A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Frederic Clarke Putnam
These three books are in essence two parts of a single guide to reviving your knowledge of the basic vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew [BH] and Biblical Aramaic [BA]; I will use the word “Hebrew” rather than repeat “and Aramaic.”
But first, a confession and caveat. Having studied, taught, and written about the biblical languages for more than forty years, I no longer remember what it was like to encounter the hifil or infinitive construct (for example) for the first time, nor do I remember what it felt like to return to seminary for a third semester of Hebrew after a summer “off” (although I strongly suspect that I squirmed when called on). It is thus difficult for me to assess how helpful these books will be to someone floundering in the sea of an apparently impossible (or at least, incoherent) verbal system, or who has suddenly realized that their knowledge of even common vocabulary has begun to evaporate. Please read this review with this caveat in mind.
These are attractive hardbacks, beautifully produced, sized to fit the hand, bound in black (Hebrew) or grey (Aramaic) faux leather, with (two!) sewn-in ribbon page markers. The English and Hebrew fonts are clear and easy to read, the print is dark, and the pages clearly laid out on opaque paper, with plenty of space for notes and eye relief. The quality of their production is sterling—Hendrickson has done a beautiful job, which will make these books that students of the languages want to use—they are that satisfying to hold and read.
Their compiler and editor, Jonathan G. Kline, PhD (Harvard), Hendrickson’s academic editor, has also published Allusive Soundplay in the Hebrew Bible (Atlanta, GA : SBL, 2016), as well as two more volumes in the same series—Keep Up Your Biblical Greek in 2 Minutes a Day (2 vols.), also from Hendrickson.
As mentioned above, these books are designed to help students review the basic vocabulary of the Old Testament languages, much like Heinrich Bitzer’s volumes Light on the Path/Licht auf dem Weg (1982). They review all Biblical Hebrew vocabulary that occurs fifty times or more is reviewed (except proper names), and every word of Biblical Aramaic (and nearly every verse of Aramaic).
Each volume begins with a helpful, instructive eight-page introduction (which should be read, even though their use is intuitive), and ends with an index of Scripture references. Each of the 365 pages of review includes the following (from top to bottom of the page):
- A header, consisting of the number of the day and week, and the date (e.g., “Day 126 ⋅ Week 18 ⋅ May 26”), and a biblical reference. There are no page numbers, the day of the year serves as the number for each page.
- The English text of a verse, with one or two words in bold, each of which is followed by the Hebrew word that it represents (these are the words being reviewed that day); the Hebrew volumes review one word per page, the Aramaic volume reviews two up to Day 226, and then lists one to four words per page.
Since six English versions are used—NIV, NRSV, NASB, ESV, CSB (Christian Standard Bible), MLB (Modern Language Bible)—it might be helpful to point out succinctly their different translation philosophies, since they sometimes render the same Hebrew phrase or clause quite differently.
- A vocabulary listing of the word being reviewed, in both Hebrew and transliteration, one or two glosses, the number of times it occurs in the biblical text, and its number in Strong’s concordance (preceded by “S”).
- Cross-references to two other words (i.e., to the page where they are reviewed) (NB: This is in the Hebrew volumes only.)
- The biblical (Hebrew) text, with the same word(s) highlighted as in the English text (#2, above).
- A parallel list of the Hebrew of the verse with its rendering into idiomatic (i.e., not element-by-element) English.
Without checking every jot and tittle, I found no obvious errors—the texts and information in these listings have been edited and re-checked with great care.
In his introduction, Kline suggests three basic ways to use each page, depending on how much time you have:
- In one minute you can read the English (#1, above), and note the orginal behind the highlighted words;
- In two to five minutes you can read the entire page, perhaps even working through the Hebrew text (these times seem reasonable (but note the caveat, above), although they will vary greatly from user to user and from day to day—a single poetic line may well take longer to “read” than a lengthy verse of narrative prose); and
- If you have ten to twenty minutes a day, you can look at all seven pages for that week each day of the week, thus reviewing a range of features of the Hebrew text.
These suggestions reveal the disingenuousness of the title (“2 Minutes A Day”)—few students will find that small amount of time adequate, although perhaps two minutes per day over a period of years would eventually prove helpful. I have found that most students profit from doing two things simultaneously : (1) reading (translating) extended passages at the rate of one or two verses per day; while (2) memorizing vocabulary from a list based on frequency (e.g., Mitchel 1984). The extended passages make it more likely that students will see words more than once in a single context, and many students have told me that they find words they have just memorized in the passage that they are working through. Kline’s arrangement is based on frequency, i.e., words are reviewed in descending order of frequency in the Bible, from the conjunction vĕ, “and, but” (Genesis 1.1; 50524x), to ʾĕmûnâ, “faithfulness” (Psalm 98.3; 49x).
I have a few suggestions for the second edition (and I hope that there will be a second):
- Since these volumes review vocabulary, a discussion of the difference between “gloss” and “meaning” would be helpful, with examples such as tōrâ does not mean “law” but refers primarily to “instruction” or “teaching” (some of which contains laws), even as, e.g., Moses uses it in Deuteronomy. Or, if this is not possible, at least two glosses should be listed for each word.
- It would be helpful to distinguish English pronouns that render pronominal suffixes from those that are contextually inferred, so that students (1) recognize the pronominal suffixes and (2) consider why some pronouns have been “supplied” in translation.
In Genesis 35.3, e.g., the last four words end with –î, three of which are the first person common singular pronominal suffix (“me,” “my,” “me,” respectively); the fourth is the vowel of the first person singular qatal ending, -tî, “I [went/have gone]” (BH 2, Day 186). Or perhaps each volume could include a page that listed the pronominal suffixes and verbal affixes, with cross-references to that page at appropriate points.
- If the parallel texts at the bottom of each page offered an “interlinear” or “element-by-element” rendering of the Hebrew text, students would see that, e.g., “in-the-way which I-went” becomes “wherever I have gone” (also Genesis 35.3)—seeing enough of this (and of counter-examples) they would begin to recognize some of what underlies their favorite English version.
- Finally, I suspect that many students would find it helpful to be reminded of how to recognize different forms of the same root and why, e.g., the qal and piel of the root lmd have different functions.
Despite my quibbles (some of which are beyond the author’s purpose—this does not review Hebrew grammar, syntax, discourse, or address issues of translation), these volumes will help assiduous students recover and strengthen their knowledge of the vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic. I intend to recommend them to my students, who will, I am sure, thank Dr. Kline for his careful work.
Frederic Clarke Putnam, PhD
The Templeton Honors College
Buy the books
Keep Up Your Biblical Hebrew in Two Minutes a Day (2 vols)
Keep Up Your Aramaic in Two Minutes a Day