The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation
by Everett Fox

Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes. New York: Schocken Books, 1995.

Everett FoxThis unique translation of the Pentateuch, done by a Professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, was modelled after a German translation done on similar principles by Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber (published in several parts from 1933 to 1939). (1) Fox explains in his preface that he sought to follow the principles expounded by Rosenzweig and Buber, (2) and “to draw the reader into the world of the Hebrew Bible through the power of its language.” Like the earlier German work, Fox’s translation “tries to mimic the particular rhetoric of the Hebrew whenever possible, preserving such devices as repetition, allusion, alliteration, and wordplay.”

The Five Books of Moses is in many respects an offshoot of the Buber-Rosenzweig translation. I began with their principles: that translations of individual words should reflect ‘primal’ root meanings, that translations of phrases, lines, and whole verses should mimic the syntax of the Hebrew, and that the vast web of allusions and wordplays present in the text should be somehow perceivable in the target language.” (Preface, p. x.)

The impossibility of doing this in natural English idiom leads Fox to present some renderings which stretch the limits of the English language. He translates the Hebrew word for “generations” as “begettings,” “altar” as “slaughter-site,” “offering” as “grain-gift,” “bed” as “place-of-lying,” etc. Fox provides some notes to help the reader through some of these renderings, but warns the reader that he must “be prepared to meet the Bible at least halfway and must become an active participant in the process of the text, rather than a passive listener.”

“... the translator who wishes to bring the language spoken by his audience into consonance with the style of the Hebrew text runs the risk of doing violence to that language, forced as he is in to ‘hebraizing’ the language. There will of necessity be a certain strangeness and some awkward moments in such a translation. Buber and Rosenzweig themselves came under fire for creating a strange new kind of German in their work; one critic in 1933 accused them of ‘unusual affectations.’ My renditions of the Torah books, while limited in what they wreak with the English language both by my cautiousness and by the less pliable nature of English, have been liable to similar characterization ... This problem, however, is inherent in this kind of undertaking, and I have accepted its risks willingly. In the last generation there have been any number of clear, smooth-reading translations of the Bible, all aimed at making the text readily accessible to the reader. I have taken a different road, arguing (along with Buber and Rosenzweig) that the reader must be prepared to meet the Bible at least halfway and must become an active participant in the process of the text, rather than a passive listener. To this end, there is no alternative but to force the language of the translation to become the instrument through which the Hebraic voice of the text speaks.” (Preface, p. xix)

Below is a sample of the text with its notes. The text is formatted as poetry (even though this portion of Genesis is not in poetic form in the Hebrew text) because Fox wishes to present the narrative in an “oral form.” This is one of the principles of the Buber-Rosenzweig approach: In ancient times the Bible was not so much “read” as “spoken and heard,” and many of its rhetorical features go unnoticed when it is printed as ordinary prose. In the passage below, the rhythm of the lines may help the reader to notice such things as the repetition of the sentence “Thus the two of them went together” in verses 6 and 8. This repetition is a meaningful rhetorical feature because it frames, and hence draws attention to, verses 7 and 8 as being especially significant.

Genesis 22:1-19

The Great Test (22): This story is certainly one of the masterpieces of biblical literature. In a famous article by Erich Auerbach it is remarked how biblical style as exemplified here, in contradistinction to that of Homer and other epic bards, eschews physical and psychological details in favor of one central preoccupation: a man’s decision in relation to God. The result of this style is a terrible intensity, a story which is so stark as to be almost unbearable.

Chap. 22 is a tale of God’s seeming retraction of his promise (of “seed”) to Avraham. The fact that other issues may be involved here (i.e., Israel’s rejection of local and widely practiced ideas of child sacrifice) may be quite beside the point. Coming just one chapter after the birth of the long-awaited son, the story completely turns around the tension of the whole cycle and creates a new, frightening tension of its own. The real horror of the story lies in this threatened contradiction to what has gone before.

Most noticeable in the narrative is Avraham’s silence, his mute acceptance of, and acting on, God’s command. We are told of no sleepless night, nor does he ever say a word to God. Instead he is described with a series of verbs: starting-early, saddling, taking, splitting, arising, going (v.3; similarly in vv.6 and 9-10). Avraham the bargainer, so willing to enter into negotiations with relations (Chap. 13), allies (Chap. 14), local princes (Chap. 20), and even God himself (Chap. 18), here falls completely silent.

The chapter serves an important structural function in the Avraham cycle, framing it in conjunction with Chap. 12. The triplet in v.2 (“Pray take your son,/ your only-one,/ whom you love”) recalls “from your land/ from your kindred/ from your father’s house” in 12:1; “go-you-forth” and “the land that I will tell you of” (v.2; the latter, three times in the story) similarly point back to Avraham’s call (12:1, “Go-you-forth ... to the land that I will let you see”). There he had been asked to give up the past (his father); here, the future (his son). Between the two events lies Avraham’s active life as man of God, ancestor, and intercessor. After this God will never speak with him again.

In many ways this story is the midpoint of Genesis. It brings the central theme of continuity and discontinuity to a head in the strongest possible way. After Moriyya, we can breathe easier, knowing that God will come to the rescue of his chosen ones in the direst of circumstances. At the same time we are left to ponder the difficulties of being a chosen one, subject to such an incredible test.

The story is also the paradigmatic narrative of the entire book. The Patriarch passes the test, and we know that the fulfillment of the divine promise is assured. Yet there is an ominous note: love, which occurs here by name for the first time, leads almost to heartbreak. So it will be for the rest of Genesis.

1   Now after these events it was
that God tested Avraham
and said to him:
He said:
Here I am.
2   He said:
Pray take your son,
your only-one,
whom you love,
and go-you-forth to the land of Moriyya/Seeing,
and offer him up there as an offering-up
upon one of the mountains
that I will tell you of.
3   Avraham started-early in the morning,
he saddled his donkey,
he took his two serving-lads with him and Yitzhak his son,
he split wood for the offering-up
and arose and went to the place that God had told him of.
4   On the third day Avraham lifted up his eyes
and saw the place from afar.
5   Avraham said to his lads:
You stay here with the donkey,
and I and the lad wish to go yonder,
we wish to bow down and then return to you.
6   Avraham took the wood for the offering-up,
he placed them upon Yitzhak his son,
in his hand he took the fire and the knife.
Thus the two of them went together.
7   Yitzhak said to Avraham his father, he said:
He said:
Here I am, my son.
He said:
Here are the fire and the wood,
but where is the lamb for the offering-up?
8   Avraham said:
God will see-for-himself to the lamb for the offering-up,
my son.
Thus the two of them went together.
9   They came to the place that God had told him of;
there Avraham built the slaughter-site
and arranged the wood
and bound Yitzhak his son
and placed him on the slaughter-site atop the wood.
10  And Avraham stretched out his hand,
he took the knife to slay his son.
11  But Yhwh’s messenger called to him from heaven
and said:
Avraham! Avraham!
He said:
Here I am.
12  He said:
Do not stretch out your hand against the lad,
do not do anything to him!
For now I know
that you are in awe of God—
you have not withheld your son, your only-one, from me.
13  Avraham lifted up his eyes and saw:
here, a ram was caught behind in the thicket by its horns!
Avraham went,
he took the ram
and offered it up as an offering-up in place of his son.
14  Avraham called the name of that place: Yhwh Sees.
As the saying is today: On Yhwh’s mountain (it) is seen.
15  Now Yhwh’s messenger called to Avraham a second time from heaven
16  and said:
By myself I swear
Yhwh’s utterance —
indeed, because you have done this thing, have not withheld your son, your only-one,
17  indeed, I will bless you, bless you,
I will make your seed many, yes many,
like the stars of the heavens and like the sand that is on the shore of the sea;
your seed shall inherit the gate of their enemies,
18  all the nations of the earth shall enjoy blessing through your seed,
in consequence of your hearkening to my voice.
19  Avraham returned to his lads,
they arose and went together to Be’er-Sheva.
And Abraham stayed in Be’er-Sheva.

22:1. after these events: Others use “Some time afterward.” Here I am: A term frequently used to convey readiness, usually in relation to a superior’s command or address.

2. Yitzhak: The name is left until the end of the phrase, to heighten tension. Similarly, see 27:32. Moriyya: Trad. English “Moriah.” The mountain here is later identified with the site of Solomon’s Temple.

5. bow down: Worship.

6, 8. Thus the two of them went together: Between these two statements is Avraham’s successful deflection of Yitzhak’s question, and perhaps the hint of a happy ending.

7. fire: I.e., a torch or brand.

8. see-for-himself: Or “select.” See the name of the mountain in verse 14, “Yhwh Sees.” offering-up,/ my son: One might read it with a dash instead of a comma, to preserve what may be an ironic answer.

10. slay: A verb used to describe animal sacrifice; the throat is slit.

13. a ram caught behind: Most ancient versions read "one/a ram caught."

16. Yhwh’s utterance: A phrase often found in the prophetic books. See note on 15:1.

17. indeed, I will bless you: Avraham has received such blessings before, but never before "because you have hearkened to my voice" (v. 18). inherit the gate: i.e., possess or take the city.

18. all the nations ...: See 12:3.

19. Avraham returned: The fact that Yitzhak is not mentioned here has given rise to speculation for centuries (see Shalom Siegel, The Last Trial). The omission may simply arise from the fact that Yitzhak as a personality is not important to the story, which is first and foremost a test of Avraham.

The introduction to this section is insightful and interesting. In its fourth paragraph, Fox shows his skill as a literary critic, comparing several formal elements of the section with the narrative of Abraham’s call in Genesis 12. This is the kind of commentary one rarely encounters in an edition of the Bible; it will be much appreciated by readers who are interested in literary features of the text.

Fox’s use of hyphenated phrases seems to be modelled after the German habit of compounding nonce words, a device used frequently by Buber and Rosenzweig in their German translation. The results seem less strange in German than in English, and it may be questioned whether such “strangified” English gives the reader a true impression of what in Hebrew is really quite ordinary. James Kugel, another Jewish scholar who has written extensively on Hebrew poetry and the problems of translation, criticizes Fox in these words: “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.” (3) It should be understood, however, that Fox’s purpose here is to give readers a sense for many things in the ancient Hebrew text that cannot be translated into idiomatic English, and his foreignizing translation does partly achieve this purpose, if the reader is prepared to meet him halfway.

Fox continues to work on translations of other portions of the Old Testament, and in 1999 he published a translation of 1 and 2 Samuel in the same vein: Give Us a King! A New English Translation of the Book of Samuel. The publisher, Schocken Books (now a division of Random House), has projected a complete Old Testament, to be known as “The Schocken Bible.”

1. Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, Die Schrift. Zu verdeutschen unternommen von Martin Buber gemeinsam mit Franz Rosenzweig (Berlin: Schocken Verlag, 1933-1939)

2. Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, Die Schrift und ihre Verdeutschung (Berlin: Schocken Verlag, 1936). An English translation has been published as Scripture and Translation, edited and translated by Lawrence Rosenwald and Everett Fox (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).

3. James L. Kugel, The Great Poems of the Bible: A Reader’s Companion with New Translations (New York: Free Press, 1999), page 16.