How Olive Tree Changed the Way I Read My Hebrew Bible
Most beginning students of Hebrew are never able to make the jump between studying Hebrew grammar and vocabulary and being able to read and study the Hebrew Bible on their own. I’ve found this to be true in my own studies, when teaching Hebrew to others, and in talking to other teachers and students of Hebrew. Many students have similar struggles with Greek, but in my own experience of teaching dozens of Greek classes, I found that the rate of success is significantly higher, and that a fair number of students eventually reach a level of competency at which they can work through most passages in the Greek New Testament.
This pattern was true in my own studies. I was fortunate enough to begin learning Greek at about fourteen years of age, and by age sixteen, I had read through the Gospels on my own. Someone had told me early on not to use an analytical lexicon since it could become a sort of crutch, and to parse each word on my own, which I faithfully did. The result was that after working through the entire New Testament, I had a very thorough understanding of Greek morphology and could parse nearly any noun or verb form with ease.
Imagine my shock then when I tried to make the same transition into reading Hebrew. There were so many irregular verbs or verbs with disappearing letters! This didn’t bother me too much at first, since I could generally page through the dictionary and find the root. What really gave me trouble though were the verbs that dropped the first letter of the root, or even the occasional verb that lost two letters. How in the world was I supposed to find the root in my lexicon? I had dealt with irregular verbs in Greek, and my solution was simple and effective: memorize them all. I began the same process in Hebrew, but with several times more words to memorize, it was a long and slow process without much immediate payoff. I finally broke down in frustration and purchased an analytical lexicon.
The analytical lexicon helped me considerably, but still not enough to make the jump to fluent reading. It allowed me to consistently work through a passage without getting completely stuck, but it was very slow. Often my progress through a passage was reduced to a crawl. I eventually made it through the entire book of Genesis after a year of consistent reading. I was discouraged by this relatively slow pace. After all, I had made it through John’s Letters, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Matthew, Mark, John, and Revelation in the same period of studying Greek. I gradually lost interest in Hebrew and spent more time developing my proficiency in Greek and Latin. I even learned Syriac during that time period and was amazed at how much easier it seemed than Hebrew.
My interest in Hebrew didn’t return until I was asked to tutor some students in it. I was teaching classics at a small private high school and a couple of seniors asked if I would help them learn Hebrew. During our first few sessions, I was struck with how much better I understood Greek and Latin, and how shaky my understanding of Hebrew verb forms seemed in comparison. I chalked it up to the fact that I had never done as much reading in Hebrew. I knew that if I wanted to help these students reach a point where they could read Hebrew prose that my own reading abilities needed to improve.
Fortunately, there was a new resource available that allowed me to improve my reading skills. It was A Reader’s Hebrew Bible published by Zondervan. It had all of the high frequency words in a glossary in the back. Any words that were not high frequency were listed on the bottom of each page of text. I already knew all (or nearly all) of the high frequency words, so this allowed me to read quickly over a passage without a separate dictionary. If I was unsure what the root of a word was, I could just look at the bottom of the page. I started by rereading the book of Genesis, which took me just over a month (compared to over a year the first time through). I was worried at first that this was only a crutch and that I wouldn’t actually learn to read Hebrew any better, but was pleased when I began recognizing more and more words that were not in the high frequency lists and was able to identify them without look at the bottom of the page. This renewed my interest in reading Hebrew, and I revived the practice of reading each day from my Hebrew Bible. Consequently, my understanding of the language and my ability to teach it increased significantly over the next year or two.
I eventually left my position at the school and started working for Olive Tree Bible Software. I was immediately amazed with Olive Tree’s parsed text of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. It allowed me to look up the parsing for any word in the Hebrew text by simply tapping on it. As much as I liked my Reader’s Hebrew Bible, this was even better! I could access not only the root and definition, but also the full parsing with a simple tap of the screen. I could even open up a commentary, an English Bible, or the Septuagint in a split window and set it up to follow along with the Hebrew text. As was the case with the analytical lexicon and the Reader’s Hebrew Bible, I was afraid that this would only be a crutch. Once again, I was pleased to discover that the more I used the parsed BHS with Olive Tree’s Bible Study app, the more my ability to parse Hebrew texts on my own increased.
Looking back, I would say that discovering Zondervan’s A Reader’s Hebrew Bible and Olive Tree Bible Software’s parsed text of the BHS were both key turning points in my efforts to become fluent in reading Hebrew. After first finding each of these resources, the amount that I read from my Hebrew Bible increased dramatically. After using each of these resources, I found that my ability to read Hebrew without a dictionary had increased drastically. If someone asked me for a good print resource to break into reading the Hebrew Bible, I would highly recommend A Reader’s Hebrew Bible. If the same person had an iPad, iPhone, or Android device, I would recommend even more strongly that he or she purchase OIive Tree Bible Software’s parsed BHS. After all, it provides not only the root and definition, but the parsing information as well. The price may seem a little high at first, but is really not much if you consider what it would cost to purchase and carry around printed copies of each of the three resources it contains.
Breaking into reading my Hebrew Bible on my own on a regular basis was a huge challenge. I started out completely unassisted and wasn’t able to make a lot of progress. Even when using an analytical lexicon, I wasn’t able to get very far. When I use Olive Tree’s parsed Hebrew text, I’m amazed at the beauty of the Hebrew text and incredible functionality that it provides. I often think about how much time I could have saved and how much frustration I could have avoided if I had a resource like this when I was first learning Hebrew. I’m glad that students today have such a great resource available and am proud to be part of the company that provides it.
Matt works as a Digital Content Engineer, producing the resources we are proud to offer within the Bible Study app.
The product details for our parsed BHS text can be found here.