Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Donald R. Vance, A Hebrew Reader for Ruth (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2003). ISBN 1-56563-740-2. Paperback $ 12.95.

This helpful guide to basic grammar and syntactical issues in the Book of Ruth is intended for students who have completed introductory instruction in biblical Hebrew. The format is simple: going verse by verse, Vance provides parsing information for each form, along with information on basic syntactical analysis culled from the standard reference grammars. The presentation of this deductive analytical material in a format structured by inductive reading should prove very appealing to intermediate-level students. Blank "worksheets" are available on the Hendrickson website for student use. It should be noted that these sheets simply replicate the Hebrew text and do not offer teaching questions or exercises of any kind.

As regards language pedagogy, a number of issues may be mentioned whose merits will be adjudicated variously by different teachers of biblical Hebrew. It is unquestionably true that Vance's book will save students much time slogging through reference grammars. But some crucial components of learning will thereby be missed. Consulting reference works such as those of Joüon or Waltke and O'Connor over time, the student gains a feel for their organizational structure and their authors' conception of relationships of grammatical and syntactical phenomena. Using these tomes, one glimpses other fascinating grammar or syntax issues on the way to the particular question about which one is consulting the work; one can compare a number of like and unlike biblical examples of grammatical forms and syntactical relationships; and so on. Teachers ought not underestimate the importance of this kind of oblique learning. First, it builds conceptual pathways for a macro-structural understanding of the language, providing a kind of cartographic overview that can be valuable for understanding how different grammarians and philologists understand meaning-making in biblical Hebrew. Second, it allows students to compare many examples of a particular form or syntactical function throughout the biblical corpus, gleaning information both lexical and historical about idioms, variations, nuances of meaning, and the semantic range of words. All this is lost if a student uses Vance's book alone, because his annotations discuss only forms in Ruth and provide only the briefest of definitions.

In essence, Vance's book functions as a well-annotated answer key. Ideally, students would work through the Hebrew on their own and then review their work using the book. Will students do this in practice? Or will they evade the demanding intuitive and deductive work required to read Hebrew by taking hasty stabs at the text and moving quickly to the answers in Vance's book? The answer depends, of course, on individual students' discipline and study habits. The risks might be well worth it for students working independently with no teacher or peers to help. But it is less clear how this kind of guide could be used effectively in the classroom. Excellent pedagogical gains can be realized from having students collaborate in teams to create parsing and syntax annotations like those in Vance's guide. But teachers will want to consider carefully how providing an already completed answer key would help their students to learn.

Finally, there is the perennial problem of how to balance simplicity and complexity in the presentation of a language to intermediate-level students. Vance opts for simplicity, which has important benefits in reducing student frustration and encouraging a sense of mastery. But another pedagogical view would hold that oversimplifying does not serve students well, because it allows a false sense of coherence to obscure the fundamentally complex nature of semantics and translation. A case in point is the notoriously obscure syntax of the last clause in Ruth 2:7. Remarkably, Vance translates the difficult phrase ("This break of hers inside has been a little one") without comment, adducing not a single observation from reference grammars or commentaries.

A second problem that Vance allows to pass without comment is the euphemism of "uncovering the feet(-place)," used to describe what Naomi instructs Ruth to do to Boaz and what Ruth subsequently does. A grammar workbook may not be the place for a protracted discussion about whether sexual activity is being signaled here. But it is downright misleading to render simply "uncover his legs" (albeit with a question mark, Vance's uncertainty apparently related more to the unusual noun form than the phrase's euphemistic implications). If no information is provided regarding idiomatic usage in such a case, then the lexical information may be judged as not just simplified but fatally incomplete. Given Vance's willingness to provide entire paragraphs of annotation on minor points of vocalization and accentuation, it is disappointing that two of the most interesting semantic problems in Ruth are left entirely without comment.

Students using this resource should remain vigilant to ensure that it does not supplant the active learning in which they should continue to engage. Mastery of a new language requires continual refinement of a highly complex set of skills, and one would not want a beautifully prepared answer key to derail that essential learning process for students. That caveat noted, this valuable guide provides a wealth of grammatical and syntactical information in an accessible format especially well suited for independent study and for review. Students will welcome it with joy.

Carolyn J. Sharp
Yale Divinity School