Robert Alter on the Bible at its most unorthodox

Reading the Bible in Robert Alter's translation often feels like reading it for the first time. In the hands of Alter, the Bible's preeminent translator and commentator, the "Good Book" is revealed as something else: the most remarkable of literary anthologies — a collection that shifts inventively in tone and world-view from story to story.    

The three books we discuss in this episode are arguably the Bible's most unorthodox: the two books that never mention the word God (the Book of Esther, the Song of Songs) and the book that pushes back against religious nationalism (the Book of Jonah).

In the Book of Esther, a story that veers into sex comedy, a beautiful Jewish commoner joins a Persian king’s harem and contrives to save her people. In the Song of Songs, two lovers engage in a dance of mutual seduction that encourages us, as readers, to “be drunk with loving.” And in the Book of Jonah, a man who refuses to preach to his enemies is swallowed by a giant fish — God working in magical as well as mysterious ways.

Robert Alter is our guide into these stories. A professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at UC-Berkeley, Alter has published twenty-five books of literary criticism and translation on literature from ancient times to the present. With Strong as Death Is Love, which encompasses these three books, he extends a twenty-year project of translating and annotating the Hebrew Bible — an undertaking that is one of the most magnificent scholarly projects of our time.

Resources for this episode

Robert Alter, Strong as Death Is Love: The Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah, Daniel (WW. Norton, 2014) — now out in paperback.

Music used in this episode

Blue Dot Sessions, "Jackbird" (license) and "Front Runner" (license)

John Zorn and the Bar Kokhba Sextet, "Kisofim," available on The Circle Maker (Tzadik).

Dorothy Love Coates and the Original Gospel Harmolettes, "You Better Run to the City of Refuge," available on The Best of Dorothy Love Coates and the Original Harmolettes.


Jonah image by Alma Sheppard-Matsuo (originally appeared in Tablet).