Hebrew for Life: Strategies for Learning, Retaining, and Reviving Biblical Hebrew
Howell, Adam J., Benjamin L. Merkle, and Robert L. Plummer. Hebrew for Life: Strategies for Learning, Retaining, and Reviving Biblical Hebrew. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020. xiv + 224 pp. Paperback, $22.99. ISBN 978-1-5409-6275-1.
Serious students of the Christian Scriptures are all too familiar with the challenge of using Greek and Hebrew throughout their ministries. The sheer difficulty of retaining multiple languages, coupled with the “tyranny of the urgent” and the proliferation of Bible software that promises to parse and analyze on their users’ behalf, leads many, sadly, to neglect their linguistic training. Enter the relatively new pair of books Greek for Life and Hebrew for Life—both of which seek to prevent such “linguistic apostasy” long before it takes place (p. ix).
As is common among book series with Old and New Testament counterparts, Hebrew for Life appeared quite some time after its Greek equivalent. In fact, the preface informs us that the book is an extensive revision, by Old Testament professor Adam J. Howell, of Greek for Life, which was written by New Testament scholars Benjamin L. Merkle and Robert L. Plummer. All three authors are experienced instructors of the biblical languages, with PhDs from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
While the book is not overtly divided into the two or three main parts common in books of similar size, careful readers can discern something of a fourfold macrostructure, with chapters 1–4 focusing on the “learning” part of the book’s subtitle, chapters 5–7 on the “retaining” part, chapter 8 on learning Aramaic, and chapter 9 on the “reviving” part. Within this division, the opening section can be viewed as establishing the fundamentals of Hebrew language acquisition. Chapter 1, then, defends the value of learning Hebrew, anticipates objections to that endeavor, and pleads with students to take full advantage of their educational privileges today. Chapter 2 analyzes laziness and diligence from a biblical-theological perspective, probes various psychological insights into time management and habit formation, and otherwise grounds students in responsible, time-honored study habits. Chapter 3 then encourages students to review paradigms and vocabulary in frequent fifteen-to-thirty-minute spurts, to limit their vocabulary review to five-to-ten words at a time, and to incorporate as many methods in their review as possible, including reading, speaking, hearing, and especially writing and singing. Chapter 4, finally, explores seven main mnemonic devices (the “six strategies” on p. 68 is probably an overlooked vestige of Greek for Life). These include the use of association, substitute words, acronyms, stories, English cognate terms, memory palaces, and a rather novel method of loci based on storyboarding.
Turning our attention to the second part of the book’s subtitle, chapter 5 discusses various factors that help students strategically leverage their academic breaks: formal and informal accountability, specific plans, realistic goals, enjoyment, healthy competition, and communal study. Chapter 6 then establishes daily reading as “perhaps the most important practice for maintaining and increasing your facility in Biblical Hebrew” (p. 118). Accordingly, it offers recommendations on what to read (with Ruth, Jonah, and Deuteronomy at the top of the initial list); how to read (i.e., with an interlinear or reverse-interlinear, diglot, reader’s Hebrew Bible, reader’s lexicon, standard lexicon, and digital texts); and how long to read in one sitting (ten-to-thirty minutes daily). Finally, chapter 7 discusses how to use selected Hebrew Bible resources, ranging from software and websites to lexica, grammars, handbooks, and commentaries.
With the inclusion of chapter 8, the book could aptly be called Hebrew and Aramaic for Life—though, of course, this would weaken the aesthetic brevity of the current title. Either way, we have here in this indispensable chapter a brief apology for learning Biblical Aramaic, a discussion of its differences and especially its similarities with Biblical Hebrew, and various resources facilitating its study, including grammars, lexica, readers, and vocabulary guides.
Readers who have “lost” their Hebrew (and/or Aramaic) over the years are encouraged to turn directly to chapter 9 after reading the preface (p. x). In this final chapter, the authors discuss various ways of “getting back in shape.” This includes reigniting one’s vision and passion for the language(s), honestly assessing their time management, actively leveraging their time, setting easily attainable goals, drawing inspiration from others, and studying with other lifelong learners. Other, less conventional strategies include teaching Hebrew to youth, writing at least one Hebrew verse in longhand every day, ritualizing one’s study by involving as many senses in their study as possible, and seeking “professional intervention” by taking a refresher course, hiring a tutor, or even trading a week’s use of their vacation home for a professor’s one-on-one instruction!
With such a wide variety of strategies laid before us, the authors quite successfully achieve what they set out to do—namely, equip students to use Hebrew and Aramaic throughout their ministries. In fact, with poignant quotes, testimonies, and Hebrew devotions peppered throughout the book, they do an outstanding job of actually inspiring and motivating readers in that pursuit as well. This is further corroborated by the authors’ keen and welcome attention to the affective dynamics of Hebrew language acquisition, as well as their contention that Hebrew is an important means to the “ultimate goal” of “know[ing] and lov[ing] the Triune God and lov[ing] people who are made in his image” (p. xi; italics original; cf. pp. 2, 28, 31).
With that said, however, the book is not without its weaknesses and omissions—many of which are shared with Greek for Life as well. One such weakness is a palpable sense of confusion in readership. While the preface does list college and seminary students, professors, ministry leaders, and “Hebrew exiles” as potential readers, not every portion of the book is relevant to each of these groups. In that vein, it would have been helpful not only to highlight first-year Hebrew students as the primary audience, but also to direct each group to the chapters or sections from which they might benefit the most (much as the authors direct those in need of revivification to chapter 9). Another weakness is that certain sections simply seem out of place, such as chapter 3’s “Optimize Your Review Times” (which is so general that it better fits chapter 2); chapter 6’s “How to Use Hebrew While Memorizing Verses in English” (which could have been integrated with chapter 4); and the discussion of reading strategies under chapter 7’s “Software, Websites, and Smartphone Apps” (which is better suited for chapter 6). Yet another weakness is the omission of using Hebrew Bible devotionals as a strategy in its own right. Granted, Howell may not have been aware of Hélène Dallaire’s recent 200 Devotionals from the Hebrew Bible (Resource, 2020), but he certainly could have mentioned Baker and Heath’s More Light on the Path (Baker, 1998) and Eng and Fields’s Devotions on the Hebrew Bible (Zondervan, 2015). Other potential points of improvement include making a stronger case for learning Aramaic and substantiating pedagogical strategies in more recent psychological and neuroscientific research.
Criticisms notwithstanding, though, Hebrew for Life is a significant contribution (alongside its Greek counterpart) to a perennial concern in theological education. As with Peter J. Gentry’s blurb on the back of the book, I can heartily recommend it to anyone seeking to appreciate the biblical languages as a lifelong discipline—though especially, I would note, first- and second-year Hebrew students.
Brandon C. Benziger, MDiv, ThM