Saturday, December 15, 2018

Review of "Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories"

Review of Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories, by J. D. Pleins with J.Homrighausen (Zondervan)

This is an interesting attempt to organize nouns in the Hebrew Bible by "conceptual categories."  It provides noun lists organized into four large categories: The Created Order, the Human Order, the Social Order, and the Constructed Order. These categories are themselves divided into subcategories, and the subcategories into sub-subcategories. So, e.g., under the Created Order we are given Heavens and Earth; Metals, Stones, Gems, etc.; Colors; Time; Animals; Flora.  (Why not "Fauna; Flora" or "Animals, Plants"?)

Note that almost all of the categories have to do with realia and/or social relations.  There is no category including "Religion" or any of the terms for God, gods, angels, demons, etc.  For instance, the word אלהים is not found, and רוח appears only in the categories of Wind and Upper Body (pp. 32, 66). (The latter is glossed as "air" with a reference to Ex 15:8.) 

The main purpose of the book is, apparently, to facilitate memorization of the lists.  This is explicitly recommended on p. 17.  The philosophy behind this is "that an ancient child did not need a dictionary to learn to read Hebrew and neither should you" (p. 19).  This glib statement reduces facility in Hebrew reading to a rapid retrieval of all of its vocabulary, no matter how rare, recondite, useless, or disputed.  Such memorization tasks are of questionable utility and in most cases will be a waste of time.  If "an ancient Hebrew child" is the benchmark, then the student should learn the same way as a child learns, by being exposed to as much input (in the form of text) as possible, not by memorizing context-free lists.

The book also falls into the same traps as other attempts to organize cultures by their realia.  One trap is that the categories used are modern categories imposed on the lexicon.  For instance, the term יתום orphan is found under "Human: General Terms" (p. 62) and אלמנה widow is found under "Family and Kinship: Widowhood" (p. 93).  However, these terms are often found together in the Bible (30 times); they represent the most helpless and vulnerable members of society, but neither term is found in the category "Law and Covenant: Poor/Oppressed" (p. 102), where they naturally belong.  This distorts the indigenous cultural categories.

The other trap is the trap of polysemy.  Students who memorize the word מכרה under the rubric "Disease, Mortality, and Disability: Medical Tools: General" with the gloss "circumcision blade" (p. 71, with a reference to Gen 49:5) will find it again (same gloss) on p. 99 under "Worship/Cultic: Purity/Impurity: Circumcision" and yet again on p. 108 under the category "Professions and Occupations: Military: Weapons/Armor" with the gloss "weapon, staff" (again with a reference to Gen 49:5).  The ideal student who commits all these lists to memory may not realize that this word occurs but once in the entire Hebrew Bible, with a disputed meaning (Gen 49:5). 

Another example is the word צלע, which occurs 4 times in the book, with the glosses "terrace" (p. 30), "spine/rib" (p. 67), "side (of ark)" (p. 94), and "side chamber, cell" (p. 128). The dutiful memorizer will accordingly wind up memorizing 4 words with 4 different meanings, instead of one word with several related senses.  This is not efficient or true to the nature of language. 

Therefore I can't recommend this book for its avowed purpose.  It is useful as a general organization of Hebrew realia into semantic fields from a modern perspective, and from that standpoint it has its value. It also has a good bibliography and a Scripture index, which magnifies its utility.  But as a pedagogical tool? No. The best way of gaining facility in Hebrew reading is just to read as much Hebrew as possible, seeing words in context, learning the words that come up again and again.  Memorizing a dictionary, however it is organized, is not the way to go about it. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:  J. D. Pleins, with J. Homrighausen, Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories: A Student's Guide to Nouns in the Old Testament (Zondervan, 2017).

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