Hebrew for Life: Strategies for Learning, Retaining, and Reviving Biblical Hebrew

A confession. In my undergraduate studies, I only took one semester of Hebrew. The professor ruled. I enjoyed the language, scoring well on assignments and quizzes. But I found learning Greek and Hebrew simultaneously very hard. I didn’t need the credits from Hebrew to graduate, so I chose to do semester four of Greek (translating Ephesians!) instead of another semester of Hebrew. “I can always come back to it,” I told myself.

Divinity school came and went. The first years of ministry drifted by. I had a few starts into Pratico and Van Pelt’s classic introductory grammar but lost steam after a few weeks.

Last fall, I purchased Lexham Press’s Learning Biblical Hebrew grammar, which takes a different approach to language learning. I’ve paired that grammar with Michael Carasik’s “Great Course” on Hebrew, which is supposed to be equivalent to two semesters of a college-level introductory course. (Interested in the course? You can get it on Amazon Prime for a fraction of the cost.) These two resources have reinvigorated my desire to learn; more importantly, I have found them to be the kinds of resources I need to keep going. For language learning, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Just this week I took up Howell, Merkle, and Plummer’s new book from Baker Academic to see if it might offer some additional help. Hebrew For Life is less of a grammatical or linguistic tool and, let’s say, more of a motivational tool. Like a self-help guide for students and ministers struggling to put on linguistic muscle. And that’s just what I need.

In the first chapter, their goal is to underscore the importance of learning the biblical languages. The authors’ main intention is to encourage pastors and students to take Hebrew seriously enough to critically assess translations and various interpretative possibilities in order to more deeply know God. I found some of their rhetoric in this section unhelpful. They made much of learning Hebrew as essential to correct interpretation but did not mention that the New Testament authors almost uniformly read and interpreted from the Septuagint. At points, learning Hebrew seemed like the necessary tool to resist the “papacy of scholarship” or the nefarious theological decision making of committees. I mean, Augustine didn’t know Hebrew and he did alright defending the true faith against heresy. I am sure the authors’ arguments will persuade other readers. For me, learning Hebrew is a discipline in slow, careful reading, which will yield different questions and provoke different lines of thought than reading a translation will. (Also, is it so wrong that I want to sing the Psalms in Hebrew?)

The following chapters suggest life and study habits for retaining Hebrew. Did you know that, according to one study, it takes sixty six days to form a habit? I thought it was seven days, so there’s that. And did you know that someone was able to memorize 107 first and last names of random faces in fifteen minutes? When I started preaching, our church averaged about that many people, and it took me weeks to learn all their names (and many with too little confidence to say their name to their face). The authors’ put forward a number of techniques and habits that will help, reminding you that you must have a motivating goal to keep up the work.

The remainder of the book includes reading plans for breaks, reading strategies, a look at Aramaic, a guide for those reviving their Hebrew skills, and a slew of additional resources. These tools each have a particular kind of person in mind. The reading plan for breaks is useful for students who have summer and winter breaks. On the other hand, the reading strategies is a gift to someone like me, who needs something structured that can be incorporated into my day.

Additionally, each chapter ends with a devotional, which is meant to give the reader a reminder of their overarching goal for learning Hebrew: deeper love of God. They serve also as small victories because they remind the Hebrew student that they have, in fact, learned enough to engage with the language devotionally, even if it is pronouncing the Hebrew words.

This book is a helpful companion, especially for pastors like me, who need not only grammars and vocab cards, but a reminder that it can be done. And that it doesn’t need to be painful. The helpful tips, resources, and encouragement have motivated me to keep working.

But, still, how many more days until this is a habit?

Thanks to Baker Academic for sending this book for review.

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