The Gram­mar of God: A Jour­ney into the Words and Worlds of the Bible

  • Review
By – May 19, 2015

The Bible is one of the most pub­lished books in his­to­ry, but what do we mean when we call it the Hebrew Bible? With­in both Jew­ish and Chris­t­ian tra­di­tions, there is no con­sen­sus on trans­la­tion or what is includ­ed in the final canon. If there is no con­sen­sus on what con­sti­tutes the Bible, then how do we under­stand the mean­ing of this book?

Aviya Kush­n­er grew up in a tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish home and learned at an ear­ly age to read the Bible in the orig­i­nal Hebrew. Her reli­gious edu­ca­tion includ­ed Hebrew lessons, but her par­ents were the great­est influ­ence in read­ing, trans­lat­ing, and draw­ing mean­ing from the text. This book is the sto­ry of her return to read­ing the Bible as an adult in a grad­u­ate Eng­lish course, inter­wo­ven with her fam­i­ly his­to­ry of learn­ing and read­ing the Bible. She quick­ly real­ized that dif­fer­ent tra­di­tions have trans­la­tions affect­ed by source texts, and cul­ture, and how that cul­ture affects the under­stand­ing of man’s rela­tion­ship to God as demon­strat­ed in the translation.

Through­out the book, Kush­n­er cites spe­cif­ic pas­sages in the orig­i­nal Hebrew, and pro­vides sev­er­al com­pet­ing trans­la­tions from both Jew­ish and Chris­t­ian tra­di­tions. For lovers of lan­guage this is a fas­ci­nat­ing and com­pelling demon­stra­tion of how we read the text. Many mod­ern trans­la­tions are based on trans­la­tions of trans­la­tions. The Sep­tu­agint (Greek trans­la­tion) and the Vul­gate (Latin trans­la­tion) are the basis for many cur­rent Eng­lish translations.

Trans­la­tions of trans­la­tions fil­tered through dif­fer­ing the­o­log­i­cal lens­es gives rise to inter­pre­ta­tions that can be far from the orig­i­nal Hebrew. But while trans­la­tion cre­ates dis­tance, it can also cre­ate oppor­tu­ni­ty for dia­logue. Kush­n­er begins her book with the begin­ning, Gen­e­sis 1:1, a pas­sage that has giv­en rise to much debate and con­ver­sa­tion. The trans­la­tion of just a few words to’hu va’vo’hu, has been dis­cussed by schol­ars for gen­er­a­tions. What does this phrase mean? Var­i­ous trans­la­tions offer mean­ings such as with­out form and void, wild and waste, form­less and des­o­late, or, poet­i­cal­ly, wel­ter and waste. Evi­dent­ly, the trans­la­tion informs our under­stand­ing of the very nature of creation.

Kush­n­er offers many source texts in her exam­i­na­tion of trans­la­tion, but it is curi­ous that nowhere does she men­tion the Masorites. This group of scribes and schol­ars from the sev­enth through the tenth cen­turies that was extreme­ly influ­en­tial in the final cod­i­fi­ca­tion of our mod­ern Bib­li­cal texts with the addi­tion of vow­els, can­til­la­tion, and notes, but she offer no cred­it for their con­tri­bu­tion to translation.

The book is very acces­si­ble to all read­ers, regard­less of their lev­el of Hebrew knowl­edge, and pro­vides a thought­ful and per­son­al jour­ney of under­stand­ing the core text of Judaism.

Bar­bara Andrews holds a Mas­ters in Jew­ish Stud­ies from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, has been an adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion instruc­tor, and works in the cor­po­rate world as a pro­fes­sion­al adult educator.

Discussion Questions