I came to Aviya Kushner’s The Grammar of God well prepared, having, a month before the book was published, heard her talk about her arduous ten-year writing process. When I first learned of her topic, Biblical translation, I expected a discussion of the typical complexities of rendering a work in a language other than its original. But she began her talk with a riveting revelation. Kushner, having grown up in a Hebrew-speaking home in an Orthodox community not far from New York City, did not encounter an English version of the Bible until her late twenties. From the opening verses of Genesis, Kushner was shocked by the many variations from the Hebrew version. she had grown up with.
Kushner, who now teaches creative writing faculty at Chicago’s Columbia College, was introduced to the Old Testament in English when she took Marilynne Robinson’s Bible as literature course while an MFA student at the University of Iowa. That led her to an immersion in research, including gathering a number of English translations, and to long conversations with Robinson. That prize-winning novelist and author of works on Christian belief convinced a reluctant Kushner to develop her master’s thesis into a book that unites family tales with scholarship.
The challenge for Kushner lay in finding a way to organize years of notes and ideas into a coherent presentation, finally choosing a topical organization, with chapters on subjects such as creation, love, man, and law. While the alliteration of “grammar” and “God” makes for a catchy title, the work also explores matters of etymology and philology. The result has been greeted with much praise, the poet and translator Robert Pinsky calling it “a passionate, illuminating essay about meaning itself.”
The question of meaning is essential when a work in one language is rendered in another. Of course, the limitations of translation have been discussed many times. Zeteo recently considered, for example, an attempt to render in French the idiomatic English poetry of Philip Larkin—Larkin’s word choices, rhythms, and sensibility. When the translation of a poem is unable to capture its qualities, that’s an aesthetic failure. But when the Bible goes wrong in another language, the problematic consequences can be theological, political, legal, and moral. The results often have involved—literally—matters of life and death, if not entire belief systems rooted in a fundamental misapprehension.
Take the King James wording of the very opening of Genesis [Hebrew page below right]: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Kushner explains that the other best-known English versions also make two distinct sentences of what was just one in Hebrew. This syntactical separation changes an important distinction of what existed when. The King James has the earth “without form, and void” after it was created. The Hebrew single sentence suggests the unformed was the raw material used in the creation.
But more crucial is the tense of the first Biblical verb. English readers for centuries have assumed God “created the heaven, and the earth,” with the implication that the process was over and done with. Such an assumption gives comfort to the deniers of evolution and those who believe Adam and Eve shared the planet with dinosaurs, even building museums to display pseudoscientific “proofs.” But what if the verb tense was that of an ongoing present, as in several more recent translations—when God “began to create heaven and earth”? Such a process accommodates continuous evolutionary development.
The Hebrew original doesn’t settle the issue, mainly because the Hebrew language didn’t employ the diacritical markings that function as vowels until the eighth century. These indicate tense, but they are lacking in the original Genesis text. Subsequent markings added to post-vowel versions of the Hebrew Bible in the Middle Ages have been based on guesswork. And, for example, a dash below a consonant leads to a very different meaning from a dot above.
Kushner offers a more definitive example of a questionable translation with what the English version renders as “Thou shalt not kill.” That’s one of what our culture considers the Ten Commandments, laws so essential to some believers that they want to replicate the stone tablets in public spaces. Nowhere does the Hebrew Bible identify them with the harsh title of commandments. Rather, it suggests a more benign identifier, such as the ten sayings. But back to “not kill.” Kushner points out that the Biblical Hebrew word—lirtzoach—clearly means murder and that another word—laharog—means kills. The Hebrew Bible uses the former; therefore, “do not murder.” Forbidding murder is very different from forbidding killing. War and self-defense serve as two examples where killing is not an un-Godly transgression.
In fact, the Bible is replete with examples of killing of enemies in war. Cain murdering Abel is another matter. But even some stories of slaughtered enemies can be troubling, at least to me.
Coincidentally, decades before Aviya Kushner came to Iowa for an MFA, I taught the Bible as literature on that campus. The College Bible, compiled from the King James version, served as the text for half a semester of a sophomore core literature course.
Kushner arrived knowing the Hebrew Bible inside and out, having read extensively in the writings of important commentators of many centuries, and having engaged in many family dinner-table debates about the subject. I knew almost nothing beyond second-hand Bible stories acquired here and there, and a week or two in my own college survey of English lit.
As a young instructor, I walked into that core lit classroom for the first time expecting every student to be steeped in Biblical lore from years of Midwestern Sunday schooling. They would expose and humiliate me. How wrong I was. They knew nothing. Well, perhaps some of the same few tales I did before I devoted many hours to teaching preparation. I came to enjoy discussing the Bible as literature and getting the students to engage with a number of narratives, good stories, all with an engaging cast of characters.
Now that I’ve read Kushner, I wonder how much damage I did to those young Midwestern minds. But I excuse myself by rationalizing: The College Bible was a literary text to be analyzed for just what was on the page, even if that page was riddled with translation inaccuracies. I taught the Bible as if it were a work of fiction like The Odyssey and Much Ado about Nothing.
Yet on a number of occasions I was unable to separate fiction from fact, particularly when slaughters were involved. Take the Amalekites “utterly destroyed” by King Saul under the orders of the prophet Samuel or the slaughter of the Hivites, whose prince, Sechem, seduced Jacob’s daughter Dinah and wished to marry her. Dinah was the sister of Joseph and his brethren. The brothers claimed to agree to allow the marriage if the Hivites converted to Judaism and all the men became circumcised. That was a ruse. While the males were helpless with painful post-op recovery, the Hebrews slaughtered them.
But the tribal massacre that troubled me most involved how David dealt with the children of Ammon after his army conquered the city of Rabbah (illustration at right). I still have disturbed marginal notes in my copy of The College Bible. According to the King James version, 2 Samuel 12-13 has it that David first took the spoils of the city and then “he brought forth the people that were therein, and put them under saws, and under harrows of iron, and under axes of iron, and made them pass through the brickkiln”.
Kushner led me to seek out other translations. Not only do some soften the brutality, they turn the vicious death sentence into hard labor. For example, The New International Version has David “consigning them to labor with saws and with iron picks and axes, and he made them work at brickmaking.” There’s a world of difference between being hacked with an axe and incinerated in a brickkiln and being forced to toil in brick making. The latter way, putting the conquered to arduous work, is just one more example of enslavement of the defeated.
I asked Kushner about this discrepancy, but—perhaps because after her talk others were swarming the lectern with their own questions—she didn’t provide an answer beyond a nod and smile. But while the story of the children of Ammon does suggest a zero-sum translation choice rather than a complexity of nuances, it could be that the original Hebrew itself was equivocal.
Kushner does write in her introduction about the limits of translation: “Translation means that the translator has picked one word above all the others: one winner, with all the finalists gone from the page forever.” She writes this in reference to the grammatical, syntactical, and philological debates about meaning that obsessed generation after generation of Hebrew scholars. Unlike literary translators, they weren’t content to settle for a single winner.
Regardless of what happened to the children of Ammon—just one translation ambiguity among thousands—the conclusive point of The Grammar of God has to be that the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament—cannot be considered a final and conclusive document, set in stone along with the larger-than-life Ten Commandments statuary.
Of course, the Hebrew Bible that served as the foundation of Kushner’s comparisons is itself the result of one alternative from among the number that existed as scripture among the Hebrew communities spread throughout the ancient world. These texts can differ greatly in some respects, and it was only one version, the Masoretic of the fifth through seventh centuries, C.E., that became the basis of Kushner’s Bible, though that’s not a subject she goes into.
Like heaven and earth the Hebrew Bible should not be considered “created” but rather a document once and forever “being created.”
— Walter Cummins, Zeteo Contributor
Walter Cummins published his seventh short story collection, Telling Stories: Old & New, in 2015. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing and MA in Creative Writing and Literature for Educators programs at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Brennan Breed. “What Are the Earliest Versions and Translations of the Bible?” Bible Odyssey. Accessed via www.bibleodyssey.org.
Aviya Kushner. The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
The College Bible. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, Inc., 1938.
Image at the top is one of William Blake’s frontispieces for his 1794 work, Europe a Prophecy. There are currently thirteen known extant copies of Europe a Prophecy. Because of Blake’s production process of hand coloring each print, each of the thirteen images (titled The Ancient of Days) is somewhat different.
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