THE CAMBRIDGE INTRODUCTION TO BIBLICAL HEBREW. By Brian Webster. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 349 pages + CD-Rom. Paper. $39.99.

Reviewed by Reed Lessing, Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis, MO.

My first impression of this resource is niphlat, that’s Hebrew for “wonderful.” Brian Webster, who teaches at Dallas Theological Seminary, combines his linguistic and computer skills to create a one-of-a-kind resource that is well suited for students in an introductory-level course as well as for clergy and laity who are engaged in self-study. The accompanying CD (suitable for Mac and PC) includes a workbook, answers, paradigms, vocabulary cards ready to print and the interactive program called TekScroll.

TekScroll facilitates learning though grammar illustrations with moving graphics, interactive parsing programs, translation practice items, and a vocabulary program that included words used fifty or more times in the Old Testament. TekScroll displays the Hebrew word on the screen with the option to listen aloud to its pronunciation. Students can practice vocabulary within a single chapter, multiple chapters, or by frequency. If a student gets a vocabulary word wrong and wants to come back to it, he can opt to return to it at a later time (using the “keep in set” button). The vocabulary flash cards, which come in two different sizes, gives each chapter’s Hebrew vocabulary on the front side, and then on the back gives (1) an English gloss, (2) the chapter which the word occurs in, (3) its part of speech and gender, and (4) its frequency of occurrence in the Old Testament. Practice drills in TekScroll offer a low-stress experience for students to check their understanding and can be used for classroom instruction. The readings present phrases and sentences from the Old Testament with the English translation available at the click of a button. The workbook exercises and answers are available in separate PDF files.

Webster includes ten pages of specific instructions that are for the instructor, enabling the teacher to retain the big picture as the class moves along. One of Webster’s main thrusts is a heavy emphasis on the syllable principles. While most other grammars give brief mention to this, Webster devotes an entire chapter (2) which becomes the basis for all future morphological rationale. Once these syllable principles are mastered, a student doesn’t have to constantly wonder, “Why is the pointing of this noun/verb so strange?” Webster begins discussion of the weak-consonants, gutturals, etc. in this same chapter—easing students in to the difficulties of the weak-consonants. Throughout the book, he continues to explain the behavior of weak consonants, gutturals, etc., with the result that when a student finally gets to weak-verbs he is better prepared to handle them.

While Webster sets forth paradigms for rote memorization, he makes the memorization of these paradigms easy through stem “ID badges.” For example, if radical 1 (R1) has a qametz below it, it is likely a qal perfect. These “ID badges” along with other creative ways of teaching paradigms are unique in their pedagogical sensitivity, i.e. each chapter builds on previous chapters, making additional paradigms easier to handle.

Though the grammar only has one year of Hebrew in mind, it is written with an addendum of ten chapters of syntax (chaps. 22–32). Webster suggests doing one chapter a week for covering the morphological portion of the grammar. That is, eleven weeks for each semester with plenty of time built in for review and examinations. This leaves ten chapters of syntax to integrate into the first year of Hebrew or as an optional third semester which can be used in conjunction with textual translation (e.g. the book of Jonah).

I am often asked, “Can you recommend a Hebrew grammar that is comprehensive, while at the same time manageable as well as enjoyable?” Now I have the answer, the Cambridge Introduction to Biblical Hebrew.







  1. Karl W. Randolph. Avatar
    Karl W. Randolph.

    I wonder how many of what jocularly have been called “first year lies” are in this book? There are things taught in class I had to unlearn when reading the Old Testament in Hebrew. Most of what I know of Biblical Hebrew language, I learned from reading Old Testament through many times.

    • The Masoretic points do not represent Biblical Hebrew pronunciation, rather their points code for a dialectal pronunciation from the Masoretic time and place. (Indications are that Biblical pronunciation had only open syllables, with no materes lectionis, rather each consonant was followed by an unmarked vowel. Thus a four letter name had four syllables during Biblical times.)

    • What’s worse, the Masoretic points are not always accurate as far as meaning is concerned.

    Because of these two points, I have read for several years and continue to read the Old Testament using an unpointed text. Do these two points negate all the effort Brian Webster put into teaching about syllables?

    After reading the Old Testament through four or five times, I came to the conclusion that the verbal conjugations, Qatal and Yiqtol, code for neither tense nor aspect. From the table of contents, it appears that Brian Webster believes that they code for tense, or a combination of tense and aspect.

    I, too, am considering textbooks to recommend to students of Biblical Hebrew and/or to use if given the opportunity to teach Biblical Hebrew. However, from this review, and others, it appears that this is not a textbook that I’d recommend.

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