Monday, December 29, 2008

Review of "Hebrew for the Rest of Us"

Thanks to Jesse at Zondervan for the copy of Hebrew for the Rest of Us, which is meant to be a companion volume to Greek for the Rest of Us, also from Zondervan. Both of these volumes are intended to teach people how to use the tools of the languages without actually knowing the languages, or as this book puts it, you are learning “pre-Hebrew.”

The whole concept of pre-Hebrew raises questions in the mind of a language junkie like myself, or, as a commenter recently called me on another blog, a snob. The big danger is that a little knowledge can be more dangerous than no knowledge. At least when you don't know anything about the language, you know you don't know. If you have the beginnings of knowledge, you might think you know more than you do. I still find that a danger for myself after 30 years of reading Greek and Hebrew; we need to be humble about how much we do and don't know, and about how much we even can know.

With that in mind, I must admit I approached the book with a bias against it, but I was delighted to see on pages x-xi of the introduction a list of what to expect, and far more importantly, what not to expect:

Here are two things you should not expect. (1) After you finish this course, you should never tell anyone that you know Hebrew. You will not know Hebrew, unless you take a full-fledged Hebrew course. (By the way, my ulterior motive in writing HRU is to inspire students to study full Hebrew.) (2) You will not be able to dispute scholars on the basis of your knowledge of Hebrew, but you can ask questions and better follow the arguments of various scholars with different views, helping you make informed choices. As Mounce says in GRU[Greek for the Rest of Us] (p. x), it's not a little bit of knowledge that is a dangerous thing, “it is a little bit of arrogance that is dangerous.” Knowing everything is this book will not make you an expert.—Hebrew for the Rest of Us, page x

I must admit that this disarmed many of my fears and allowed me to look at the book from a more nearly neutral starting point. That this same caveat is repeated at page 158 in different words was also reassuring. In fact, page 162 has a wonderful warning: must not forget that this is not a full Hebrew course. Even a student who completes a two-year course in biblical Hebrew is not knowledgeable enough to engage in exegesis completely independent from the work of professionals. However, you are in a position to make more detailed observations of the text and better understand commentators and translations.” This phrase should be emblazoned on the forearms, chests, foreheads, etc., of everyone who ever says, “What the Hebrew/Greek really says is...,” as if 2000+ years of translation history missed it, and you suddenly discovered it with Strong's dictionary and the Internet!

But, I digress. the layout of the book is very student-friendly. The tables and charts are helpful and assist greatly in the understanding of concepts. He goes into enough detail to give the pre-Hebrew student a basis to understand the basic problems and challenges of the Hebrew verbal system. This is reinforced in the exercises, which frequently have you compare several translations, with an eye to understanding why they differ.

After laying out all the basics of Hebrew grammar with a good deal of syntax along the way, the book turns to putting it all together in exegesis. The list of word study pitfalls to avoid on pages 229-230 is excellent. If you get nothing else from the book, this is worth the price of admission. He includes a chapter on resources, and how to choose them. The book concludes with a chapter on Hebrew prose, and another on Hebrew poetry.

Still, I am left wondering at the end of it, why not learn Hebrew? If all I knew were the things in the book, I would be left wishing I had more knowledge. You are left totally dependent on analytical tools for parsing, concordances for roots, or, if you prefer, the electronic texts that are tagged. I would find that endlessly frustrating. In the end, it seems that you would save more time over the long-haul investing your time in actually learning the language. It would be like trying to read Tolstoy in Russian with only a grammar and dictionary; you could do it, but the time required...

What about the self-learner? I would say, forget it. This book is designed to have a teacher who knows Hebrew supplement the materials (although he does have a website which I did not check). If you really want to learn enough Hebrew to get through the materials, you are better off learning first year Hebrew from one of the traditional (modern!) grammars, such as Futato, Seow, Ross, Pratico, Kelley, etc., which either contain an answer key, or have an annotated answer key available.

<idle musing>
Now for the shocker: Not everybody should learn Hebrew (or Greek—double shocker!). Contrary to what you might gather from language snobs/elitists, such as myself, the translations available are quite good! Sure, there are nuances, and the depth of meaning is greater in the original, but will that make you a “better Christian?” Chances are pretty good that it won't! In fact, if you are prone to pride, unless God calls you to learn the language (and even then), you will be on a very dangerous slope with a thin lifeline!

When you get to the “pearly gates,” God won't ask you to parse a verb or decline a noun. He won't ask about the concords or word order. He isn't concerned about your head knowledge except as it causes you to fall in worship at his feet. And you don't need Greek or Hebrew to do that. In fact, throughout most of history, most people couldn't even read, yet they managed to know God quite well...

So, Jesse, are you sorry you gave me the book to review? :)
</idle musing>

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your review.

Although I am a seminarian and an academic by calling and vocation I am becoming more aware of the limitations of the study of the original languages (although I have studied and continue to use them).

First, I have often found that the problem texts of Scripture are rarely solved on the basis of language alone whether one is talking about the meaning of Genesis 1-2 or the role of women in 1 Timothy 2. I am aware that without knowledge of the languages there might be more problem texts than there are. I am also aware that knowing languages can be used to argue that certain interpretations more or less likely. Still, the original point remains.

Second, I am concerned when those in my vocation argue for the study of the languages along the lines of dependence. That is, "Unless you learn the languages you will be dependent on others." Well the fact of the matter is that passages such as Ephesians 4:11 implies that all of us are dependent on others, one way or the other, in the body of Christ. Furthermore, even those of us who have studied and use the languages are dependent on the work of others unless we are going to collate our own manuscripts, develop our own lexicons and grammars, etc. I would suggest then that we are all dependent and so to argue for the study of languages on the basis of dependence is not helpful.

Third, according to the biblical record, those who knew the original languages often got it wrong as it were. This is true of the false prophets in Jeremiah's day and the scribes of Jesus' day. This point could be extended to present day interpreters as well.

Fourth, in light of the first three points, I am becoming convinced that more important than the original languages is hermeneutics and theology. In fact if I were forced into a "Sophie's Choice" kind of choice I would argue that grounding in hermeneutics is more crucial to proper understanding of the Scriptures than learning the languages.