Unlocking the Linguistic Mysteries of the Hebrew Bible

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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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

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

 

The Arab Press Blames Iran Rather Than Israel for Gaza’s Woes

Following the fighting between Israel and Islamic Jihad over the weekend, many journalists and commentators in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia didn’t rush to condemn the Jewish state. Instead, as the translators at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) note, they criticized the terrorist group for “operating in service of Iranian interests and thus inflicting suffering on the Gaza Strip’s residents.” One Saudi intellectual, Turki al-Hamad, wrote the following on Twitter:

It is apparent that, if at one time any confrontation between Israel and the Palestinian organizations would attract world and Arab attention and provoke a wave of anger [against Israel], today it does not shock most Arabs and most of the world’s [countries]. Furthermore, even a sense of human solidarity [with the Palestinians] has become rare and embarrassing, raising the question, “Why [is this happening] and who is to blame?”

I believe that the main reason is the lack of confidence in all the Palestinian leaders. . . . From the Arabs’ and the world’s perspective, it is already clear that these leaders are manipulating the [Palestinian] cause out of self-interest and diplomatic, economic, or even personal motives, and that the Palestinian issue is completely unconnected to this. The Palestinian cause has become a bargaining chip in the hands of these and other organizations and states headed by the [Iranian] ayatollah regime.

A, article in a major Arabic-language newspaper took a similar approach:

In a lengthy front-page report on August 7, the London-based UAE daily Al-Arab criticized Islamic Jihad, writing that “Gaza again became an arena for the settling of accounts between Iran and Israel, while the Palestinian citizens are the ones paying the price.” It added that Iran does not want to confront Israel directly for its bombings in Syria and its attacks on Iranian scientists and nuclear facilities.

“The war in Gaza is not the first, nor will it be the last. But it proves . . . that Iran is exploiting Gaza as it exploits Lebanon, in order to strengthen its hand in negotiations with the West. We all know that Iran hasn’t fired a single bullet at Israel, and it also will not do this to defend Gaza or Lebanon.”

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Read more at MEMRI

More about: Gaza Strip, Iran, Islamic Jihad, Israel-Arab relations, Persian Gulf