Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

Allen P. Ross, Introducing Biblical Hebrew (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 2001). Pp. 565. Hardcover. ISBN: 0801021472. $ 39.99.


Introducing Biblical Hebrew is a grammar that aims at the development of skills necessary for exegetical and critical study of Biblical Hebrew text.

The first two parts of the book introduce the grammar, giving special attention to verb parsing, a skill that the author views as critical to the study goals. Each lesson concludes with exercises, primarily in the form of Hebrew to English and English to Hebrew translations. Part Three reinforces and expands upon the acquired principles with an inductive review based on a variety of passages from the book of Genesis. The fourth and last part of the book provides study aids--lesson reviews, glossaries, paradigms, a list of accents, and a subject index. The book is presented in a meticulously clean and pleasant format, a laudable achievement given to the challenges of bi-directional print. The only exception in this respect is the occasional omission of ָךּ, rendered as a blank (pp. 314, 358).

Lessons 1-6 concentrate on the orthography and the sound system of Hebrew, providing preliminary rules of syllable structure and phonological changes. The lessons introduce a small number of vocabulary words, occasionally working them into simple sentences. Lessons 7-40, the backbone of the book, focus on morphology. They provide systematic discussions of the noun and verb systems, and detail the various functions of pronominal suffixes. Some attention is given to syntax, albeit not enough to meet the expectations created in the introduction to the book.

Lessons 41-54 provide practice in context. They include discussions of grammatical constructions, analysis of reading passages, and an inductive review referring to the principles acquired in earlier lessons. Text images from the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia provide both the reading passages and training in the formatting conventions of the Biblia Hebraica, under the assumption that this is the version of the Hebrew Bible that most learners will use at the end of the training process.

The lesson reviews in Part Four are concise and useful, as are the paradigms and glossaries. The subject index could benefit from the omission of individual Hebrew words, the discussion of which only rarely constitutes a "subject."

The book is methodical and straight forward, in general delivering what it promises to deliver. At the same time it reflects a very dry and somewhat superficial approach to the language and lacks excitement, failing to challenge learners even in some of its inductive parts. The inductive method, an excellent choice for biblical Hebrew instruction, comes into play only in the third part of the book, possibly after one year of instruction has passed. The analyses of passages included in Part Three combine an irregular mix of grammatical principles, hints to previously mentioned principles, and leading questions many of which have the potential of leaving users perplexed or satisfied with partial and even incorrect answers. Part Three of the book, which should serve as the culmination of the training process, requires the constant presence of a trained instructor precisely at the point where students should be able to work increasingly on their own. The division of grammatical principles, at the end of each lesson, into verbs, participles and infinitives, nouns and pronouns, conjunctions and prepositions, promotes fragmentation of knowledge at a point where integration would benefit the learners. While the book is not explicitly recommended for graduate students, the introduction suggests that it is based on work done at the graduate level, which further highlights the weaknesses of Part Three.

Reviewers quoted on the back cover praise Introducing Biblical Hebrew for its clear and simple presentation. The potential perils of such simplicity are obvious from the very first statement of the book. Ross opens his discussion by stating that "Hebrew is an oriental language belonging to the Semitic language family" (p.11). No attempt is made to place the Semitic language family within a broader context, and the vague "oriental" designation leaves much to be desired. Biblical Hebrew is treated as a homogeneous entity, with little done to draw learners' attention to its various stages, its variety of styles, or the history of its orthography, to name only a few topics essential to the understanding of the language. This simplified approach is reflected in numerous content points as well. The passage discussing tpkdgb suggests that these are stops before vowels but fricatives after vowels, and that the dotted variant is present "if the letter precedes a vowel, but it is absent if the letter follows a vowel sound" (p. 25), a statement that even beginners would challenge as soon as they have seen the actual text. Zyin "rhymes with Ryan" and kof "rhymes with loaf" (p. 21); the letter-name tahv means "cross sign" (p. 25)--statements like these may have the semblance of simple accuracy, but are nevertheless flawed. The treatment of the schwa as a nucleus of a syllable (p. 44 and elsewhere) is seriously flawed. The perfective is introduced as a "tense" and discussed in the context of translation into English, not in the context of its function: "How a perfect tense verb is translated depends on the kind of sentence and the meaning of the word itself" (p. 89). Similarly, the concept of the consonantal root, crucial to Hebrew and other Semitic languages, is introduced in the roundabout statements "Lexicographers, therefore, identify the letter sequence p-q-d as the root of all these related words" (p. 86). The root is a matter of lexicography no more than the schwa is a matter of writing conventions ["Two shewas are not written consecutively at the beginning of a word. Rather, the first becomes xreq" (p. 46)]. The unique vocalization of pausal forms is discussed in conjunction with the presence of a silluq, not in the context of their distinct pronunciation (pp. 55, 316 and elsewhere). This descriptive approach may assist in creating flowing and palatable discussions, but it hardly facilitates the understanding of the language itself.

The fabrication of sentences in biblical Hebrew, an unfortunate yet common practice among instructors, is abundant in the book to the point where it seems that the paraphrasing author attempts to improve upon the original biblical verse. Contrived sentences like hmd)b b(rh yk rhnh_l( M(h or hmxlmh_l) Krdh_l( Myrwbgh wklh (p. 80), and value statements like Md) (r (r ym hwhy qydc qydc ym (p. 62) could, and should, have been avoided by reliance on authentic text, even if not all the words or concepts involved in such text are immediately available to the learner. The mechanical parsing method, serving as the highlight of the training process, is based on vowel classes rather than individual vowels, which makes the process quite manageable and logical. It is introduced in two stages, the first involving strong verbs (review A) and the second involving the verb in general, weak verbs included (review B). The reference to "regular" and "irregular" verbs pp. 226, 302, and elsewhere) for strong and weak verbs respectively is a pedagogical as well as a conceptual flaw that diminishes the effectiveness of the otherwise-decent discussion of the Hebrew verb. The training in parsing is lacking, as no guided exercises follow the two reviews, a practice that would be expected in conjunction with much simpler concepts, let alone with a complex process like parsing.

In summary, Introducing Biblical Hebrew is not "an absolutely superb textbook" (B. K. Waltke, back cover). It joins a good number of similar books that, while representing an enormous investment of time and thought and a sense of mission that cannot be denied, work well for their own authors and their students, may or may not do it for instructors with similar outlook and practices, but altogether add little to the field of biblical Hebrew instruction.

Esther Raizen
University of Texas at Austin