Aug 3, 2013

Guide to Developing Hebrew Reading Proficiency

[2nd Draft Updated 08/04/13]

This week I was contacted by a student from the first Hebrew course I taught back in 1998—16 years ago, asking for tips on improving his Hebrew.  He was an A student, and in fact, was the best student in the class.  Yet, here we are a decade and half later and he is asking for some tips on improving his Hebrew.  Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon scenario.  Language skills are similar to musical and other comparable skills—they are perishable, meaning that they can become dull or even go away if not deliberately developed and regularly employed. 

It is important for beginning students to know that there is more to learning a language than completing the required course work and earning an A. As a beginning Hebrew student, I was seldom in the top of my class grade-wise, but some things happened for me that greatly aided me in this effort.  

Each year that I have taught, I have recounted some of the key things in my journey that I hope will help my students.  The below is my testimony, in outline form, and which I am sharing with the hope that it may help others, especially my own students, in their language courses.  
1.  Conviction.  I was a B+ language student until one day my professor listed 7 or so common exegetical fallacies on the board.  These fallacies resulted from ministers who mishandle the text of Scripture due to laziness, carelessness, ignorance, or general incompetence in the languages.  I was immediately struck with the reality that I had committed some of these fallacies, and would likely commit more.  By the standards of 2 Tim 2:15, I had reason to be ashamed.  I also knew that faithfulness in this area was a criterion for elder qualification. If I did not address this, I would be unfit for ministry (Titus 1:9). The point—this is not about a grade, or a program, but about honoring the Lord.  I was deeply convicted, even destroyed, by this realization.
2. Repentance and Dependence.  I was broken by this realization and committed myself to plead with God, without stop, until He gave me the desire necessary to work hard at this task.  I recalled Phil 2:12, 13 that it is my responsibility to work, but the will to do so and the enabling to do so come from God.  This means He helped me to realize that I did not possess the necessary will or stamina to accomplish the task before me without His enabling.  However, since He had called me to the ministry, I believed He would supply the requisite qualities/skills that I lacked.  So, I prayed—hard for about a week asking God to do something so extraordinary in my life, that all who knew me would recognize His hand at work in the weakest of vessels, and glorify Him.  After a week of pleading, God dramatically answered this prayer.
3. Resolve and Dependence  (Yes, "dependence" is in here twice). At the end of the week, I had a new passion for God’s Word in the original languages.  I then resolutely took some steps to master Biblical Hebrew.  The following is what I did.
Step 1. Vocabulary Development.  My goal was to develop functional Hebrew skills, not merely to complete a program.  This meant that if I wanted to be proficient in BH, I needed to know the words.  It was now summer, so I committed my summer to this effort.  The result: I picked up John Watt’s Lists of Words Occurring Frequently in the Hebrew Bible and began memorizing vocabulary.  Pleading with God for aid, I inhaled words like a drowning man sucks in air.  Within 5 weeks, I added the most common 600 words from Watts to my vocab.  Gaining additional words became very difficult at this point.  However, I found that I was now able to make out the majority of words in the narrative sections of the OT, so I shifted focus.   
Step 2. Devotional Reading. I was already committed to daily devotional study of Scripture.  At this point, however, I committed to not have devotionals at all unless I did so in my Biblia Sacra (Hebrew OT and Greek NT in a single volume).  This did two things: i. created additional dependence on God as I read and pleaded with Him for help, ii. generated excitement as I saw my new abilities developing and my new vocab. functioning in the wild, so to speak.  By the end of the summer I had added around 1,000 new words to my vocab. and had translated Genesis. Note: I did not focus on parsing or syntax at this juncture, but read with my NASB or with BibleWorks nearby so I could check parsing or grammatical forms as needed and just focused on recognition and muddling my way through the text.
Step 3. Synthesizing.  By the end of the next semester, I had spent up to a couple of hours a day, every day, in my Hebrew Bible for months.  I had also translated the first 26 chapters of Exodus.  At this point synthesis began to happen.  Here’s how:
     i. Rehearsing. Whenever I sensed my skills regressing, I would immediately reread Ruth and Jonah, two small books I had translated in my previous course work and could move through rapidly.  This helped my morale, refreshed my vocab., stimulated me spiritually, and reminded me of aspects of grammar/syntax that I could then generalize and appropriate in other texts.
     ii. Incorporation. For my devotional times, I was also translating the Psalms (though not writing out my translations).  These greatly enhanced the spiritual aspect of my study.  I then began teaching a Bible study from the various Psalms that I was meditatively translating.  This added great depth to my teaching and my students responded positively, which fueled my passion both in teaching and in personal study. 
     iii. Progression. I continued enrolling in exegesis language courses and gained permission to take Aramaic as an M.Div. elective.  At this point, my professor recognized that something extraordinary had occurred to me and we discussed this one day after class.  He then invited me to read Hebrew with him over the summer, along with another professor and a friend who was planning to enroll in Ph.D. studies in Semitics at UCLA.  This affirmation and privilege was exciting and fueled additional passion as I continued to plead with God for aid praying that He would glorify Himself through these efforts.   
     iv. Teaching.  That summer, I was then invited to teach beginning Hebrew grammar for a local Bible institute.  This effort was very natural, gave me an outlet for what I had been learning, and provided opportunity to articulate and simplify difficult aspects of Hebrew grammar.  I was also able to think through different linguistic pedagogical models.  I taught beginning Hebrew to everyone who would listen, whether 1 student or 30, whether compensated or uncompensated, school age or senior citizen.  This refined my teaching skills and prepared me to begin teaching at the seminary level.  Three years later, I had acquired additional research languages and was teaching Latin on Mondays and Wednesdays, Hebrew twice on Thursdays, teaching a Bible study from my Hebrew Bible on Fridays, and Sunday afternoons, and preached two separate sermons on Sunday morning, one from my Greek NT, one from my Hebrew Bible (this was while I was a full time Th.M. student). 
Within 6 or 7 years, I had taught Aramaic, Advanced Hebrew readings, and other similar courses at the post-graduate level but still taught at the institute level.  By this time, I had memorized most of the Torah in Hebrew as well as had translated most of the OT, including the Aramaic sections. 
v. Listening.   At some point, I also began listening to the Hebrew Bible on tape read by a well known Rabbi.  This was helpful, because it taught me variations of pronunciation, like how to deal with ayin, what resh sounds like when it acts as a guttural, proper use of massoretic accents in reading, etc.  This allowed me to access components of poetry related to sound, such as assonance, rhyme, various sorts of word and sound play, etc.  This remains an exciting component of Hebrew study for me and I regularly listen to the Hebrew Bible aloud on my smart phone via the חי app. 
ConclusionIn the end, true mastery of the biblical languages is less like an academic exercise, and more like being in love.  Their acquisition must be passion and dependence driven if you really want to know them.  Know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and by God’s enabling, develop an unquenchable love for the languages, for they are the medium God has chosen to reveal Himself to His people, and to you if you will give yourself to their acquisition.  

Note: For a list of my publicly available audio files of Hebrew text, see here:


  1. Brian, excellent post! A few questions for clarification, so that I can put these things into practice:

    1) Did you have a wife or children during your seminary days? At what point did they enter the picture and how did that change your study habits and frequency/intensity?

    2) Was your focus primarily Hebrew, or did you use the same approach to your Greek? Do you consider yourself to have equal proficiency in both languages? What about the finer nuances of syntax in each? Is specialization necessary, or can one be multi-disciplinary (as in being a triathalete vs. a cyclist)?

    3) What are some of the big and small sacrifices you have had to make in order to accomplish this goal? On a daily and yearly basis?

    So many more questions, but I'll start with these!

  2. Tavis: I think I may have edited the post before I saw this comment, so it may look a little different now, though I don't think it impacts your questions. In any case, here's some thoughts.

    1.) I presume the thought here is that one would have to neglect family in order to study the way I have described. In my case, as I progressed, my jobs and academics gradually merged. So, instead of working for a retailer 30 hours a week and then going home to study, I eventually got paid to study. At one point I was hired by a small publisher of Sunday School materials to work as a theological editor. So, they paid me to read my original language Bible as part of my job. When I was teaching, preaching, etc., that was usually my livelihood. These sorts of jobs are out there for students, but getting them requires a combination of God's providence and your perseverance. To be completely transparent, though, at first I neglected some subjects in deference to the ones I preferred. Gaining balance was a process for me. Fortunately, my professors were wise and pretty patient. Yes, I was married, no, I did not have children.
    2.) Yes, my focus was Hebrew/Aramaic, but this was b/c Hebrew was more difficult for me. I found Hebrew to be about 40% more difficult than Greek, so I worked harder at it. B/c of this, and the fact that it was of greater interest, my Hebrew is more developed. As far as syntax goes, immersion in the text is the best approach, especially for the OT which has a much larger body of material. I took advanced courses in both--my career as a grad/post grad student was about 10 years long, give or take a couple years depending on how you calculate it, so I had lots of opportunity to do both. I believe one can do both and is benefited by doing both. For example, understanding Semitic languages well informs one when studying Matthew, Paul, etc. I currently teach seminary level Hebrew and Greek.
    3.) I can't think of any real sacrifices here. However, one doesn't feel they are sacrificing when they do what they want to do. The investment has reaped more in dividends than it ever cost me.

    Thanks for your interest and questions. Let me know if I can help more.

  3. Brian,

    If a student was looking to spend several hours a day developing their Hebrew ability they way in which you did would you structure the days around some of your main points (e.g. vocab, devotion, etc.). Was there a specific template you followed?

  4. Eric: Thanks for the note. Basically, the outline I gave above is what I did. It worked for me and I assume it works for others, so I employ the main ideas as appropriate in my teaching. It always yields good results with my students. However, the single most important item--the issue that most determines success, is the issue of passion. Intelligence, ability, discipline, financial resources, etc. may factor in determining grades, but the lone issue that singles out the 1 in a 1,000, the factor that truly distinguishes the student from his peers, is passion--passion for God and for His word. I would start with prayer and wrestle mightily with God, genuinely seeking this skill singularly as a means of glorifying Him, until He bestowed it. Then I would pray all the way through my studies knowing that should He remove His hand of grace, all would be lost. Start here.