Review Series #4: The Grammar of God

It’s been a while since a book intrigued me as much as Aviya Kushner’s The Grammar of God.

I’ve always cringed upon hearing people argue for “the inerrancy of Scripture.” I understand they’re trying to bolster the credibility of the Bible (as if it needs defenders, and doesn’t stand on its own as a great and gorgeous work?), but I always felt like this fetish with “inerrancy” missed the point and had the opposite effect–somehow impoverishing our understanding of the Bible, skimming over the ugly and uncomfortable parts, miscategorizing it as an “instruction manual,” and diminishing all the beauty and power of its mystery and complexity.

As I read Aviya Kushner’s book, my sneaking suspicion was confirmed in the most beautiful, fascinating way–and in a way I never could have done, as a non-Hebrew speaker. There is so much more in Scriptural writings, so many layers of meaning and nuance, than English translations can ever communicate. The books that make up the Bible are not meant to be science textbooks or sledgehammers; they are something else entirely, something better.

But I couldn’t fit all that personal commentary in a 300-word review. The review itself, which first appeared in Image Journal’s ImageUpdate, is below, and says a little more about why The Grammar of God is so worth buying and savoring.

Meaning Collapsed and Expanded

The Grammar of God by Aviya Kushner

grammar of god cover“When I was a child,” Aviya Kushner writes in The Grammar of God, “I assumed that all families discussed the grammar of the Bible in Hebrew at the dining room table.” For this scholarly Orthodox Jewish family, grammar was the fertile earth where meaning emerged—where a reader could delight in “the Bible’s humor, its laws, its wild leaps of narrative, and its rather charming tendency to contradict itself.” Years later, reading the English translations in a class taught by Marilynne Robinson, Kushner was shocked to see how far these texts strayed from the Bible she knew. Gone were the rabbinical commentaries. Multilayered phrases were reduced to a single decisive line, omitting acres of meaning. For example: The Genesis phrase that is usually translated “in the beginning God created” can also be rendered “in the beginning of God’s creating,” making room for the ongoing creation process of evolution—a dimension absent in the English. And “the phrase ‘the Ten Commandments’ appears nowhere in the Hebrew,” Kushner writes; the words spoken by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, the aseret ha’dvarim, are most accurately translated as the “ten sayings” or “ten statements” or “ten things,” implying that human beings are meant to converse with them, seeking meaning in an ongoing way. That the Hebrew texts aren’t always clear and straightforward is something to savor, not lament, Kushner says—“To truly understand anything you must duke it out, on the inside, both with yourself and with God”—and to craft her own book, which also tussles with her own nomadic life and family history, took ten years. Kushner writes that she sometimes despaired of “the absurdity” of her project, that it was “too messy, too risky.” But eventually “I realized that there is darkness in avoiding your task. The rabbis are right: it may not be your obligation to finish the task, but neither are you free to shirk it. Perhaps darkness is just a beginning, what must come before creation.” This significant book is a feast of insights, and that alone is worth the price of admission.
—Reviewed by Jen Hinst-White

Purchase your copy here.

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