Unlocking the Linguistic Mysteries of the Hebrew Bible

April 6 2016

Aviya Kushner, the child of a Bible scholar, grew up in an observant Jewish home where the Tanakh was read and discussed on a daily basis. When, as an adult, she first encountered the King James Bible and its non-Hebrew-speaking readers, she was surprised—even shocked—by what she found. The result of that encounter is her recent book, The Grammar of God, an idiosyncratic exploration of biblical language and how it shapes readings of the text. Sarah Rindner writes in her review (free registration required):

Kushner . . . discusses how the gendered nature of the Hebrew language is difficult to render in gender-neutral English. In Hebrew, on the third day of creation, a feminine earth sprouts forth her grass, va-totsei ha-arets desheh, alongside with the masculine seed that yields another form of grass, eisev mazria zera. This delicate balance between feminine and masculine is ignored in most translations. . . . Such observations are interesting on aesthetic grounds, but they also demonstrate the way in which the specific words employed by the Bible are inextricably linked to its worldview.

While Kushner’s analysis is creative and intelligent, not all of her biblical interpretations would withstand the test of scholarly inquiry. . . . [She] is more convincing when she discusses the way even the best translations obscure the crucial role of names and naming in the Bible.

Lines such as “And Adam called his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living” . . . are technically incoherent in English. . . . In Hebrew, every time we hear the name of the first woman, “Ḥava,” we also hear ḥayyim, or “life.” In English, the name Eve is essentially meaningless. In the case of Adam, he is named in the verse “And the Lord formed man [adam] from the dust of the earth [adamah].” Translating adam as “man,” or even “Adam the man,” necessarily obscures the way this biblical passage should sound to the listener: “And the Lord formed [a variant of] earth from the dust of the earth.” . . .

Here and elsewhere, Kushner implies that paradigms for translation set by Christian translators have distorted the ways in which modern Jews read the Bible as well. What is earthy in the original Hebrew becomes abstract and “spiritualized.”

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More about: Biblical Hebrew, Genesis, Hebrew Bible, Religion & Holidays, Translation

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