[K:NWTS 21/1 (May 2006) 55-57]

Book Review

Jeff A. Benner, Learn to Read Biblical Hebrew: A Guide to Learning the Hebrew Alphabet, Vocabulary and Sentence Structure of the Hebrew Bible. College Station, TX: Virtualbookworm Publishing, 2004. 120 pp. Paper. ISBN: 1-58939-584-0. $12.95.

One of the biggest difficulties for students entering first year Hebrew is overcoming the alphabet barrier. Many beginning Hebrew grammars have students memorize the entire alphabet and then move on. Here is where this book possesses its greatest strength. Each chapter introduces students to two or three consonants and one or two vowels, taking eleven short chapters to teach the whole alphabet. Each chapter introduces vocabulary words and exercises only containing those letters introduced so far in the book. This allows students to gradually learn the alphabet and overcome the hurdle it poses without becoming overwhelmed.

It also contains a useful chart comparing letters that look alike (61). These letters sometimes confuse beginning students.

However, the book does not deliver on its title. While it provides short comments to help students find the root (sometimes helpful, cf. p. 49 on final he and initial nun), it provides no explanation for the nif`al, pi`el, pu`al, hitpa`el, or hif`il. The book is too incomplete to learn to read Biblical Hebrew. Instead, it would best serve as an introduction to the Hebrew Alphabet (or Alephbet, as the author prefers).

At the same time, Benner introduces some other elements that he believes will allow the reader to learn all 8,000 words in the Hebrew Bible by only memorizing 750 roots. To assist in this task (we assume), he provides a frequency list of words used more than twenty-five times. In two additional lists, he provides what he calls parent and child roots, and adopted roots.

There are two points to note about this—first, the pedagogical one. Most grammars are on more solid ground, having students memorize a limited amount of vocabulary and then practicing it in readings. Memorizing lists is usually less helpful. Second, while a reviewer with a greater knowledge of Hebrew etymology is needed to recognize the propriety of Benner's two-consonant parent roots, this clearly sets up a system (88) that he will develop in his proposed new Hebrew lexicon.

Here the assumption (already present in this introductory book) is that every Hebrew word has a concrete (as opposed to an abstract) meaning. In many cases, the concrete meaning of each three-consonant (child) Hebrew root derives from the concrete meaning of its two-consonant root parent. Thus, the parent root BL gives birth to BLH ("aged"; a "flowing away of youth") and BHL ("panic"; "a flowing of the insides," 88). Benner considers the more concrete meaning to be the real Hebrew meaning, while the first meaning comes closer to our Greek abstract mindset. Behind this dichotomy lies the ghost of Thorleif Boman's book Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek which Benner promotes on the website noted in his book.

While most Hebrew scholars may not accept Benner's conclusions at this point (and the fact that he is an engineer, turned self-trained Hebrew teacher may not help him), some fundamentalists will. And it may be that his pragmatic approach to the language will provide an underpinning for their pragmatic moralism.

Still, as an introduction to the Hebrew alphabet this book may be helpful for some. But even for that purpose, the book could use some rewriting. Sometimes it doesn't introduce all the vocabulary needed for a reading—it would be helpful if it did. Occasionally it mentions letters with their transliterated name, but fails to write them out in Hebrew. This can be confusing for the introductory student. There are also a few typos. An aleph is put for a zayin (29). Teh-hown (to use the author's transliteration) is written out twice in Hebrew script when quoting Genesis 1:2 (43). And "tw-letter" is put for "two-letter" (88).

Overall, the book may be useful for those needing to ease into the alphabet for the first time, but it needs to be followed by another first-year text. And if that other text suffices, this one may not be needed.