Archive for the ‘Beginner's Guide’ Category

Biblical Hebrew Starter Kit

September 18, 2018

In this post, I’m providing a “Biblical Hebrew Starter Kit” in the form of a PowerPoint presentation.

It is just the very first possible lesson in learning how to read Biblical Hebrew by decoding the letters and the vowels.

If you have any suggestions for improvement you can make them in the comments or e-mail them to me (see the sidebar).  And of course I’ll be grateful if you catch any mistakes.  But I most likely won’t be able to help with any technical problems (sorry).

Here’s the kit:

Biblical Hebrew Starter Kit

Happy learning!  And of course do feel free to share the kit as widely as possible!


A Hebrew Bible for reading

February 15, 2015

I’m always encouraging my students (and other friends who are interested in learning) to get a Bible that’s readable.  My hope is that they’ll go on what I used to call “The Ten-Minute-a-Day Plan” — just reading Bible, in the original Hebrew, for at least 10 minutes a day, not stopping to look anything up or figure anything out, but just reading.

One great way to do that now is via the new Israel-based 929 project, which I discussed in a previous post.  That’s certainly a good idea, but it doesn’t help you understand what you’re reading.  I’ve been recommending one of two Bibles for regular daily reading:

(1) One choice is the deservedly popular Koren edition, using the much-praised and beautifully readable typeface designed by Eliahu Koren.  Since it’s an all-Hebrew text, the thing to do is keep an English Bible handy (or use Koren’s own Hebrew-English edition).  There’s a Hebrew-English edition of the JPS Tanakh as well, but I find the JPS Hebrew typeface not as reader-friendly as I wish it were.  And the English translation, though very well done, is too free to be useful as a “pony” for students.

(2) Another choice is the Reader’s Hebrew Bible produced by Zondervan.  The benefit here (as you can see by looking at the sample) is that you simply glance down to the bottom of the page when you encounter a word you don’t know.  Proper names are grayed out to keep innocent readers from a pointless chase after the meaning of something that isn’t actually a word to begin with.  This option — also quite readable despite the interfering numbers pointing you to the glosses — falls in between the Koren Bible by itself and the Koren with translation.  It assumes you already know or will quickly learn the most common Hebrew words plus basic morphology.  It’s strictly a vocabulary aid.

Now there’s a third choice: BHS: A Reader’s Edition, edited by Donald A. VanceGeorge Athas, and Yael Avrahami.  (That link is the only place I was able to find a picture of what it looks like inside; find it here on Amazon.)  I don’t know anything about Vance or Athas, but I’m friendly with Yael Avrahami, who cited some of my work in her book The Senses of Scripture.  So I wish I were happier with this book than I am.

The font is beautifully readable, and the marks indicating that there’s a note are much less intrusive than in the Zondervan book.  But some other, basic aspects of the book are extremely disappointing:

•  One has to go to the notes at the bottom to find out that a word is a GN (geographical name), PN (personal name), or DN (deity name).  Perhaps they thought it would be cheating to adopt the same “grayed-out” feature as the Zondervan edition.  This does give the reader more information, but at a cost of speed.

•  A great many words — all words that occur fewer than 70 times, plus every occurrence of a weak verb, no matter how common — are parsed at the bottom of the page.  There are over 10,000 of these parsings (according to the introduction), so to save space they all, most unfortunately, are given in code.  E.g., tDr25, which means “Hitpael converted perfect/perfect consecutive 3rd common plural.”  These codes “work,” but they are completely unintuitive, and they go a long way to making the notes at the bottom of the page so much harder to read that it almost defeats the purpose.  I’d rather my students understood the parsing on their own.  It’s not that hard to learn, especially if (as in the Zondervan RHB) the root and binyan of difficult words are given.

•  The notes of BHS are missing!  Students most certainly don’t need the Masoretic marginal notes that clutter the BHS page, but — at least after their very first year of Hebrew at the most — they do need the notes at the bottom of the page that point to difficulties in the text.  What exactly makes this Bible a “BHS” if those notes are missing?  The differences in the Hebrew text between BHS and other editions are not really important for beginning students.

•  This sucker is big.  It is ¾” fatter and half a pound heavier than the Zondervan book.  And trust me, that’s one heavy half a pound.

I ask my Penn students to buy BHS, since they will certainly want it at least for the second year of Biblical Hebrew.  I also encourage them to buy a more readable Bible to train themselves how to read comfortably, which one or two of them do.  I was hoping this “Reader’s Edition” of BHS would let me offer my students both features in a single package, but as it is I can’t really recommend it to them.  Please, friends …

– keep the beautiful font and the unobtrusive note markers;

– junk the ugly parsing;

– use “Bible paper” if you have to;

– and put back the BHS notes!

See now this review.

Bible Odyssey

July 4, 2014

The new Bible Odyssey web site from the Society of Biblical Literature has just gone live.

I have a piece in it (by their request) on “Sexual Harassment in the Book of Ruth,” reworked from something I published while I was still in grad school.

I would be interested to hear your reactions to the web site and how interesting / useful it is for you.

Shamgar the Mysterious (Biblicist’s Holiday)

October 24, 2013

Today I’m going to take a look at one of the mysterious minor characters in the Bible — Shamgar ben Anat.

We first meet him in the last verse of Judges 3. That chapter begins by explaining that the non-Israelites who remained in Canaan had deliberately been left there by God, who wanted to keep the Jews on their toes militarily (and also wanted to have some enemies of theirs around when it became necessary to punish them).

The first part of Judges 3 tells how Israel was rescued from King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram-naharaim (you could call him King Shame-on-ya from Mesopotamia) by Othniel the Kenizzite, the first “judge.”

Time out here for a word or two about the “judges” (שופטים, shoftim) that the book of Judges is named after. Do not think of someone wearing a wig or holding a gavel. The word might better be translated as “magistrates” — that is, people who were not in any sense “royal” but who ruled whatever area of the country they could control and who issued “rulings” (משפטים, mishpatim) as a way of governing. NJPS calls them “chieftains,” which is more anthropological but otherwise pretty much the same thing.

Othniel was the first of these chieftains, and his story is followed in Judges 3 by that of Ehud, who because he was left-handed was able to surprise King Eglon of Moab, the oppressor of Israel in those days, and kill him. He became the next chieftain of Israel. Judges 4 and 5 tell at great length of Deborah, who was both a prophet and also a chieftain of Israel. But after Ehud’s story and before Deborah’s comes this one verse:

Judg. 3:31
  After him came Shamgar son of Anath, who slew six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad. He too was a champion of Israel.

Shamgar is not specifically described here as a “judge,” but two things tell us that he was one. First, he came “after” Ehud — that is, ruled after him. Second, he “was a champion of Israel” (in the NJPS translation); more precisely, he “saved” or “delivered” Israel: ויושע גם הוא את ישראל. This is the verb that the “judges” of the book of Judges do:

Judg. 2:16
  Then the LORD raised up judges, who delivered [ויושיעום] them out of the power of those who plundered them.

To “deliver” (hoshia) makes you a מושיע, a moshia or “savior.”

But who was this Shamgar? His name is not Semitic (too many consonants, for one thing), and he is described as “son of Anat” — a Canaanite goddess! Walter Maier, in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, explains:

Shamgar, a mighty fighter in Judges (3:31; 5:6), is designated ben anat, “the son of Anath.” The name “Shamgar” is non-Israelite (best seen as Hurrian in origin). Scholarly opinion varies as to understanding “the son of Anath.” For example, this designation is seen as indicating Shamgar’s community; Shamgar was from Beth-anath (IDB 4: 306). Another interpretation, seeing in the designation mention of the war divinity Anath, is that it is a military title or epithet (Craigie 1972: 239–40). However, Cross (1980: 7) thinks that ben anat may be a simple personal name. After comparing inscriptions on two arrowheads dating to the late 12th and late 11th centuries B.C., he suggests that the designation be understood as “the (son of) Son of Anath.” Ben Anath (“Son of Anath”) was Shamgar’s father, who was named after the goddess. Extrabiblical onomastic data indicate that personal names often consisted of “Son of” plus the name of a deity. Since Ben Anath was named after the warrior goddess Anath it is quite possible that he came from a military family.

My question is, what’s he doing here? I can understand that someone with a non-Israelite name, even someone (Israelite or otherwise) who was a worshipper of Anat, might have established himself as a champion of the Israelites and ruler of the land in this period. But if you are going to go so far as to tell me that he “slew six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad,” why not tell me the whole story?

My suspicion is that the writer who assembled the book of Judges from earlier sources (written and legendary) actually knew nothing about Shamgar except for this, from the Song of Deborah:

Judg. 5:6
In the days of Shamgar son of Anath,
In the days of Jael,
Caravans ceased,
And wayfarers went
By roundabout paths.

This song is probably the most ancient text in the Bible (see my earlier post on it here). Some scholars think that Judges 4 is simply a prose retelling based on the well-known poem in Judges 5; if that’s true, it would be natural to add a note leading up to the story of Deborah implying that Shamgar had ruled just before her. (Jael, of course, has a featured role in the poem, so she can have one in the story too.) As for the 600 Philistines, either that was also somehow an attribution of Shamgar’s that was floating around (like George Washington and the cherry tree), or our author made it up to give him something to do.

The two verses I quote in this post are the only biblical mentions of Shamgar. His name, and the two “facts” we know about him — that marauders were plentiful in his days, and that he killed 600 Philistines with an oxgoad — open a tantalizing window on an early moment in the history of the Israelites. The only biblical heroes who killed more Philistines than that are Samson, Saul, and David. Pretty good company.

But unless one day we dig up an inscription that tells us more about his story, we will never know anything else about this once famous ruler of the Israelites.

The “Old Testament”

January 18, 2010

Everybody knows that the Old Testament is the “Jewish” part of the Bible. I’ve written earlier about the fact that “the Bible” means three different things to Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. Now it’s time to clarify another misconception that many people share: that the Jewish Bible consists of the Old Testament alone.

It’s true, of course, that none of the books of the New Testament or Apocrypha are part of the Jewish Bible. But that doesn’t mean that what is left is the Old Testament. Here’s why:

• First, of course, “Old” Testament implies the existence of a “New” Testament, which Jews don’t in fact accept. (Exactly why Christians call these parts of their Bible “Testaments” will be the subject of a later post.) That is why some considerate Christians have begun to refer to this part of their Bible as “the Primary Testament” or (awkwardly) “the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.” So Jews who refer to their Bible as “the Old Testament” are speaking from a non-Jewish perspective.

• But there’s a much more important reason not to call the Jewish Bible “the Old Testament.” It’s not just a matter of perspective; the contents of the two books are arranged in a different order. That means each one tells a different story.

The Old Testament starts (of course) with Genesis, and carries the historical story all the way through the book of Esther. Then there’s a short grouping of (mostly) poetic books, followed by the prophets, ending with Malachi.

The Jewish Bible starts out the same way as the Old Testament, and (with one slight change) follows the same order as far as the end of the book of Kings. But the Jewish Bible is not divided into history, poetry, and prophecy, but into Torah, Prophets, and Writings. (They’re capitalized because these three parts of the Bible each play a different role in Judaism; more on this in a later post.) So the first five books, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, constitute a section on their own. Then come the books of the “Prophets,” divided into a historical section and a prophetic section. Finally, the catch-all “Writings,” ending with Chronicles.

Both versions begin with the creation of the world. Here’s how the Old Testament ends:

Mal. 4:4*
Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments. 5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: 6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

Then you turn the page, and the New Testament begins:

Matt. 1:1
The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

“Elijah” shows up in ch. 3, in the person of John the Baptist, and the Old Testament prophecies ending with Malachi begin to be fulfilled.

The Jewish Bible tells a very different story—it is a book not of fulfillment but of potential:

2Chr. 36: 22
And in the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, when the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah was fulfilled, the LORD roused the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his realm by word of mouth and in writing, as follows: 23 “Thus said King Cyrus of Persia: The LORD God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me with building Him a House in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Any one of you of all His people, the LORD his God be with him and let him go up.”

It ends with the beginning of the return from exile. The historical story told in the Bible actually continues (with the books of Ezra and Nehemiah), but the Bible itself ends as the Torah, its first and (for Jews) most important part ends—with the Jews on the point of returning to their homeland.
Bottom line? The Old Testament is arranged to introduce the New Testament. The (Jewish) Bible is arranged to introduce the Jews to a life in their land. So even though they contain the same material, they tell a very different story.

*(Jews will notice that there are 4 chapters in the Christian version of Malachi rather than 3—but that’s just because the chapters and verses are numbered a bit differently. More on this in a later post.)

Three Different Bibles

January 4, 2010

The headline at the top of this blog claims that I’m “The Bible Guy.” So maybe it’s time for me to explain what I mean by “the Bible.”

If I buy a copy of Huckleberry Finn or Don Quixote or David Copperfield, I know what’s going to be inside the cover. More to the point, I also know what I’m getting when I pick up a Qur’an or a Book of Mormon. But “the Bible” means different things to different people. Leaving aside the many variations that reflect different translation styles, there are three different books all called by different groups “the Bible”: a Jewish Bible, a Protestant Bible, and a Catholic Bible. Chronologically, the Catholic Bible should obviously come before the Protestant Bible. But I’m going to introduce the Bibles in order of size, from the smallest to the largest.

• The Jewish Bible
The books in the Jewish Bible are the oldest. The writings here date from the 12th century BCE to the 2nd century BCE. (More on the use of BCE/CE rather than BC/AD in a later post.) All of them were originally written in Hebrew, with the exception of two chapters in Ezra and six chapters in Daniel, which are written in Aramaic, a cousin language to Hebrew. (Some scholars have suggested that a few of the other books were originally written in Aramaic as well, but we’ll leave these technical discussions aside for now.) All of the books in the Jewish Bible are found in the two Christian Bibles as well, though they are arranged in a different order there. With just three exceptions, all of these books focus on the (somewhat rocky) love affair between God and the Jewish people.

• The Protestant Bible
The Protestant Bible has all of the books of the Jewish Bible plus a separate section of books dating from the mid-1st to mid-2nd centuries CE and written originally in Greek. (Again, some scholars believe that one or two of these may have originally been written in Hebrew or Aramaic.) These books are “The New Testament,” focused on the life of Jesus and on the early history of the religion that developed into the Christianity that we know today. In either kind of Christian Bible, the books of the Jewish Bible are grouped into a collection called “The Old Testament,” contrasting with the New Testament.

• The Catholic Bible
The Catholic Bible is the biggest of the three. But instead of adding yet newer books to the Old and New Testaments of the Protestant Bible, instead it fills the gap in between them with the Apocrypha. This is Jewish literature of the “intertestamental” period—the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE. Most of it was written in Hebrew or Aramaic, but two of the books were written in Greek. These books were outside the canon of the Hebrew Bible, but were preserved in the Greek translations of the Bible that were used by the early Christians. However, when Jerome prepared a new Latin version of the Bible, he made a translation directly from the Hebrew text—which did not contain these extra books. They were nonetheless accepted as part of the Christian Bible, but fell into a different category than the “Old Testament.” According to James Charlesworth (writing in the Anchor Bible Dictionary) in the 16th century Martin Luther moved them to the end of his Old Testament translation and labeled them Apocrypha; meanwhile, the Catholics declared them part of the Christian Bible on April 8, 1546, at the Council of Trent.

That means that a Catholic Bible—the most inclusive–contains three different parts. Here’s a chart of who accepts what:

Jews: “Old Testament”*
Catholics: Old Testament, Apocrypha, New Testament
Protestants: Old Testament, New Testament

*As noted, the Old Testament contains the same books as the Jewish Bible, but in a different order.

The interesting thing about this chart (for me) is that both the Jews and the Catholics—the groups whose religions rely largely on a later group of sacred writings (rabbinic literature for Jews, patristic literature for Catholics) have a Bible that maintains historical continuity from beginning to end. The Catholic Bible does not have the same linguistic continuity that the Jewish Bible has, but here too the Apocrypha bridge the gap with books from the period when Jewish literature was expanding from Hebrew into Greek. The Protestants, whose sola scriptura perspective was a major cause of the break with Catholicism, have a Bible with a big chronological and linguistic gap in between its two sections.

The bottom line is that the Bible is a unique book. You may open someone else’s copy of it and discover that books you expected to find are missing, or that books you don’t consider to be part of the Bible are there.

So, caveat emptor. When someone calls himself “The Bible Guy,” you always have to ask which Bible he talking about. In my case—though I expect to write about Apocrypha and New Testament topics from time to time—“the Bible” is the Jewish Bible.

The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism by Adele Berlin

October 27, 2009

Book #8 on my curriculum of 10 is The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism by Adele Berlin. And consider this post itself a mini-“Beginners’ Guide” to parallelism.

“Parallelism” is the basic element of biblical poetry. It plays a role something like what rhyme did for so long in English-language poetry, creating a rhythm that matches two different lines. For a quick introduction, consult “Reading Biblical Poetry,” 2097-2104 in The Jewish Study Bible, book #1 on my list. Here’s a quick example to demonstrate:

Deut 32:1

O heavens, | give ear | and let me speak;
Let the earth | hear | the sayings of my mouth.

The first line takes three words in Hebrew; the second line “matches” each one of them:
1 “Earth” matches “heavens” because they are an obvious (biblical) pair.
2 “Hear” matches “give ear” because the two verbs mean (more or less) the same thing.
3 “The sayings of my mouth” matches “let me speak” because both phrases refer to what the poet is going to say.

The “matching” effect is so strong that this phenomenon sometimes used to be called “thought-rhyme.”

We owe our English expression “a voice crying in the wilderness” to Matt 3:3, which misread Isa 40:3.

Matt 3:3

This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
(NRSV translation)

But parallelism shows that “in the wilderness” should be inside the quotation marks:

Isa 40:3

  A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
(also NRSV)

Again, line B “matches” line A (though not in exactly the same order):
1 “In the desert” matches “in the wilderness.”
2 “Make straight” matches “prepare.”
3 “A highway” matches “the way.”
4 “Our God” matches “the LORD.”

Note that even the quotation in Matthew reads the Isaiah verse with poetic parallelism—but moving “in the wilderness” outside the quotation marks led Matthew to drop “in the desert” from line 2 of the Isaiah verse.

Berlin’s book describes the manifold ways in which this technique is used to create poetry in the Bible. She’s a good writer, but if the technical language or the Hebrew there is too much for you, you might want to have a look at James Kugel’s The Idea of Biblical Poetry. The book is about the history of how biblical poetry has been understood, but the first chapter is another description of parallelism.

I hope eventually to present some biblical poems myself; watch this space!

Bible and Torah

August 23, 2009

This week, a break from my Ten Best Books list to start a new series of posts that I’ll label “Beginner’s Guides.”

In my discussion of Who Wrote the Bible? I noted the following:

It’s too bad the book is called “Who Wrote the Bible?” when it is really mostly about who wrote the Pentateuch; but I’ll have more to say on this topic another time.

As promised, here is that discussion. I’ll leave for yet another occasion the differences between the Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic Bibles. What I’m writing about today is the fact that lots of Jews seem to use the words “Bible” and “Torah” interchangeably. The culprit here — if you’ll excuse the expression — is the word “Torah.” It can be used to refer to:
•  Jewish learning in general, including what I’ll have to say later this week on Torah Talk;
• the “Oral Torah”: the books of classical rabbinic literature: Mishnah, Talmud, and the various midrashim, as opposed to the “Written Torah”: the books of the Jewish Bible;
• the Pentateuch, a/k/a “Chumash,” that is, the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

In my Hebrew-English JPS Tanakh, those first five books — labeled “Torah” — take 454 pages out of 2023. That’s somewhere between 1/4 and 1/5 of the entire Bible. When I ask people to bring a “Bible” to class they often bring a Chumash instead by mistake. The reason, of course, is that every synagogue has dozens of Chumashim available. But it’s pretty hard to find a Bible in most synagogues. The Bible, however, contains not only the Five Books of Moses, but also (from a Jewish perspective) the Prophets and the Writings, or (from a Christian perspective) books of history, literature, and prophecy. (I’ll save the differences between the Jewish Bible and the Christian Old Testament for another Beginner’s Guide entry.)

Why is Friedman’s book called Who Wrote the Bible? rather than Who Wrote the Torah? or Who Wrote the Pentateuch? Don’t know whether it was he or his publisher who made the choice, but it seems obvious to me that this was a marketing decision. “Bible” is a far more recognizable word (and of course the subject of the book does have some bearing on who wrote other texts in the Bible than those of the Pentateuch). I’m just sorry that it adds to the confusion for those who can’t properly distinguish the two terms.

The potential confusion is somewhat worse in the case of Friedman’s later book, The Bible with Sources Revealed (2003), which bears the subtitle “A New View into the Five Books of Moses.” Again: the Five Books of Moses make up the Pentateuch, NOT the entire Bible; they are one part of the Bible, and a fairly small one at that. (This quibble aside, it’s a quite useful book, though not all of his source identifications should be taken as — you should excuse the expression — gospel.)

I add for those who don’t believe this confusion exists the story of a synagogue president in New England — told me by a friend who was hired as High Holiday rabbi there. The president opened the Ark to show my friend the synagogue’s three Torah scrolls. He apologized: “We don’t have a lot of money. But we’re hoping one day to have all five.”

(My friend assured him that each scroll had all five books of the Torah = Chumash = Pentateuch, but the synagogue president wouldn’t believe him.)

James Kugel’s book How to Read the Bible does something similar to Friedman’s, but for a different reason that’s worth thinking about. Kugel does talk about the entire Bible, but (as I pointed out) in far different proportions that did Marc Brettler in his book of the same name. As I said in last week’s post, Kugel is interested not merely in the texts that make up the Bible, but in “The Bible” as it has affected our cultural history. The stories of Genesis carry far greater weight in our culture than do those in the book of Kings. (Everyone understands that a drawing of a naked man, a naked woman, and a tree with a snake in it is about the “Adam and Eve” story.) That’s why half of Kugel’s book Traditions of the Bible is about Genesis.

In my Commentators’ Bible project, I began — in fact, it was at Marc Brettler’s suggestion — with Exodus, rather than Genesis, because it would be a little less intimidating. Now I’m continuing on with Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy before returning to complete the first part of the project with Genesis. I can testify that people have been asking me for five years, “When are you going to do Genesis?” and no one ever asked me, “When are you going to do Leviticus?” But Leviticus is as much as part of the Torah, and the Bible, as Genesis is.

By the same token, books like Habakkuk or Ecclesiastes may not be part of the “Torah” (if by that word you mean the Pentateuch/Chumash), but they are indeed part of the Bible. I mentioned last week that, for Kugel, all the texts are biblical, but some are more biblical than others. In fact, this is true for almost all of us. Even Bible-thumping fundamentalists will have parts of the Bible that they thump frequently and other parts that they read rarely, if ever, and that don’t figure much into their thinking. Part of what I hope will eventually happen on this blog is that I’ll begin to highlight some of the less familiar texts that are, nonetheless, also “Bible.”

[Note: If you have suggestions or requests for a “Beginner’s Guide” entry, send ’em in.]