Book Review: Hebrew for Life

by | Apr 22, 2020 | Book Review

Ever heard the one about the two frogs on the farm who inadvertently ended up in a pail half full of milk? The first frog, viewing the situation as hopeless, soon gives up hope and succumbs to a milky grave. The second, refusing to be intimidated, kicks and kicks his little frog legs. He refuses to give up. And eventually, the pail of milk solidifies into a pail of butter. And he’s able to hop right out! Now that’s what I call a motivational story. Try sharing it with someone sometime when they’re feeling discouraged, intimidated, or on the brink of total despair. And if they just so happen to be a Hebrew student, you could give them this new book—Hebrew for Life: Strategies for Learning, Retaining, and Reviving Biblical Hebrew by Howell, Merkle, and Plummer (Baker Academic, 2020). With its nine short chapters, this book is motivational, inspirational, and helpful as a guide to getting anyone out of the bucket of Hebrew malaise. Here’s my review with a quick look at the book’s contents followed by my assessment.

The Contents

Chapter 1. The Goal of the Harvest

The Hebrew student is going to require some hefty motivation to progress along the difficult journey of learning Hebrew. And is there a motivation any heftier than knowing God through His inspired Word? No way. Equipped with Hebrew, you can better understand and interpret Scripture, and do so rather efficiently. And for any naysayers out there, learning Hebrew is doable, beneficial, practical, and a privilege.  

Chapter 2. Weighed in the Balances and Found Wanting

What’s more important: Netflix or Hebrew? Don’t be lazy. Practice good study habits.

Chapter 3. Review the Fundamentals Often

Speaking of studying (see previous chapter), here’s some good guidance on keeping up with your vocabulary and paradigms. Read, write, speak, hear, and even sing your Hebrew language learning helps. 

Chapter 4. Develop a Next-Level Memory

The reality is, you’re not going to learn Hebrew without some memorization. So it’s critical to leverage your opportunities and potential for memorizing this stuff.

Chapter 5. Strategically Leverage Your Breaks

Don’t forget everything you learned in the offseason. This chapter offers guidance and advice for maintaining your hard-earned Hebrew over summers and holidays. 

Chapter 6. Read, Read, Read

You’re learning Hebrew so you can read Hebrew. So here’s how to get down to the brass tacks of actually reading it. This chapter arranges OT books by difficulty and discusses approaches to sitting down with a text. 

Chapter 7. The Wisdom of Resources

What else do you need besides a copy of BHS? This chapter talks shop with interlinears, readers, lexicons, grammars, software, and more. 

Chapter 8. Hebrew’s Close Cousin—Aramaic

If you’re going to take your biblical language training seriously, you should go all the way and learn Aramaic too. This chapter explains the similarities and differences between Aramaic and Hebrew. You’ll also find recommended resources for learning this closely-related language that makes up about 1% of the OT.

Chapter 9. Getting Back in Shape

This concluding chapter is a heartfelt encouragement to stay in the pail and get to kicking. And there are probably more helps, friends, and experts to keep you kicking than you realize.

My Assessment

This short little book is more motivational than a kicking frog in a pail of milk. And, although it shouldn’t take you long to read, its impact on the reader is intended to extend into the long term. The authors succeed in compiling great tips, tried and true advice, with genuine encouragement for anyone who wants to understand and use biblical Hebrew. I like how their call to action is realistic: set the bar as low as you need too, but aim as high as you can. And I like how practical this book is. The end of each chapter concludes with several questions for personal reflection and a short demonstration/testimonial on the value of a specific aspect of Hebrew. Some of these are fascinating, and there’s even one on the value of reading the Hebrew Bible alongside the Septuagint! For me, this book was a great supplement to my own seminary training. I had no idea about many of the great resources detailed in this book. 

My one complaint is there are probably too many personal illustrations. At just the beginning of the chapter on Aramaic, you’ll find an NFL football illustration followed by two about college football stories from the author’s experience, and then there are still the squirrels! But that’s a small complaint. This book is a useful and enjoyable read for anyone who could use some motivation and strategy to study Hebrew. It’s perfect for new students and rusty pastors alike. 

And for those who need some help with their Greek—

Special thanks to Baker Academic for providing me with a digital copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Brent Niedergall

Pastor, Grammarian, Runner

Brent Niedergall, MDiv, is Chief Editor at Positive Action for Christ in Whitakers, North Carolina. He’s gone to war in Afghanistan, felled towering trees, and parsed Greek verbs.


Brent Niedergall