One of the great joys of working on the student’s handbook of Biblical Hebrew vocabulary this summer has been my entry into linguistics and biblical languages. I have long had a layperson’s interest in linguistics, and for me learning about nuances of historical change, sociolinguistics, and such has been one of the payoffs of learning biblical languages, a payoff I had to discover much on my own through authors such as Joel Hoffman and William Schniedewind. This past week I have also started working through
However, though there are some great books introducing the layperson to linguistics and biblical interpretation, many seem to be more geared more to NT Greek: Silva’s Biblical Words and Their Meaning, Campbell’s Advances in the Study of Biblical Greek, and so forth. So when I saw Sue Groom’s Linguistic Analysis of Biblical Hebrew, I ordered it on interlibrary loan right away. Groom’s book aims to introduce the linguistic tools that scholars have applied to the Hebrew Bible. However, though there were some useful chapters in this book, on the whole I found it somewhat of a disappointment.
The first hazard is the mention in the introduction that the book is based on Groom’s MA thesis. This is strange: theses and surveys tend to be very different genres. The second hazard is apparent in the table contents, which promises chapters on the corpus of ancient Hebrew, the development of the Masoretic text, the nature of Biblical Hebrew, ancient biblical translations, comparative philology, lexical semantics, and text linguistics. Hence, rather than orienting biblical studies students to the basic linguistic theories—e.g., syntax, phonology, morphology, etc.—she dives into current topics of discussion. And out of this 174-page book, the longest chapter (31 pages) is devoted to ancient translations that are better surveyed in a book on Old Testament textual criticism than in this book.
In the chapters that were the most useful, Groom glosses over the issues that perhaps need the most treatment. For example, her chapter on “The Nature of Biblical Hebrew” surveys discussions of diglossia, diachronic variation, and dialectical variation and geography—all in 14 pages. I found it hard to follow some of her discussions because she summarized complex arguments without sufficient examples. Still, I gained much from that chapter in particular, as well as her discussion of lexical semantics and comparative philology.
Perhaps the most useful part of her book is the conclusion, which integrates the many different methods she described in an analysis of selected terms in Judges 4. This really illustrated how one can use the biblical languages responsibly instead of in one of the exegetical fallacies so common in popular preaching.
So rather than recommending the entire book, I would recommend selected chapters, with the caveat that since this book was published in 2003 the scholarly discussions have certainly advanced. Overall, despite its usefulness, this book’s genesis as a thesis showed, since much of it felt like a literature review. For me, an ideal book of this kind might include a kind of workbook format, with examples to work through and questions for students to tackle.
That said, I just found out yesterday that I might be taking a seminar on historical linguistics and biblical Hebrew this fall, so I am sure to find out more about this area!