Some Notes on Reading Hebrew (and Greek)

I taught Old Testament in Institute last semester, but we only did Genesis. I’ll try to post some thoughts on that at a later time. We’re continuing with the OT, and adding something new and spicy; students who come 30 minutes early will also be learning some Biblical Hebrew.

Now, how much can be learned in 30 minutes of class time per week, over 3 months? Perhaps enough to lose one’s utter dependence on translations and get a feel for the foreignness of the language. I think my goals are fairly realistic, namely, to have them capable of 1) reading and pronouncing 2) recognizing roots and binyanim*, and most importantly 3) knowing what resources exist and how to use them.

We’ll be using a free grammar (pdf download) that looks decent, and I like the approach the authors lay out in the introduction.  I’ve also recommended they take a look at Hebrew4Christians, particularly the grammar sections.

For those with some training under the belt already, I’m excited about a resource to appear in May, A Reader’s Hebrew Bible.  The text is identical to the standard Masoretic text found in BHS, but replaces the textual apparatus with glosses for any word that occurs less than 100x. This means, in essence, that someone who knows all the basic Hebrew vocabulary can pick up the OT and just read through (provided they also understand grammar and syntax). A 62-page preview containing the Contents, Introduction, Abbreviations, and text samples form Genesis, Amos, and Ezra (with some Aramaic sections included) is available from one of the editor’s homepages (pdf download). Further information is available from Zondervan (the conservative Evangelical publisher), Amazon (preorder for $31.49!), and a discussion with the editor, Phillip Brown, on the Bibleworks forum.

I’ve been playing with the preview. This is a good way to both learn vocabulary, and also just read through quickly. I can easily see taking this to Church or Institute and teaching out of it. The introduction notes that it’s “designed to facilitate the regular reading of the Scriptures in Hebrew and Aramaic” and has several advantages.

” It eliminates the waste of precious study time occasioned by thumbing through a lexicon. It removes the inconvenience of using a second volume of glosses. It acquaints them with the glosses of the foremost Hebrew lexicons in English. It also allows students to focus on learning Hebrew and Aramaic vocabulary in its literary context rather than in isolated word lists. And RHB removes the biggest hindrance to reading the Hebrew Bible devotionally- unknown vocabulary.”

Another useful feature- “Many a beginning student has puzzled long over an apparently inscrutable form in the Hebrew Bible only to discover with frustration that it was a proper noun. Since the total occurrences of such proper nouns number over 16,000, they have been excluded from the footnotes. Rather than ignore them entirely, RHB distinguishes such proper nouns from the normal text by screening them in gray.” PN’s occurring more than 100x are assumed to be well known, and not greyed.

Similar products are out for the Greek New Testament, both from UBS (published by Hendrickson) and Zondervan.

* binyanim are the different consonantal modifications one makes to a verb to change the semantics. Whereas English uses lots of helping verbs to make passives (“He is being beaten”) and causatives (” I made him sweep the floor”, Hebrew and other Semitic languages have specific patterns of modifying the three-letter root to bring about these Semantic differences. These are called binyanim.

8 Replies to “Some Notes on Reading Hebrew (and Greek)”

  1. Wow, that looks terrific, Nitsav! I can read Hebrew fine, but for me it’s a very slow process because I have to look up so much vocabulary. This would speed things up substantially, which would make me more likely to actually do it.

    I think it’s great that you’re going to teach Hebrew as an optional part of your Institute class. I actually taught an Institute class on Biblical Hebrew, twice. It can be a little frustrating; in an hour a week, teaching adults most of whom aren’t going to do much homework, progress is going to be slow. But there will be progress.

    I intended to use Lambdin (which is what I learned on), but it was immensely expensive, so I called Eisenbrauns for a suggestion and they suggested I use Page Kelley, which as a paperback was much cheaper and also an easier entree for students without a lot of linguistics under their belt.

    The second class was basically a repeat of the first. One of the students, who was on the High Council, said that one of the best classes he ever had was one he actually took over again, and the second time things started to sink in. So after an entire year of Biblical Hebrew, the next year I taught the whole class over again, to mostly the same students. That was actually a good idea and seemed to help a lot.

    Later I taught a course in Biblical Greek. There was significantly less interest in the Greek class than there had been in Hebrew.

  2. Kevin,

    I also use(d) Lambdin. If you use UK, you can get the soft cover for 20-30 dollars or so, as opposed to the 100 dollar versions (typically hardcover) on US amazon.

    Actually, I just found this (27 dollars) on US amazon:

    But it is still cheaper here at UK amazon:

    Not that it does much good now, I suspect.

  3. Nitsav, I can’t believe that you are linking a friend.

    Philip and I took first year Hebrew together in seminary. Now he is a genius with Bibleworks, and I am a spud out here in Southeastern Idaho.

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