Review: A Basic Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (by Jo Ann Hackett)

Intro to BH

I am very grateful to Allan Emery at Hendrickson Publishers for the opportunity to review Jo Ann Hackett’s soon-to-be released textbook, A Basic Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (with CD). He sent me PDF copies of the galleys so that I could write this review. I am also indebted to Prof. Hackett for her gracious answers to my emails that will add clarity to my review.

I am delighted that Hendrickson granted permission for me to post PDFs of both the Table of Contents and the author’s very helpful introduction, “How To Use This Book.” While I will quote some of this material below, I recommend reading both files because they give both the structure of the book and an explanation for how the book is intended to be used and the thought behind some of the novel pedagogy. The Table of Contents is very detailed and provides an excellent overview of the course plan.

PDF Files to view/download

Basics about the Book
Since I read the book in PDF format, I cannot comment to the type of paper the publisher has chosen. I do hope that it is appropriate for taking notes and highlighting. The page size is 7” x 9¼” and the book is listed as a hardcover text. I always wish for more white-space (especially in the margins), but this is often a decision based on a balance of many factors (e.g., total page count, cost, etc.). The overall layout is well-organized and helped by clear tables, charts, and info-boxes. The English font seems a little larger than the Hebrew font and I worry about the readability of the Hebrew vowel points but I will have to reserve that judgment for when I see the hardcopy. The textbook is comprised of approximately 330 pages including 64 pages of (helpful) appendices and a final section with suggestions for “Further Reading.” Each paragraph is clearly numbered with chapter, section, and subsection numbers. This makes it easy to refer students to a specific piece of information.

The book is accompanied by a CD, which I only have a description of because it was still in production. The CD will include audio files (recorded by Prof. Hackett) of the vocabulary lists, the Hebrew-to-English exercises for al chapters, major paradigms, and a reading of Genesis 22:1-9. The text files include vocabulary lists, printable copies of the Hebrew-to-English exercises, all the appendices and paradigms, and a complete answer key for both the English-to-Hebrew and Hebrew-to-English exercises.

The format follows a traditional BH grammar-translation approach (with some interesting adjustments to presentation order and terminology), but I would expect that teachers looking to incorporate alternative methodologies could still use this textbook by supplementing it with various resources and classroom presentation material. The textbook is divided into 30 lessons. Hackett intends the book to be used for a one-semester “introduction to the basics” course. This would be an ambitious pace for many classes to cover in one semester. However, the initial chapters ease the student into the study of the language with appropriate simplicity and gradually become more challenging. When I first looked at the initial chapters, I thought that the amount of practice was not enough, but it is easy to forget how overwhelming those first few classes can be for a new student. A good teacher could easily supplement this work if needed.

Pedagogical Choices of the Author
I am often asked “What do you think is the best Biblical Hebrew textbook?” This is a loaded question! I have said in other places (here) that there is no one “best” textbook. Rather, teachers must consider their students, the type of class, the goals for the class, and their own teaching style and skills in selecting a textbook.

Prof. Hackett writes an introduction to her book that gives a window into her approach and pedagogical preferences. This is one of the most helpful ways to see if you would benefit from choosing this book for your own class (or as a reference for yourself). Please take the time to read her own words. I merely list a few of the items that are typical “litmus test” criteria when judging textbooks:

  • verbs in the vocabularies are presented in 3ms suffix conjugation
  • verbal paradigms are listed in the order first-person, second-person, then third-person (to correspond with how the pronominal suffixes are learned)
  • strong verb (in all its stems and forms) is presented first, then the weak verbs
  • verb terminology: “prefix conjugation” (instead of “imperfect”), “suffix conjugation” (instead of “perfect”), və-qatal, and her novel addition “consecutive preterite” (see quote below explaining)
  • order of verb presentation: prefix conjugation, volitives, consecutive preterite, suffix conjugation, və-qatal forms, infinitives, participles
  • Masoretic accent marks (טְאָמִים ) of the HB are used to discover syntax

Prof. Hackett describes her thoughts on the verbal system terminology:

I have also deliberately not used the rubrics “perfect,” “imperfect,” or “converted,” because they carry with them either complete misinformation (“converted”) or old-fashioned methods of dealing with the Biblical Hebrew verbal system (“perfect” and “imperfect”). Luckily, the merely descriptive terms “prefix conjugation” and “suffix conjugation” are available (and were in fact the terms we used in the first Hebrew classes I took as a student). I have also been happy to see the term və-qatal applied to the form that is וְ plus suffix conjugation (often called “converted perfect”), and I have used it here.

The boldest innovation of this textbook is described by the author:

Several years ago, John Huehnergard and I together came up with the term “consecutive preterite” for the verb form that is usually called the “converted imperfect.” I hesitated to use a new name in this beginning textbook for such a common form, but our rubric fits so perfectly that I decided to introduce it here. It is the only time I have used a term that is otherwise not a part of the scholarly literature (p XX).

This may not be something a teacher would be willing to incorporate (i.e., a term that is not widely used by the community). However, I do see the benefit and since the textbook clearly includes references to alternate terminology, I think it is a helpful step.

My Comments about Specific Content
I appreciate that Hackett begins the book with a chapter putting the language in some linguistic, historical, and scribal context. This background information will help the student to place Biblical Hebrew into a larger picture of language and history.

The initial chapters that introduce the consonants and vowels (along with illustrations for writing them in Appendix A) are phenomenal. Most textbooks or courses expect the student to teach this to themselves from looking at a typeset list of characters. These initial lessons take the mystery out of a new writing system and ease a student into recognition and pronunciation. However, I was a little surprised by the author’s choices for referring to some of the vowel names. For example, she does not differentiate the long “a” and short “o,” calling them both qamets. While they share the same orthographic form, they are pronounced differently and I prefer to use qamets hatuf for the latter. She also refers to the irreducibly long vowel ִי as hireq-gadol, instead of hireq-yod (although she does use tsere-yod to refer to ֵי ). This is of minor concern, and I only point it out.

The author always footnotes or otherwise draws attention to forms that are attested, but differ from what might be expected. She also anticipates potential student confusion and includes additional information to clarify what might seem like conflicting information or rules.

There are a variety of types of questions in the exercises. Here is an example of a particularly interesting way to ask a question (from Ch. 6 Ex. B):

We saw above that מָלַ֫כְתִּי comes from the root מלך and means ‘I ruled’. Given the root שׁמר ‘to observe, guard, watch’, how would you write and pronounce ‘I observed’? We also saw above that תִּמְלֹךְ means ‘she will rule’. How would you write and pronounce ‘she will observe’?

Vocabulary words are presented (at the end of each chapter) by word class (e.g., verb, noun, pronoun, adjective) and often have more than just a short gloss. The plural and construct forms are listed right in the vocabulary list (instead of students having to flip back to an appendix to find this information). I think this helps to give the student a better semantic understanding for each vocabulary item and minimizes learning an incorrect semantic domain. For example, some textbooks only give a gloss of “light” for the word אוֹר but without some kind of word class indication, a student may randomly connote “the act of striking a match,” “the weight of an object,” or “an object that gives off illumination” with this word. Whenever more information is given, it is more likely a student will have a better understanding of the vocabulary.

I asked Prof. Hackett how she chose the words to include in the vocabulary for this textbook. She told me that she took all the words that occur 100 times and more and made large charts that showed when she had introduced the word, how many times she had used it and in which chapters. Her goal was to use each word once in every 4 or 5 lessons. As the textbook progresses, this becomes more difficult to do. I like this deliberate planning to highlight a vocabulary word to the student multiple times for reinforcement. Not all of the 100+ frequency vocabulary is included, the remaining would be included in the second book (see below). And, of course, there are some words like סוּס that are simply too perfect not to use, even though they don’t occur often.

I very much like her inclusion of the Masoretic accents (טְאָמִים) as a pedagogical tool for identifying syntax (I pointed out a resource for doing this very thing in a previous post). She acknowledges that some of the presentation is (of necessity) not according to strict “biblical rules” and may make those who know biblical accentuation well “cringe.” However, I agree that, for the level of the students, the benefit definitely warrants this creativity.

A second book is in preparation. It will consist of graded readings of biblical passages, with glosses where necessary, additional vocabulary, and references to this book when something basic might need to be reviewed.

Bottom Line: My Final Thoughts
I admire the clarity that Prof. Hackett uses in her writing. I can visualize a student reading the book and feeling like the teacher was right beside them explaining something. She clearly has taught many students and found the very best ways to explain complicated or confusing material. She is able to anticipate a student’s misconceptions and set them aright before they are ingrained. Her style of writing blends the necessary attention to scholarly detail with accessibility. Information in a textbook cannot become student knowledge without good communication; I believe Prof. Hackett definitely succeeds in this aspect. This type of writing is one of the textbook’s great strengths, and also makes the book a viable candidate for the self-learner.

The pace of this book would be very ambitious for most classes to complete in one term. I think it might be more likely that a teacher would spread at least part of this book into a second semester.

I like Appendix D Clues for Finding the Root of Weak Consecutive Preterites. There is a chart and a set of 14 “flow-chart” type questions that can help in the identification of these tricky roots.

Unfortunately, but like most BH textbooks, there are no illustrations. The appendices do make use of some color ink to highlight diagnostics for verb stems. I think that publishers should take up the challenge to revolutionize not only content, but also presentation of material. This goes hand in hand with adopting the new technologies available. I hope that with the development of eBooks and eReaders, textbooks will begin to expand beyond putting words in portable digital form and begin to link to additional resources online and incorporate various types of interactive pedagogical tools.

I have used, read, or reviewed many BH textbooks, but I have to say that this is one that I might actually choose to use in my own classroom. I look forward to seeing the finished product (including the audio files on the CD).

3 thoughts on “Review: A Basic Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (by Jo Ann Hackett)

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