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Review: Grammar of Biblical Hebrew

Wolfgang Schneider. Grammar of Biblical Hebrew Translated and revised by Randall L. McKinion. Studies in Biblical Hebrew 1. New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2016. xvi + 275 pp., US $90.95, hardcover.

Wolfgang Schneider served as lecturer in linguistics and Hebrew at the Kirchliche Hochschule Wuppertal from 1970 until he retired in 1995. During this time Schneider became convinced that, “Hebrew is a normal language of normal people” and, therefore, must be studied as such (xiii, emphasis in original). This conviction in turn caused Schneider to emphasize the study of Hebrew at the level of text rather than clause or sentence. In this regard he is much in line with the rise of discourse analysis.

The meteoric ascent in recent years of discourse analysis of the biblical languages is evident. Prior to the emergence of this discipline, emphasis was given to systematic categorization of the grammatical uses of linguistic units. However, discourse analysis (generally called text-linguistics or text-grammar in Europe) has taken another approach: how these linguistic units function within the broader text. Schneider’s grammar, it must be said, is not intended to replace traditional grammars such as Gesenius, Williams, Joüon, or Waltke/O’Connor, but instead to supplement these grammars by adopting a different approach, namely a syntactic analysis of texts rather than smaller units such as clauses, sentences, words, etc.

This English translation of Schneider’s grammar, titled Grammatik des biblischen Hebräisch: Ein Lehrbuch in the German editions, begins with two very short forwards, one for the 1973 edition and one for the 2001 edition. In the forward to the first edition, Schneider presents the intention of his work, what will be discussed, and what will be left untouched. He intends to discuss how Hebrew grammar functions at the level of the text. He intends to leave unaddressed issues of historical development. Furthermore, since his interest is grammar and syntax, he provides no complete conjugation tables, because “the information in the text and the special tables in the individual paragraphs of the grammar are enough for the analysis of verb forms” (xv, emphasis in original). By this, Schneider is pointing to the fact that verbal forms will be discussed under the rubric of syntactic analysis at the level of text. In the forward to the 2001 edition, Schneider informs the reader that the first edition of his grammar generated much and lively discussion on the European continent regarding the nature of Hebrew syntax. Moreover, he is pleased to announce that his method has been reviewed and accepted by grammarians such as Alviero Niccacci and Eep Talstra. And now, thanks to its translation, his proposals have made it to the English speaking world.

In Part One, called “Elements: Speaking, Writing, Reading,” Schneider’s grammar offers ten chapters on the basic elements of the Hebrew language such as vowels, consonants, gutturals, and the dagesch. However, this section also provides discussion of many elements that are often left unaddressed in introductory grammars. For example he discusses the Ketíb, Qeré, Méteg, and masoretic accent signs. But even within his discussion of these elements, it is clear that Schneider is interested in their influence on the syntax of the Hebrew Bible at the level of the text. This is clear when he notes that the function of accents is not to provide punctuation but structure to the verse into constituent parts.

In Part Two, called “Forms: Particles, Nominals, Verbs,” Schneider provides the reader with further building blocks of biblical Hebrew. Although his discussions and explanations here are less thorough than most grammars, he does provide helpful insights into their uses in Hebrew syntax. For example, when discussing Hebrew affirmative prepositions he is not content to simply provide possible translations but instead describes their syntactical function: ב (b) is the “preposition of contrast,” ל (l) is the “preposition of unspecified attention,” and כ (c) is the “preposition of comparison” (40). Moreover, as soon as he introduces the he locale (52) he provides direction to its related discussion in his section on textual syntax (186). Such concern for syntax is evident throughout the text; Schneider is not content that the reader simply learn to recognize linguistic elements but wants them to understand how these elements are used within the text to accomplish the communicative task.

In Part Three, called “Texts: Clauses and Parts of Clauses, Text Syntax,” Schneider delves into the heart of his grammatical task, namely to present to the reader the syntax of Hebrew texts. As the title of Part Three suggests, he begins with the discussion of syntax at the lower level (such as the construct state, verbal nominals, or verbal tense). All such topics have already been introduced to the reader in Part Two; now his interest is how these grammatical elements function within the surrounding text. The grammar ends with a discussion of the syntax at the broader level of text. Such discussions include anaphoric and kataphoric referencing elements, the function of the conjunction ו (w), the introductory formulas ויהי (wyhy) and  והיה(whyh), as well as the particles כי (ky), אשר (ʿšr), אם and (ʿm).

This final section is perhaps the greatest strengths of Schneider’s work. Many grammars assume that students only need to learn how to translate the Hebrew Bible into their own language. By contrast, grammars such as Schneider’s demonstrate that there is much more to reading the Hebrew Bible than mere translation. Schneider presents a strong case for the student’s need to comprehend the textual syntax of Hebrew. Although Schneider is unfortunately not transparent about his methodology, the predominant concern of Schneider’s work is clearly to place the emphasis of syntactical analysis upon the text rather than the clause or sentence. Indeed, he believes that the text is the largest unit of grammatical analysis; this conviction is central to his work. This, then, is his central aim and his major accomplishment.

This volume, however, is not without its peculiarities. First, McKinion has offered a translation, pure and simple. This becomes immediately evident from the fact that McKinion has provided no preface to the English edition; he simply translates Schneider’s forwards from the first and second German editions. McKinion’s approach to translating Schneider also means that, although he provides English translations of Hebrew examples, he has left references to the German language intact without recontextualizing them for an English speaking audience. For example, with regard to construct chains, McKinion writes, “In most cases, construct connections can be rendered in German with a genitive attribute or with the preposition ‘von’” (151). Such instances of pure translation without recontectualization occur throughout this text. That his English-speaking readers may not understand references to German seems of lesser concern to McKinion than offering a translation of the original. It, therefore, becomes immediately clear that teachers who adopts this text for their classrooms will have to provide guidance to students who may be puzzled by references to German.

This peculiarity points to a different concern regarding this grammar, namely its function. It is more than a teaching grammar, but it is also less than a complete reference grammar. However, I do not think that either Schneider or McKinion imagines this book being used by students in the classroom. In fact, according to the forward to the 1973 edition, Schneider writes, “This is a textbook. This does not mean that one can use it for teaching Hebrew continually from §1 to §54 or that it should in general be regarded as the sole object of instruction” (p. xv). This grammar is viewed by its author and translator as more of a tool for the instructor rather than a student textbook. Students will certainly benefit from referencing such a grammar, but it is intended to be accompanied by proactive instruction and guidance.

As a result of such characteristics, this volume is best suited for teachers and moderate to advanced students of Hebrew. It will serve well as a reference grammar of Hebrew syntax at the broader level of clauses and texts. It will also serve well in advanced Hebrew classrooms as long as it is accompanied with clear instruction. Moreover, I can see the materials of this grammar acting as fruitful subjects of discussion in PhD-level seminars and Hebrew reading groups. Additionally, Schneider’s insights are worthy of an audience in the English-speaking world and I look forward to seeing them make their way into more discussion on Hebrew syntax and grammar.

— Stephen D. Campbell, Durham University

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