Monday, December 22, 2008

Rescue Your Hebrew

How many students of biblical Hebrew have mastered the basics only to discover that they could hardly make it through more than one verse of the Bible? Beginners soon realize that completion of the first-year textbook is just the beginning, not the end. Stuck somewhere between the fundamentals and fluency, most of them give up. In a reflection to which any language student can relate, Jerome once wrote about his own struggle to get beyond the basics of Hebrew:

What efforts I spent on that task, what difficulties I went through, how often I despaired, how often I gave up, and then in my eagerness to learn began again, can be attested both by myself, the subject of misery, and by those who then lived with me. But I thank the Lord that from a bitter seed of learning I am now plucking sweet fruits (Epistula, 125.12).

Good teachers look for anything that will make the seed of learning not quite so bitter. But what is the best way? Until now, one of the best methods was for the student to sit down with the Hebrew Bible and a reader’s lexicon like the one by Armstrong, Busby, and Carr. What most students find, though, is that this help isn’t as helpful as they’d like for it to be.

A more thorough and much more tedious method—one that I’ve spent many hours with—is to use the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon (BDB), assisted by Bruce Einspahr’s fabulous Index in order to identify a root and get to the pertinent section of BDB. This way of working through a text has a couple major advantages: it acquaints the student with the real treasure to be found in BDB, and it helps to ensure the accuracy of the student’s understanding of the text. The downside of this method is that it slows the pace to a near standstill. What is gained in thoroughness is lost in fluency.

But now there is an alternate tool that may be the best thing yet. It’s A Reader’s Hebrew Bible, by A. Philip Brown II and Bryan W. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008).

This work starts with a text of the Hebrew Bible that is virtually identical to the one found in Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. Then, for every Hebrew word that occurs less than 100 times in the Bible, and for every Aramaic word occurring less than 25 times, there is at least one footnoted definition. In the case of verbs, the footnote also identifies the stem (binyan).

For the glosses, the compilers have relied on the best resources: the L. Koehler-W. Baumgartner Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, and BDB. At times they also include definitions from W. L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, and from other sources.

Something else. A Reader’s Hebrew Bible identifies all Hebrew proper nouns occurring less than 100 times and all Aramaic ones occurring less than 25 times. Every such noun is printed in a gray scale that is easily distinguished from the regular, black type. Every student of Hebrew has struggled long and hard trying to determine of root of an unfamiliar word only to discover that it was a name. This tool solves that problem.

In his preface, Bryan Smith describes his own experience of using his own product in order to regain proficiency:

Directly before me I placed a page from A Reader’s Hebrew Bible. To my left hand was an English Bible. With my left hand in the footnotes and my right hand in the main text, I moved through the Hebrew verses, looking down at each gloss in the footnotes. Whenever the Hebrew grammar would stump me, I would glance at the rendering in the English Bible. Once I was able to make sense of the Hebrew, I moved on to the next sentence (p. ix).

What Smith describes is exactly the sort of method that can take students to the next level of proficiency. In my opinion, A Reader’s Hebrew Bible is the best tool available for intermediate students who want to increase their reading fluency. It’s also the best choice for people who want to brush up their Hebrew.

Note: Of course there are any number of computerized Hebrew texts, with powerful searchability, produced by Gramcord, Accordance, Bible Works, etc. I have and sometimes use Bible Works, but it's just not the same as reading the text from a page in a real book.

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