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

Mark D. Futato, Beginning Biblical Hebrew (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2003). Pp. xi + 351. Cloth US$35.00. ISBN 1-57506-022-1.

Professor Mark D. Futato’s compilation of a teaching grammar for Biblical Hebrew is an ambitious project: students are to receive a thorough introduction to the language in a format friendly to those unfamiliar with linguistic and grammatical terminology. It is envisioned that users of the grammar would master the pronunciation of the language, its forms and functions, a vocabulary of 400 words, and the analysis of any Hebrew word upon the successful completion of the prescribed program of study. Furthermore, students would mature in their enjoyment of and commitment to the study of the language in reading the Hebrew scriptures. There is much in the form and content of this grammar to suggest that the author will achieve his goals.

The grammar offers comprehensive coverage of the fundamentals of Biblical Hebrew grammar, while remaining attentive to the situation (familiarity with the use of English) and interest (to gain a practical knowledge of a language of the Hebrew Bible with little or no interest in linguistic theory and/or comparative Semitic linguistics) of the average student of Biblical Hebrew who understands English. The author begins with the smallest elements of the language, the units of sound (phonology is the subject matter of chs. 1-3). Subsequently, Futato proceeds with an introduction to the constituents of the sentence (nouns, pronouns and the verb in chs. 4, 5 and 6 respectively), and onward to the structure of the sentence with a verb (ch. 7). Henceforward, the increasing complexity in the forms of the verbal patterns governs the pedagogical progression of the grammar; the exposition of the verb is punctuated by explanation for complications in the morphology and function of other components of the language (e.g., basic forms of the noun in ch. 4, plural forms in ch. 8, singular and plural construct forms in chs. 12 and 13 respectively). The back of the grammar provides paradigms for the various verbal patterns, a list of vocabulary keyed to Raymond B. Dillard’s Hebrew Vocabulary Cards (Springfield, Ohio: Visual Education Association, 1981), and answers to the exercise drills from each chapter.

Each chapter of the grammar is divided into three sections: grammar, vocabulary and practice. The third section especially is helpful. A separation of new material from previous material learned occurs, prior to a demonstration of the place of the new material in the larger scheme. Constant reference to select portions from the Hebrew Bible maintains a practical focus in this third section of each chapter.

There are numerous other examples of the grammar’s sensitivity to the average students’ penchant for practical application, and desire to find satisfaction that the principles studied bear upon their use of language. The following examples are representative of an approach that pervades the book. At the beginning of the second chapter, Futato offers a brief outline of the historical development in the representation of vowels in Hebrew texts. In concluding the exposition, the simple statement that situates the student as a reader at the latest stage in the process (see §2.3) underscores the relevance of the exposition. In order to lay emphasis on the relevance of the correct pronunciation of the vowels, the author offers practice through the pronunciation of English words represented by the Hebrew alphabet and the Masoretic system of signs for vowels. Subtle variations in the quality of the vowels immediately bear significance for students familiar with the pronunciation of English words. Once the student’s attention to the importance of this matter is arrested, the author proceeds to explain the difficult subject of the relationship between the quality of syllables and the distinction between vocal and silent shewa (§§3.1-3.5). Later, in explaining the effect of syllabic structure on changes in the quality of vowels with shifts in the place of stress in a word (§§8.1-8.9), the grammar immediately brings the details to bear upon changes in the morphology of nouns with the addition of the endings denoting plurality (§§8.10-8.18). The emphasis on relevance in the author’s pedagogy retains a student’s interest through subject matter (phonology and morphology) often perceived as dry and being of marginal importance for the student of elementary Biblical Hebrew. The close correspondence between the presentation of information and its application in the layout of the grammar extends to the compilation of the vocabulary lists. The vocabulary pertinent to the exposition of a point of grammar quite often is introduced in the preceding chapter. For example, the segment on the forms and functions of personal pronouns in chapter five (§§5.1-5.5) is preceded by the relevant vocabulary in chapter four.

The methodological advancement this grammar makes in communicating the content of Biblical Hebrew grammar to the newcomer places it among the best of teaching grammars on the market today. The misalignment of the Hebrew text with its translation in the adjacent column at various places in the grammar is one flaw in the presentation. This minor factor, however, does not adumbrate the positive achievement of the grammar.

Bernon P. Lee
Department of Religious Studies
Grace College, Winona Lake, Indiana