Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Why Hebrew Textbooks Are Different From Those For Other Languages

For decades, courses in biblical Hebrew relied on a handful of textbooks. Among the most popular were those written by Thomas Lambdin, Jacob Weingreen, and Moshe Greenberg. Over the past ten years, however, there has been a seemingly endless flood of new books, each claiming to have features that set it apart from the others, whether in terms of content or pedagogic method. Several of these recent books present themselves as being tailored for specific audiences, such as evangelicals or students who already know modern Hebrew. The fact of the matter is that they are all fundamentally alike. The real reason for this proliferation has less to do with the emergence of new philosophies than with the pressures of the marketplace, whether on faculty who need to publish or on publishers who hope that textbooks will be a lucrative product.

As much as they have in common with each other, these books also differ in certain identifiable ways from those that are used for most language instruction. The evidence for this is hard to miss. One need only rifle through the pages of any introduction to biblical Hebrew and then one for some other commonly taught language. The most obvious contrast lies in the fact that the Hebrew books are in black and white, whereas those for French or German and the like are filled with color. Nor is this liveliness of presentation solely a matter of ink, for most language texts sport endless numbers of illustrations, with drawings that support the content as well as photographs of the places where that language is used. But Hebrew texts are filled with just that— text, with descriptions and explanations of various linguistic features as well as charts listing a host of possible forms.

To some extent, these differences may be economically based, but the abundance of such books suggests that the market is not small. The difference in approach must therefore reflect very different views about what students should learn. While most introductory texts strive to empower their users to internalize the language being studied, those in biblical Hebrew see themselves as enabling students to translate a specific text, a task that is apparently seen as quite difficult. The background of those teaching these courses reinforces that orientation. Whereas instructors for most language courses are typically fluent in the language that they teach, biblical Hebrew is usually taught by people who are trained in some form of biblical studies or Semitic philology, and certainly not language instruction.

Their focus on translation controls the way in which many of these books approach their task. To emphasize that, they often present the original text as quickly as possible, taking many of their exercises and examples directly from it. Rarely would one find excerpts from Cervantes or Goethe in the early chapters of a beginning Spanish or German text. That is also why they lavish immense amounts of attention on technical grammatical issues, such as the various possible nuances of a particular construction or the different forms in which an individual word appears. The intention is clearly to account for every idiosyncrasy of the received biblical text, a concern with which introductions to most languages have no interest at all.

At the same time, there are several features that are common in introductory language texts but lacking in their Hebrew counterparts. These include almost anything that might suggest that students should have an active control over the language. So, rather than expecting students to master phrases, the Hebrew books list isolated words and sometimes even individual forms; instead of stressing ideas and communication, exercises ask students to translate words and identify grammatical features. That is also the reason students are given historical explanations for linguistic features that the authors consider surprising, such as why certain kinds of verbs are conjugated the way that they are or why the waw consecutive acts as it does. As a result, Hebrew texts tend to inundate students with far more detail than a beginner could possibly absorb, much less master. Moreover, all this is done using unfamiliar terms and with reference to tools that are frequently in languages such as French and German (rarely Hebrew!) that students also do not know. In short, these books present the language in a way that is intimidating and unlikely to result in real mastery. That fear is compounded by the unfamiliar script with which the language is written, the fact that it moves in the opposite direction from that with which students are familiar, and its placement of vowels above and below the consonants rather than alongside them.

Of course, there is a long tradition for teaching Hebrew this way. In that respect, the authors of these books are simply replicating techniques with which they are familiar. But that experience should also make them aware of the shortcomings and consequences of these techniques. Sometimes they do express the hope that their books will help students overcome the obstacles to learning this unfamiliar language in a way that most likely reflects their own experience with it. However, their response — the massive amount of detail, the emphasis on irregularities, the focus on deciphering, and the rapid exposure to the original text — tend to reinforce those expectations rather than help students overcome them.

Such an approach might be understandable and maybe even appropriate for sophisticated students embarking on the study of esoteric and long-dead languages, such as Sumerian, Egyptian, or Ugaritic. But it hardly fits a text that the authors of these books and, presumably, their students believe speaks to them and should be read with pleasure as well as profit. Who could love, much less feel comfortable with, a language that is as alien and difficult as biblical Hebrew is presented as being? Indeed, who could ever hope to master a language where the exceptions seem to outnumber the rules? And who could possibly feel close to a text that needs a lexicon (not a dictionary!) and can be understood only by those familiar with languages and linguistic principles of which most students have never heard?

To be sure, some of these problems are attributable to the real life purpose of these courses, which is to prepare students to read the Bible in the original. In other words, their goal is really to teach a text, not a language. Most students would likely acknowledge that, as nervous as they might be about the likelihood of success. Nor is there anything wrong with it. It may even be reasonable for students who are going to devote their lives to teaching others what the Bible means to be aware of the problems that limit our ability to determine that meaning. However, that merely evades the real question, which is how those goals are best achieved.

Here, comparison with courses in other languages may again be helpful. One would surely hope that a student of French, for example, would eventually be able to read Molière, at least with a dictionary. But as large as that dictionary might have to be, it would hardly need to include the kind of information provided by BDB. How many of us turn to the Oxford English Dictionary in order to read Shakespeare? Nor do we rely on critical editions in the way that students of the Bible are taught to use the Biblia Hebraica. Yet those are the very tools that introductions to biblical Hebrew routinely present to beginning students, even though they obviously have nothing to do with learning the language itself. And so it is again clear that these courses are not really introductions to a language (as if biblical Hebrew were the name of a language in the first place) so much as to the Bible or, perhaps, to a course in the Bible that is expected to follow. That brings us back to the question of whether the approach embodied in these texts is likely to succeed even in achieving its stated goal.

To answer that, we might reconsider the message these textbooks actually send. For what they communicate is not the joy of reading the Bible directly, but the difficulty of doing so. Nor do they impart mastery of a language so much as the technical resources needed to decipher an archaic text. That is also the message conveyed by the tools that they present. For example, the standard biblical lexica show how difficult it is to know exactly what a particular word means, just as the Biblia Hebraica, in all its various editions, demonstrates our uncertainty as to the correct text. These messages may be accurate and even essential for biblical scholars, but they are hardly ones that most teachers would want to give beginning students.

As scholars, we are used to speculating about the Sitz im Leben of a text and asking cui bono — who benefits from what it has to say. It might be interesting to apply these same questions to the texts we use and the ways we teach. Those questions can be addressed by noting another idiosyncrasy of introductions to biblical Hebrew — many of their publishers are religious presses rather than the textbook companies that produce most introductory language texts. That, of course, correlates with the setting for most courses in biblical Hebrew, which are typically taught in seminaries rather than the language departments where classes in other languages are usually set. That point was brought home to me by a seminary that prohibited its students from taking introductory Hebrew at a neighboring university. The stated reason was that graduate students should not receive credit for an undergraduate course, as if a language class for twenty five year olds is substantively different from one offered to twenty year olds. But perhaps they were right; maybe the goal of a language course offered by a language department is different from one provided by a seminary, especially when the language in question is used for a text with as much cultural baggage as the Bible.

As a community that views itself as having been grafted onto the tree of Abraham (see Romans 11:13-24), part of that "baggage" includes seeing the original form of the Bible as somewhat alien. Christendom has long preferred its Scripture in translation, an attitude that both reflects and perpetuates a sense of distance from the original text. With the growth of biblical studies, that attitude has now reached beyond the Christian community. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the textbooks used for such an endeavor would reflect that view, even if only subconsciously.

The question of cui bono almost answers itself. The obvious beneficiary of presenting Hebrew and the Bible as too hard for beginners is the guild of "experts," whose authority is enhanced by emphasizing the difficulty of the material they have mastered. In other words, it is to our advantage to present the language in as difficult a way as possible. The harder it appears, the smarter we must be and the more essential we become for anyone who wants to know what it says. We reinforce that message every time we use a technical term or mention an exotic language, demonstrating our access to information that introductory students cannot hope to match.

There is, of course, an element of truth in this message. Understanding the Bible can be daunting, even for those with extensive training and access to the best available resources; many introductions to biblical Hebrew do, in fact, communicate these very real problems. But that is not the same as teaching students to read the Bible in any conventional sense of that term.

Pedagogical success should be judged not by thoroughness but by effectiveness. In this case, that means whether students reach a point where they feel comfortable and maybe even enthusiastic about reading the Bible in the original. Achieving that goal would likely require a very different approach from the one that pervades almost all the recent textbooks in this field.

It would be unrealistic to outline such a book here; however, we can list some of the characteristics that it might have. To do that, let us begin by looking at the textbooks that are used for other languages in order to identify how they go about their task.

There are certain things they do not do. For example, they do not try to produce scholars; that is to say, clones of the instructor. An introductory course ought to have as its goal enabling students to read the biblical text, most likely in its existing form, with reasonable ease, given the amount of time they have to devote to the project. As desirable as it might be for them to know something about the tools that are available to assist in that effort, there is no reason why they need the most technical texts or dictionaries, although the existence of these tools could be acknowledged towards the end of the course, perhaps in an appendix enumerating tools "for further study." One does not need either a critical edition or a technical lexicon in order to read a classic text. Nor is it clear what positive purpose is served by expecting students to read direct quotations from the Bible from the start, although it might be useful to provide occasional references to familiar biblical phrases in order to demonstrate students' progress and the relevance of the material they are learning.

What they do need is a thorough knowledge of the language' regularities, not its idiosyncrasies. These should be presented in a measured way rather than all at once, so that students encounter only as much as one can realistically be expected to absorb. Moreover, descriptions should be in simple, everyday English. There should also be a substantial amount of drill. That may not be fun, though it can probably be constructed in entertaining ways, but it is how language patterns are internalized (think about how children master their native tongue), and it should probably involve oral as well as written effort. Moreover, students should be expected to work from the language of instruction (English) to the target language (Hebrew) as well as the other way around. They might even be asked to work directly in the target language. The purpose for this is not for them to be able to write, much less speak, biblical Hebrew, but for them to internalize linguistic patterns. Active drill is self-evidently more effective than passive practice, especially when it is oral; anyone who has mastered a new language is likely to confirm that having to translate into the target language is a very powerful way of gaining mastery. Even more powerful would be trying to express oneself in the target language, though that may be unrealistic in this case for a host of reasons, both pragmatic and ideological.

There are textbooks that use these techniques, or at least some of them, but they are few and far between. Instead, most seem obsessed with cramming as much information as possible into the smallest number of chapters, while finding ways to present biblical texts (typically isolated and sometimes obscure sentences) as quickly as they can. As a result, they teach too much too fast. Biblical Hebrew may not be the only subject that is taught that way. Higher education is replete with courses in which instructors try to replicate themselves rather than assist students in acquiring the skills and knowledge that are necessary for achieving their own goals. However, making it harder for students to succeed at the task to which both they and their teachers are deeply committed for religious and personal reasons is plainly counterproductive. Learning how to teach languages from those who have devoted their professional lives to that project can only increase our success at bringing students closer to the text that is the center of our concern.

I am grateful to Professors Stayc DuBravac and Gregory A. Robbins for their assistance in thinking about the issues discussed in this paper.

Frederick E. Greenspahn, Florida Atlantic University,

Frederick E. Greenspahn is the author of An Introduction to Aramaic (SBL, 1999; 2nd edition,2003, now in its third printing).

Citation: Frederick E. Greenspahn, " Why Hebrew Textbooks Are Different From Those For Other Languages," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2005]. Online:


© 2017, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.