Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Pratico, Gary D. and Miles V. Van Pelt, Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar (2nd. ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007). Pp. 475. US$44.99. ISBN 978-0-310-27020-1; idem, Basics of Biblical Hebrew Workbook (2nd. ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007). Pp. 304. US$22.99. ISBN: 978-0-310-27022-5.

Pratico and Van Pelt's popular grammar Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar (BBH) is designed as the foundation of an introductory two semester course in biblical Hebrew. Although the text can be used alone, it is also the flagship of a fleet of supplementary resources which are available for those who wish to enhance their learning experience. These include the Basics of Biblical Hebrew Workbook, Charts of Biblical Hebrew, the Vocabulary Guide to Biblical Hebrew, English Grammar to Ace Biblical Hebrew, the boxed Old Testament Hebrew Vocabulary Cards, the Basics of Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary CD, the Get an A+ Study Guide: Hebrew, and the Graded Reader of Biblical Hebrew.[1] The basic set, however, consists of the text (with CD-ROM) and workbook.

A number of years ago, I learned Hebrew myself with the help of the first edition of Pratico and Van Pelt's BBH, and I have now chosen the second edition to teach my own students introductory Hebrew at the seminary level. I do this because, although I have some suggestions for improving the program, I consider this to be the best text currently available.

One of the most challenging hurdles in the acquisition of a new language, especially when this must be accomplished in a short period of time without the opportunity for a “whole language” approach surrounded by native speakers, is the sheer quantity of memorization required, in terms of both vocabulary and paradigms. A quick glance at the tables of verbs in the back of any Hebrew text will illustrate the intimidating prospect of page after page of paradigms in seven conjugations multiplied by (at least) seven stems—often this alone is enough to discourage all but the most intrepid students when they learn that this must be memorized. The key advantage to Pratico and Van Pelt's BBH is its diagnostic approach. The student must memorize only the Qal stem paradigms, but from that point on, all the verbs in the derived stems are analyzed and parsed based on the smallest number of distinctive features necessary to identify the form uniquely. Thus, the authors replace masses of rote recall with a series of more manageable and useful analytic processes. The second edition, with its larger format and red highlighting, makes these diagnostic features even easier to identify and remember. The “Diagnostics At-a-Glance” charts for the strong and weak verbs of each stem are particularly useful in this respect. Of course, the elimination of unnecessary detail could be a problem in language courses that emphasize writing, but since most biblical studies students need a reading knowledge only, the minimum amount of information necessary for recognition of a word is more than adequate. Ambiguous forms and details can always be checked on the full paradigm charts or in a lexicon.

A recurring question in teaching biblical Hebrew is whether to teach all the nominal forms first and then deal with verbs, or to introduce the study of verbs earlier, interspersed throughout the material. Pratico and Van Pelt have chosen the former approach rather than the latter. It is perhaps easier and more encouraging for students to deal with nominals first and leave the more complex issue of verbs until later; verb forms appearing in sentences in the earlier chapters can always be footnoted, as Pratico and Van Pelt do in their workbook. However, this approach can have unfortunate results. Having avoided verbs for the first eleven chapters, students are inundated with them in the later parts of the text. The section on derived stems in particular moves at an alarming pace, covering one stem a week—that is, all conjugations and all weak verbs within each stem—in most course schedules. I have found that the amount of information that students must absorb in this format is overwhelming to some students since there is little time to practice and consolidate skills. Introducing verbs earlier and in stages might alleviate this problem somewhat, and would also allow students to learn one of the most common and central features of the language sooner; in spite of the existence of nominal clauses in Hebrew, there are very few verses in the Bible without verbs.

Recent studies in biblical exegesis have demonstrated that the sentence is not the highest level of syntax in a text. The burgeoning use of discourse analysis has shown the value of studying syntax at levels higher than the clause. It is of course impossible for Pratico and Van Pelt to deal with this topic thoroughly in an introductory text, but the groundwork can be laid, and this text makes a beginning. In Chapter 17: Waw Consecutive, for example, the authors introduce the idea of verb tenses in discourse in their examination of the consecutive imperfect in narrative. Chapter 23: Issues of Sentence Syntax covers further issues related to verb patterns within individual verses. In fact, the authors have clarified and expanded these discussions compared to the earlier edition of BBH. However, most examples in the workbook on which the students practice are isolated verses which usually contain two or three clauses at most, and often only one; this atomizing of the biblical text can obscure discourse patterns. It would be useful for the authors to introduce a few longer narrative excerpts sooner in the workbook in order to illustrate verbal patterns more effectively. This would prepare students more adequately for the study of Hebrew exegesis at the level of discourse when they proceed to second year Hebrew.

The workbook includes many helpful Hebrew examples for the students to parse and translate, most taken from the Bible itself. The answer key provided on the BBH CD-ROM is useful in allowing the students to self-correct, subsequently bringing only their most troublesome issues back to class for more intensive discussion. I would make one strong suggestion, however: to vary more often the stems and conjugations in the parsing exercises. For example, the exercise on the Piel strong verbs (pp. 211–212) includes only Piel forms, which makes the identification of the stem rather obvious. Including a Qal or Niphal or two would encourage the students to consolidate concepts and learn to discriminate between the forms. This said, the Final Parsing Exercise (pp. 279–86) gives a wide assortment of forms and is an excellent tool for pre-exam practice and review. I would only suggest that more practice with pronominal suffixes be included, since these frequently occur in the biblical text. Suffixes often alter the diagnostics and make analysis a challenge.

One of the great advantages of the Pratico and Van Pelt system is the range of supplementary resources available which are appropriate for assisting students with a wide variety of learning styles. The core text includes a CD-ROM with FlashWorks, an excellent vocabulary memorization computer program which “remembers” which words are causing the student difficulty and focuses on them. The Basics of Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary CD is valuable for listening in the car, and the boxed set of flash cards covers 1000 Hebrew words which are all coded by frequency and by the corresponding chapter in the basic BBH text. The Get an A+ Study Guide is a handy laminated summary of nominal forms and verb diagnostics to slip inside a binder, and which will also prove useful in more advanced Hebrew courses. The paperback English Grammar to Ace Biblical Hebrew is a brief, user-friendly, and even entertaining summary of English grammar relevant to the study of Hebrew for ESL students or those students who, due to changing philosophies of education, have not had the opportunity to learn it in school. Charts of Biblical Hebrew reproduces many of the grammar charts already available in the text, and is perhaps a bit redundant for most students, but for the teacher or avid student it also includes a disc with a total of over 450 charts clarifying various structures and diagnostics that are helpful for the visual learner. Finally, the Graded Reader of Biblical Hebrew offers longer passages from all three sections of the Hebrew Bible for students who have finished the course and want extra practice. Each section includes helpful explanations and commentary on unusual or tricky forms. I do sometimes have to remind my students, however, that simply buying all these resources will not make learning Hebrew easier; one has to actually use them!

Although I look forward to further refinements in a third edition of BBH, I can nevertheless genuinely recommend this text and its ancillaries for introductory Hebrew classes.

Mary L. Conway, McMaster Divinity College

[1] Gary D. Pratico and Miles V. Van Pelt, Charts of Biblical Hebrew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007); Gary D. Pratico and Miles V. Van Pelt, Vocabulary Guide to Biblical Hebrew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003); Miles V. Van Pelt, English Grammar to Ace Biblical Hebrew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010); Gary D. Pratico and Miles V. Van Pelt, Old Testament Hebrew Vocabulary Cards (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004); Gary D. Pratico, Miles V. Van Pelt and Jonathan T. Pennington, Basics of Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary CD (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006); Gary D. Pratico and Miles V. Van Pelt, Get an A+ Study Guide: Hebrew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005); and Gary D. Pratico and Miles V. Van Pelt, Graded Reader of Biblical Hebrew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006).