Journal of Hebrew Scriptures Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Webster, Brian L. The Cambridge Introduction to Biblical Hebrew with CD-ROM (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). Pp. 380. Paperback, 1 CD ROM. $41.99. ISBN 9780521712842.


Biblical Hebrew instructors have in the past welcomed numerous new or revised introductory Hebrew grammars. These additions give teachers, who find themselves in numerous teaching contexts and situations, more textbooks to choose from. Additionally, a number of these new textbooks have broken the mold of the simple bound-book approach. For example, J. A. Cook and R. D. Holmsteadt's Biblical Hebrew: A Student Grammar (2009) is freely available online as a PDF. The same authors are also in the final stages of completing another free full-color illustrated grammar (Biblical Hebrew: An Illustrated Introduction). Yet another forthcoming grammar by William P. Griffin (Hebrew for Reading Comprehesion, forthcoming) focuses on unpointed Hebrew and is being published as an eBook with accompanying website. The Cambridge Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (CIBH) by Brian L. Webster has combined the best of both worlds–a traditional textbook with an accompanying software application that is integral to the entire package.


While it is not at all uncommon to have introductory grammars with an accompanying CD, CIBH's CD contains not only the traditional student helps, but also the interactive software application called TekScroll, compatible with both PC and Mac. Putting aside TekScroll for a moment, the contents of the CD are impressive:

  1. Whereas some introductory grammars require students to purchase an accompanying workbook, a full workbook is available for the student in a ready to print PDF file. All workbook parsings and sentences come directly from the Hebrew Bible, which cannot be said of every introductory grammar.
  2. A full workbook answer key in PDF form for students to engage in self-correction.
  3. An additional PDF with blank paradigms for students to print off and practice.
  4. Ready-to-print flashcards, available in both a smaller and a larger size, for students who like traditional paper flashcards.
  5. A PDF focusing on the vocabulary introduced in CIBH. Whereas the glossary in the back of the textbook is alphabetical, the vocabulary sheet on the CD lists the words used in CIBH by frequency, with chapter and part of speech also included in the list. This PDF also includes a 2-page list of vocabulary used in the textbook that occur less than 100 times. This is helpful for teachers who wish to test their students only on the vocabulary that occurs at 100 frequency or more.
  6. 62 pages of strong and weak verb charts, with tri-color font to indicate affixes and stem identifiers. Included also in this PDF are Webster's verb ID Badges and Alias Profiles (see discussion below).

The software program TekScroll is what sets CIBH apart from any other introductory Hebrew grammar. Indeed, as the author himself states, “you could think of them as a CD with an accompanying book just as well as a book with a CD” (p. x). Tekscroll's features include:

  1. Grammar illustrations for most chapters. The illustrations, often animated, present the nuts and bolts of each chapter (see fig. 1).
  2. Parsing practice. The verb or noun is presented in the “analyzer,” with drop-down menus to choose your answer and hints for difficult forms when appropriate (see fig. 2).
  3. Practice readings. A significant number of sentences are provided with each chapter, which helps students to review previous vocabulary and gain confidence in translating larger portions of text (see fig. 3). In later chapters, the practice readings are combined with the parsing analyzer to parse words in context (see fig. 4).
  4. Vocabulary flashcards. TekScroll's flashcard program contains every word from the textbook, organized by chapter, part of speech, and frequency. The student can combine these categories to create flashcards for quizzing. The flashcards also have audio attached to each word (see fig. 5).

The contents of the CD as well as TekScroll were all created and programmed by the author himself, which cannot be said of most grammars. It speaks to the level of organization and integration between the textbook, workbook, and TekScroll. For example, the chapters which include practice readings and parsings typically use only the vocabulary of previous chapters to drill students on concepts learned for the chapter in question–or expressly indicate when this is not the case. So, for example, chapter ten's practice readings, parsings, and workbook exercises on the Qal Perfect will typically use vocabulary from chapters 1-9 only. Additionally, the last section of each chapter outlines a suggested order for students to proceed–a combination of the learning activities on TekScroll and the learning activities found in the workbook.


Chapter Layout

The textbook is organized into 22 chapters, which is fewer than most other grammars. This makes the chapters dense, but the material of each chapter can be spread over numerous weeks should the professor wish.

An additional 10 chapters begin to introduce syntax to the student. The syntax chapters do not have workbook exercises nor vocabulary assigned to them, giving the teacher flexibility in how they are presented. For instance, the syntax chapters could be introduced throughout chapters 1-22. Alternatively, they can be covered at the end of the course, or even form the basis of a third semester of Hebrew.

The smaller number of chapters causes the vocabulary to be presented in a bit of an untraditional way. Each of the 22 grammar chapters introduces 17-24 words. While most of these words are high frequency, some are taught because they are used frequently in the workbook and practice readings. Additional vocabulary is presented in 11 lists in the back of the textbook, as well as an additional list of proper names which occur 50 times or more. If a student were to learn all of the vocabulary in the chapters and lists, they would be proficient in all words occurring 50 times or more. The lists can be assigned along with the syntax chapters, or as additional vocabulary within the 22 grammar chapters. What aids this somewhat different approach is the TekScroll vocabulary program. For example, if the goal is for students to gain proficiency in all words occurring 100 times or more, the vocabulary program can easily quiz them on words by frequency in each chapter.

In regards to the presentation of material, after the usual introduction to the signs and sounds of Hebrew, Webster lays a strong foundation for students to tackle what they often struggle with–the constant vowel changes. He does this by introducing seven syllable principles that govern changes (ch. 2). Following this is the introduction to nouns (chs. 3-4), pronominal suffixes (ch. 6), and adjectives (ch. 7). Students will learn pronominal suffixes (and later Perfect prefixes) in relation to pronouns–all of which are introduced in the vocabulary. Webster presents the pronoun, extracting the “basic parts” which then go on to form the pronominal suffix forms. Webster then moves on to verbs by first introducing participles and the infinitive construct (ch. 8). This provides a tidy bridge from nouns to verbs.

Presentation of Verbs

Once verbs begin, Webster introduces the strong form of the verb, covering the weak forms in the following chapter. Webster arranges verb paradigms (and pronominal suffixes) from 1st person to 3rd person, which students may find more familiar, given that often students have first learned Greek in this way. The Preterite is introduced alongside the Imperfect (ch. 12), and these are treated together throughout most of the chapters. Rather than using only the קטל paradigm, Webster displays stative, fientive, pausal, and נתן forms. He introduces the entirety of the Qal stem before moving into the other stems. He groups the latter into i-class Imperfects (Niphal, Piel, Hitpael, and Hiphil) and a-class Imperfects (Pual and Hophal). Chapter 17 introduces the i-class Imperfects in the strong forms, followed by two chapters on the weak forms (chs. 18-19). Webster treats the a-class Imperfects in a single chapter (ch. 20), and finally covers all of the derived stem Perfects together in the final two chapters, with the final chapter also introducing rare stems.

Undergirding the entire presentation of verbs (including participles and infinitives) is an appealing system which Webster calls the “ID Badge” and their accompanying “Alias Profiles.” Each stem/conjugation is assigned an ID badge which students can learn to identify on actual verbs. The ID Badge represents the strong form, usually related to what occurs to R1. The Alias Profiles are the alternative ways an ID Badge can occur because of weak letter activity. The ID Badge/Alias Profile system runs throughout the textbook verb chapters, appears fully in excursus A after ch. 22, features in PDF form on the accompanying CD, and emerges in the “hint” section of the parsing practices of TekScroll (see fig. 2).


I have found teaching with CIBH both effective for students and enjoyable as an instructor. The layout and presentation of the grammar works very well, and the systems of presentation, such as the syllable principles and the ID Badge/Alias Profiles, are very effective benchmarks on which students can build information. At the same time, instructors need to understand and heed Webster's integrated approach with TekScroll. At times I have found it advantageous not to look at the textbook until the basics covered in TekScroll are thoroughly grasped. The author himself recommends this approach. Each chapter begins with an overview and ends with a summary. I tend to look at only these sections when introducing a new chapter. The chapters are thorough and if one introduces a student to the material by reading the chapter they may feel overwhelmed.

I have found TekScroll to be particularly useful in the classroom. Although I am accustomed to creating my own slides to present the material in class, I have abandoned my normal approach in favor of teaching directly from the grammatical illustrations in TekScroll. In addition, the practice readings and practice parsings provide excellent material to work on together as a class or as in-class groups. No professor who adopts CIBH will ever find themselves lacking in practice material for the classroom. The same is also true of the workbook exercises; Webster has provided a copious amount of workbook exercises and practice readings. It is likely that professors would not require every exercise in the workbook to be completed.

My students have appreciated in particular the vocabulary program of TekScroll, as well as the very reasonable cost of the textbook and CD package.


As with any introductory textbook, there is room for improvement. I have found the emphasis on the 3-radical root of nouns in chapter 4 to be a little overwhelming, especially since many readers now access lexicons via software, and also because HALOT is not organized by root the way BDB is.

An aspect which my students have found the most troublesome is the somewhat dynamic translations that Webster gives in the practice readings and workbook key. I have found that more pedantic translations facilitate better learning in the beginning stages. Often I have to explain why Webster's translation is a good one, but instructors cannot always be there to offer these explanations.

Changes to some of Webster's abbreviations would also be welcome. He often uses non-standard biblical abbreviations (e.g., Is. for Isaiah) and at times chooses unclear abbreviations for Hebrew (e.g., Ni. for Niphal instead of Nif. or Niph.). Another peculiarity is the presentation of the Qal participle paradigms in ch. 8. Webster uses the verb שמר to present the paradigms, but through the remainder of the book he uses the standard verb קטל for the presentation of strong verb paradigms.

Above it was mentioned that one of the accompanying PDF's contains tri-color paradigms. These paradigms are so well presented in the PDF that their presence in the textbook would be appreciated and more accessible. I recognize the increased cost associated with color fonts, but replacing the black and white paradigms in the back of the textbook with the tri-color paradigms would be worth the extra few dollars in cost.

I have also found that students are increasingly making regular use of their smartphones for vocabulary. Students would no doubt welcome having available unicode text files that can be imported into smartphone vocabulary software.

Finally, some audio reading examples on TekScroll would be very helpful for students working on their pronunciation. While adding audio to every practice reading sentence may be too large an undertaking, what may be more feasible is an audio readings section on TekScroll, which could focus on the longer passages that appear in the workbook exercises (e.g.: Numbers 14, 1 Samuel 26, 2 Samuel 7, 12; 1 Kings 3, 2 Chronicles 34, Nehemiah 8).

These quibbles are relatively minor and in no way detract from the strengths of the book, which are many. Brian Webster has worked harder than most textbook authors–writing not only a thorough textbook but programming an application–to create a tightly integrated textbook and CD package. With a single purchase users receive a textbook, a full workbook and answer key, an interactive application, and abundant flashcard resources–a package that is, to my knowledge, unparalleled by any other introductory Hebrew grammar. CIBH sets a new standard in introductory grammars and warrants the attention of professors who are serious about meeting the needs of their students while maintaining a high academic standard.

H. Daniel Zacharias, Acadia Divinity College

Fig. 1: Grammatical Illustration example

Fig. 2: Practice Parsings example

Fig. 3: Practice Readings example

Fig. 4: Practice Readings with Parsings example

Fig. 5: Vocabulary