Book Reviews

Hebrew for the Rest of Us

Using Hebrew Tools without Mastering Biblical Hebrew

Lee M. Fields Grand Rapids 2008-11-25

The subtitle of this book, “Using Hebrew Tools without Mastering Biblical Hebrew” does not say “Mastering Biblical Hebrew by Using Hebrew Tools.” Learning the material in this book will enhance the exegetical skills of someone who already has training in understanding the Bible in English. It will aid in understanding claims made that use a little technical language about Hebrew. It will not enable students to assess and evaluate those points fully, but it will help students follow the discussion.

Fields regularly advises students on their limitations. For example when overviewing the Hebrew verbal stems, Fields says, “You are not qualified to determine the meaning of a word based on the general functions of the stems. Leave this to the experts” and “You can learn the meaning of a given verb in a given stem using lexicons and word books” (p. 158, italics his). That is, one can understand the entries in a Hebrew dictionary while not qualified to write them or spot where they have errors or biased assumptions. However, Hebrew for the Rest of Us is intended to bring the English Bible student up to the next level. It also is an excellent starting point for renewal for those who have had some Hebrew training that may have faded into the recesses of their memory. It may also motivate students to continue on in their study of Hebrew.

The structure of the book is motivated by Fields’s teaching setting in that its twenty-one chapters are arranged into six weeks. It is designed for half of a college course that also teaches students how to use Greek tools. In other settings the chapters may be easily spread out over more time. Although designed to equip students to understand technical terms, the book sounds sometimes colloquial, as if Fields is conversing with the reader, and is possessed with a wry sense of humor. The charts and layout are excellent.

Hebrew for the Rest of Us teaches how to read the Hebrew characters, explains the basic structure of Hebrew words, surveys the morphology and syntactic uses of Hebrew verbs and nouns, introduces word studies, and touches on clausal syntax in narratives and poetry. In the process Fields comments on the various terms used to describe these items, being clear that not all writers use the same terms (e.g., perfect conjugation, suffixed conjugation, or qatal conjugation). He omits, however, that advances in the study of Hebrew and other languages have led many to consider the Piel stem to be plurative and that the older terminology of “intensive” is in error. He gives specific instructions on how to use select tools, such as The Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004). Fields’s flowcharts would probably intimidate students engaged in self-study, and instructors may choose to modify them. But the charts provide one way to display the flow of phrases and clauses in the Hebrew text. Unless readers are trying to reinvigorate their now rusty Hebrew training, they are advised to find an instructor well trained in Hebrew. For the right setting, instructors should find this a nicely structured book helpful for their students. Ideally some readers of this book will go the next step and study to exegete the Hebrew Bible, while others will remain gratefully mindful of both benefits and limits.

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Brian L. Webster
Dr. Brian Webster serves at DTS as a Professor of Old Testament Studies. He received his BA from Cornerstone University and his Master of Philosophy and PhD from Hebrew Union College. His research interests are in the Hebrew verb system, poetry, and narrative. The second edition of his Hebrew Grammar, Reading Biblical Hebrew, is being translated into Chinese and Spanish. Dr. Webster is currently working on a commentary on Psalms and writing a study on Ruth called Under His Wings. He is married to his wife, Hope, and has four daughters. They are leaders in the small group ministry of their church, where he also serves in Jr. High ministry.
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