When I was in college, I decided to take Greek and Hebrew at the same time. The Classics department didn't offer Biblical Greek, so I had to take Classical Greek with its dizzying array of paradigms and its wild-and-wooly approach to word order. By comparison, Biblical Hebrew was a breeze: there were only three "tenses," a relatively small vocabulary, and a relatively simple sentence structure (at least at first!). I left college with the firm conviction that Greek is a more difficult language than Hebrew.
Then I went to seminary, where I took Greek and Hebrew again. There I was surprised to find that to a man (and woman), my fellow seminarians firmly regarded Greek as the easier of the two languages. I thought they were all crazy, until I began to see the differences between their initial experience of Greek and my own. They were learning Biblical Greek, with its much simpler (and often much like English) sentence structure. The vocabulary was limited to words in the New Testament, and many of these words were already familiar to those who grew up hearing them in sermons and Bible studies. Finally, there was the motivation factor: if they learned Greek, they would be able to speak with the same authority as their pastor or favorite theologian. But how many pastors and theologians had they heard spit out words like chesed and chaim?
For these seminarians, Greek was at least somewhat familiar, while Hebrew was entirely foreign: read from right-to-left, with strange consonants and even stranger vowels, some of which represented unusual sounds. Even the grammatical terminology was different, with binyanim, "aspect," and "construct state" instead of tense, voice, mood, and case. Thus, they saw it as self-evident that Hebrew is harder to learn than Greek.
I'm here to tell you it's not. Hebrew is a fun language to learn and a relatively simple one to get started learning. If you can get past its apparent foreignness, you're well on your way.
That's one of the things I like about The First Hebrew Primer by EKS Publishing. Billed as “The adult beginner’s path to learning Biblical Hebrew, this grammar takes the time to help you get past the apparent foreignness of the language. For example, most Hebrew grammars will cover the consonants in one chapter and the vowels in a second, presenting you with a chart to memorize and lots of facts about which letters are silent, what a dagesh is and how it affects the pronunciation of some letters, etc. The student then has to absorb all this information just to get started. The First Hebrew Primer takes a different approach, teaching a handful of consonants and vowels together and then showing how you could use them to write simple English words like "Bob" and "odd." The Accordance module also incorporates the "audio companion" to the grammar, which you can play to hear how all of the Hebrew is pronounced. If you're trying to learn Hebrew outside a classroom setting, that help is invaluable.
Another thing I personally like about The First Hebrew Primer is that it teaches the script or cursive form of Hebrew in addition to the block letters you typically see in print.
I learned to write in script in college, and found it made writing Hebrew much quicker than trying to use block letters. That in turn, made doing the exercises much less painful. Over the years, I've forgotten many of the script letters, and when I was in Israel a few years ago I found myself struggling to make out the street signs and graffiti that were written that way. I'm personally glad to now have a refresher in script, and would recommend you take the time to learn it before you do too many of the exercises.
Beyond the alphabet, The First Hebrew Primer introduces just enough of certain concepts to get you reading Hebrew as quickly as possible. By chapter four, you're already reading simple sentences in Hebrew. The exercises in the Primer help you to put the concepts you've learned into practice, and the answer key at the back will help you to gauge your progress.
If you've ever wanted to teach yourself Hebrew, I strongly recommend you try The First Hebrew Primer. If you do, I think you'll come to agree with me that learning Hebrew is much easier than it looks. You can then wink at those Greek-biased seminarians and say, "Aw, what are you complaining about? Hebrew ain't hard!"
The First Hebrew Primer, which includes the text, the answer book, and the audio companion is normally $79.99, but is now on sale for just $64.99. Don't wait, though. The sale ends April 15, 2013.
About a year ago, we released the third edition of William Mounce's Basics of Biblical Greek grammar. We had offered the second edition for quite some time, but while working on the new edition we decided to see just how far we could take it. So we upgraded Accordance to support audio pronunciations of vocabulary words, included links that would automatically search the tagged Greek New Testament and Mounce translation, and generally tried to create an introductory grammar on steroids.
This week we released another performance-enhanced introductory grammar: the Basics of Biblical Hebrew by Gary Pratico and Miles Van Pelt. Like Mounce's Greek grammar, Basics of Biblical Hebrew includes audio pronunciations of vocabulary words and includes links that will automatically search the tagged Hebrew Bible. That way, students studying their vocabulary can immediately explore numerous examples of those words being used in context. This is especially fitting since Pratico and Van Pelt used Accordance to research their word frequency statistics: now their students can easily use Accordance to verify them! :-)
As much as we've tried to leverage Accordance's power to provide a Hebrew grammar on steroids, it is ultimately the content of this grammar which makes it worth buying. Pratico and Van Pelt take care to explain the structural aspects of Hebrew so that all those inflections which seem so strange to the beginning student begin to make sense. They use examples from the Hebrew Bible rather than "made up" examples. Best of all, they include "exegetical insights" which reveal the practical importance of what is being learned in each chapter.
As I was doing final quality-control checks of this module, I found myself repeatedly pausing to read these exegetical insights, which alone justify this grammar's purchase price. Ranging from a simple discussion of Hebrew acrostic poetry in the chapter on the alphabet to challenging reinterpretations of such phrases as "train up a child" and "in the cool of the day," these sections effectively demonstrate the importance of learning Hebrew at a time when many seminaries are dropping it as a requirement.
If you're wanting to tackle the study of Hebrew with an introductory grammar on steroids, be sure to pick up the Accordance edition of Basics of Biblical Hebrew. And whenever you find yourself growing weary, as every language student inevitably does, turn to the nearest "exegetical insight" for a little "shot in the arm".