Note: This review also appears in the Reviews of Biblical and Early Christian Studies (http://rbecs.org). Check out this site for lots of book reviews by PhD candidates and early career scholars in the areas of biblical studies and patristics.
Duane A. Garrett and Jason S. DeRouchie. A Modern Grammar for Biblical Hebrew. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-8054-4962-4.
I’d like to thank B&H Academic for providing me a review copy.
A Modern Grammar for Biblical Hebrew is a deductive introductory Hebrew grammar by Duane Garrett and Jason DeRouchie. It is divided into 41 chapters and 8 appendices. Accompanying the book is a CD containing a variety of teaching aids including audio files to assist in the learning of the pronunciation of the alphabet and vocabulary. There is also a workbook available to accompany the grammar, and Garrett has put together a blog to accompany the grammar, as well (see http://hebrewgrammar.sbts.edu/). The grammar is designed to be usable in several different ways for a two semester Biblical Hebrew course. What this means is that there are built into the organization of the material four potential stopping points, depending on the goals of a given Hebrew course. If a course designer chooses one of the less intensive stopping points (at chapters 26, 30, or 35), a PDF included on the CD containing vocabulary catch-up lists will help students be fully prepared for third semester Hebrew courses.
Perhaps the most consistent characteristic of A Modern Grammar is that it is ambitious. Lessons are presented in clear language, but the authors do not shy away from technical terms, and so much information is given on every page that it can feel a little overwhelming. There are features that help to abate the visual intensity. Tables are used liberally, and there is a recurring “Blackboard” feature (so named because of its over-sized white text against a black background) that is used to highlight and illustrate issues relating to reading or morphology. But the fact remains, nevertheless, that this is not a grammar that tries to condense or simplify the learning of Biblical Hebrew by leaving out technical terms and concepts. In its ambition and its visual intensity this grammar reminds me of Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek.
A Modern Grammar for Biblical Hebrew is not, however, like Mounce’s Greek grammar in the artificiality of the latter’s thoroughly deductive content organization. After orthography and phonology, the next two chapters introduce the basics of both nouns and verbs – a feature that appeals to me. Students need, as early as possible, to be able to put their knowledge into practice in the reading and production of sentences, and Garrett and DeRouchie’s grammar facilitates just this. From chapter five to chapter twenty six, the content weaves back and forth in a way that makes it possible for the student to read and produce sentences of gradually increasing complexity.
In most ways, the grammar’s content is traditional. However, the “modern” aspect of this grammar is where it really justifies its existence. Of particular importance are the chapters toward the end of the book dedicated to text-level syntax. Most introductory grammars, even recent ones, tend to limit their discussion of Hebrew syntax to the sentence level, but some of the most important developments in Biblical Hebrew grammar in the last several decades have been in the area of text-linguistics or discourse analysis, or the study of how contexts larger than individual sentences impact upon the meanings of words and forms in ways that cannot be accounted for at the sentence level. Most obviously for Biblical Hebrew, text-level syntax has proven indispensable for the understanding of the meanings of the various verb forms and their relationships to one another. Like many areas of modern linguistics, discourse analysis can pose significant difficulties for beginning Hebrew students who often have little to no linguistics experience outside of their Hebrew studies. Fortunately, the way Garrett and DeRouchie go about introducing students to text-level syntax is very accessible and tied to concrete examples from texts in the Hebrew Bible. Of course, to take advantage of this introduction to text-level syntax, you have to use the grammar in the most ambitious of its intended paces, meaning you have to cover all 41 chapters.
For the English speaker, Biblical Hebrew has a steep initial learning curve (compared to, for example, Greek or Latin). There essentially are two ways a grammar can go about dealing with this learning curve: you can either ease into it by spending a relatively long time on orthography and phonology (how to read the alphabet and vowel signs), or you can just jump in and hope the student manages to solidify his or her grasp of the reading and pronunciation mechanics of Biblical Hebrew while learning the first elementary grammar lessons (usually noun conjugation, pronouns, or basic prepositions). Another recent Hebrew grammar, A Basic Introduction to Biblical Hebrew by Jo Ann Hackett (Hendrickson, 2010), chooses the former path, spending the first seven lessons on the alphabet, the vowel signs, and other issues related to simply reading a Hebrew text. Depending on how you use Hackett’s grammar, this means either four weeks of a one-semester course or seven weeks of a two-semester course – either way, that is quite a large percentage of the course. Garrett and DeRouchie choose essentially the opposite strategy. At the most leisurely pace (that is, covering only 26 chapters in two semesters), only four weeks are allotted to learning orthography and phonology. If you choose to cover all 41 chapters in two semesters, you are probably looking at something more like two-and-a-half to three weeks. This is ambitious. My own feeling, however, is that it ought to be feasible at the seminary level, but different teachers, different institutions, and different courses have different needs and different expectations of their students.
In summary, A Modern Grammar for Biblical Hebrew is an up-to-date introductory grammar that is packed with information. While the density of its content and of its presentation could be a little overwhelming, the organization of its content, while essentially traditional and deductive, introduces the student to the reading and producing of sentences at an early stage. I would not recommend this for a community Hebrew course given at a church or synagogue because of all of the technical terminology which is not strictly necessary for a first year Hebrew course. But for seminary and university students this level of technical terminology is entirely appropriate, and its discussion of text-level syntax in the later chapters makes it very desirable.