionally, twists normal Greek syntax or vocabulary in order to reflect some feature of the Hebrew original. Far from being despised, these "biblicisms" came to be prized in Greek -- so much so that later Greek authors, trying to give their own writings a biblical flavor, would sometimes incorporate these same strange turns of phrase or style into their own compositions. The oddness made them sound authentic, perhaps even holy. The Old Latin translation, by contrast, was a disaster. It had too many infelicities -- so many that potential converts to Christianity, when first exposed to the Hebrew Bible in translation, were reported to observe that the God of the Hebrews apparently did not know Latin grammar. It was to correct this situation that Jerome, a great stylist, was commissioned to translate the Bible into Latin afresh, and he did so brilliantly. He basically used the Latin of his day, a simple but dignified idiom, though he was not innocent of an occasional evocation of the lofty Latin of Cicero or Vergil from years gone by. His translation, later known as the Vulgate, became the standard for centuries in the Christian West. But in other languages and locales translators were often stubbornly literal, sometimes going so far as to modify the syntax and even the gender of individual words in their own language in order to duplicate "exactly" -- so they said -- the biblical original.

In English, translators of the Bible have frequently straddled past and present, fancy and ordinary, in their choice of style. For example, many Bible translators continued to use the "Thou" form (some still do today) long after it had fallen out of use precisely because this form seems to say "lofty," "authoritative" -- nay, "biblical." But others dropped it almost as soon as it became obsolete; presumably, these translators found it stilted and unnatural, hence unsuited to their goals. Thou was still in common use when the King James translation of the Bible was made, but its artisans were not above an occasional archaism here and there. They sometimes used the word kine for "cow" or "cattle," for example, even though the term had by then disappeared from ordinary speech. Yet on the whole, that translation had a refreshing newness about it -- indeed, its publication was an event in the history of English literature, one that sanctified the common speech and turned a previously disdained hybrid jargon into a language in which high deeds could be recounted.

From all this it should be clear that translators of the Bible always find themselves on the same stylistic continuum, having to choose between high and low, ancient-sounding and contemporary, native and slightly foreign, slavishly literal and daringly free. In the present volume I have not set out to follow one extreme or the other, nor have I even translated in one style throughout. I have set this as my overall goal: to try to create in English the same impression that the biblical text would have made on the ears of its first audience. This in itself implies a certain flexibility of style, since the Bible is not all of a piece. The words of the prophet Amos, for example, are generally blunt, straightforward. He "tells it like it is," often (though not always) without literary embellishment. Job's book, on the other hand, is replete with fancy flourishes. His "comforters" speak in the elegant symmetries of ancient wisdom and more than once are made to sound full of high sentence and a bit obtuse. Job too speaks loftily, though sometimes, in marked contrast to them, he can also be very down-to-earth, even crass. The Song of Songs is written in a very northern, "pastoral"-sounding language designed to evoke the simple speech of countryfolk; much of it sounds utterly colloquial. How can a translator adopt a single style for such diverse material?

One thing I have definitely avoided in my translation is the attempt to "strangify" the English, to forgo the straightforward in favor of something -- anything -- that sounds unusual. Oddly, this has always tempted some translators of the Bible. But there is really no reason to translate the Hebrew word for "generations" as "begettings," "altar" as "slaughter-site," "offering" as "grain-gift," or "bed" as "place-of-lying," and so forth. It may be fun for readers who don't know Hebrew to imagine that they are somehow getting closer to the original through such contortions, but actually the opposite is true. This style of translating only succeeds in making the language sound bizarre, which is certainly not how it sounded to its original audience. Such an approach is not terribly different, really, from that of those translators mentioned earlier who changed the syntax or grammatical gender of their native languages in order to "duplicate" the biblical original. Thus, there is no point in saying that what God told Abraham in Gen. 12:1 was "Go-you-forth...and I will make a great nation of you and will give-you-blessing" (as one recent translation does). All those hyphens do is turn a straightforward promise -- "Leave your homeland...and I will make you a great nation and bless you" -- into something more appropriate to an Indian chief in a 1950s Western. Likewise, the fact that Hebrew (but not English) employs the repetition of the verbal root for emphasis hardly justifies translating Exod. 22:22-23 as "Oh, if you afflict, afflict them...For (then) they will cry, cry out to me, and I will hearken, hearken to their cry." This may indeed duplicate repetitions in the original text, but at the expense of sounding like pidgin English or some sort of prolonged stutter. To a speaker of biblical Hebrew this sentence sounded altogether normal, rather like, in English, "If you indeed afflict them, then they will certainly cry out to Me, and I guarantee, I will answer them." Sometimes, such efforts only produce confusion: "Now a woman -- when the flow of her blood flows for many days, when it is not the time of her being-apart, or when it flows out over-and-above her being-apart, all the days of her tamei flow she shall be like (during) the days of her being-apart; she is tamei" -- wha?

It is all a bit like someone who says: "True, other people have tried to translate Balzac from French before me, but they haven't really captured what he said. When Balzac writes 's'il vous plaît,' for example, they translate this as 'please.' But the French doesn't say please; it says, 'if it pleases you.' So my translation will always say 'if it pleases you.' I am duplicating the French original." Is this true? Only in the most foolish, literal-minded sense. Although the French phrase "s'il vous plaît" does indeed contain the words "if," "it," "you," and "pleases," the phrase as a whole is in every way the functional equivalent of please in English: it is what the French say when we say "please." So to have some character in a novel say, "Pass the butter, if it pleases you" would be fundamentally to distort the sense of the original. The translation sounds stilted and arcane, whereas the original sounds natural. So too with God's assertion that "I am a delivering-shield to you" and a thousand other curiosities -- these are just another form of saying "if it pleases you."

One problem that is always difficult in biblical translation concerns the name of God. There are several ways of referring to God in Hebrew, but two in particular. The first is what one might call the "generic" term for God: indeed, this Hebrew word can refer either to Israel's God or, when construed as a plural, to the gods of other nations. In that sense, "God" is no doubt the best translation, and that is how translators have rendered it in English, French, German, Yiddish, Russian, and so forth, going back to the ancient Greek translation mentioned earlier. The second term is often thought of as the "proper name" of God. It is spelled in Hebrew with the letters Y, H, W, and H (the vowels between the consonants, as in other Hebrew words, were not recorded in writing). From an early period, writing this sacred name down or speaking it aloud came to be severely restricted. In Hebrew, the word corresponding to "my lord" was often substituted for it in ordinary speech. Quite naturally, the word kurios, "Lord," then came to be used to substitute for this "proper name of God" in the old Greek translation, and in like fashion Dominus ("Lord") in Latin and "Lord" in English. To distinguish this sacred name from the ordinary word for "lord" (meaning "master" and the like) -- since this word likewise appears in the Bible -- translators adopted the convention of writing the sacred name in all capital letters, Lord, and the ordinary word as "lord" or "Lord." I have followed these conventions in the present work.

And now to biblical poetry. I hesitate to say too much by way of introduction: this book as a whole is intended to serve as (among other things) an introduction to the subject, and I have specifically sought to elaborate on various aspects of it in the essays that follow (see, in particular, "A Prophet in Israel," "Where Wisdom Is Found," "Tough Women," "Solomon's Riddles," "The Fall of Jerusalem," and "For Everyone, a Season"). But a few general points ought nevertheless to be mentioned from the outset.

Poetry in many languages is written in some sort of identifiable meter; rhyme also characterizes the poetry of many different peoples. The poetry of the Bible, by contrast, has neither rhyme nor fixed meter. Instead, it is characterized by an ideal sentence form that is repeated line after line. The form might be schematized as:

_ , _. A , B

That is to say, the sentence form consists of two parts, A and B. Each part is a short phrase or clause, usually only two, three, or four words long. The parts are separated by a brief pause (symbolized by the comma), and end in a full stop (symbolized by the period). But the contrast between this pause in the middle and the stop at the end is really a way of highlighting the relationship between the two clauses. B is always a continuation of A, related to A even though it is separated from it by the syntactic structure of the line. That is why this pause is only a pause and not a stop. By contrast, the stop at the end of B is "full" in the sense that one line does not usually carry over into the next line. The basic line of Hebrew poetry is what poets call an "end-stopped" line.

A few examples might make all this more vivid. The book of Isaiah foretells the in-gathering of Israel's exiles in these terms:

Now I will bring your children from the east, and from the west I will gather you up.

I will say to the north wind, "Come on!" and to the south wind, "Don't hold back!

Give Me My sons from afar, and My daughters from the ends of the earth!"
-- Isa. 43:5-6

Each line, it will be observed, follows the basic sentence-form described earlier. While writing in this form may appear to be rather simple, such is not really the case (though it is certainly not as difficult as writing, say, rhymed, iambic pentameter verse in English). It is not so easy to create a Part B that is immediately recognized as both distinct from Part A yet connected to it. And so in this passage the prophet has gone out of his way to make that separate-yet-connected status clear. In the first sentence, for example, even if each clause were presented on its own as a separate sentence:

Now I will bring your children from the east. From the west I will gather you up.

we would still have no difficulty in recognizing that they are related, coordinated utterances, since certain things in Part A are matched in Part B: "I will bring" is similar to "I will gather," "your children" is similar to "you," and "east" and "west" are commonly paired opposites. All these things help give us the feeling that Part B rounds out or finishes off Part A: I will bring your children from the east, and I will gather you up from the west. Part B is A's completion and perfect complement. As for the next two lines, it is to be noted that in both, the verb that appears in Part A is implied but not stated in Part B:

I will say to the north wind, "Come on!" and to the south wind [I will say], "Don't hold back!

Give Me My sons from afar, and [give Me] My daughters from the ends of the earth!"

Such verb ellipsis is a very common way of establishing the connectedness of A and B; B literally cannot stand without A before it. In addition, there are, in the first line, the commonly paired opposites "north wind" and "south wind" and the grammatically parallel imperatives "Come on!" and "Don't hold back!" or, in the next line, "My sons" and "My daughters" and "from afar" and "from the ends of the earth." All these things help create the feeling of a tight complementarity between Parts A and B and provide the same sort of satisfaction that rhyme sometimes creates in English verse.

Biblical critics used to refer to this Hebrew style as "parallelism," but that is not a very good name, since it focuses on what was merely one means for creating the feeling of connectedness between A and B and promotes it to the essence of the style. But verb ellipsis, for example, is just as important as parallelism as a means for creating this feeling. So is out-and-out repetition, for example:

Vanity of vanities, says Koheleth, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
-- Eccles. 1:2

Until there arose a Deborah, until there arose a mother in Israel...

Up, up, Deborah! Up, up and sing it out!
-- Jud. 5:7, 12

The essence of this style is really the ideal sentence form outlined above, Part A and Part B. Now, the verses cited above from Isaiah are particularly tightly organized, and the various means by which the correspondence of Part A to Part B is expressed stand out clearly. However, this passage from Isaiah is not typical of most lines of biblical poetry; it represents the highest, most formal, use of this style. Somewhat less formal are the following lines:

This is where birds make their nest, the stork has its home in fir-trees.

High mountains are for wild goats, and crags shelter the hares.

You made the moon to mark off the seasons, and You know the route of the sun.

When You bring darkness nighttime descends, and all the forest creatures come out.
-- Ps. 104:17-20

The first three lines have some of the usual sort of correspondence markers between Parts A and B ("nest" and "home," "birds" and "stork," and so on), though a bit less intensely than in the Isaiah example; but the fourth line merely presents two conjoined utterances. The word "and" in that line makes it clear that Part B is connected to Part A, but the sorts of correspondences seen elsewhere are absent here. There are a great many lines like this one in the Psalms. Consider the following:

As a deer longs for a coursing stream, so my soul longs for You.

My soul thirsts for God, the living God, for the time when I may go to see God's face.

Night and day, tears have been my food, as all day long I hear, "Where is your God?"
-- Ps. 42:2-4

While A and B in the first line constitute a straightforward comparison, "Just", in which the correspondence of the two halves is clear enough, in the second and third lines Part B is simply a continuation of Part A, another clause tacked on with scarcely any overt correspondence markers. There is certainly a feeling of some regularity, of constructedness, in these lines, a regularity that derives from the repeated sequence of partial and full stops, but the feeling of clause-for-clause correspondence is certainly less striking than in the previous examples.

Incidentally, biblical poetry was not originally written down with periods and commas of any kind, and, precisely because, in lines like those just cited, our modern standards of punctuation may require that there be other commas besides the one representing the pause between A and B, I generally prefer to indicate that medial pause by a single vertical line and the final pause by a double vertical line, thus:

As a deer longs for a coursing stream | so my soul longs for You, God.||

My soul thirsts for God, the living God | for the time when I may go and see God's face ||

Night and day, tears have been my food | as all day long I hear, "Where is your God?" ||

This form of annotation tends to work better for another reason as well: sometimes in English the "final" pause might better be punctuated with a semicolon or even a comma (in other words, it is not always altogether final from the standpoint of English punctuation). Moreover, sometimes the medial pause is even less than what a comma might indicate in English; it is simply a possible place to pause, a syntactic opportunity. Consider these familiar lines from Psalm 23:

You set a table for me | right in the face of my enemies ||

You anoint my head with oil | my cup overflows ||

Goodness and kindness alone will pursue me | all throughout my life ||

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord | for a length of time ||
-- Ps. 23:5-6

Of the above lines, only the second one has a clear break between Parts A and B. The others all have a place where one can pause slightly, but the pause is not imposed by the syntax as in other lines.

Not only is the medial pause rather weak in these lines from Psalm 23, but the correspondence markers are almost completely absent. This psalm, in other words, is much less formal, much less structured than any of the previous examples. Was it that the psalmist somehow couldn't manage to create lines like Isaiah's? Hardly. To say that would be as foolish as to say that, for example, Walt Whitman or Wallace Stevens couldn't manage to write in rhymed couplets the way poets did in England in the eighteenth century. Styles change from time to time, and even within a particular period, very different sorts of compositions can sometimes be written by two contemporary authors, or even by a single author on two different occasions or for two different purposes. The effect of the kind of construction found in Psalm 23 or (to choose another psalm from this book) Psalm 137 is indeed less formal, less structured, than the style of Isaiah above, but each way of writing, as will be seen, is altogether appropriate to its own purpose and message.

The very looseness of their form raises an interesting question, however. How different is biblical poetry from biblical prose? The answer is what one might suppose. Sometimes the difference is very clear: there is no mistaking Isaiah's "high style" for ordinary discourse. But the line between Psalm 137 and a "prose" speech in the books of Samuel or Kings, for example, is scarcely visible; in another literature both might have been perceived as mere prose. In other words, the highly structured, ornamented style of biblical poetry at its most formal slides imperceptibly into something far less regular -- the style of a great many psalms, for example -- and that style in turn slides into what we call prose. There are not two ways of writing in biblical Hebrew but a continuum of styles; the extremes at either end are easily distinguished, but there is much that is located in the middle ground.

That is one reason why, as suggested earlier, talking about "poetry" and "prose" in the Bible can be misleading. Biblical Israelites had no terms corresponding to these, and there is no indication that they thought of their sacred writings as falling under one of these two general headings. If we talk about biblical "poetry," then, it must be understood that this is only an approximation, a way of referring to those prophetic speeches, psalms, songs, wise sayings, and laws that were written on the "formal" end of biblical Hebrew's stylistic continuum. At the same time, like all other poetry, the works presented in this book are also full of striking images and comparisons, and there is no doubt that they are often stylized and carefully crafted, so that every word counts. In this sense the label of "poetry" is altogether appropriate, as, I hope, will be seen presently.

I would like to thank those friends and colleagues who have been kind enough to read through parts of this book and/or offer suggestions concerning it, in particular: Gary Anderson, Hayyim Angel, Daniel Braunschwig, Mavis Dobbs, Roland Gill, Peter Machinist, Lawrence Rhu, and Harold Schimmel. My thanks as well to Bruce Nichols of the Free Press and Ellen Geiger of Curtis, Brown Ltd. for their help in making this book possible.

Copyright © 1999 by James L. Kugel

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Great Poems of the Bible: A Reader's Companion with New Translations 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
TerriBooks on LibraryThing 10 months ago
The publisher's description on the back of this book says that James Kugel's Old Testament was one of the two most popular at Harvard. If he lectures as well as he writes, I can see why. It's not the translations that are the heart of this book. Rather, it's the way Kugel uses the selected pieces to give us insights into the Hebrew Bible, the people of the Old Testament, and the thousand year culture of a people who lived in a tiny land in the Middle East. You don't have to be a scholar to enjoy this book. It's about the best one I've seen that really helps us understand concepts that we weren't even aware we didn't "get".Incidentally, I found his discussion in the introduction about the process of translation especially useful as we in the Catholic Church prepare for our new translation of the Roman Missal. I wish our translators had read Kugel's reflections on why you don't translate word-for-word: "The translation sounds stilted and arcane, whereas the original sounds natural."The introduction also includes a very good discussion of Hebrew poetry - its structure and its internal relationships. I found it both interesting and helpful.I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in reading the Old Testament with an eye to catching the meanings that the original Hebrew writers and readers did.
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I think this is or would be a great book for kid that goes to church