The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible
by Aviya Kushner (Spiegel & Grau, 2015)
The Art of Listening in the Early Church by Carol Harrison (Oxford, 2013)
God’s “I” remains the root word that sounds like a pedal note through all of revelation; it resists all attempts to translate it into a He, it is I and must remain I. Only an I, and not a He, can speak the imperative of love. The imperative must always only be: love me!
IT’S A SATURDAY IN SEPTEMBER and everyone who participates in liturgical leadership at the small Episcopal congregation at the corner of Sunset and Church Streets is here to be trained, or retrained: the chalice bearers, the acolytes, the ushers. (In a congregation of forty people, almost everyone is a liturgical leader of some sort.) At the moment, it is the lectors—the readers of Scripture—who are practicing. This congregation is blessed with great readers, though I’d love to get them to hold a bit more silence after the Scripture passage concludes, before saying “The word of the Lord.” I remind our lectors that what they are doing is important—they’re not just reading; they are in fact proclaiming the word of God. And I remind them that what they’re doing has a long, broad history. This is how most of the church, for most of church history, has principally encountered Scripture: aurally, and in translation.
A love of these lectors and their task has prompted me to open two recent books, one an investigation of what’s gained and lost in translation, the other an exploration of the soundscape of early Christianity. Each book poses something that destabilizes modern ways of reading: Scripture as a translatable and multiply translated text, and Scripture as a text spoken and heard, rather than eyeballed. What gets destabilized is the notion that Scripture is the sum of a single set of words, or that there is a single set of things to say about the Bible. If Scripture is translated and translatable, then what Scripture means is partly constituted by translating it; if Scripture is also vibrations in the air, then what Scripture means is partly constituted by receiving the word of the Lord as spoken word taken in by the ear.
Aviya Kushner grew up studying the Tanakh in Hebrew. Torah was, for Kushner, a text inseparable from the rabbinic commentary thereon, and Torah was a text fiercely and lovingly debated around the dinner table on Shabbat. Then, as a graduate student at the University of Iowa, she encountered the Bible in English (in a course taught by Marilynne Robinson). Faced with the Oxford Annotated Bible’s renderings of a text she knew only in the original, Kushner became curious about English-language Bibles. Reading in Robinson’s classroom, she began to realize that the English Bibles that shaped so much of America’s religious practice (and political debate) sometimes differed strikingly from the Hebrew text she knew. So she began collecting and immersing herself in English Bibles, including the King James and the Jewish Publication Society’s 1917 and 1985 translations. In The Grammar of God, she offers “a chronicle of the largest of the surprises I encountered while reading the Bible in English.” Christians who read the Bible solely or principally in English will find Kushner’s “chronicle” absorbing and enlightening.
Kushner’s strategy, chapter by chapter, is to depict herself as confused or taken aback or (to use a word she favors) surprised by English translations. She then goes back to the Hebrew and shows us what the English elides. The King James, for example, renders Exodus 2:23 this way: “And it came to pass in process of time, that the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.” But “sighed” and “cried” don’t quite capture the Hebrew. The word given in the King James as “sighed” is better a moaning or groaning, and the crying is really a shrieking: because they were enslaved, the children of Israel moaned and shrieked. Indeed, the Hebrew word rendered “cry” in the King James has another, significant use in modern Hebrew. It is the term used for “the piercing siren that stops the entire country [of Israel] twice a year—once to remember the Holocaust, and once to remember the war dead. It is also the word used for the warning siren when war breaks out or a terror attack occurs. The word choice is probably no accident.” Pondering the consequences of translation, Kushner wonders if America’s antebellum abolitionist preachers might have had an easier time converting lukewarm Presbyterians and Methodists to the cause if “All Bible readers in English could have sensed what God thought when God saw and heard slavery.”
The Grammar of God is saturated by this—by Kushner showing us turns in the biblical text that are invisible in English translations. Kushner also shows us that certain conventions of English translations—conventions that most readers probably never notice, precisely because they are conventional—are in fact editorial choices that deeply shape readers’ experiences of the text. In so doing, Kushner gently yet pointedly corrects some persistent Christian speech about Judaism. The chapter on law, for example, opens with the King James rendering of the Decalogue in Exodus 20, and then takes us into Robinson’s classroom at Iowa: “‘Mosaic law can be harsh,’” Marilynne Robinson said to the class one day, and I looked up in surprise. First of all—what was ‘Mosaic law?’” And second of all, why do Christians gloss it as “harsh”? In answering that question, Kushner does more than showcase interesting Hebrew wordplay that English Bibles miss; she is also taking aim at the deep-seated anti-Judaism of the Christian lexicon. Kushner suggests that it is English translations, not the Torah itself, that bend toward harshness. She points out that the text most Americans know as the Ten Commandments is, in the Hebrew, aseret ha’dvarim—the ten sayings, the ten things, the ten statements. And “saying” has quite a different connotation than “commandment.” Kushner then offers a close reading of layout and versification, noting, for example, that in Hebrew “four key ‘commandments’ are crammed into one verse. But in the 1611 King James Bible, they have more space, with four verses, not one.” Here’s how the King James gives the passage:
13 Thou shalt not kill.
14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.
15 Thou shalt not steal.
16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
There are lexical choices of some importance here—the Hebrew says “do not murder,” not “do not kill,” a salient ethical difference. But the layout alone communicates: the King James versification shocks Kushner. The English layout does not invite the rabbinic question of what murder, adultery, theft, and false witness have in common, why they are a quartet—because on the page of the King James, they aren’t a quartet. In the English versification, each “commandment” seems set apart, somehow blunter and sturdier and more self-contained than Kushner, reading the Hebrew, knew them to be.
To my eye, the most powerful passage in Kushner’s discussion of law is her consideration of the centuries-long debate about where the Decalogue begins, and how to divide the commandments/sayings. She shows that many Christian renderings begin the first commandment not with “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” but with “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” (On this point, she’s quite right, though there are counterexamples; to wit, when the current Roman Catholic catechism presents the Ten Commandments, the passage in question begins “I am the Lord your God.”) “When I looked at the heading ‘The Ten Commandments’ in one of my Bibles,” writes Kushner, “followed by ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me,’ I began to understand the comment ‘Mosaic law can be harsh.’”
Maybe the heart of “the ten sayings that are translated as the Ten Commandments,” suggests Kushner, is found in the words she (and the aforementioned catechism) identify as the beginning of the section in question: not “Thou shalt not,” but Anochi adonai, “I am the Lord.” That “is a simple introduction,” and it “requires the listener to wonders who he or she is. How would I introduce myself to God, if I had to?” Mosaic law is, in this reading, not severe or burdensome. It is a vehicle for relationship—for the kind of relationship that can develop between a father and his daughter when they pass twenty years of Sabbaths together, and of the kind of relationship invited or commanded by a God who begins a mountaintop revelation to God’s people with “a simple introduction”: I am the Lord your God.
In addition to exposing readers to Hebrew, The Grammar of God introduces rabbinic approaches to the art of reading Scripture. (So if you enjoy reading Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, or if you appreciate what Debbie Blue does with Zornberg, you’ll like Kushner.) Kushner notes that rabbinic reading strategies are quite different from those invited by most English Bibles: “perhaps the biggest surprise” in reading English Bibles, Kushner writes, “was the lone voice of the Bible I encountered in English. While it is possible to read the Hebrew Bible with just the text—what is called the pshat, literally ‘the simple or the plain’—that is not how I usually read it, and that is not how it is generally taught in yeshiva classrooms. In school, as a child, I read the Torah from…volumes in which each page is crammed with commentary surrounding the text of the Bible…. Beneath the text of the Bible lay Rashi’s commentary, expressing his thoughts in his special medieval script…. Around Rashi lay other commentators, rabbis chiming in from their perches in Spain, France, Germany, the Arab world, and Israel, spanning at least twelve centuries.” Kushner goes on to explain that rabbinic “rules of reading” push the reader not to hunt for one fixed meaning, but encourage the reader to find meaning exactly in the text’s inexhaustibility. For example, one rabbinic “rule of reading” bucks “our contemporary sense of order and time” by insisting that “there is no early and no late in the Torah.” Thus, for readers tutored by the rabbis, “the events in the Hebrew Bible are not always written in the order in which they occur; just because an event is written about after another one does not mean it chronologically follows it.” Such hermeneutical norms permit the text a certain unruliness, and an inevitable intertextuality, largely hidden by the English translations that most North American Christians read.
Kushner is right, of course: except for the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series and the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series (both published by Intervarsity Press), none of the English-language Bibles on my shelf stage the same cacophony of interpretive voices that you will find on a page of Talmud. But it’s worth spelling out that while there certainly is a wide gap between the hermeneutical strategies of Rashi and the hermeneutical strategies of most twenty-first-century North American Bible readers, there are in fact some deep similarities between rabbinic reading and patristic and medieval Christian reading. Patristic and medieval Christian readers of Scripture, like the rabbis, tend to focus their attention on small units of text; they are less interested than modern readers are in the literary character of a biblical book and are more interested in a single phrase or sentence. Like rabbinic readers, patristic and medieval Christian readers seem to think that any part of the canon can be used to illumine any other part. And like rabbinic readers, earlier Christian readers take for granted that readers should pay attention to lexical and syntactical similarities across the canon of Scripture—so an eleventh-century Christian reader would be just as likely as Rashi to think that if you encounter a distinctive turn of phrase in one biblical book, and then hear the phrase echoed seventeen books later, the echo tells you something important. The notable gulf, in other words, is not between Jewish reading strategies and Christian reading strategies. (Nor, to be clear, does Kushner explicitly suggest it is. Indeed, she notes that the Geneva Bible, with its “concept of text-plus-commentaries, text-plus-marginalia,” feels almost rabbinic, and she wonders “how the Bible would be read today if the Geneva Bible had come to dominate the way future generations read.”) The gulf is in the present day: present-day Jewish reading communities do more to keep alive the reading practices of the rabbis than Christians do to keep alive medieval allegorical Christian reading, and, in my view, Christians are impoverished by that. Perhaps one of the many gifts The Grammar of God will give Christian readers is curiosity about whether a richer reading experience can be found not only in Judaism, but in the reading habits of Christians in earlier centuries.
In each chapter, The Grammar of God will help English-speaking Christian readers see something anew—in Genesis, in Exodus, in the Psalms, Kushner finds insights and interpretations available only, or available most forcefully, to readers of Hebrew. (My favorite example: when Moses says to God that he can’t possibly be qualified to speak to Pharaoh, the Hebrew is far more interesting than “Since I am a poor speaker, why would Pharaoh listen to me?” as the 2001 New Oxford Annotated Bible has it. In Hebrew, Moses says, “Since I have uncircumcised lips, why would Pharaoh listen to me?” As Kushner points out, the Hebrew means not just I don’t talk well. With its reference to the ritual that marks a male Jew’s entry into covenant with God, it also means I am not ready; I have not been set aside or relationally readied for this task.)
What Kushner displays less frequently is the sense that translations can show readers anything that might be harder to see in the original. There are hints of this—for example, it is the New Oxford’s rendering of Genesis 3:8 that prompts Kushner to ask “Wait. Is God actually walking?” But for the most part, Kushner holds up nuggets from the Hebrew, not from translation. (Even in her consideration of Genesis 3:8, Kushner defers to the syntactically complex Hebrew. After parsing of the verb mithalech and glancing at Rashi, she concludes that the verse is likely not talking about a footed God taking a stroll, but rather about the voice of God being heard from all directions in the garden.) The Grammar of God, in other words, is shot through with a provocative tension about translation itself. On the one hand, Kushner devoted years to a remarkable, humble, and generous task—the task of sitting with translations of a text whose original she knew well. On the other hand, the greatest accomplishment of The Grammar of God is offering insights gleaned from the Hebrew to those unable to read the Hebrew themselves, and thereby helping them see things they would not have seen before. That is, she’s pointing out the limitations of translation and offering a corrective.
Indeed, this is where I found The Grammar of God most generative: I was left wondering what, in fact, might be available not from Scripture-in-the-original, but only, or especially, from Scripture-in-translation. One instance of this might be found in the Septuagint (a term that may label several Greek versions of the Hebrew Scriptures, and that includes the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that was used by the Jewish community in Alexandria several centuries before the Common Era). The Septuagint amplifies a particular reading of Isaiah 1 by turning instances of the third-person into the first-person. Instead of the text’s saying (as it does in the Hebrew ) that your scarlet sins “will be” white as snow, the Greek shows God speaking in the first person—I will make them white as snow. This Greek translation of the Hebrew, then, makes more overt something that is generally there in Isaiah, but not underlined in the grammar of the Hebrew text: God as an actor, God as one who is going to transform.
Translation inspires mixed feelings. Great translators are lauded (to wit, the recent, and deserved, lionizing of Ann Goldstein), but many readers see translation itself as suspect. “The Italians say traduttore-traditore: translator-traitor,” Kushner reminds us, and the Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik said that reading translation was like receiving a “kiss through a handkerchief” (I assume that’s a translation of something Bialik originally put in Hebrew or Yiddish). Some of the great rabbis denounced the project of translating the Bible into Greek, saying that the transition should be marked by a fast—but in the tenth century, the Saadiah Gaon translated the Torah into the language his surrounding Jewish community spoke: Arabic. As for Christian translators, we laud Luther, but William Tyndale was burned at the stake.
Kushner’s insistence that attention to a text’s original language can show readers things that a translation can’t is, of course, right; translation always betrays the original. But translation also always reveals something. There’s a general form of that argument: Longfellow’s Divine Comedy is a powerful text in English and has a long history as such, whatever it has to do with Dante’s Italian; and Longfellow’s English yields something that Dante’s Italian can’t. But there’s also a properly Christian version of the argument that translation is a good, not a compromise. Part of the argument is theological: to understand the God of the Bible as the creator of the entire world and of all peoples is to open the door to translation. And part of the Christian argument is historical: Christianity has long held up translations of Scripture as still and all the Word of God. The Reformation’s emphasis on translation did that, of course, but what the Reformers disrupted was not a devotion to Greek and Hebrew—rather a devotion to reading the Scriptures in Latin. Indeed, an inescapable embrace of translation is found in the New Testament itself—Christians generally haven’t lamented the New Testament’s almost wholesale erasure of Jesus’s Aramaic. We’ve instead received the words Jesus speaks in the Gospels as Jesus’s words, even though we’re receiving them in translation.
And yet: translation for Christians must always be a tensive matter. If there’s a Christian argument to be made for receiving translated Scriptures as a good, there’s also, in the Christian story, a caution against practicing translation in a whiggish key, a key meant to show off Christianity’s supposed universality as an improvement over Judaism’s supposed parochialism. The Pentecost event wants to deny the particular significance of any one language, and Christianity must embrace translation (embrace Pentecost) while taking care that our embrace does not become linguistically supersessionist. That is, any Christian who is committed to the idea that the particular election of Abraham means something should take up translation under the rubric that even though we translate, the particularity of Hebrew means something, too. Kushner’s book makes clear what’s available in that particularity.
Whatever edition they are reading, most North American Christians read the Scriptures silently, eyes on a page. But, as Carol Harrison points out in The Art of Listening in the Early Church, that’s an innovation: “It would not be a wild overestimate to suggest that around two-thirds of the early Christian texts which we now read were originally spoken, rather than written, and were intended for hearers, rather than readers.” Harrison explores the many different kinds of texts that were heard in the early church (sermons, catechisms, Scripture), and she considers early church ambivalences about hearing (all sense perception is sometimes unreliable, and rhetorical flights of fancy might lead a listener astray). Finally, in this luminous historical study, Harrison is after is an account of what difference listening to a text makes—and an account of what it meant for an early Christian to hear God, self, and neighbor.
Sermons and catechisms are straightforwardly oral and aural experiences; more intriguingly, Harrison argues that prayer is also aural. Prayer, she writes, is a “practice of listening…[in which] it is not at all clear who is doing the listening and who is speaking.” Indeed, Harrison’s accomplishment is to clarify just who is speaking and listening in (patristic) prayer: people listen, God listens, people speak—but first, before all that, God speaks. The fathers stressed that prayer begins in God’s speech, and then in our hearing God. Summarizing Gregory Nazianzen, Harrison proposes that God speaks to us through God’s works, through the incarnate Word, and through God’s own mercy. God speaks, we hear God speak, and only then can we respond with our own speech.
For the early church fathers, the ideal human response to God was speaking not words of our own devising, but words given to us by Jesus: that is, the Lord’s Prayer, a text with which the early fathers were deeply, lovingly obsessed. Most of the fathers’ formal reflection on prayer came in the form of exegetical comment on the Lord’s Prayer; Cyprian, Tertullian, Origen, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine all left hefty treatments of the Lord’s Prayer; and, in Harrison’s summary, “the fathers can hardly find words adequate enough to express the unique nature of the Lord’s Prayer.” The fathers understood the Lord’s Prayer to be the rule of prayer, that which normed all other prayer, that which could singularly transform the person praying. So, it’s no surprise that a historian treating prayer in the early church would turn to the Lord’s Prayer. Harrison’s useful innovation is to draw on the fathers to suggest that although the Lord’s Prayer appears to showcase the praying person speaking to God, the Lord’s Prayer is fundamentally an act of listening.
First, God is listening, and that fact shapes how the speaker speaks. Sensitive speakers, writes Harrison, speakers who wants to be heard and understood, will speak “always with our hearer in mind. We accommodate what we have to say to them by drawing on everything we already know about them…. We…imaginatively enter into their reception of what we say, anticipating their reaction, aligning ourselves with them so that we, in turn, might be heard.” Thus, the fathers describe the Lord’s Prayer in a way that recalls Kushner’s interpretation of God’s proclamation “I am the Lord your God”: the Lord’s Prayer is “above all [an act of] forming a relationship between God and the speaker, in which, by addressing their hearer, the speakers align themselves with Him…. The individuals who said this prayer together would thus hear not only their own voice, along with the common voice of the faithful, but [would also hear] God, as it were, speaking to Himself.” Thus, prayer becomes, in Harrison’s phrasing, “a complicated polyphony of speaking and hearing: God speaks to Himself; the individual and the congregation speak to God; God hears His own words and those of the faithful; the faithful hear what they pray, overhear the words of their neighbors as they pray with them, and above all, overhear God’s own words.”
There is something jarring, bracing, about this depiction of prayer. Since the seventeenth century, many Christians have become accustomed to saying, contra the fathers, that the truest kind of prayer is personal and subjective; the truest kind of prayer is the prayer that comes when you speak your deepest feelings and thoughts to God. And to be sure, there is a great good in that kind of speech. Consider petitionary prayer: the good that comes of asking God to give me the things I want is not principally that I will get the job, or the healing, or the man. I might get whatever I’m asking for, but if I do, that getting is a second-order good. The first-order good that is possible when I speak my own specific desires to God is intimacy: something close to my real self (or at least, what I perceive my real self to be) is now revealed beforeGod, and in showing myself (offering myself), I’ve made intimacy possible.
(Of course, God already knows my real self, better than I will ever know it. The intimacy that follows my laying my specific desires before God is made possible not by God’s new knowledge of me, but by my new availability to God. A mundane analogy: my best friend finally tells me about the infatuation she has been nursing for two months. Of course, I spotted the infatuation myself seven weeks before. Still, our friendship deepens, not because I have learned something new, but because in being willing to tell me about the crush, my friend has become more available to me. Similarly, even though God is the one “unto whom all…desires [are] known, and from whom no secrets are hid”—that is, even though God already knew that I wanted whatever it is I am asking for—I become more available to God when I offer what I understand of myself to God.)
The intimacy made possible by subjective petition (or subjective confession or lament) seems to get lost in Harrison’s picture of prayer. And yet because God-in-Christ took on a body and then made us into Christ’s body, it is fitting that as Christ’s body we utter Christ’s own words. Perhaps when prayer is understood not as an exercise in self-transparency but rather as my listening repetition of God’s own words back to God, what’s at play is something deeper than intimacy.
In a footnote, Harrison mentions the old tradition that Mary conceived through her ear. As Agobard of Lyon puts it in one representative aural account of the Annunciation, “He, light and God of the created universe, descends from heaven, sent forth from the breast of the Father; having put on the purple stole, he enters our region through the ear of the Virgin.” Conceptio per aurem was, of course, a way of talking about what happened when Mary heard the angel speak to her, and it was a way of supplying the mechanics of virginal conception. But the suggestion that Mary conceived in her ear is more, I think, than just a specification of Mary’s virginity. Conceptio per aurem resonates with the longstanding suggestion that one way we human creatures participate in the Trinity is this: the word enters us through our ear and conceives (in both senses) a thought in us, and when we speak that thought, we enflesh it and send it into the world. A strong reading of Harrison’s treatment of the Lord’s Prayer would suggest that it would be better if none of the words we enflesh were ours.
Sometimes, at church, I hold an adult education session devoted to a particular mode of praying—I’ll take an hour to introduce lectio divina, or Ignatian prayer; I’ll hold a session on how to walk a labyrinth. When I teach these sessions, I always ask, “Imagine praying this way for ten years, or twenty. How would the prayer shape you? Who and how would you be at the end of those years, and what would your friendship with God be like?” It has never occurred to me to set aside a session on how to pray the Lord’s Prayer, but Harrison’s reading of the fathers suggests that I should. How would the Lord’s Prayer would reshape us if we prayed it long enough?
On Harrison’s reading, the aim of the Lord’s Prayer is not for us to speak the prayer, but for it to speak us, so that gradually over time we get not intimacy with God, but conformity—to God’s speech, and to the God who spoke it. I would be so thoroughly conformed that my agency (verbal agency, and every other kind of agency) wouldn’t seem to me to be mine—and perhaps actually would not be mine. When I speak words given by God, it is no longer I speaking the prayer, but the prayer speaking me. Or, put differently, what the Lord’s Prayer wants is for me to become an instrument of the prayer rather than the prayer’s being my instrument.
If this is the apogee of prayer, then prayer aims not to bring peace to the world and not to create intimacy between the praying human subject and the God to whom she prays. Rather, prayer aims finally to erase our subjectivity, so that the words we speak, in whatever language, are only the words of the Lord.