About Learning Biblical Hebrew
Audience & Scope
The Learning Biblical Hebrew (LBH) grammar was written for anyone who wants to teach or learn biblical Hebrew. In our program, we teach college and seminary students. LBH is also being used in high school classrooms by some of our former students. We have students who pursue PhDs and students who have learning disabilities (and some who fit into both categories). In extreme cases, we have to adjust the plans outlined in the syllabus for an individual, but we have no problem doing that when we remember the larger goal: to get the student to read. This website specifically addresses college- and graduate-level courses and includes discussion for self-learners.
Scope of the Grammar
Learning Biblical Hebrew covers all the basic elements of Hebrew grammar, including weak verbs. The grammar follows the traditional format of presenting strong verbs before weak verbs. Yet, because of how the workbook is designed, students are intuitively translating weak verbs alongside strong verbs from the beginning of the workbook. The grammatical features presented in each chapter are explained according to the broader context of the behavior and patterns of the Hebrew language, though the student is only responsible to learn the core concepts of each chapter.
Scope of the Workbook
All homework assignments are included in the Learning Biblical Hebrew Workbook. Assignments include vocabulary memorization, grammar exercises, translations, and oral readings. The workbook also includes all the answer keys for the grammar exercises and translations to texts in the readers. We require students to correct their own work before they submit it (see the instructions on pages 79–80 of the workbook). These assignments will be daunting unless you help your students understand the objective of each one.
- Vocabulary memorization creates short-term memory.
- Grammar exercises practice the application of newly learned material.
- Translations are reading practice and exposure to concepts in context.
- Oral readings provide at least one passage that feels familiar when read in Hebrew.
Forty years ago, my interest in the book of Isaiah led me to pick up a Hebrew grammar and teach myself to read. Initially, I memorized every strong and weak verb paradigm. Then, not finding the translation exercises in Hebrew grammars to be particularly helpful, I skipped ahead to reading the Hebrew Bible. My fascination with Hebrew soon led me to the University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate program and an encounter that forever shaped my approach to teaching Hebrew. ... Read more
A master’s thesis discussing the historical development of Hebrew vowels demonstrated how the seemingly diverse paradigms I had learned by rote made sense as part of a coherent system that I could predict and understand. Further, I realized that these concepts could be communicated to beginning students in a way that was appropriate to their skill level, which would reduce rote memorization, produce a familiarity and understanding that promoted long-term use, and allow students to begin reading from their opening encounter with Hebrew. This approach worked well with my students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and formed the foundation of our program at Multnomah University where I have taught since 1996.
These values were reinforced when my friend and coauthor, Rebekah Josberger, arrived at Multnomah University. Prompted by students who begged us to put their experience in the classroom into print, we embarked on the production of this Hebrew grammar. We hope that the integration of our own unique teaching styles and (even more unique) personalities on some level captures the diversity of the self-learners and instructors who use this grammar.
Forty years ago, or so the story goes (I was too young to remember), I asked my parents if I could learn to read the “real” Bible rather than the children’s Bible they were starting me off with. They said no because it was in another language that no one reads anymore. Apparently, I do not like the word “no.” The answer was the same during my undergraduate program because Hebrew was not yet offered, and so, like Karl, I attempted guided self-learning. ... Read more
Unlike Karl, I did not advance quickly. Nor did I skip ahead to read the Hebrew text or uncover the characteristics of the language that helped it all make sense. Instead, I spent the next twenty years taking every Hebrew class I could while trying to figure out how I could get such good grades in class when I felt so insecure in my Hebrew skills.
My teachers were not the problem. I studied under the best of the best—names the Hebrew community would readily recognize. Having learned the paradigms, the vocabulary, and the primary recognizable features, I still had difficulty sight-reading or parsing if the forms in the text varied from the forms I had memorized. During my PhD program, I retook first-year Hebrew using a different approach and finally began to understand the underlying features of syllables and vowel patterns well enough to create even weak verbs with relative ease. However, the classroom environment did not provide a space where I could ask questions to integrate my new understanding with my broader Hebrew knowledge. Nor did we translate. These different approaches to teaching Hebrew left me convinced that students needed both an understanding of how the language worked and lots of practice translating biblical text. My next task was to figure out how to incorporate these elements into the classroom so that my students could experience what I considered the best of both worlds.
When I was hired to teach Hebrew, my first thought was, “Oh no! I am going to have to teach alongside the current Hebrew professor—someone who thinks he has it all figured out.” Yet, after requiring three different Hebrew grammars (in one semester!) and spending hours at my desk trying to patch together teaching methodologies into some sort of coherent lesson plan, I was desperate enough to reach out to my fellow Hebrew professor, Karl Kutz. In a nutshell, here is what I found. Yes, he did have it all figured out. No, he was not intent on making me conform to his way of teaching. Yes, he was willing to share everything he knew at whatever pace I was able to learn. I found that we had shared philosophies and goals and surprisingly similar passions for how to teach Hebrew. I also found a safe place where I could stop worrying that someone would find out how little I knew and see me as the fraud I sometimes felt I was. Instead, I was viewed as a partner in crime, a fellow learner, and given the safety and encouragement to ask questions (even obvious ones) as I wrestled with the material to form my own “relationship” with Hebrew. Over the ten or so years I have been teaching at Multnomah, I have learned more about Hebrew than I could have ever dreamed possible. More importantly, I have learned to measure progress differently. I am secure in what I know and in what I do not yet know, mainly because I know how to learn more. And one of my greatest joys in life is that I can pass that gift on to each one of my students.
Core Values & Philosophy
Freedom to Fail
Students learn best in an environment that allows room for engagement and discovery. One of the primary tasks of an instructor is to foster an environment where students have the freedom to fail. Typical perceptions of classroom performance and success often lead to hesitancy to speak up or ask questions. In our classes, students are given credit for diligence and self-correcting their work rather than for getting everything correct. Since people learn to read at different rates, students are also assessed on the basis of time spent rather than volume completed. In short, student success is enhanced by a freedom to engage and an opportunity to learn from one's mistakes. Read more
Stated another way, students need to be given a new standard to measure success. Too often language learning is inhibited by a fear of appearing ignorant. Instructors have the opportunity to create a climate where success is measured by the student’s process of learning rather than on the student’s ability to produce the final answer. Quizzes and exams are necessary and provide accountability, but homework assignments and classroom experiences should invite participation, encourage trial and error, and provide the opportunity to learn. Some of the methods we have employed to intentionally cultivate this environment include:
Encouraging community learning
Every class consists of an oral component; everyone reads, everyone tries, and everyone occasionally fails. We also laugh, a lot, because everyone can relate to failing. A solid community in the classroom can provide the security needed for a student to risk failure in order to learn. Outside of class, students are encouraged to work on assignments in groups where they can benefit from one another’s strengths and where they can both celebrate and commiserate, depending on the day’s task.
Modeling the freedom to engage ideas and to make mistakes
As instructors we make mistakes. We think through things aloud with our students. We learn as we teach.
Adjusting grading criteria
Rather than viewing assignments or translations based on quantity completed or accuracy on the first attempt at the exercise, student success is based on devoting a set amount of weekly time to a task and self-correcting that assignment. (This is explained in more detail in the Learning Biblical Hebrew Workbook, pages viii–x and 79–80.) Requiring students to consult the answer key allows immediate feedback and provides answers to questions they may not be able to express. Requiring the work to be self-corrected without penalty for initial errors removes the temptation to shortcut the learning process just to look smart.
Making space to think aloud
Although we require students to come prepared with written translations, in class we usually have them read and translate the passage directly from the Hebrew rather than read the translation they prepared in advance.
Retention increases when students understand why things happen. Learning Biblical Hebrew attempts to explain the predictable (though sometimes quirky) tendencies of the Hebrew language. Students learn to recognize forms based on their continuity with the rest of the language. Beginning students benefit greatly from concepts that are typically thought of as advanced if introduced in a manner appropriate to their skill level and reinforced throughout the learning process. These concepts provide a framework of understanding that reduces the need for rote memorization, aids retention, and frees students to focus on the text and its meaning. Read more
Traditional approaches tend to rely heavily on rote memorization of paradigms. Besides being intimidating and difficult to retain over long periods of time, the memorization of multiple paradigms often suggests to students that the forms they will encounter in the biblical text will align with the exact forms they have learned. Because most of what occurs in the text involves subtle variation from the memorized paradigms, most students never move beyond the stage of relying on helps to read. This grammar focuses instead on introducing the students to patterns and tendencies of the language as well as the effects of its historical development. Beginning students should not expect to master everything in the first year. While carefully defining the few elements that must be memorized, instructors should guide students to understand the relationship between Hebrew sounds and syllables that can help them predict or explain subtle variations from the expected form. (Note: Many of the concepts may be new to the instructor as well. As an instructor who has taught through this material for ten years, I [Becky] still have aha moments where a concept becomes clearer or I see a link in the behavior of the language that I had not grasped before. Not only is this okay, but it helps students to see me engage in the learning process.)
Extensive Exposure to Biblical Text
Students learn Hebrew so they can read the biblical text, and they learn best when they can read continuous Hebrew text as early as possible. The interplay between learned grammar, narrative context, and repeated exposure to terms and forms reinforces learning. Further, a carefully crafted narrative can promote a sense of familiarity with grammar before the student formally studies it, and it can reinforce elements they are currently learning. We find that the students who continue to use Hebrew long after they leave the classroom are those who read a lot of Hebrew text. Read more
One of the things we are most proud of is the graded reader in the Learning Biblical Hebrew Workbook. Students begin translating lengthy selections from a modified version of the Joseph narrative by the third week of class. Each chapter of this graded reader incorporates newly learned material and only the vocabulary that the students have learned. By the end of the first semester, the story of Joseph is taken straight from the biblical text. The books of Ruth and Jonah (or just Ruth in courses with limited class hours) are translated during the second half of the grammar. The texts for these translation assignments are taken straight from the biblical text and have been glossed to provide vocabulary and grammatical features not yet covered. The text of Esther is also provided as additional reading material. (For fuller introductions, see the Learning Biblical Hebrew Workbook, pages 79–80 and 195–96.)
A focus on written texts should never diminish the importance of oral reading. Reading aloud trains the mind to move beyond the mechanics of pronunciation and recognition of forms so readers can focus on comprehension as they read. It also engages more of the senses in the learning experience and helps those who tend toward auditory learning. A hidden advantage of the practice of reading every text aloud is that it prompts classroom engagement even from the quietest students. Read more
This approach is a bit different than conversational models. In our program, we focus the majority of the class time on reading the biblical text and allow the oral component to come through that way. We have made the Hebrew text of the Joseph reader, as well as Ruth, Jonah, and Esther available in audio format so that students can listen as they read. We have found that the traditional approach with the addition of oral reading best prepares our students to translate and engage the texts we study after three semesters in our program (texts like Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, and Job). Thus, we maintain an emphasis on oral reading in the classroom.
We genuinely desire that both students and instructors have access to realistic descriptions and expectations about learning Hebrew using the LBH grammar. Each semester we ask students to address a targeted question about their Hebrew experience. We have permission to share some of those with you. These comments were not written with this website in mind and were culled to represent ways the class both exceeded and fell short of student expectations. We invite you to skim as many of these student testimonials as you wish in order to get a feel for the outcomes typical in our program.