Reviewed by Jesse Scheumann
John Cook and Robert Holmstedt make a remarkable contribution to Hebrew pedagogy with their 2013 publication, Beginning Biblical Hebrew (BBH): A Grammar and Illustrated Reader (Baker). They join a growing movement of those who seek to improve upon a grammar-translation model with a communicative approach (e.g. Randall Buth, Living Biblical Hebrew [2006–07], and Hélène Dallaire, Biblical Hebrew: A Living Language [forthcoming]).
Cook and Holmstedt justify publishing their own grammar according to seven distinctives that separate BBH from traditional grammars (pp. 9–11):
1. Illustration: BBH uses hundreds of pictures to illustrate several Genesis texts for the goal of comprehension, not translation.
2. Simple grammar: Guided by the question, “What is the least grammar needed to grasp actual Hebrew texts?” each lesson describes the concept in 3–5 sentences and relegates most of the paradigms to appendices. In short, BBH does not try to double as an intermediate grammar.
3. Repetition: Short lessons often split paradigms in half so that adding the second half later reinforces earlier material.
4. Text-based exercises: Selected Genesis episodes reinforce important aspects of Biblical Hebrew syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.
5. Easy prose texts: Rather than try to present exhaustive Biblical Hebrew, BBH chooses several Genesis texts appropriate for first-year students.
6. Modern Linguistic Descriptions: In addition to updating grammatical discussions (the verb in particular), BBH regularly uses Hebrew terminology for grammatical concepts (e.g., שֹׁרֶשׁ “root” when discussing a verb’s triconsonantal root).
7. Nonconfessional: In order to serve also the broader cultural and linguistic aims of studying Biblical Hebrew, the lessons and exercises do not seek to glean a certain theology from the text.
BBH is very much a hybrid approach. The grammar portion of the book is paginated from left to right and reflects the layout of most traditional approaches, with fifty short grammar lessons containing translation exercises and Hebrew words to memorize as English glosses. The illustrated reader portion begins when flipping the book over, is paginated from right to left, and contains fourteen readings of biblical texts. These ninety pages engage all four faculties of language—reading, writing, hearing, and speaking—through the illustrated (comic book style) texts, audio recordings online, and Hebrew writing and speaking exercises.
The main illustrated readings are from Gen 3:1–24; 22:1–19; 37:1–36. BBH takes three passes through each of these texts in the illustrated readings 2–10. The first pass of each text includes only a few pictures to summarize the passage with a Hebrew “Cliff Notes version” of the text below. The second pass adds the Hebrew text to the pictures, lengthens the amount of text, and conforms it closer to the actual biblical text. By the third pass, the Hebrew is the full biblical passage, but some material is still omitted (most speech frames, an occasional word, and even some whole verses), and some irregular pronominal forms are adjusted. After each reading, new vocabulary words from the passage are illustrated as picture flashcards (also available as a downloadable app for review). There are several varieties of reading comprehension questions written in Hebrew, and the student is also expected to write answers in Hebrew. The final three illustrated readings present the full, unaltered text of Gen 1:1–2:4; 47:1–31; 49:28–50:26, but the student must look up new vocabulary in a lexicon (no more picture flashcards), and the last two readings include all the Masoretic accent marks.
There is much to endorse in this grammar. First, BBH is heavy on text, light on grammar. Students learn an impressive amount (~180 verses) of Genesis text in the illustrated readings. The grammar is simple and often appears in the Genesis readings, so students see the payoff of learning grammar in order to comprehend texts. Second, BBH does a good job of repetition, not only of grammar points but also teaching the Hebrew text of Gen 3, 22, and 37, through three passes that spiral upwards in complexity. Third, exercises in the illustrated reader compel students to process in the target language through reading, writing, hearing, and speaking Hebrew. Fourth, the full-color illustrated reader and picture flashcards (e.g., a drawing of a goat under the word שָׂעִיר) help the language come alive and force the student to read Hebrew with comprehension, rather than simply translate. Fifth, I agree with the authors that students should memorize verbs as words—as binyan specific, a root in its given stem—not as roots in a (sometimes made-up) Qal pattern. This is a matter of treating Hebrew as a language, memorizing words that students will see, not roots that they may uncover. And by memorizing verbs as stem specific, students will naturally imbibe the unique patterns of each stem.
Like any good grammar, BBH has self-conscious limits in what it sets out to do. In seeking to keep grammar explanations brief, some may believe they are incomplete. To give a few examples, lesson 20 on construct state lists that the whole construct chain is definite if the final word is a proper noun or has an article, but it neglects the third category of a noun with a pronominal suffix. Lesson 32 on adjectives gives no directives on how to distinguish between the attributive, substantival, and predicate use of the adjective. And lesson 36 on וַיְהִי relates that this form can be translated as “was” or left untranslated, but it lists no directives for recognizing when וַיְהִי is a full verb or a discourse marker. But this is perhaps the genius of Cook and Holmstedt: they put the burden of teaching on the instructor, not the textbook. Instructors must constantly gauge their students, to see if they can handle more complex, thorough explanations.
I also offer a couple minor critiques. First, though I praise BBH for listing all verbs as stem specific, they consistently list the D-stem as Piel verbs, even though roughly half of these follow a Pial pattern (e.g., it is uniformly קִדַּשׁ in the Tanak, but BBH lists קִדֵּשׁ to memorize). BBH produces pedagogical consistency, but students sometimes memorize what they will not see. Another example is that BBH lists biconsonantal verbs in the qatal with the vowel letter (e.g. קוּם), but these verbs always lack the vowel letter in the qatal (קָם) and include it in the yiqtol (יָקוּם). This is one of many reasons to memorize both the qatal and yiqtol forms for each verb—something BBH does not do. Second, I wish that BBH produced the full, unaltered Hebrew text of Gen 3, 22, and 37 in its third pass through these passages. BBH focuses mainly on these passages but leaves students with an approximation of the text that is in their Hebrew Bibles.
Nevertheless, all Hebrew instructors would benefit from perusing BBH this summer. Even if they do not adopt a new textbook, they can learn several concepts or techniques to sharpen their own methodology. Students who look to BBH in order to learn Hebrew independently should look for a different textbook, or seek a mentor with BBH. Most learning in BBH resides in the illustrated reader exercises, which require students to produce and manipulate Hebrew forms, and students will need someone to guide and correct their work.
I praise Cook and Holmstedt for producing a methodologically rigorous grammar that does many unique things to make Hebrew come alive for students. Surely, BBH will help the whole field take a step forward in more effectively teaching Hebrew to the next generation.
Jesse Scheumann is a ThM student at Bethlehem Seminary.
Editor’s Note: See our blog post on this work, which includes a fuller description of the seven elements that make it unique as well as some illustrations from the book.
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Beginning Biblical Hebrew: A Grammar And Illustrated Reader