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Review: The Cambridge Introduction to Biblical Hebrew

I’m about halfway through this book, and I can say without hesitation that it is the worst language book I have ever had the misfortune to use. It is clear that Webster wrote the book as a complement to his own lectures, and it is possible it works better in that context.1 As a standalone text, however, the book is remarkably badly done. The problems are manifold.

Webster often uses terms without explaining them, or explains them only after he has been using them for the majority of a chapter. Especially when introducing terms almost certain to be unfamiliar to the reader, this is terrible form. A case in point: Webster spends three or four pages discussing the morphological differences between stative and fientive verbs before he defines the two—despite the fact that “fientive” is a term used almost exclusively for Hebrew and therefore certainly outside the knowledge of first-year students. This is typical of his usage throughout the book.

Similarly, Webster will sometimes provide the most useful high-level explanations only after having led the student through the lowest level of details sans any context whatsoever. For example, rather than giving a brief overview of the verb system and then introducing specific patterns within it, Webster provides the overview at the end of a chapter full of nitty-gritty details of one of the verb forms. This gets it completely backwards.

Webster focuses on morphology to the exclusion of actual usage. His examples of usage are few and brief, while his discussions of the changes are lengthy and overwrought. Morphology is incredibly important, and Hebrew morphology is admittedly complex. However, complex changes in word structure are difficult to remember when one has something to which to attach them mentally. The task becomes nearly impossible for most students when the morphological rules are left in the abstract.

The exercises are often frustratingly difficult and obtuse, not least because Webster (or whoever wrote the exercises on his behalf) frequently includes vocubulary terms and grammatical patterns that have (a) not yet been defined or explained, (b) been defined in a single off-hand reference and are not available in reference pages (especially frustrating for vocabulary), or (c) are exceptions to the established patterns, and no explanation is supplied. Nearly every set of exercises contains at least one of these issues, and most contain multiple examples.

Webster’s approach to learning vocabulary is painful, to say the least. He frequently groups similar-sounding but entirely-unrelated words in the same list. He sometimes provides the same word in different forms in different vocabulary lists, and does not note that they are the same word. In the first chapter, apparently to complement his own particular teaching approach, he lists the vocabulary in no particular order at all—not grouped by word type, and not alphabetized. In all subsequent chapters, the words are alphabetized—except when they are separated by word type. As noted above, he sometimes provides words in discussions in the chapter, but does not include them in the vocabulary lists, and then includes them in the exercises.

The typography and layout of the text is horrifyingly amateurish. The book seems to have been printed directly from Microsoft Word manuscripts, left entirely unadjusted: it is on 8½×11ʺ pages, set in 12 pt Times New Roman double spaced. There is no vertical rhythm whatsoever, and no visual hierarchy to speak of: the headings are all at the same size, weight, and relative position on the page. The result is a book that is nearly impossible to read, but which is equally unsuitable for reference, with perhaps the exception of the referenc echarts in the back. (I will be writing up a short blog post separate from this review to demonstrate the issues visually—as well as to show how straightforward it is to fix the issues for anyone who cares to try.)

The only redeeming feature of the material—the included CD—is itself problematic.

  1. The material is small enough to have been much more sensible to make available via download, rather than encumbering the book with an increasingly archaic format (as was the case even at the time of the book’s publication, and still more so now). Further, this would have made updates straightforward and simple—as opposed to impossible

  2. The material was distributed in possibly the worst technological choice available: Adobe Flash. Flash is now essentially dead, because its capabilities have been largely matched by other web technologies, but even at the time the software was distributed it was known to be a poor choice for this kind of application. The software is easily the worst battery drain of any software I use on my device—I can run a Windows virtual machine, an integrated development, two browsers, and iTunes simultaneously on my Mac without draining my battery as quickly as this single program does.

  3. The typographical and design choices here are more amateurish than those in the main textbook. The primary English typeface in use is the much-derided Comic Sans. Navigation through the program is wildly inconsistent: keyboard shortcuts that work in one area do not in another, or produce different behavior. Visual cues (like arrows) similarly mean different things in different places. There are no tooltips to aid navigation through the program, so most of the paths to various parts of the program can only be discovered through trial and error.

In short, Webster’s text is a disaster on nearly every front. The pedagogy is atrocious, and the book and CD are both uniquely terrible at a technical level. I am stunned this made it through editorial in its current form, I cannot recommend it in any way. I am sure Webster meant well, and no doubt he is a decent fellow and in all probability a good teacher. As noted in the beginning of the review, it seems likely that as a complement to his own lectures, the book may work well. As a standaone textbook, however, The Cambridge Introduction to Biblical Hebrew is a failure—a pedagogical, technical, and typographical disaster.

  1. Alas, no: a friend who has taken Webster’s class informs me that he actually failed the class, largely due to the book, which he noted “makes no sense whatsoever”—an unfortunately accurate description of the book from my point of view. 


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