Rethinking Hebrew Instruction

Prof. C H J van der Merwe, Department of Ancient Studies, University of Stellenbosch

In South Africa all pastors of the Dutch Reformed Churches have to take two years of Greek and Hebrew (about 280 hours). It is an established but less than popular tradition. A 1983 study showed that, on average, only 31% of pastors in the denomination read their Hebrew Bible regularly.

Studying the Problem

Since the early 1990’s we have conducted at Stellenbosch a range of studies in the field of second language learning in order to determine where the problem lay.

Among other findings, we established the following:

1. 55% of the success rate for second language learning depends on motivation.
2. Knowing a language implies much more than having the ability to translate and parse a text.
3. It is practically impossible to keep a competency up in an ancient language like Biblical Hebrew if you read it only once or twice a week.
4. 25% of all the words in the Hebrew Bible occur only once.
5. You do not learn a language by reading poetry; a third of the Hebrew Bible consists of poetry.

Identifying Solutions

We established that it would be better to teach students to use the available grammars and lexica. It soon turned out that the available reference works were not really aimed at the needs of students.

This is why we wrote the Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar. This is why I am now engaged in the new Semantic Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew project. However, we also learned that having a grammar and lexicon is not enough. You need more information on the world and culture of the text.

Teaching students the ability to use these tools and integrate the different types of information in analyzing texts was a big step forward. The problem was that it took too much time to get the information needed. This is why we embraced Logos in the mid 1990’s. We experimented with BibleWorks and Bible Windows. Although at that point both were, as far as languages are concerned, more advanced than Logos Bible Software, we opted for the latter since it appeared to have a broader vision as far as allowing the compilation of different sources of information.

Inventing a Better Wheel

We bought 20 copies of Logos Bible Software and taught students to use it effectively. After the courses in Logos, we assumed that students would use it to prepare for the classes. They loved it.

We argued: "If engineers can have their HP pockets computers to do their dirty work for them, why can’t our students have a tool to look up all those difficult morphological constructions for them?"

So we changed our strategy in class. We minimized the memorization of paradigms to that of the most regular ones. Students were then expected to explain why Logos provided a specific parsing. Having to pay less attention to morphology, we started to have more time for analyzing the texts. Students started to enjoy their Hebrew classes. It started to be fun!!! Our pass rate climbed to an average of 80%.

Instead of expecting students to translate and parse, we now teach them to criticize translations and come up with their own annotated translation or mini-commentaries. They feel empowered. They have learned something with which they can do the job. We promised to give them at the end of their two-year course a single-question final exam: Prepare an annotated translation of the following text using all the tools in your library.

Ex-students meet me in the street and say: “You would not believe it, I still read the Hebrew Bible regularly.”

We tell them the following: Concentrate on your ability to use your tools to analyze texts, let the computer be your long-term memory as far as the infrequent difficult and irregular morphology and lexical items are concerned.

The Bottom Line

Twenty years ago, many students saw Greek and Hebrew as a mere stepping stone to move on to the theological school. Now they read the source texts in all the Bible courses in the theological school as if it is the most natural thing to do—as it should be.

A survey in 2002 revealed that 78% of pastors in the denomination now say that they read the Greek and Hebrew Bible regularly. I believe this state of affairs can be partly (even mainly) attributed to their ability to use electronic libraries like Logos.

I believe our use of hypertext technology as an aid to analyzing and interpreting the source text of the Bible is in its infancy. There is still much more to be accomplished. Information still needs to be structured for the computer screen and in a way that maximizes the potential of hypertext technology. In this regard, I believe Logos is miles ahead of its competition.

In recent years, putting on my computer every morning means getting Outlook and Libronix running.