As schools moved to distance learning, I asked my youngest daughter if she would like to spend some of her new ¨free¨ time studying a language of her choice. I didn´t know what was in store for me. She said Hebrew. I was delighted. Eagerly, I pulled out an unused children’s Biblical Hebrew curriculum that I bought years ago. I quickly found myself learning alone as she didn’t have much free time after all. Also her interest wasn´t as intense as mine. Indeed, no one I know is as hungry for languages as I am.
That was just under three years ago. That children’s curriculum ended not seeing much use. The resources I did use were nearly all free so that my curriculum cost was only $15. But most of my progress came from something I have not found anyone else doing. I started copying the Bible in Hebrew. You see, years ago, a family friend showed us a Bible she had started copying herself and told us that she had heard of others doing the same. At the time I was somewhat interested, but not very motivated to start such a huge task myself. When I decided to learn Hebrew I also decided I would copy the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. Naturally I couldn´t stop with just Hebrew.
I went slowly but steadily, getting familiar with the alphabet and picking up some vocabulary. But I didn’t wait until I had fully memorized the alef-bet before I began reading and listening. Continually moving forward is great motivation and also helps your learning stick better. Still I did muddle around for a bit trying out shortcuts to actually handwriting the Bible. I also found some good advice for learning the Biblical languages.
Finally after two or three months I made my final commitment to copying the Bible. Don´t think I am not suggesting by any means that copying the whole Bible is essential to learning Greek and Hebrew. I only wanted to keep what I copied in order without a lot of blank page space. Small chunks such as copying favorite verses or passages and possibly memorizing them are as useful as large chunks.
Three months ago I began to study Greek. It seems to be faster to learn than Hebrew even though Hebrew words have less word morphing. My guess is that it is because the vocabulary is less and because all nouns have articles so finding you place is somewhat easier. In the last few weeks at church I was able to follow the sermon in fairly quickly in Hebrew and was also able to catch key words in Greek.
About a year ago, as I was sitting down to my daily Hebrew time, it struck me that while I was able to read many or most words, looking at a page or passage of Hebrew isn’t instant reading for me that English and other Latin letter-based languages are. I have to focus on the individual words to find one I recognize or at the start of a verse to get oriented and start reading. I wondered if Hebrew would ever feel as natural to me as Spanish or French. And I wondered what other people´s experience has been in a language with a different writing system.
Here are some of the milestones I have found so far:
– seeing word roots, prefixes, and suffixes
– knowing if a verse is the one you are looking for using keywords
– recognizing at least 50% of the words in any given verse
– knowing where to look for the reading if your eyes stop following when listening to your audio Hebrew Bible
– recognizing familiar words you have misspelled
– anticipating the next word you will read
– recognizing common phrases – such as ¨thus says YHWH¨
– referring to a parallel Bible less and less – often only for verification
– occasionally reading a whole verse and knowing all the words
Learning the Biblical languages is definitely a journey worth taking. Since I have started studying Hebrew I have had to slow down as I read. This has naturally drawn me deeper into the Bible stories than ever before. I have become familiar with the words in Hebrew characters that I have learned here and there in transliteration- baruch, yom, chesed. It is like a veil has been lifted, and I am looking at the real thing. It is a whole new way of seeing.Theology students´ despair over Hebrew and Greek classes is well-known. Teachers teach as they have been taught, students don´t expect to be skilled readers of Hebrew, and no one is finding any pleasure in the task. It has gotten so bad that the goal of Biblical language reading has been abandoned by some colleges and universities. If this continues there will be no fluent Hebrew readers left. But it doesn´t have to be that way, fluency is possible and necessary.
I haven´t studied as hard I could have and I haven´t had a language partner or a live teacher, but I have come a long way in a relatively short time. Others with a partner and/or more discipline could certainly do much better. Biblical Hebrew and Greek can be read easily and for pleasure. My biggest lack is vocabulary, but that will continue to grow as I continue my daily practice. I haven’t done anything mysterious. I simply didn’t think to pursue Hebrew differently than I have other languages I had dabbled in. I knew I needed to read, write, listen and speak. So I tried to do that. Not always as well as I could have, but I have tried. And I have learned enough to be sure that the rest will come with continued daily practice and occasional grammar review. In short while I am far from fluency, I can read fairly well, sometimes with ease, sometimes with effort, but I do enjoy it. Hebrew and Greek can indeed be a pleasure.