Book Review: The Grammar Of God

The Grammar Of God:  A Journey Into The Words And Worlds Of The Bible, by Aviya Kushner

For many readers the thought of reading a book on biblical grammar and the importance of language in shaping how we view scripture would not be an appealing thought.  Such readers would miss a truly lovely and thoughtful book, though, in that the author manages to make such subjects warm and inviting, gives a deeply personal discussion of matters many people find dull and wearisome, and manages to have some important insights in terms of how we wrestle with scripture.  The book gains most of its warmth from being the exploration of the Bible in English from the point of view of a Jew who speaks Hebrew as a native language and who brings a certain poetic sensitivity to the task of biblical understanding, which allows her to grasp differences in how the Bible is read in different languages, and how the different languages shape the worldview and perspective of those who read it.  The book is rich in biblical text as well as a worthwhile approach to the texts it deals with, and in showing how differently people deal with something because of how they speak and write and read and think, the book offers insights that are worthwhile far outside the field of biblical studies, even to the way in which we live our lives.  As a work of biblical criticism [1], this book and this author have a lot to offer, and let us hope that she writes many more books of equal sensitivity and depth.

The roughly two hundred pages of this book are divided into nine chapters that deal with different matters:  creation, love, laughter, man, God, law, song, memory, and how it never ends.  The book as a whole begins with a story of how it began and how the author came to study the Bible in English given her Jewish background, and ends with acknowledgments and two appendices showing the different numbering of commandments and the different arrangement of the books of the Bible in different traditions.  The chapters themselves are well-organized also, with the opening page of the chapter showing a page of the Tanakh in Hebrew, and then following with a word-by-word literal transliteration and translation of the Hebrew, and then a series of English translations in different translations to contrast the Hebrew with the English.  The text that follows generally goes into further detail about the distinction between these passages in Hebrew and English, comments about the passages in Hebrew and English commentary and how they reveal differences in the mindset between people using different languages.  The result is not overdone but is instead is extremely touching and thought provoking.

What makes this book a special pleasure are a combination of two factors that other authors would do well to emulate where possible.  For one, this book offers an insightful perspective in taking what many of its readers will find familiar yet viewed from an alien perspective, namely the original language of the Tanakh and how Jewish practice has often been shaped by the differences between Hebrew and other languages like Greek, Latin, or English.  For one, the Hebrew is often highly layered and ambiguous [2] while the English gives an appearance of being sharply defined, which leads to differences in how these passages are often read.  The Hebrew invites dialogue, conversation, and discussion as the ambiguities and possibilities are teased out, while the English tends to create the illusion that there is one way for these passages to understand rightly and a lot of wrong ways, which tends to lead to a less charitable view of one’s conversation partners when there are disagreements about interpretation. The second particularly notable skill that the author brings to this material that really makes it an amazing book is the fact that the author includes so many thoughtful and intimate personal comments that make the text warm and friendly, and sometimes deeply melancholy given the author’s family history in Hitler’s Germany [3].

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example, the following comments:

“To my chagrin, I soon learned that this frightening and depressing combination of great knowledge and ugly death appears not only in the lives of the rabbis but also in the lives of Christian translators.  William Tyndale, whose translation is the foundation of the King James Bible, was strangled and his body burned at the stake.  The remains of John Wycliffe, who also worked on an early translation of the Bible into English, were exhumed and thrown into a river.  Translation, like scholarship, has long been a life-threatening enterprise.  Making something understandable to the general public has meant risking everything, even, as in the case of the great Rabbi Akiva, one’s skin (xv).”

“But the conflict between art and faith is not, I have gradually decided, just a Jewish issue.  It is not about that line between graven images and an unseeable God.  Instead, it is the very idea of belief that is a problem for a devoted artist.  Belief implies acceptance.  An artist is different–a questioner in the heart, not necessarily a believer.  An artist does not accept first and do next, as the Jewish people supposedly did at Sinai (97-98).”

“With the snafu over the ad, my father taught me what he has always taught me: how to ignore the disapproval of the world, no matter how loud it is.  He taught me how to listen to myself, and how to hear that same thing in other people and places: the quiet beating of the individual heart (138).”

“For as long as I can remember, he [the author’s grandfather] has loved color and line, painting and sketching.  Since no one else in my family does, I think this love of his went directly into me.  I, too, am obsessed with color, moved and motivated by it.  I sometimes cry in front of beautiful paintings, and like him, I need to look at them every so often to feel alive, connected to those who came before me (171).”

“What he was telling me was: I have a granddaughter; I alone, among my brothers, have lived.  I have endured.  And I know, as the oldest of five, that the last thing an oldest sibling wants is to be the last one left (186).”

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to Book Review: The Grammar Of God

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