A confession. During my undergraduate studies, I only took Hebrew for one semester. The professor ruled. I enjoyed the language and did well on assignments and tests. But I found it very difficult to learn Greek and Hebrew at the same time. I did not need The credits from Hebrew at the end, so I decided to go to the fourth semester of Greek (translate Ephesians!) Instead of another semester of Hebrew. “I can always come back to it,” I said to myself.
The school of divinity came and went. The first years of service passed. I had a few beginnings with Pratico and Van Pelt’s classic introductory grammar, but lost steam after a few weeks.
I bought Lexham Press’s last fall Learn Biblical Hebrew Grammar that takes a different approach to language learning. I paired this grammar with that of Michael Carasik “Great Course” in Hebrew, which should be two semesters of an introductory college-level course. (Interested in the course? You can get it for a fraction of the cost from Amazon Prime.) These two resources revitalized my willingness to learn. More importantly, I’ve found that they are kinds of resources i need to keep going. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to language learning.
Just this week I picked up the new book by Howell, Merkle, and Plummer at Baker Academic to see if it could provide any additional help. Hebrew for life is less of a grammatical or linguistic tool than a motivational tool. Like a self-help guide for students and ministers struggling to build muscles in language. And that’s exactly what I need.
Its aim is to emphasize the importance of learning the biblical languages in the first chapter. The main intention of the authors is to encourage pastors and students to take Hebrew seriously enough to critically evaluate translations and various interpretive possibilities in order to know God more deeply. I found some of their rhetoric in this section unhelpful. They did much of learning Hebrew as essential to correct interpretation, but did not mention that the authors of the New Testament read and interpret the Septuagint almost uniformly. In some places, learning the Hebrew language appeared to be the necessary tool to withstand the “papacy of science” or the shameful theological decision-making of committees. I mean, Augustine couldn’t speak Hebrew and he defended the true faith in order against heresy. I’m sure the authors’ arguments will convince other readers. For me, learning Hebrew is a slow, careful reading discipline that raises different questions and evokes different lines of thought than reading a translation. (Is it so wrong that I want to sing the Psalms in Hebrew?)
The following chapters suggest ways of living and studying for maintaining 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 it is. And did you know that in fifteen minutes someone could remember 107 first and last names from random faces? When I started preaching, there were that many people in our church on average, and it took me weeks to learn all of their names (and many with too little confidence to put their names in their faces). The authors have suggested a number of techniques and habits to help remind you that you must have a motivational goal to keep doing the work.
The rest of the book includes reading plans for breaks, reading strategies, a look at Aramaic, a guide for those reviving their Hebrew skills, and a number of additional resources. These tools each have a specific type of person in mind. The Break Reading Schedule is useful for students with summer and winter breaks. On the other hand, the reading strategy is a gift to someone like me who needs something structured that can be incorporated into my day.
In addition, each chapter ends with a devotional reminder of the ultimate goal of learning Hebrew: deeper love for God. They also serve as small victories because they remind the Hebrew student that, in fact, they have learned enough to be devoted to the language, even as it utters the Hebrew words.
This book is a helpful companion, especially for pastors like me who not only need grammars and vocabulary, but also remind them that they can. And that it doesn’t have to be painful. The helpful tips, resources and encouragement motivated me to keep working.
But how many more days before this becomes a habit?
Thank you to Baker Academic for sending this book for review.
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