Basics of Biblical Hebrew

Schmutzer, Andrew J

Basics of Biblical Hebrew. By Gary D. Pratico and Miles V. Van Pelt. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001, vii + 476 pp., $39.99.

Basics of Biblical Hebrew (BBH) is the counterpart to Zondervan’s Basics of Biblical Greek by William D. Mounce. BBH also comes with a workbook and interactive CD-ROM. Written with the beginning student in mind, the authors have intentionally “minimized the introduction of issues related to the historical development of the language or the area of comparative Semitic philology” (p. ix) in an attempt to distill the “basics” of phonology, morphology, and syntax for the student in ministry training.

Using the numerical system of outlining, the typical chapter consists of 8-10 paragraphs (10+ pp.), some illustrative charts, a summary that bullets the key points of the chapter, a vocabulary list, a “biblical-theological reflection” (see “Table of Insights,” xii-xiii), and a final paragraph of Advanced Information (21 entries) that “is not required but often helpful and interesting” (p. 7 n. 1).

Pratico and Van Pelt have gone beyond the collective “tools” of a grammar, workbook, and CD; their pedagogical sensitivity clearly stands out in the way this material has been structured. It is this sustained didactic concern for the student that is the greatest strength of BBH. To my knowledge, no other Hebrew grammar has assembled this “tool set” and achieved this kind of educational intensity. Moreover, these tools interface well, enabling disciplined students to instruct themselves. The workbook contains a helpful variety of exercises and students are encouraged to “treat the exercises like a quiz” (p. 5). The diagnostic indicators in the CD are effectively accentuated by the colored vowels and consonants. Some sentences for translation are programmed and at times the student is directed to consult an English translation. The charts and answer keys can be printed for convenience.

Among other strengths, the grammar regularly cites statistical information from Accordance (Module HMT-T) to illustrate the significance or distribution of a given form. With helpful charts and constant diagnostic indicators, the grammar’s layout is designed to alleviate the need to memorize paradigms beyond the Qal by highlighting recurring structural patterns.

Reading through the chapters one senses an empathetic tone that anticipates the needs of the Hebrew neophyte: asking the student to “be patient” learning the vowels (p. 9), stipulating that the Qal perfect endings must be memorized (p. 139), and acknowledging that a student might be feeling “a bit overwhelmed” (p. 159). In this way, the text reads more like a tutor than a standard grammar, not assuming the student understands grammatical terms and concepts. Warning students that they should not proceed to the weak verb until the strong has been mastered (p. 150) is valuable guidance and such instruction is given often enough. Using both inductive and deductive approaches, the Qal stem is covered first and then the “derived stems” are addressed. Footnotes are used for specific information.

However, the grammar’s pedagogical forte is also its liability. The desire of the authors to provide a “language-accessible” grammar for the beginning student has also resulted in downplaying the historical foundation of biblical Hebrew. One unfortunate consequence of oversimplification is that the mindset of the language is not adequately communicated to the student.

While the authors acknowledge the discussion, the issue of the wayyiqtol in BBH illustrates this danger of oversimplification. The terminology of converted imperfect (p. 192) is outdated and inappropriate for a grammar attempting to be “groundbreaking” (see chap. 17, “Waw Conversive”). The authors state, “Despite its inadequacies, the terminology is descriptive for the beginning student and represents a helpful point of departure for the study of these very important but complex concepts” (p. 192 n. 1). But one need not be linguistically bound to be linguistically accurate. Verbal aspect is also important and complex, but it is discussed for the beginner (pp. 128-31, §12.11).

Placing pragmatic acquisition over accuracy distorts the balance between function and form. Both comparative Semitic and morphological studies of recent decades have shown that the preterite (or short prefixed form) is not an imperfect, but the retention of an historical verbal tense marked by the waw (see W. Randall Garr’s comments on this construction in his introductory essay, “Driver’s Treatise and the Study of Hebrew,” in A Treatise on the Use of the Tenses in Hebrew and Some Other Syntactical Questions, by S. R. Driver [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998; 1874], Ixv-lxxiii). Well established, then, through genres, discourse functions, and distinct conjugations, even beginning students should be taught this. However, in BBH the preterite has lost its independent status, is not adequately parsed (pp. 202, §17.8), does not fall under the author’s eight stipulated conjugations (p. 137), and is even omitted from the paradigms (pp. 416-17).

Beyond this some minor criticisms and recommendations can be pointed out. Regarding vocabulary, it would be helpful to have some exposure to verbs before chapter 12; 177 nouns alone could be counter-productive. In addition, having the vocabulary keyed to the “lexicon” would be more useful for the student than listing a word’s cognate frequency. Regarding paradigms, the omission of the cohortative and jussive from the paradigms (pp. 416-17) is complicating for the teacher and frustrating for the student. Regarding terminology, using “theme vowel” for the 2nd root radical vowel instead of “stem vowel” might alleviate some confusion since “stem” is also used for derived conjugations (Qal, etc.) and nouns from roots. Similarly, it would be more accurate to use “complete” for the perfect rather than “completed” (p. 129), just as “incomplete” is used for the “imperfect.” Regarding stem functions, the Piel “iterative” and the more archaic “intensive” (pp. 307-8) would be better served under “pluralitive,” addressing recurring action and multiple objects. Regarding transliteration, BBH adheres to JBL transliteration, though not for the fricatives and vowel names. Finally, in his “biblical-theological reflection” (pp. 284-85), Gordon Hugenberger unnecessarily takes a satirical interpretation of Prov 22:6, straining the wisdom genre that operates from the descriptive rule, not the exception. The paths of the wise and the fool are the sole options. The proverb envisions a youth “dedicated” (cf. 1 Kgs 8:63; HALOT 1:334) to the Lord by the parents in the formative years with an expected consequence of enduring righteousness. In this context, “his way” is the moral life he is obligated to achieve.

Many students now have a grammar designed for them. Given its parameters, BBH succeeds in “pitching to the beginner,” but this comes at a cost. Issues of genre, clauses, accents, textual criticism, and subjects of discourse will need greater definition and coverage in the following year’s study. BBH is possibly the best grammar available for students weak in principal grammatical categories, and for graduate programs seeking more student initiative.

Copyright Evangelical Theological Society Dec 2003

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