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The Shadow of a Great Rock

A month ago, The New York Review of Books blog had a post by Harold Bloom with the title My Favorite Book in the Bible. This got my attention, and I read the short piece on what turns out to be Jonah. A note at the end explained that the piece was from his upcoming book The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, to be published in September. A week and a half ago, I was mentioning the upcoming book to someone and then thought to myself that I should order it. I checked at Amazon and it was already available. It arrived last Tuesday.

Perhaps I should point out that this year is the 400th anniversary of the KJB, a natural occasion for a review of its literary merits. After dinner Tuesday, I sat outside and jumped around in the book to get a taste of what Bloom had to say about Genesis, or the David stories in 1 and 2 Samuel, or Job and Ecclesiasted, or Mark, or Paul’s writings. It quickly emerged that this was by no means a systematic study. Rather, Bloom seems to be running some of the greatest hits through his mind, then sharing them with the reader in a casual chat. Often he will contrast the rendering of a passage in the KJB and with the translations of its two great predecessors, Tyndale and the Geneva Bible.

As one example of Bloom’s readings, I’ll turn to his discussion of Exodus 15:1-18, the Song of the Sea. Sometimes he will compare the translation with the Hebrew itself, but in this case he admits that the passage “is composed in so difficult and archaic a Hebrew as to daunt me. I am not equal to judging the aesthetic contrast between the original and the KJB version, particularly since Handel’s setting of it (Israel in Egypt) will not leave my inner ear.” In lieu of the original Hebrew, he turns to William Propp’s literal rendering of the passage in Exodus 1-18 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries).

The translation occupies 2+ pages, after which Bloom returns: “The aesthetic limitations of a literal translation from archaic Hebrew are palpable, yet Propp labors to be useful, and he is. Tyndale, marvelously transforming lyric into narrative, necessarily loses the song and gives us the fierce ecstasy.”

I’ll quote just one line from Tyndale: “His jolly captains are drowned in the Red sea, the deep waters have covered them: they sank to the bottom as a stone.”

Bloom again: “Who would want to lose ‘His jolly captains’ and much else in this exuberant vernacular? The Geneva men, rather than Tyndale, proved the model for the matchless KJB refinement of the martyr’s rough prose music:” Bloom then offers the KJB version, in which “his chosen captains also are drowned in the Red sea. The depths have covered them: they sank into the bottom as a stone.”

Bloom concludes his review of the passage with “The Yahweh of Exodus is a man of war, and this song celebrates his victory and scants Moses. In 15:11 “the gods” presumably are the angels of Yahweh’s heavenly court. Like most victory odes, the Song of Moses offers exultation at the cost of wisdom and can leave the wary reader a little chilled.”

My tiny excerpt from Exodus hardly does justice to Bloom’s approach, as I haven’t allowed you the pleasure of reading the full passages from Tyndale and the KJB. While doing so, one inevitably forms one owns thoughts,before Bloom chimes in, about how they differ, and when he does chime in, he’s a most welcome companion.

After my initial foray, in which I jumped around at will, I put the book aside for a few days, returning over the weekend to begin reading it in the order in which it is presented. I got through Bloom’s discussion of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, a little more than a fourth of the book. I look forward to the rest, though I may put the book aside again for a bit. I don’t anticipate taking it on our forthcoming trip. No room for physical books; just e-books.

Oh, one more of Bloom’s comments, which I came across on my opening night survey. It concludes his discussion of Mark. First he offers KJB’s translation of 10:17-27. You know this one. As a reminder, here’s the middle of 10:21 to 10:27:

go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.

And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions.

And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the Kingdom of God!

And the disciples were astonished at his words. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the Kingdom of God!

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

And they were astonished out of measure, saying among themselves, Who then can be saved?

And Jesus looking upon them saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible.

Bloom’s comment, which ends the chapter: “Almost straight Tyndale, should this not be read aloud at all political occasions whatsoever, particularly on the floor of Congress and at our national conventions?”


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