The Bible and Its Translators

Review: Aviya Kushner, ‘The Grammar of God: A Journey Into the Words and Worlds of the Bible’ (updated)

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• September 20, 2015 5:00 am


When Aviya Kushner enrolled in Marilynne Robinson’s Old Testament course at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she didn’t recognize the text her teacher and classmates were familiar with. She wasn’t new to the stories they were studying; she had read them many times since she was a young child. But Kushner had read them in Hebrew as part of her Orthodox Jewish schooling, and the translations her Christian classmates knew well sounded nothing like the Hebrew to Kushner. With Robinson’s encouragement, Kushner set out to collect a wide variety of English translations, then compare them with each other and with the Hebrew Bible.

In The Grammar of God, Kushner draws on this research to explore how the Bible in English translation differs from the Masoretic Text. Interspersed throughout are meditations on Kushner’s family and schooling, some relevant to the Bible and some not so much—for example, when Kushner tries to connect an anecdote about a vendor urging customers to buy two doughnuts to a phrase that appears twice in the account of the third day of Creation. Kushner touches on differences between traditional Jewish methods of interpretation and the way her Christian classmates and professor approached the Old Testament.

These divergent methods account for a great deal of misunderstanding of how Judaism relates to the Hebrew Bible. Kushner explains that Jews have traditionally read the Masoretic Text on a page crammed with commentaries that offer conflicting explanations of the holy words. These commentaries are guided by the rabbinic principles of exegesis, among them a rule that states that the order of events in the text need not be chronological; one commentator may hold that one event immediately follows another, while other commentators could say that an event from another part of the Bible came between them or that the order of events was reversed. The result is that Jewish readings treat the text as ambiguous and capable of conveying multiple meanings simultaneously. Kushner speculates that Christian reading styles might have grown to accommodate more ambiguity had the Geneva Bible with its marginal commentary not been supplanted by the King James or Authorized Edition of 1611.

Also important is the Oral Law, the body of Jewish legal literature that interprets the Masoretic Text and that frequently softens the harsher aspects of the legal code found in the Pentateuch. Kushner points out that Christian depictions of a wrathful Old Testament deity can be puzzling to Jews like her who see the Hebrew Bible through the lens of the Oral Law. Many an unfruitful interreligious debate might be improved if participants understood these differences. Anyone who’s been tempted to say, "But what about …" before citing some verse to an adherent of another Abrahamic faith should read The Grammar of God to see how different traditions arrive at disparate readings of common texts and stories.

Regardless of the reader’s worldview, Hebrew feels different from English. Thanks to prefixes and suffixes that pack information about person and tense into each word, Hebrew verses are shorter than English ones. A few standard suffixes create many instances of rhyme that cannot be replicated in the English. Repeated words and intensifiers add degrees of emphasis that are difficult to translate. And the meanings behind the names of Biblical figures are apparent at a glance to readers of the Hebrew; English readers, by contrast, see no relationship between "Adam" and "earth" or "Isaac" and "laughter" without the help of a footnote. Reading these passages in The Grammar of God is probably as close as an English speaker can get to appreciating the sound of Hebrew without learning the language.

It is a bit disappointing that, despite her obvious sensitivity to language, Kushner stumbles when she criticizes certain choices made by the King James translators. For instance, she finds it outrageous that the noun p̄ā·reḵ in Exodus 1:13 is translated as "rigour;" Kushner claims that this translation makes slavery in Egypt sound sanitized and "manageable" and prefers to render the word as "breaking labor." But the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions for "rigour" include "harshness," "severity," and "cruelty," and its example sentences show that the word held those meanings in the early 17th century, when the Authorized Edition was being prepared. While Kushner is correct that the three-letter root of p̄ā·reḵ means "to break," translating p̄ā·reḵ as "cruelty" is not far fetched. If "rigour" suggests standardized testing rather than slavery for contemporary readers, it is not Lancelot Andrewes’ fault.

Kushner also objects to the translation of Psalm 42:3, which in the King James Bible begins, "My tears have been my meat day and night," and she asserts that "my meat" would have been the correct translation of bə-śā-rî, a Hebrew word meaning "my flesh" that does not appear in this verse. But Kushner quotes with favor the medieval Jewish grammarian Ibn Janach, who defined le-ḥem, the noun used here, which literally means "bread," as "sustenance." And the Oxford English Dictionary gives this definition for "meat": "Food, as nourishment for people[…] esp. solid food, as opposed to drink" and shows that it was used in this way around the turn of the 16th century. Kushner favors the translation "bread" over "sustenance" because it has the advantage of prompting the reader to recall other relevant verses that mention bread. This is reasonable, but her complaint against the King James translators, who did not distort the meaning of the text any more than Ibn Janach did, is not.

At times Kushner attempts to infer the meaning of biblical Hebrew words from their Modern Hebrew counterparts, despite protests from her linguist mother, which she relays to us here. (The connection between biblical and Modern Hebrew vocabulary can be tenuous because ancient words are recruited to represent new phenomena; for example, ḥaš-mal, the Modern Hebrew word for "electricity," appears in Ezekiel 1:4, where it is often translated as "metal" or "amber.") Kushner notes that the root of the verb way·yiz·’ā·qū, which the King James Bible translates as "cried" in Exodus 2:23, is also the root of the Modern Hebrew word for "siren," and she reflects on the siren that sounds on Israel’s two national memorial days. Kushner understands that the sound mentioned in Exodus was not really a siren, but her emphasis on Modern Hebrew could mislead readers into thinking that the verb in this verse has something to do with mourning or bereavement, when in fact it indicates a cry for help. Kushner even refers to the Israelites’ "siren cries," which calls to mind Odysseus with his ears full of beeswax, a grossly inappropriate image in the context of Exodus 2.

For some, these missteps will make The Grammar of God a frustrating read. Those who can overlook them will enjoy Kushner’s discussions of traditional Jewish scriptural interpretation and the experience of reading Hebrew. If the book motivates them to seek out more authoritative works on Hebrew translation, it will have served a worthy purpose.

UPDATE 21 September, 2015, 11:33 AM: This review has been updated due to an editing error.

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