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Words of wisdom

Sigmund Freud apparently never wrestled with Job or the Preacher of Ecclesiastes when he formulated his famous critique of religion in "The Future of an Illusion."

Otherwise, the founder of psychoanalysis would have revised his classic work, which claimed that religion was nothing more than the fulfillment "of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind."

You don't have to read very far into Robert Alter's new translation of the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament — also called the Hebrew Bible — to realize that for Job and the writer of Ecclesiastes (which Alter deems by its mysterious Hebrew name, Qohelet), religion was anything but Freud's pie-in-the-sky projection: You'll get everything you want but don't have in this life in the next.

Indeed, there is little talk of the afterlife in either of these books; the few remarks that remain seem mired in skepticism. Job looms as a cri du coeur of existential crisis: an unanswered question about undeserved suffering. Ecclesiastes runs aground on the sheer absurdity of human life — ephemeral and pointless, doomed to dissolve into the very dust from which it was formed.

Thus, neither book fits neatly into Freud's reductionistic framework. Job, in particular, portrays a panoply of pain, misunderstanding and malice; his life reads like an interminable cosmic joke: the black humor of the heavens.

Yet he still manages to say about his God: "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him" (King James Version). This defiant confession forms the religious heart of the book, making Job, as Alter asserts, the high point of the Hebrew Bible.

Ecclesiastes reads as an even bleaker commentary on the human condition. "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity," proclaims the Preacher in the King James Version. Alter's translation reads, "Merest breath, said Qohelet, merest breath. All is mere breath."

Between these literary dark nights of the souls shine the bright aphorisms of Proverbs. A less perplexing type of wisdom perhaps, they nevertheless resound as pure poetry.

Which makes it such a pity that Alter is not a better poet.

A professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, he has spent the past decade translating the Hebrew Bible into accessible, often brilliant, American English.

His prowess lies in his literalistic handling of his sources; accuracy and nuance are his watchwords; he stands on guard against linguistic error.

As a scholar, Alter proves invaluable at helping us understand the historical background of the texts. His insights carry the conviction of years of fruitful study, and a passion to remain faithful to the works he so clearly loves.

The irony of such erudition, however, is that it cannot mitigate the clunkiness of his verse. King James should rest easy in his grave; his poetic expressions of the Wisdom Books — even with their 16th-century limitations — still stand unsurpassed.

Examples abound of how Alter's English rolls off the tongue with a soul-numbing thud, such as his repeated use of the term "dolt" for "fool." After a dozen or so dolts, the word takes on an unintended comic air.

One of the more vexing problems is Alter's insistence on the word "breath" in the above-mentioned passage from Ecclesiastes.

He argues that "breath" most closely approximates the concrete image of the Hebrew word "Hevel." Perhaps, but "breath" also carries a connotation of movement and life. King James' "vanity," though abstract, better conveys the Preacher's feeling of metaphysical emptiness, of the void.

It is equally a pity that Alter feels compelled to thrust his scholarship upon us at every page; we can't read a stanza of poetry without wading through a sea of notes defending his word choices.

If all three Wisdom Books rank as verse of the highest order, as Alter claims, then they must speak to us as such — as organic works of art, as poetic wholes embodying the dance of being and time that imparts spiritual power to their words.

This is what makes Job's sufferings and Ecclesiastes' lament Scripture: When we read them, we hear the original echo of what the 20th-century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke heard before the archaic torso of Apollo in his poem by the same name:

there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

"The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes," translated with commentary by Robert Alter (W.W. Norton, 560 pages, $35)

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