Ozick too compares Alter’s opening with the King James.
In the beginning God created the Heaven, and the Earth. And the earth was without forme, and voyd, and darknesse was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God mooved upon the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light: and there was light.’
When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, ‘Let there be light.’
What can be discerned in these nearly identical passages? A syntactical disagreement over the first word, b’reshit: does the particle b’ represent a prepositional phrase (”In the beginning”) or a clause (”When God began”)? Together with current scholarship, Alter votes for the clause. Where the King James Version introduces stops, breaking up the Hebrew into recognizable English sentences, Alter follows the uninterrupted flow of the original, subverting conventional English grammar, so that for a moment we are borne along with Joycean rapidity.
Ozick’s invocation of Joyce is apt. As Alter once wrote of Genesis and assumptions against authorship:
the supposedly primitive narrative is subjected by scholars to tacit laws like the law of stylisitc unity, of noncontradiction, of nondigression, of nonrepetition, and by these dim but purportedly universal lights is found to be composite, deficient or incoherent. (If just these four laws were applied respectively to Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, Tristram Shandy, and Jealousy, each of those novels would have to be relegated to the dustbin of shoddily “redacted” literary scraps.
This is from The Art of Biblical Narrative, in which he also argues for “a closer generic link between Genesis and…ultimate instances of flaunted playfulness, like Gargantua and Pantagruel, Tristram Shandy, and Ulysses“.
Ozick goes on to observe, that Alter’s choice of “breath” rather than “Spirit” for ruach is “the more physical–the more anthropomorphic–word.” The breathlessness of the King James’ cascading colons, in the original punctuation (which Ozick omits), is as good an antediluvian antecedent as any. And as the flood of translations continues, it shouldn’t surprise if Alter’s is the only one still standing in the 25th century.