Not just the same old story

Michele Roberts reads some revised and unauthorised versions
In the Beginning by Karen Armstrong, HarperCollins, pounds 14.99 Genesis: translation and commentary by Robert Alter, W W Norton, pounds 18.95

Who reads the Bible nowadays? Insomniac travellers grateful for the copies scattered around the world's hotels by the Gideon society? Postmodern novelists with writer's block desperate for material? Karen Armstrong, in her new interpretation of the book of Genesis, is convinced that the Big Book goes on attracting a wide modern readership because "sacred scripture has been one of the principal means of introducing people to a world of ultimate truth, beauty and goodness". That sounds quite conventionally Christian, until you realise how much Armstrong is stressing the pleasures of reading: "people have turned to their holy books not to acquire information but to have an experience."

This comes intriguingly close to the French concept of jouissance - the sensual bliss you might also get from art, poetry or indeed love-making. With the death of God-as-Author has come a renewed interest in the Bible as literature, a complex narrative pattern of symbols and stories woven by generations of sophisticated creators who combined reverence for inherited myths with boldness and innovation at the levels of syntax and image. Karen Armstrong rescues Genesis from purely literary criticism by seeing it as a collection of rather baffling teaching stories, and argues forcefully that we have to struggle for the meanings embedded in the often mysterious text, much as Jacob wrestled all night with God in the shape of an angel.

Like the gnostics whom Elaine Pagels has described in her books on the composition of the Bible, Armstrong encourages the reader to dig deep for a satisfying reading. Her passionate sincerity shines through her pages. For her, Genesis is less an often irritating myth of origins than a sequence of timeless tales designed to "bring to the reader's attention important truths about the human predicament that still reverberate today". The main narrative drive shows humanity's separation from God, God's withdrawal as actor from the human stage, and people's subsequent need to begin to discover the sacred in one another.

This approach yields valuable insights into the concept of sin. Armstrong sees human beings endowed with the need and desire to live as fully as possible, to experience the richness of being that the Hebrews called "blessing". Only when this tips over into too much greed do things go wrong.

So Eve in the garden, stretching out her hand to acquire the fruits of knowledge, was acting out of a deep part of her nature. The Fall, in this sense, was inevitable. Armstrong's compassion, her tolerance and insight, chimes with her indignation about the horrors of which we are capable, our cruelty towards children, our devastation of the planet. She has no good words to say for Noah, who didn't seem to mind that everyone else got drowned.

The difficulty with her approach is that, because she treats the figures in the stories as characters like those in realist novels, she ends up using a language that hovers uneasily between the jargon of a social-worker's case-notes and the vernacular of much modern fiction. Discussing Noah, she comments, for example:

"Readers of Genesis are forced to consider the unwelcome fact that they are all descended from a drunkard and an abusive father, who exposed himself to his children and neurotically disowned many of his descendants. Noah would not be the only damaged survivor, unable to assimilate his experience and wreaking his vengeance upon others."

While one might well secretly wish to see these bossy patriarchs cut down to size, the note of contemporary psychologising jars. The model of the modern dysfunctional family, nodding to The Forsyte Saga in one direction and Jungian analysis in another, seems a little too reductive as a map to the Book of Genesis. But Armstrong is both humble and generous. She appends the text of Genesis to her commentary, so that we can refresh our memories by re-reading it and then make up our own minds.

For the critic Robert Alter, the act of reading and interpretation is crucially bound up with the question of translation. He gives us his new version of Genesis, since he is dissatisfied with all the preceding ones. He opens his case with a flourish: "Why, after so many English versions, a new translation of Genesis? There is, as I shall explain in detail, something seriously wrong with all the familiar English translations...of the Hebrew Bible. Broadly speaking, one may say that in the case of the modern versions, the problem is a shaky sense of English and in the case of the King James version, a shaky sense of Hebrew." What he aims, experimentally, to do is to re-present biblical narrative prose "in a language that conveys with some precision the semantic nuances and the lively orchestration of literary effects of the Hebrew and ... has stylistic and rhythmic integrity as literary English."

One of the problems for the translator is to combine philological scholarship with good literary style. Philology is crucial as "without it, our reading of the Bible, or indeed of any older text, is no better than walking through a great museum on a very gloomy day with all the lights turned out". Yet the clarity beloved of philologists does not always sit well with the subtleties cherished by poets. Similarly, translation is not well served by modern ideological attitudes that explain away the Bible under the guise of making it accessible.

Alter believes in wrestling with the angel of linguistics, in restoring metaphor and symbol to their central places in the text rather than flattening them out as abstract words, in attending to sound and rhythmical shape. His version of Genesis comes heavily annotated, and achieves a robust beauty without any touch of the fake antique.