REVIEW: Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories: A Student’s Guide to Nouns in the Old Testament (Zondervan, 2017); $17.99.
Since I studied Biblical Hebrew as part of my MA program, I readily agreed when asked to write a review of the newly published Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories by J. David Pleins with Jonathan Homrighausen.
Overall, I am very pleased and impressed by this short volume, and I am grateful–as an academic colleague of Jonathan Homrighausen–to be asked to review the book.
I felt then (and still feel) at least marginally qualified in a professional sense to give a fair verdict on the book’s quality–but honestly my lizard brain was also leaping at a free book.
However, when I received the book in the mail, I felt sick to my stomach, and irrationally angry, and sad–because THIS WAS A BOOK I NEEDED EARLIER.
Maybe it’s over-disclosure to admit that I struggled like the dickens to muster up a passing grade in my Hebrew classes, but I did.
On top of extra office hours with the instructor and a private tutor I hired for weekly lessons (thanks Josh!), I also had a vast digital library of language resources and electronic study aids at my disposal.
But the wealth of information was overwhelming. The several fat, expensive dictionaries I owned were useful but frustrating and awkward to navigate. It was difficult for me to find a way to study effectively within the constraints of time and sanity.
Apparently I was not the first student to experience these frustrations–these problems seem to be immediately and effectively addressed by this short, accessible, inexpensive handbook.
As the book’s title suggests, authors Pleins and Homrighausen have arranged thousands of critical vocabulary words into intuitive, navigable categories, which are listed in brief, and again in detail, in the opening table of contents.
The authors have a clear audience in mind: students already past the beginning stages of Hebrew study, especially those who want to engage passages of scripture at length but remain mired in the back-and-forth mechanics of dictionary-based translation:
“A command of Hebrew vocabulary is the essential key to an enjoyable encounter with sacred Scripture. Yet beginners who master the basics soon realize that their limited word stock stands in the way of fluid reading and an intuitive grasp of the biblical text” (pg 16).
This book is an excellent resource for this particular audience. One absent feature is any mention of, or help with, issues of pronunciation or transliteration; even a cursory glance at the phonetics of Hebrew would be nice in a vocabulary book filled with holems and segols, at least for those Biblical-Hebrew-as-a-Second-Language scholars and specialists who revisit the language in fits and bouts.
True, if you have indeed “master[ed] the basics” of Hebrew, you might not need that kind of help, but without this feature, it seems like it might be harder to aurally-oriented students (students who learn best by hearing) to use this book as effectively for memorization or study.
However, I heard a rumor (unconfirmed) that Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories might be added to the digital Logos library (of which I am a fan); it would be pretty great in terms of study, memorization, and pronunciation to use this book inside a system that can read the words back to you out loud, like an informed study partner.
Because Pleins and Homrighausen have done the heavy lifting by arranging important vocabulary words into intuitive Conceptual Categories–described in the preface as “sensible groupings of related terms”—this volume might also be useful when paired with a flashcard app or website like Quizlet, which has several free features that I found very useful when first learning Hebrew and also Greek.
As a student of the New Testament, this short book on Hebrew vocabulary has also been useful to me because it has drawn my attention to several valuable word/concept clusters in the Hebrew Bible–for specific example the vocabulary of the temple and priesthood (pg 94), oracular culture (pg 98), and the underworld (pgs 35-36).
In short, although I have often been frustrated with learning new languages, the common-sense, practical approach of the book has brought me back into active conversation with an essential dimension of the scriptures.
It is well-organized and thoughtfully prepared, and I look forward to its continued use. I highly recommend it for students of Hebrew, as well as for students engaged in more generalized study of the Jewish and Christian traditions.