A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Jonathan Ahlgren
For students desiring to internalize Biblical Hebrew so they can read the Biblical text with a natural proficiency, Invitation to Biblical Hebrew Syntax: An Intermediate Grammar by Russell Fuller and Kyoungwon Choi should be at the top of their list. The textbook is unique yet traditional in the truest sense of the word. This is largely a result of the way the textbook utilizes traditional Arabic/Semitic linguistic categories and pedagogy, while ignoring modern linguistic jargon. This makes the text accessible to most intermediate students yet confusing for those who have been exposed to the more modern syntactical terminology. While Fuller and Choi’s Elementary textbook is not necessarily required to use this latest grammar, a mastery of morphology is highly recommended in order to facilitate the composition section of the textbook.
Each of the three sections work together using the learning method put forward in the introduction. The first main section, titled “Syntax,” consists of grammatical explanations and categories with examples throughout. Each chapter ends with extensive exercise questions to reinforce the concepts, as well as drills for identifying grammatical categories and constructions from the Hebrew Bible. A detailed answer key is provided at the back of the book with full explanations which carefully incorporate the chapter’s material to further help students master the syntax. This section of the textbook utilizes passive learning as students learn the material through memorization and apply it through observation.
The textbook moves on to Compositions after this. Students may wrongly assume that the Syntax section address above it the main part of the textbook. The Syntax portion of the textbook is important to master, but only in tandem with the compositions which are the true heart of the textbook. These Compositions,” ingrain the grammatical and syntactical principles from the “Syntax” into the student through the traditional recitation method of learning classical languages. Fuller and Choi provide a four-step process for using the compositions (245). This process includes (1) composing the Hebrew text from the English text with detailed footnotes that reference sections of the syntax, (2) correcting the composition with the answer key, (3) mastering the Hebrew text, and (4) reciting the Hebrew text out loud using only the English text. The first nine compositions are written by Dr. Fuller using BH syntax, vocabulary, and stories while the final three are poetic texts from the Hebrew Bible.
The final section explains the interworking of the Masoretic accents. This section is detailed and complete and in it, Fuller and Choi demonstrate the value of the accents as well as their importance since, according to them, the accents “reflect the divinely inspired text” (352) in their vocalization and chanting or they at least “represent an ancient rabbinic interpretation of Scripture, an invaluable resource for syntax and exegesis” (352). This is followed by a detailed examination of how the entire accent system works by dividing them into a hierarchy and pointing out their patterns in BH prose and poetry. This is followed by a commentary on the accents in composition seven and Psalm 1.
The greatest strength of Invitation to Biblical Hebrew Syntax is found in the compositions, yet this is largely because of their dependence upon and interaction with the syntax/grammar section. When the passive learning found in the first part of the book is combined with the active use of these principles in the compositions, a mastery of BH results that is unparalleled in other methods of learning ancient languages. Reciting the compositions force the learner to think through the vocabulary, morphology, and syntax actively, speeding up the process of internalization. This process is still unbelievably difficult and time consuming, yet it is also enjoyable, rewarding, and powerful. Upon mastering the syntactical principles and applying them in the compositions using the footnotes, students will find reading the Hebrew Bible more enjoyable, less confusing, and more natural.
The Hebrew accent section of the textbook has also been widely praised, and for good reason. Fuller and Choi have presented the accent system in a way that new students can learn efficiently yet with a detail and rigor that experienced scholars and translators are likely to benefit from as well. Fuller displays his thorough grasp of the Masoretic system with this chapter as he puts his decades of research and experience on display.
Another strength to this textbook is also one of its more important disadvantages. The text avoids categories and terminology from modern linguistics that can create a burden for students. From start to end, the Syntax section uses simple terminology and defines terms and categories with examples. Every term and category provided has a purpose and connects with BH directly. Fuller’s approach and terminology is, according to the introduction, based on medieval Arabic grammar and Semitic terminology (11). The grammar prefers these grammatical categories while completely disregarding modern linguistics. The advantage here is, upon mastering the text, readers will truly understand the language, the categories native to the language, and the way the language works.
The challenge to this approach, however, is largely found in moving beyond intermediate Hebrew studies and in utilizing a wider range of BH resources. Many of the categories being utilized within modern scholarship are disregarded by Fuller and Choi. This should not lead to the conclusion that Invitation to Biblical Hebrew Syntax is inaccurate or a bad textbook because it rejects the use of non-Semitic linguistic phenomena to analyze BH. The textbook’s lack of modern linguistics is one of its strengths, yet students utilizing the textbook must understand the drawback found in mastering some terminology and ideas which are no longer used in the wider scholarship of BH.
In utilizing passive learning of the Syntax section, active learning in the Compositions, and an excellent analysis of the accent system, Fuller and Choi have done a massive service to those seeking mastery in BH. Faithfully laboring in all three of these sections is sure to challenge and progress students of the Hebrew Bible. After this, those desiring further proficiency may want to pick up the reference/syntax grammars from van der Merwe/Naudé, Waltke/O’Connor and/or Joüon/Muraoka to understand the different approaches used to discuss and describe BH.
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
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INVITATION TO BIBLICAL HEBREW SYNTAX: AN INTERMEDIATE GRAMMAR, Russell Fuller and Kyoungwon Choi