Israelites in the Anglo-Saxon Sea
Since it was first composed, there have been dozens—if not hundreds—of renderings of the Hebrew Bible. The process of translation and creative elaboration began during the first millennium B.C.E., and has continued through two thousand years of translation in virtually all of the world's languages.
The most famous English translation of the Hebrew Bible is the King James Version of 1611; the first translation by the Jewish Publication Society of America was published in 1917 and used the King James language extensively. Subsequent revisions of both have updated the English (dropping "thee's" and "thou's") and incorporated results of modern scholarship.
Translation necessarily involves interpretation, and the scholar James Kugel notes that ancient interpreters "frequently explained biblical texts by retelling them." Many are familiar with rabbinic retellings. But another extraordinary set of retellings exists, one that is virtually unknown. These narrative poems were composed well before the 10th century C.E. by the ancient Anglo-Saxons in Old English. The most famous Anglo-Saxon poem is Beowulf, the story of a hero, but the canon also contains riddles and maxims, prayers and allegories, poems concerning exile, historical battles, and—challenging our assumptions about this pagan culture—biblical stories.
A new volume, Old Testament Narratives, has just made available the full texts of Old English poems on biblical material with a facing modern prose translation by the editor, Daniel Anlezark. Remarkably, these poems were composed hundreds of years before the first translation of the Bible into English. In his introduction, Anlezark discusses the characteristics of the poems and sources used by their unknown authors to augment biblical stories like those of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham, and Moses. In the Genesis poem, for example, the editor comments on the emphasis of "Abraham's nobility and his place within the family order," resulting in a fuller human portrait than is found in the biblical text.
Notably, these poems are told by people historically still close to their own tribal attitudes and practices, bringing that understanding to the biblical world. And since these versions are by tribal poets of great imaginative capacity, they may give us a sense of the dispositions underlying the biblical stories in ways no modern commentator—even with the resources of archeology and scholarship—could hope to do. They can even be read as examples of narrative "midrash," a rabbinic term for exposition or explanation, the purpose of which is to show the underlying significance of a biblical text. For my purposes here, midrash is best thought of not as a canon of texts but as a process of imaginative interpretation.
Earlier this year, by coincidence, an anthology of translations from the canon of Anglo-Saxon poetry was released. Although excluding Beowulf, it included long extracts from Genesis, translated by Harvey Shapiro and David Ferry, and Exodus, translated by myself. Together with Old Testament Narratives, this book of poems provides an opportunity to show the vivid quality of these Old English midrashim.
The Anglo-Saxon version of the Creation, in Harvey Shapiro's translation, is told this way:
The Lord looked on an abyss, deep and dim,
empty and unused, strange to His sight . . .
Then bright with glory, the guardian of heaven
lay His spirit over the deep.
God of the angels, giver of life
decreed light shine on all that black surface.
The High King's bidding was quickly done.
Holy light hovered over the nothingness . . .
First light, bright with beauty, the Life-Giver called day . . .
as the dark shadow slid from the vast abyss.
This retelling introduces no new images but nevertheless gives us a powerful elaboration of the opening of Genesis closer to the spirit of the text than any modern writer could produce.
The command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on a mountain is rendered in David Ferry's translation as:
You must climb up there on foot.
The two of you together,
Around you only nothing,
Only the mountain peaks
Around you witnessing . . .
And then, you must, yourself,
Take up this sword you carry,
And kill him with its edge,
And burn his dear body black
In Genesis, Abraham's instrument was a "knife" (in the original Hebrew and in English translations), but the Anglo-Saxon poet considered that a tribal chieftain like Abraham would have carried a sword, that he would have been a "giver / of rings to his followers," and that his show of obedience to "the true / King, the Guardian, / Protector of His people," would result in "Great honor" from "the Guardian of Souls." Again, this is a faithful elaboration of the text from an ancient tribal viewpoint.
There are, of course, opportunities and difficulties and puzzles in any ancient text. In Old Testament Narratives, Anlezark characterizes the Exodus poem as one "of stunning complexity and originality." For instance, here is the ancient poet telling us of the separation of the Red Sea. The translation imitates in modern English the four-stress alliterative lines, with a strong central pause, of the Anglo-Saxon original:
A rising wave rapidly fashions
water into bulwark, leaving dry roads,
gray highways, suited to an army.
The sea has opened ancient foundations
I have never heard men walked before,
and gleaming plains overspread with waves
an eternal time . . . [The] retaining walls
are piled as high as the sky's ceiling,
a wonderful walkway between waves . . .
The squads of the chosen raised on the shore shields and standards.
The rampart of the sea arched upward,
stood straight for Israel a day's duration.
The Anglo-Saxon poet then proceeds to recount the sequence in which the tribes of Israel went into the sea. This is a puzzle, since this sequence is not in the biblical text, though it is discussed extensively in later rabbinic writings.
Louis Ginzberg, in The Legends of the Jews, summarizes the relevant midrashim:
The tribes contended with one another for the honor of being the first to jump. Without waiting for the outcome of wordy strife, the tribe of Benjamin sprang in, and the princes of Judah were so incensed at having been deprived of pre-eminence in danger that they pelted the Benjaminites with stones.
The Anglo-Saxon poet, however, has the tribe of Judah go in first, followed by the tribes of Reuben and Simeon:
One soldier of the house of Judah hurried along
that weird road before his folk . . .
After that army came the proud sons of Reuben . . .
Behind them came the sons of Simeon . . .
Every tribe progressed in succession
in iron-clad contingents each with one man
who was known to all guiding his mighty host
along the paths, the pillar of cloud
leading the people, tribe following tribe.
Where did a poet in England during the first millennium C.E. get the sequence of tribes entering the Red Sea? Did he have access to a lost rabbinic midrash? A standard scholarly edition of the poem, by Edward B. Irving, Jr., gives this annotation on the order of the tribes: "It is certain the poet had some authority in legend or commentary for his version of the crossing." The annotation then cites a 12th-century Latin commentary that refers to this sequence and remarks that it "agrees with this poem more closely than any of the other versions in either Jewish legend (where the tribes usually are said to have marched across simultaneously in twelve paths through the sea) or Latin versions of the same." But, of course, a 12th-century commentary cannot have been the source for a much earlier poem.
One line in the section on the tribe of Judah gave me an opportunity to introduce a Jewish translation:
Because of their war leader they were not willing
to long endure life in dishonor
when with lifted spears they deployed against goyim.
The last line is actually close to literal: the Harvard prose translation is "when they lifted spear-shafts in war against any nation." Since the Hebrew for nation is goy and the dictionary gives the meaning of this now-American word as, "people, nations, sometimes disparaging" I couldn't resist translating the half-line, with appropriate assonance, as "deployed against goyim." The ancient poet was, after all, talking of the Israelite tribes fighting other nations, and ancient tribes no doubt sometimes spoke disparagingly of their enemies.
But beyond their scholarly interest or possible links to Jewish exegetical tradition, the pure poetry of this literature rings out. Here is the evocation of the destruction of the Egyptians, who pursued the Israelites into the sea:
Ocean seethed where paths had been; torrent swamped that army.
A confusion climbed right to the skies,
the cry of despair of that mighty army.
The aggressors called with dying voices;
air darkened above them, blood spread in the flood.
Whatever the route of transmission of this material, the Anglo-Saxon poems on the Hebrew Bible are not only an extraordinary literary achievement, they are wonderful midrashim—worthy of that rabbinic word and deserving of a wide audience.
David Curzon is the author of The View from Jacob's Ladder: One Hundred Midrashim and the editor of Modern Poems on the Bible.
Comments are closed for this article.