Lost in Translation: Faith, Misunderstanding, and Certainty

The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible
by Aviya Kushner
Spiegel & Grau, 2015
Review by Elizabeth Wright

I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian church where gays were reprobate sinners, wives were made from their husbands’ ribs and expected to remain obedient, and if parents spared the rod, their children would indeed be spoiled. Any time I asked my father questions about the Bible—such as the time at around the age of six, when I asked why God created humans if he already knew that they’d sin and therefore force him to send a flood to kill everyone but Noah’s family—my father simply told me to have faith and not to question “the Word of God.” Luckily, I didn’t listen. I turned in the opposite direction, in fact, renouncing Christianity as a young adult. I chose the road of the questioning artist, as opposed to the person of faith. I eventually mellowed and decided Christianity was fine, as long as it helped people lead better lives. As for my own spirituality, I’ve found resonance in Buddhist teachings, and value in gathering wisdom from its many sources, but I’ve never found it necessary to choose a faith.

The Word and the Grammar

Aviya Kushner’s upbringing was not like mine—and neither was her experience with the Bible. In my household, it was all about the Word of God, but in Aviya Kushner’s, it was about the “grammar” of God. Kushner grew up in a traditional Jewish community. Until she went to graduate school, she had read the Bible only in Hebrew. Her initial responses to the translated English Bible she studied in a literary Bible course were surprise, even shock at times, and the feeling of being saddened “at what had been misinterpreted.”

Kushner calls her debut book, The Grammar of God, “a chronicle of the largest” of these surprises, the biggest surprise being the certain, “lone voice” of the English version, as opposed to the endlessly questioning nature of the “Rabbinic Bible … crammed with commentary.” Among the commentators, everything was (like life itself) “up for discussion … ambiguous … hard to pin down.” Her experience with the Hebrew Bible was about understanding through debate rather than defining and then clinging to the definite.

Creation

The Grammar of God reads like an essay collection connected by Kushner’s theme of comparing the Hebrew Bible to English Bible translations. The chapters are sprinkled with personal narrative and linked through a repeated form: each chapter is based on and titled after a theme (“Creation,” “Love,” “Laughter,” etc.) that is in turn derived from a verse of scripture. This verse appears six times over at the beginning of each chapter, in each of the six English translations that Kushner collected and studied during her ten-year venture to conduct, in a sense, a Bible translation in reverse.

The first chapter, “Creation,” begins with a scene of the Kushner family engaging in a longstanding tradition: a heated debate around the dinner table about “the grammar of Creation,” Genesis 1:1–2, in particular. Kushner’s scholarly mother, who taught her to love grammar and to see it as “a window into how a group speaks to itself, structures its … thoughts, and defines its world,” encapsulates the debate at hand: “Do you read the verb … as bara, in the past tense, so that it means ‘In the beginning God created,’ or do you read it as bro, the infinitive, so that it reads ‘In the beginning of God’s creating’?” Kushner’s brother, Davi, argues that it is the latter, and that this, along with thirteenth-century commentator Ramban’s argument that what God created in Genesis 1:1 was formlessness, which he later turned into form, supports the theory of evolution. But Kushner’s father, a scientist, insists that rabbis could not have known about evolution, that this would have changed the entire course of the history of science.

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