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James Wood reviews Robert Alter's beautifully presented and "remarkable new translation of the Pentateuch," The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, in this week's London Review of Books:


Robert Alter eschews ‘face’ to describe the surface of the world at the start of Genesis, and I miss the cosmic implications, but his first two verses amply compensate with their own originality: ‘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.’ The King James Version has ‘without form and void’ for Alter’s Anglo-Saxonish ‘welter and waste’, but Alter, as throughout this massive work, provides a diligent and alert footnote:

The Hebrew tohu wabohu occurs only here and in two later biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one. The second word of the pair looks like a nonce term coined to rhyme with the first and to reinforce it, an effect I have tried to approximate in English by alliteration. Tohu by itself means ‘emptiness’ or ‘futility’, and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert.

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