Both Biblical Hebrew (BH) and Hebrew for Theologians (HT) are textbooks for teaching and/or studying biblical Hebrew in English, notably in American colleges. I will first discuss BH and then review HT in comparison.
BH “sets out to make biblical texts accessible to individuals working on their own, to members of adult Bible classes, and to students in academic settings” (p. xiii). A note on page xv, addressed to instructors, says that the book would be best suited to a two-semester intensive language course. However, it is organized in such a way that it may be useful in less intensive courses as well.
BH consists of twenty chapters, each beginning with a passage from the Hebrew Bible as it appears in the original Hebrew text, including the vowel pointing and the accents (te′amim). The passages chosen are from Genesis, Exodus, 1 Samuel, Isaiah, Psalms and Proverbs, representing different genres and periods. For students who have difficulty deciphering the Hebrew script, a phonetic transcription follows the original Hebrew texts.
Departing from the common practice, the authors do not suggest the Modern Hebrew pronunciation for their transcription, but offer instead what they believe the sounds were in the ancient language. I personally find this problematic in reading the texts aloud, but at the same time very useful for following the original Hebrew spelling. Each passage and its transcription are followed by a commentary, which consists mainly of a translation into English and grammatical analysis of the different words and phrases appearing in the passage. Occasionally, cultural and historical comments are added. For example, when commenting on Genesis chapter 2, the authors mention that “In Jewish tradition, the first three verses … are part of … the blessing spoken at the inception of the Sabbath” (p. 55).
To provide students with systematic accounts of grammar issues, following the commentary, each chapter also contains a selection of grammar dealing with specific subjects: the phonological system in BH, the verbal system, the different kinds of clauses, etc., as well as issues related to the Hebrew language or the Hebrew Bible, such as a survey on the Semitic languages, the style of the Hebrew Bible, and the representation of reality in the biblical Hebrew narrative.
To add historical perspective, the authors dedicate three chapters, providing information about Mishnaic Hebrew (chapter 18), Modern Hebrew (chapter 20), and an overview of epigraphic remains of the biblical period (chapter 19). If there is controversy concerning a grammatical issue, or the translation, the authors typically mention the differing views, and adopt one of them. Here I should note that I did not always agree with the authors’ translations or the grammatical views they adopted, but I did not find this to be an obstacle in using the book.
A number of important tools are offered for instructors and students. To facilitate the search for the words and phrases discussed in the different chapters, a concise alphabetically ordered glossary is added at the end of the book. To provide information for further study, a survey on reference materials and software available is given in section 97. Also, three excellent appendices are included at the end of the book. Appendix A deals with the verb paradigms, accompanied by useful comments; Appendix B provides a list of the technical terms mentioned in the book fully explained and illustrated; and Appendix C provides a translation of the passages analyzed in the book.
In sum, BH is an excellent textbook, a real asset for the instructor as well as the student studying on her/his own. Although the authors claim that “The scope of comments … is adjusted to the user’s increasing level of competence in successive chapters,” (p. xiii) it seems to me that the book may also be used modularly, choosing the texts and the subjects not necessarily in the order suggested by the authors. For example, teachers may choose to start with the description of Hebrew as a Semitic language, although it appears in Chapter 11. They may also choose to teach only one of the genres, or only some of the grammatical points, or even skip some of the chapters for lack of time or other reasons, in which case the students can easily access the material on their own.
The book is “user friendly” with clear explanations and enlightening overviews. Even the format is pleasantly and aesthetically designed. The text is typed clearly; the cover’s color is a pleasant blue, with a drawing of a palm tree, and the title of the book, as well as the titles of the chapters, integrate Hebrew characters that resemble English ones, e.g., the W in the word “Hebrew” is represented by the Hebrew ש.
HT is theologically oriented, as indicated in its title and pronounced clearly in its introduction: “HT is primarily designed for ministers, seminary students, and religion students in college, who are interested in the Bible and wish to become familiar with its thought” (p. ix). Thus, a great part of the introduction, all of chapter vi, and some scattered sections, are devoted to theological discussions comparing Jewish with Christian traditions. The main aim of the book, however, although for theological reasons, is to teach biblical Hebrew and enable students to read the Hebrew Bible. Instructors (or students) not interested in the religious-philosophical portions of the book will have no problem in skipping them and concentrating instead on the linguistic discussions. In this review, I will consider only the sections of the book that deal with the Hebrew language, comparing HT with BH.
HT as a textbook for biblical Hebrew is a more modest version than BH. It provides the student with very clear discussions of the Hebrew grammar, but in less detail than BH. This was done deliberately, as the author prefers to give only the principles of the Hebrew grammar, otherwise the student might be “… unable to get an overall picture of the language … ” (p. xxvi). For the student who is interested in the details, the author provides updated lists of references.
The grammatical discussions contain or are followed by useful charts dealing with the conjugations of the different verb patterns, the pronominal suffixes, etc. To place Hebrew within its family immediately, a chart of the Semitic languages with a short discussion is given in the introduction. Since the ultimate aim of the book is reading the Hebrew Bible, a special discussion is devoted to the accents. Doukhan also adds lists of vocabulary according to their frequency in the Hebrew Bible, each followed by a translation into English with detailed etymological accounts.
Like BH, HT also contains texts translated and analyzed word by word. Three passages are chosen from known chapters in Genesis, Psalms and Micah, representing different genres. Unlike BH, however, the original Hebrew text is not accompanied by transliteration, and the reader must be able to decipher the original Hebrew text itself. (This parallels the author’s belief that the Hebrew alphabet has spiritual significance.) Thus, the student must master the Hebrew alphabet as well as the vowel pointing in order to use HT.
Since no previous knowledge is assumed, the author devotes some sections to the Hebrew alphabet and the vowel pointing with transliteration of the sounds and exercises to practice them. He also has prepared tape-recordings of the signs and the texts, which one can purchase separately. The pronunciation adopted by the author is the Modern Israeli one, but the phonetic transliteration for each sign is according to its orthography. I find this approach very helpful when teaching. It helps the student appreciate the difficulty of restoring the original pronunciation and reflects the fact that it is theory dependent, but at the same time it fulfills the need for adopting some convenient pronunciation when reading the biblical text itself. The idea of companion tapes is a very good one, in my opinion, however, I find Doukhan’s reading sometimes inaccurate, for he does not always stress the right syllable.
I have been using HT in my biblical Hebrew course for the last five years. I do not always agree with the translation provided by the author or with this grammar point or another, and I also have found some errors. (e.g., The rule that begedkefet does not take a dagesh when it follows an open syllable, as stated on p. 100, is not accurate as this is true only in case the accent [the ta’am] is a conjunctive. To illustrate the rule of female formation by adding the vowel/a/to the male noun, the author suggests the word חמורה (hamora as the female counterpart for חמור hamor ‘donkey’, although the female counterpart for ‘donkey’ is the word אתון ′aton). These cases, however, are small in number, and while ignoring them I find the book very useful. It is “user friendly” and suitable for the classroom as well as for students working on their own. At the end of each chapter, the author provides an abundant number of exercises and activities, which may be used in the classroom or as homework, with clear instructions on how to study the issue in question. Moreover, at the end of the book, just before the analytical index, the author adds an appendix entitled “Further Steps,” proposing guidelines for further assignments for the interested advanced students. While the number of exercises in HT is large, the number of analyzed texts is small, which makes it difficult to use beyond one semester.