This guest book review was written by frequent commenter Terry H.
The Early Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings (The Schocken Bible, Volume II), A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary and Notes by Everett Fox (Schocken Books: New York, NY), 2014 Hardcover, pp. 872, $50.00.
Schocken Books is a division of Random House specifically for the publication of books by and about Jews and what its like to be Jewish. Back in 1995, The Five Books of Moses came out from Schocken in what was purported to be the first volume of the Schocken Bible. The translation, commentary, and notes of the Pentateuch was done by Everett Fox, a young scholar I hadn’t heard of. The translation was different from anything I’d run across before, including Robert Alter’s very popular translation of Genesis.[i] Fox prefers to have the text read aloud by the reader, which he convincingly states keeps the spirit of the original as it was perhaps read by the ancients. The Hebrew grammar and pronunciation takes some getting used to (particularly Fox’s use of hyphens), but it is a powerful reading experience after spending time with it. I love to study the translations that I believe are truest to the spirit and language of the Hebrew original and I found Fox’s to be that for me. I have been recommending this book to people ever since. Whenever I study the Old Testament, I begin with Fox. The Five Books of Moses will make a perfect gift for someone who is really interested in the Scriptures and in softcover, it’s fairly economical.
Earlier this year, I got the exciting announcement that the second volume in the Schocken Bible would be released after 19 years. It is now on the shelves, both virtual and literal. This new volume covers the rest of what are called the historical books after Moses: Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. We’ve actually had a taste of this new book because back in 1999, Fox published a translation of the two books of Samuel called Give Us A King.[ii] The notes and commentary from that hard-to-find volume are in this one, but in a different form since Fox has changed some of his thought over the course of the last 15 years.
I had originally planned to discuss this volume’s treatment of Elyyahu (Elijah), who has been one of my favorites since my youth, but it is Fox’s treatment of Shimson (Sampson) that got my attention first. I had recently completed Alter’s treatment of these three chapters from Judges in Ancient Israel, (pp. 106-108, 174-193) and was still pondering Alter’s helpful and enlightening commentary on the various motifs and recurring themes, when my hard copy of Early Prophets arrived. I immediately went to Fox’s rendition for his analysis and remembered why I start with Fox when I study the Old Testament.
Fox introduces the Shimson cycle (pp. 207-209) and then begins each chapter for Judges 13-16 with further discussion from that chapter. Like Alter, his notes and commentary cover 20 additional pages (although Alter’s notes and commentary are more extensive.) Fox points out some of the similar themes that Alter does, but he maintains a bit more distance from the text allowing the reader to feel the emotion of the story. Fox has written an Appendix to the Shimson story which is found between the end of the Book of Judges, but before Samuel. It is called “The Sound and Structure of a Biblical Tale.” It is only three pages long, but it demonstrates Fox’s claim that the Sampson narrative is more than just “a loosely gathered series of tales about the hero,” but that it “exhibits a verbally tight structure . . .” (p.261). Fox goes on to show (with the assistance of a chart on p. 262) that “More than perhaps any other cycle of stories in the Bible, it [the Shimson narrative] is built architectonically on the repetition of words and motifs.” Fox then illustrates no less than 39 such elements. By the end of this Appendix, Fox has shown (at least for me) that Judges 16 is “far from being a separate set of tales, integrates what has come before in a sophisticated and spectacular display of the Hebrew bible’s narrative artistry” (p. 263).
It is examples like the foregoing that show how the Hebrew Bible itself foreshadows what happens in a subtle way that often we, as readers, barely recognize. Fox, in particular, shows us how to recognize it for ourselves. Fox’s insights resonate with me in ways that Alter’s more secular approach does not. I recommend both Ancient Israel and The Early Prophets, but if I have to pick one, I go with Fox.
- Alter has since come out with several volumes which his publisher, W.W. Norton, has taken to calling “The Alter Translation of the Hebrew Bible.” The Five Books of Moses (2004); The Book of Psalms (2007); The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes (2010); Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings (2013); and Strong As Death Is Love: The Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah and Daniel (forthcoming Mar. 2, 2015).
- Give Us A King: Samuel, Saul and David, (Schocken Books, New York: NY), 1999, pp. 382. Interestingly enough, Robert Alter did the same thing by publishing The David Story: A Translation and Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel, (W.W. Norton: New York, NY), 1999, pp. 448. Alter’s book came out just two months before Fox’s. It appears that Alter and Fox (at least with the material between Genesis and Kings) have been very close in completing their work. Fox states that his new volume (covering the same material as Alter’s Ancient Israel was turned in prior to that book’s release (Early Prophets, p. 835). Of course, in the interim, Alter has released translations of the Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah and Daniel. I’m anxiously awaiting his final two (or three) volumes on the Greater and Lesser Prophets. Hopefully, he’ll live that long.