Let’s assume at this point that you’re someone who took a year of Hebrew in school, but it was a long time ago. Or, you have worked through a grammar on your own. You’ve learned some basics, but you’re not quite ready to dive into Isaiah. What to do?
The most important thing is to get you reading actual passages, if sometimes simplified, as quickly as possible. Unlike Greek, which has an extensive corpus beyond the New Testament, people study Hebrew so they can read the Hebrew Bible. Though artificial sentences may have a didactic use, the use of actual snippets and passages from the HB provides some measure of satisfaction in reading and wrestling with the text.
There are several options to help you get reading, whether you’re still working through a grammar or just figuring out how to dive back in.
1) Graded Reader of Biblical Hebrew– This contains passages in Hebrew, though simplified in presentation. That is, the text has the vowel markings but not accent or cantillation marks. Each passage has rarer vocabulary explained in a footnote and minor explanatory commentary on syntax and parsing. Download an excerpt here, with the table of contents and part of Genesis 1.
2) Similar to the above is Biblical Hebrew Step-by-Step, Vol. II: Readings from the Book of Genesis. (The first volume of this is also recommended as a teach-yourself grammar of Hebrew. These two plus the answer keys are available electronically from Logos.) The author has a reputation for making Hebrew accessible to the layperson. Moreover, as all the passages come from Genesis, they should be familiar and easier to “get.”
3) Readings in Biblical Hebrew, an Intermediate Textbook.- This excellent book models how to read, analyze, and think about the Hebrew text. It’s what someone who knows Hebrew well should be doing automatically and almost unconsciously when reading in Hebrew. Each of the five chapters focuses on a different genre, beginning with the easiest: Historical Books, Legal Literature, Prophetic Literature, Wisdom Literature, Psalms. (See the Table of Contents.) Each chapter goes through a Hebrew passage verse-by-verse, asking thought questions about grammar, syntax and meaning, pointing out oddities and providing explanations. Most commendably, the authors provide many references to further readings and clarifications, whether in journal articles or standard reference materials (discussed in the next post). The Hebrew text is not included in toto, so you’ll need your own copy of the Hebrew, but particular phrases in question are reprinted. *Highly* recommended, but perhaps too much information for the complete H3brew n00b, as it assumes a first-year Hebrew foundation. Chapter 1 is available as a free download.
4) Eventually, you’ll want to purchase the Reader’s Hebrew Bible which I’ve talked about several times before. (Lengthy preview here.) It’s the whole nine yards, with proper names in grey, words occurring less than 100x glossed at the bottom, and occasional parsing of verbs, but no other commentary of any kind. I do most of my Hebrew reading out of this now, and take it to Church and Institute.
If you feel rusty and need review, get a different grammar than you originally went through and work through it while you read. Page Kelley is a popular one, as is Seow, or Menachem Monsoor’s in #2 above.
If, however, you have a Hebrew grammar and feel totally lost by casual references to things like particles and participles, check out Gary Long’s Grammatical Concepts 101 for Biblical Hebrew. It’s true that if you know English grammar well, you’ll have less difficulty learning another language. What many grammars assume you know and don’t bother to explain, Long provides explicit definitions and clear English examples. (Table of Contents. Excerpt.)
I anticipate two more posts about learning Hebrew. In one, we’ll talk about learning vocabulary and reference materials. In the last (which might have made more sense to post first), we’ll discuss some general strategies for learning Hebrew and why it’s worth the bother :)