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Review of Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories

J. David Pleins and Jonathan Homrighausen. Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories: A Student’s Guide to Nouns in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017. Pb. 176 pp. $17.99.

Most biblical Hebrew students will be aware of George Landes’s Building Your Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary first published in 1961 by Charles Scribner’s Sons and subsequently in 2001 by the Society of Biblical Literature. Pleins and Homrighausen, however, have adopted a different approach. In so doing, they have filled an important gap in the learning/teaching of Hebrew learning.

Most students learn vocabulary in one way, through the study and memorization of vocabulary lists build on the basis of frequency in the Hebrew Bible. This approach is adopted by Hebrew grammars as well as Landes’s Building Your Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary (which is structured on learning vocabulary arranged by verbal roots, which are prioritized by frequency). This approach has clear advantages, and will continue to be used for the foreseeable future.

A different approach has been adopted by Pleins and Homrighausen. They organize words (nouns in this case) according to logical categories. For example, all of the Hebrew nouns associated with “face” are grouped together (pp. 65–66). The reason for learning vocabulary according to this approach is quite simple: “The mind constructs its mental space for language by making connections between words. Without these associations, vocabulary building is reduced to rote memorization that all too often becomes an exercise in futility” (p. 16).

The book itself is organized into the following four main categories: 1) The Created Order, 2) The Human Order, 3) The Social Order, and 4) The Constructed Order. These in turn have sub-categories and sub-sub-categories. For example, under category 3 “The Social Order” one can find the sub-category “Music,” which contains the sub-sub-categories of “General Terms and Types,” “Instruments,” and “Dance” (pp. 117–119). If the reader were then to turn to the section entitled “Instruments,” he/she would there find word lists for “Flute,” “String,” “Horn,” and “Cymbal, Shakers, Bells.”

At the back of the book the reader will find two appendices, a Hebrew word index, and a Scripture index. Appendix one consists of further reading where applicable. Thus for “Music” the authors make two suggestions for further reading on the music culture of the ANE. Appendix two is a list of suggested biblical passages that can be read to assist in contextualizing the vocabulary words. The “Music” sub-sub-category, for example, has 15 suggested texts, all 1–3 verses long.

The benefits of such this book, however, extend far beyond memorizing vocabulary. Because the authors were not limited by word usage, even very rare words, including hapax legomena, are listed. This means that one can learn a great deal conceptually about the four main categories. For example, the list for “Sacrifices and Offerings” (pp. 96–97) lists 22 items. Seeing these terms in one convenient location provides insight into the religious world of ancient Israel such as its various forms of sacrifice.

Further strengths of this book include the multiplicity of lexicons, monographs, and articles used to establish definitions and the transparency with which the authors credit these sources. This transparency is helpful for readers that want to pursue particular terms further in their own research. Furthermore, the authors alert the reader to rare words and hapax legomena, which is always interesting information. Each word is also provided an accompanying biblical reference for contextualization.

In contrast to these many strengths, there is one major weakness, namely the lack of verbs. Given the flexibility of verbal categories, and the greater number of nouns, this emphasis is understandable. On the other hand, being able to associate verbs with a list of conceptually organized nouns would prove quite helpful, in my opinion. To overcome this deficiency, I would simply suggest that the serious student would be benefited by having Landes close at hand in order to learn the verbal roots of the nouns in Pleins and Homrighausen.

Without a doubt this is a handy tool that should make its way into every Hebrew students’ took kit. It is clear, concise, and easy to utilize.

— Stephen D. Campbell, Durham University

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