How to Teach Yourself Hebrew from Scratch: Part I

Inspired by a post at BCC and in lieu of a lengthy comment, here are my suggestions for teaching yourself Hebrew.

First, unlike Greek, the Hebrew alphabet is unfamiliar. And it’s written right to left. And the alphabet, as such, has no vowels. BUT, you can learn it in Church and pass yourself as “spiritual” at the same time. If you open your LDS KJV to Psalm 119, you’ll find all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in order. (Psalm 119 is an acrostic, a literary device in which the first word of every line, sentence, or paragraph begins with the next letter of the alphabet or some other message, like someone’s name.) This is how I started learning Hebrew on my mission. I had no idea why it was there, but I was glad that it was.

I suggest you spend some time on Hebrew4Christians, a very useful website. Spend some time learning the complete writing system of consonants and vowels. There are some novelties to this for English speakers. For example, some Hebrew letters have two forms (a special form for the end of the word), and the vowels are written above, below, and inside the other letters. The website has all kinds of useful stuff, like alphabet flashcards and so on.

I put together a downloadable sheet for my classes, called “Hebrew you Already Know.” It lists Hebrew words or names that many people already know on the basis of Bible reading, like Joshua and amen, but also includes some numbered paragraphs explaining why certain words are pronounced differently in Hebrew than we have come to know them in English. The numbers next to the words refer to a paragraph number.

If you’re feeling burned out on memorizing letters and such, take some time to read. Since the Book of Mormon reflects Hebrew grammar in some ways, some quirks of Hebrew can be easily internalized using familiar Book of Mormon passages.* See here, here, here, herehere and here for some proposed examples.

A good beginning tool (emphasis on the beginning) is Strong’s Concordance, available many places on-line, in print (make sure to get one with the Hebrew and Greek material in the back), and in the Church’s newer edition Scripture cd-rom. (The topical guide in the quad is a really weak version of this.) Strong’s Concordance allows you to find the “original” Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic word behind any word in the King James, and get a brief definition. Each word receives a number. So, for example, you want to find the word behind “sin” in Genesis 50:17. You look up “sin,” go through the references until you find Gen. 50:17 “and their sin;” You find listed #2403. So you go to the back of Strong’s to the Hebrew section, and start until you hit #2403, which says “chatta’ah {khat-taw-aw’} or ; chatta’th {khat-tawth’}
Meaning:  1) sin, sinful 2) sin, sin offering 2a) sin 2b) condition of sin, guilt of sin 2c) punishment for sin 2d) sin-offering 2e) purification from sins of ceremonial uncleanness.” Nota bene: the definitions given in Strong’s are both outdated and so short as to be misleading, but can provide a general idea.

With one of the electronic editions of Strong’s, you can find every place the same Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek word is used, instead of the same English word. Doing this based on English (as happens in Church) can be quite misleading!

Fortunately for the beginner, more recent works are keyed to Strong’s numbers. Find the number from the concordance, and then look up that number (and hence the word) in something else, like the (semi-scholarly, in-depth) Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT), (older, shallow, popular Evangelical) Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary, (in-depth, EV-oriented, 5-volumes) New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (NIDOTTE), or (scholarly, 3-volumes, theologically neutral) Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (TLOT).  Strong’s and Vine’s are weak sauce, but cheap and easily accessible. If you see someone basing Hebrew interpretation on those, rest assured they don’t really know what they’re talking about, Hebrew-wise. TWOT is useful, but the NIDOTTE and TLOT are quite good. Actual Phd’s may use those, but for scholars, the two primary dictionaries (not keyed to Strong’s) are Brown-Driver-Brigg‘s (known as BDB, tutorial here) and the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (known as HALOT). Holladay’s Concise Lexicon is HALOT minus lots of the scholarly details. It’s cheap and recommended, but not keyed to Strong’s, so you need to know how to look up Hebrew words without it. Nearly all of these are available electronically from Bibleworks, Logos, or Accordance.

There are thousands of grammars available out there. Hebrew4Christians has some grammatical material (units 3-9), but eventually you’ll want a full-fledged grammar.  Of those I have used, I think I’d recommend Basics of Biblical Hebrew for self-study, in spite of its flaws.  I know of one that is probably harder to follow than Basics of Biblical Hebrew, but it has the great advantage of being free. Download here. There’s also the Hebrew Tutor cd-rom, which does some grammar, and eventually helps you read the whole book of Ruth. It’s useful, but again, you’ll probably want a real grammar eventually.

Lastly, pick up a copy of Jim Faulconer’s Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions. It has a good chapter on using Strong’s, and doing light research in the languages without any formal training.

Part II

*This is a rabbit-trail, but I feel it needs some clarification. As Nephi was a native Judean Hebrew speaker, there’s a long history of trying to identify Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon and point to such as evidence of its antiquity. Says Royal Skousen, linguistics prof at BYU,

the original text of the Book of Mormon apparently contains expressions that are not characteristic of English at any place or time, in particular neither Joseph Smith’s upstate New York dialect nor the King James Bible. Subsequent editing of the text into standard English has systematically removed these non-English expressions from the text­-the very expressions that provide the strongest support for the hypothesis that the Book of Mormon is a literal translation of a non-English text. Further, the potential Hebraisms found in the original text are consistent with the belief, but do not prove, that the source text is related to the language of the Hebrew Bible.

Source

The evidentiary value of a given Hebraism varies depending on how the following two questions are answered.

1) Is it really a Hebraism?

2) Is it present in JS environment or the KJV?

If the answer to the first question is yes and the second no, the evidentiary value is stronger.)

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “How to Teach Yourself Hebrew from Scratch: Part I

  1. Julie M. Smith

    Could y’all please get rid of those snowflakes? They make me crazy.

    Anyway: I have the Hebrew tutor software. It’s nice, but about 20 years old. It is so amazingly primitive that I had forgotten that computer programs used to look like that. Someone really ought to update it.

  2. Chris H.

    We take attacks on flakes personal around here.

  3. thanks for the tips!

    and i’ll just say, unlike julie, i like all the flakes at fpr.

  4. Kevin Barney

    Thanks for this, Nitsav. I have an edition of BDB (I think 1979 from Hendricksen) that is keyed to Strong’s numbers. I never use the Strong’s numbers, but that might be a useful tool for someone who is working from English.

  5. Hey, I like the snowflakes. And thanks for the suggestions. I may yet tackle Hebrew. ..bruce..

  6. mmiles

    I also like the snowflakes.

  7. MadChemist

    Thanks for the suggestions Nitsav.
    FTR, The flakes freaked me out for the first bit.
    I’ve warmed up to them now.

  8. Pingback: How to Teach Yourself Hebrew from Scratch: Part III « Faith-Promoting Rumor