Review of Nava Bergman, The Cambridge Biblical Hebrew Workbook

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Nava Bergman, The Cambridge Biblical Hebrew Workbook: Introductory Level (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). Pp. xvi + 375. Paper, US$32.99. IBN 0-521-53369-4.


The narrator of Ecclesiastes said that “the making of many books—there is no end” (Eccl. 12:12). This gem seems particularly apt regarding the production of textbooks aimed at the first-year biblical Hebrew (BH) course. What is lamentable about the proliferation of introductory BH textbooks, though, is not the sheer number available, particularly in English; the greater the choice of style, organization, and linguistic presentation the better. The lamentable fact of current BH textbook writing is that the texts available vary so little from one another and reflect little of the recent advances in BH linguistic analysis and second-language-acquisition (SLA) teaching techniques. Bergman’s contribution seems to promise a departure from the status quo by applying “many of the tools of modern language acquisition to make learning this classical language an active and inspiring process” (back cover; cf. also pp. i, xi). It is thus with considerable interest that I read this textbook and in this brief review I will explore whether Bergman’s book lives up to its billing, particularly in the area of “modern language acquisition” (which I have taken to mean SLA).

This workbook is organized into twenty-eight sections, in which grammatical information, vocabulary, and exercises are presented. This is followed by a text sampling of “four styles of biblical prose”: narrative, legal, parable and proverbs, and prophetic speeches. Appendices on learning Hebrew by using Hebrew proper names (Appendix I), regular sound changes in Hebrew (Appendix II), and a guide to grammatical terms (Appendix III) are followed by Hebrew-to-English and English-to-Hebrew glossaries and an answer key to the sectional exercises. Significantly, this workbook is intended as the first volume of a “comprehensive study-kit,” to include “a workbook for intermediate level, a textbook and an audio-CD package with word lists, exercises, texts and biblical songs” (xi), presumably in the near future. Such a collection of coordinated materials could easily become dominant in the one-dimensional BH textbook market, which makes a probing critique of this first volume all the more critical for potential users (and hopefully helpful to Bergman).

Bergman’s workbook does a fine job in covering the grammatical issues common to first-year textbooks. The inclusion of both Hebrew-to-English and English-to-Hebrew glossaries is particularly helpful. One organizational issue that was new to me in a first-year textbook was the intermingling of the verbal stem/binyanim and weak verb morphology. Most textbooks choose to present either the binyanim in their entirety before moving to the weak verbs or all the verbs, strong and weak, in the Qal before moving on to the derivative binyanim. Bergman’s departure is intriguing and I am curious about the rationale for her choice in this matter as well as the response from teachers and students who use this workbook. It is possible that this is one of the SLA-influenced features of the textbook and so here I will turn to the heart of this review: determining whether Bergman’s workbook reflects the description provided for it in the title and preface.  

The first issue that is worth considering is whether the work is really a “workbook,” as the title indicates. A workbook, that is, a collection of all types of exercises, would be immensely valuable and, if each exercise concentrated on limited vocabulary and grammatical structures, fundamentally usable with any other textbook. Bergman’s book is not just a workbook, however. This is clear not only from the amount of grammatical description in each section (to which the exercises are keyed) but also from the preface, where Bergman indicates that the text can be used “more or less independently” (p. xii). Thus, I question both the title and the claim in the preface that the text “can be used together with any textbook for beginners” (p. xii): this work is a full-fledged textbook like any other on the market and because of this, that is, because Bergman presents grammatical description of Hebrew as she understands it and in an order at points unique to her grammar (e.g., the above-mentioned presentation of the verbal binyanim and weak verb morphology), I doubt that this text could be easily combined with any other introductory textbook.

What about SLA influence on the book, both in presentation of grammatical description and formation of exercises? I should say, first of all, that there is a wealth of exercises in the text, the best of which come close to being Cloze exercises (see exercises 6.2, 8.1, 9.1, 24.5, 25.3, 26.7). Cloze exercises are immersion-type exercises in which students are given a paragraph of Hebrew phrases or clauses with blanks to be filled in from either a list of the appropriate BH words (plus a few that do not belong) or their own knowledge base (at a more advanced stage in the year).[1] Such exercises are used frequently in recent modern language introductory textbooks but rarely in ancient language textbooks and, to my knowledge, not at all in BH textbooks.[2] The problem with Bergman’s Cloze-like exercises is that there are too few and they simply include too much English information. Some are even based in English (e.g., 11.4, 12.6) rather than in Hebrew!

This brings me to my second major criticism of this work: besides the lack of any clearly SLA-influenced exercises, there is too much English grammatical description of Hebrew for a workbook or a textbook grounded in SLA teaching techniques. Instead, the work reads like a traditional “grammar-translation” approach to teaching Hebrew, with, for example, detailed descriptions of phonology (e.g., sections 3-5, 7), sometimes accompanied by charts that are none too easy to decode (e.g., the vowel charts on pp. 61 and 109 do not contain headings, such as front, central, back and high, mid, low, or the typical trapezoid quadrilateral outline that gives it interpretable shape). Do first-year students really need to be informed about the changes in triphthongs and diphthongs in III-ו/י verbs and other features similarly mind-boggling to the neophyte? To place this question, and others like it, in relief we should ask whether introductory students of any modern language are given similarly dense information of phonology and morphology in contemporary, SLA-influenced textbooks. To be fair to Bergman, such critical questions may be leveled at all first-year textbooks on the market in the English-speaking world (I claim little knowledge whether the situation differs for non-English-based textbooks). But this lack of distinctiveness for Bergman’s textbook runs counter to how it is presented in the preface.

In sum, if we evaluate Bergman’s book by its own claims, I can only conclude that it fails in its goals or is simply mis-advertised. In contrast, if we evaluate this textbook directly against other introductory textbooks, it is similar in scope, contains some nice but mostly typical exercises, and shares this sub-field’s general disconnectedness to current work in BH linguistics (e.g., that the BH perfect and imperfect verbs express completed and uncompleted action [sections 13 and 16, respectively] or that the vav with the perfect and imperfect is an “inverting-Vav” [section 20]).[3] As such, it is simply another addition to the ever-growing pile of first-year textbooks. BH teachers may choose it for its price or some feature within that they find to their liking, but not because it represents something new among the plethora.

Robert D. Holmstedt
The University of Toronto


[1]      For a brief definition and description of Cloze exercises, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloze. To be most effective, Cloze exercises are best designed as paragraph stretches of texts, even if the paragraph is simplified from the biblical text, rather than as a series of disconnected clauses. For a recent monograph on incorporating SLA research into teaching, see W. Wong, Input Enhancement: From Theory and Research to the Classroom (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004). For a collection of recent articles on incorporating SLA research into the teaching of ancient languages, see J. Gruber-Miller, ed., When Dead Tongues Speak: Teaching Beginning Greek and Latin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). For an article focusing on SLA and BH in particular, see P. Overland, “Can Communicative Methods Enhance Ancient Language Acquisition?” Teaching Theology and Religion 7 (2004): 51–57.

[2]     The single exception to this is the two-part textbook developed by Randall Buth for his BH ulpan. For those instructors truly interested in an SLA-influenced textbook and approach to teaching BH, I suggest considering Buth’s Living Biblical Hebrew: אולפן לעברית מקראית (Two vols. plus MP3 audio CD; Jerusalem / Zeeland, MI: Biblical Language Center, 2006). Description of Buth’s materials and courses is available at http://www.biblicalulpan.org.

[3]     For a recent overview of the primary proposals for the semantics of the BH verbs, see J. A. Cook, “The Hebrew Verb: A Grammaticalization Approach,” ZAH 14/2 (2001): 117-43. On the semantics of the so-called “vav≠-consecutive” forms, see idem, “The Semantics of Verbal Pragmatics: Clarifying the Roles of Wayyiqtol and Weqatal in Biblical Hebrew Prose,” JSS 49 (2004): 247-73. On the explanations of the vav-prefixed forms in BH textbooks, old and new, see idem, “The Vav-Prefixed Verb Forms in Elementary Hebrew Grammar” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Association of Professors of Hebrew, San Diego, 18 November 2007).