With a Mighty Hand: The Story in the Torah

Amy Ehrlich

illustrated by Daniel Nevins
Candlewick Press 2013
A book review by Danny Yee © 2018 http://dannyreviews.com/
With a Mighty Hand is a translation, abridgement and simplification of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, known to the Jews as the Torah and to Christians as the Pentateuch. It includes all the best-known stories in a single narrative arc, from Adam and Eve, through Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, to Moses and the Exodus.

Ehrlich renders this in bright, forceful free verse.

Then Pharaoh's daughter came down to bathe in the Nile
while her maidens walked along the river.
And she saw the little ark among the reeds and took it.
And she opened it and saw a child weeping.

The language is simplified and modernised, but maintains a certain elevation and dignity — and many extended passages are straight translation rather than adaptation. Ehrlich breaks the narrative into short chapters, one to four pages long, each telling a story or a coherent fragment of a story.

The abridgement is fairly drastic, but Ehrlich doesn't restrict herself to the obvious stories. She takes most of her material from the dramatic events of Genesis and Exodus, rather than from Deuteronomy and Numbers and Leviticus, but she has "included portions of genealogy, law, and ritual — enough, I hope, to give readers a sense of how the ancient Israelites experienced their faith, and how some observant Jews still do". And she doesn't attempt to conceal that the Torah is "repetitive, inconsistent, even contradictory".

"Then I will remember My covenant with Jacob
and My covenant with Isaac
and My covenant with Abraham.
I will remember the land.
And I will not destroy My people or end My covenant with them,
for I am Yahweh.

Ehrlich's introduction explains something of her personal response to the Torah, and the framing perspective is Jewish, but she avoids imposing an interpretation on it and tries to let it speak for itself. There are six pages of notes at the end, but these give the meanings of names, explain potentially confusing or unclear elements of the story, provide cultural and historical background, and so forth, with no ventures into theology or exegesis.

Nevins' few but striking illustrations, mostly full-page, are in their simplicity and power an excellent match for the text. A map and a genealogy are also included. And it's all wrapped up in an attractive volume, with quality paper and a striking dust-jacket.

One obvious audience is children, but parents should be warned that With a Mighty Hand is not bowdlerised: it includes the rape of Dinah, Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the stoning of the blasphemer in Leviticus, and so forth. None of that is at all explicit, however, and there is a certain distance to it: I read it to my five year old without any problems. On the other hand, With a Mighty Hand would be a perfectly good choice for adults who don't want to plough through the tedious bits of the full text but want something closer to that than isolated stories.

May 2018

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%T With a Mighty Hand
%S The Story in the Torah
%A Ehrlich, Amy
%Q Nevins, Daniel
%I Candlewick Press
%D 2013
%O hardcover, introduction, notes
%G ISBN-13 9780763643959
%P 198pp