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SBL Forum: Teaching Biblical Hebrew

27th October 2005

The latest SBL Forum has an essay on teaching biblical Hebrew by Charles David Isbell that is quite thought-provoking: “The Hebrew Teacher: Guru, Drill Instructor, or Role Model?

Isbell argues that “there are three indispensable components for teaching and learning biblical Hebrew.” These are

  1. The first concerns the relationship between teacher and student. Here it is the attitude of the teacher that is important. We need to honour our students and seek their best interest at all times, even those who are difficult to reach. In this regard he also highlights that teaching introductory Hebrew should not be pushed off to inexperienced teachers, but should be taught by the best teacher on staff.
  2. The second key to teaching biblical Hebrew is motivation. Good teachers must find ways to motivate their students, to fan the flames of their interest. A great way NOT to do this is the following:

    I believe the best way to quench the fire of desire is by continuing to teach Hebrew the way most of us learned it. The routine is well known. Memorize these words. Learn these rules. Identify these forms. Translate these meaningless English sentences into “biblical Hebrew,” which you don’t understand yet and which modern scholarship assures us Moses himself did not write so clearly. Spend at least one full semester on these numbing exercises before you ever get to open the text of the Bible to an exciting narrative.

  3. The final point that Isbell makes pertains to method. Here he gives us his “Ten Commandments for Hebrew Students” as well as seven tips for teachers. I thought it was quite funny to read how Isbell remembered the Hebrew word for tent! In every Hebrew class I have taught, virtually all my students have used the same association: “O hell, the tent is ripped,” or the like.

I would highly recommend any Hebrew teachers read Isbell’s forum. While much of it may not be new, it is always good to think about such things!

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