The basic idea of “The Grammar of God” by Aviya Kushner, an interesting and informative book, is that readers of the Hebrew Bible who do not know Hebrew and read only the English translation will generally not know what the Bible is saying. What the Bible states is misrepresented or obscured in the translation, and often just plain wrong. As extraordinary as this sounds, Aviya Kushner is correct. She grew up in a family that spoke Hebrew and learnt the Hebrew Bible in its original language. When she went to graduate school and heard her teacher read the English translation, she knew that what she heard was not what the Bible was saying. She discussed the issue with her teacher who agreed with her, and the teacher inspired her to write this book, a book that gives many examples of how the translation is unlike the Hebrew original.
She writes: “There is no perfect translation, because there is no way to bring a text fully from one culture to another, one language to another, one person to another.” She reminds us of the Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik’s statement: translation is like “a kiss through a handkerchief” and that of the American poet Robert Frost: “poetry is what is lost in translation.”
For example: We call what Moses received at Sinai “The Ten Commandments.” The Hebrew is aseret hadibrot, “Ten Statements,” which scholars and many clergies recognize has more than ten commands. One of the commands is translated “Do not kill,” but the Hebrew allows some killing; it actually states “Do not murder.” While Christians and Jews recognize that the Decalogue is significant, Kushner has a chart showing that Jews, Protestants, and Roman Catholics have unlike breakdowns of the ten statements. For instance, among several other differences, neither the Protestants nor Roman Catholics include “I am God” as a separate statement, and Roman Catholics and Lutherans break “Covetousness” into two statements.
Many biblical words are ambiguous and some even obscure. The very first sentence in the Bible is obscure in Hebrew. English translations differ. The King James Bible, for instance, seems to understand that the creation of heaven and earth were the first divine creations: “In the beginning God created the Heaven, and the Earth.” The Schocken Bible and Bible commentator Rashi disagree: “At the beginning of God’s creating of the heaven and the earth (certain things were created).”
Similarly, how should the Hebrew lechem be translated. It means both “bread” and the more inclusive “food.” Elohim means “mighty,” and “god” (an idol), and the “God.” So what were the bnei elohim in Genesis 6? Were they divine beings, perhaps angels, who cohabitated with human women, or mighty or more intelligent male humans, as the scholar Abraham ibn Ezra contends? How should ki be translated in Exodus 2:2, as “how (beautiful he was)” suggesting he was extremely beautiful, or the less emphatic, “that (he was beautiful).”
Kushner writes that the first male Adam was given this name which is drawn from adama, “earth,” to emphasize his origin and fate, and states: “From Adam onward, at nearly every turn in the Bible, the names of men, women, and children have clear meanings, and they often represent physical reality and emotional destiny. Yet the meaning of these Hebrew names are lost in translation.”
In short, Kushner recognizes in this book that readers of the Hebrew Bible in translation fail to grasp the full intent of verses and events. “And yet, like the biblical Noah, they (the translators) chose to save what they could, for us.”