A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Libby Hilliard
As H. H. Hardy II acknowledges in his introduction to Exegetical Gems from Biblical Hebrew: A Refreshing Guide to Grammar and Interpretation, for many, the difficulty of learning Biblical Hebrew can choke the joy out of the entire pursuit. Bogged down by paradigms and another week’s vocabulary list, the beginning student starts to wonder, “Is this worth it?” This little book answers that query with a resounding “Yes!” Published alongside Benjamin L. Merkle’s Exegetical Gems from Biblical Greek (Baker Academic, 2019), Hardy’s work is a valuable resource for anyone who has pursued the study of Biblical Hebrew in order to more faithfully exegete God’s Word.
H. H. Hardy II earned his PhD in Northwest Semitic Philology from the University of Chicago and is Associate Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Following the publication of numerous articles on aspects of Semitic languages and the ancient Near East, as well as a digital Comprehensive Hebrew and Aramaic Glossary, this is Hardy’s first print book. In Exegetical Gems, the combination of language expert, teacher, and minister have produced an accurate and approachable read.
This book is a guide to the exegetical application of Biblical Hebrew grammatical and textual concepts. It is a thin volume, but that is no sign of shallowness. Its brevity supports its main purpose: to support the study of Biblical Hebrew grammar in a refreshing and encouraging way, motivating learning of abstract concepts with examples of their application (xiii). Hardy accomplishes this goal by focusing each chapter around a grammatical or textual topic and highlighting a verse in which the featured topic is exegetically significant. He first gives a brief introduction to the verse. Then, he provides an overview of the topic. Finally, he returns to the verse and demonstrates to the reader how proper understanding of the featured topic guides exegesis of that verse. A short bibliography for further reading on each topic is provided at the conclusion of each chapter.
Its thirty bite-sized chapters follow the progression of common intermediate Hebrew textbooks, making it a good companion resource. The first three chapters deal with broader lexical and textual issues (Hebrew language and literature, textual criticism, and word studies), chapters four through twenty-nine treat grammatical features (the construct phrase, definiteness, adjectives, verbs, etc.), and the final chapter takes a step back from sentence-level features with a discussion of pragmatics. Aspects of the same part of speech are sometimes broken into separate chapters; for example, there are two chapters on pronouns and twelve on verbs. A few topics are treated through a representative example: ke and beyom for prepositions, ki for particles, and hineh for pragmatics. The main example verses are listed in the table of contents with each chapter and a Scripture index helps the reader locate other references. The Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim are all represented, but Genesis accounts for a quarter.
Chapter 4 will serve as a representative example of Hardy’s method and structure. The topic of this chapter is construct phrases, exemplified by Gen 29:17:
veene leah rakot verahel hayetah yefat toar vifat mareh
“Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful.” (NIV)
Hardy reproduces the Hebrew text, followed by an introduction, in which he gives examples of various English translations’ renderings of the second half of the verse and introduces the interpretive problem: “What is the best way to render these Hebrew construct phrases into English? And how does this help us understand the contrast between Leah and Rachel?” (23) He contrasts the straightforward, possessive construct phrase (ene leah) with the more complicated ones describing Leah (yefat toar vifat mareh), neither genitive nor possessive (23). Following this introduction, he gives an “overview of construct phrases” and lists the main types of relationships expressed through the construct phrase (24–26). In his final section, “Interpretation,” Hardy returns to Gen 29:17b and classifies the relationship expressed by the two construct phrases as specification (26). He discusses the complicated nature of rendering these phrases in English and names factors that must be considered in translation—differences between ancient and modern metaphors, degrading cultural stereotypes (evident in words like “shapely”) and textual connections (the same phrase is used to describe Rachel’s son Joseph in Gen 39:6) (27–28).
This is not a highly technical volume, but it does assume basic knowledge of Biblical Hebrew. Someone with no knowledge of Biblical Hebrew could perhaps glean insights here and there (or at least be inspired to learn the language) but will largely feel lost. Likewise, first-year Biblical Hebrew students might be overwhelmed if they read faster than the pace of their course. At times, Hardy utilizes terms that will be unfamiliar to some students of Biblical Hebrew (e.g., irreal modality, valency), but he provides adequate explanation.
Considering the above, this book is best utilized by those who have completed Elementary Hebrew, and it will particularly shine as supplemental reading in an intermediate course. The Hebrew text of the verse beginning each chapter is not accompanied by an English translation, which makes it useful as a translation exercise. Though it could be read cover to cover, the reader will gain more from a slow, chapter-by-chapter digestion.
With this focused book, Hardy is successful in what he set out to do. The chapters are concise and clear. The language is conversational, even pastoral at points. He is decisive yet fair, presenting his positions while acknowledging other views. As with any grammatical resource, there are plenty of points over which readers may disagree (e.g. his characterization of the verbal system, description of composite adjectives, etc.), but simplification of larger arguments serves Hardy’s purpose. It is up to the reader to treat this guide as a starting point, not the final word.
Shelved alongside books known to scare students away, this Biblical Hebrew resource is instead truly inviting. From the beginning student to the retired professor, this guide reminds us why we study Biblical Hebrew and motivates us to do it with our whole heart in joyful service of the Lord.
Libby Hilliard is an MA student in Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.
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EXEGETICAL GEMS FROM BIBLICAL HEBREW, by H. H. Hardy II