Filed under: “Book Reviews”

Review: The Cambridge Introduction to Biblical Hebrew

I’m about halfway through this book, and I can say without hesitation that it is the worst language book I have ever had the misfortune to use. It is clear that Webster wrote the book as a complement to his own lectures, and it is possible it works better in that context.1 As a standalone text, however, the book is remarkably badly done. The problems are manifold.

Webster often uses terms without explaining them, or explains them only after he has been using them for the majority of a chapter. Especially when introducing terms almost certain to be unfamiliar to the reader, this is terrible form. A case in point: Webster spends three or four pages discussing the morphological differences between stative and fientive verbs before he defines the two—despite the fact that “fientive” is a term used almost exclusively for Hebrew and therefore certainly outside the knowledge of first-year students. This is typical of his usage throughout the book.

Similarly, Webster will sometimes provide the most useful high-level explanations only after having led the student through the lowest level of details sans any context whatsoever. For example, rather than giving a brief overview of the verb system and then introducing specific patterns within it, Webster provides the overview at the end of a chapter full of nitty-gritty details of one of the verb forms. This gets it completely backwards.

Webster focuses on morphology to the exclusion of actual usage. His examples of usage are few and brief, while his discussions of the changes are lengthy and overwrought. Morphology is incredibly important, and Hebrew morphology is admittedly complex. However, complex changes in word structure are difficult to remember when one has something to which to attach them mentally. The task becomes nearly impossible for most students when the morphological rules are left in the abstract.

The exercises are often frustratingly difficult and obtuse, not least because Webster (or whoever wrote the exercises on his behalf) frequently includes vocubulary terms and grammatical patterns that have (a) not yet been defined or explained, (b) been defined in a single off-hand reference and are not available in reference pages (especially frustrating for vocabulary), or (c) are exceptions to the established patterns, and no explanation is supplied. Nearly every set of exercises contains at least one of these issues, and most contain multiple examples.

Webster’s approach to learning vocabulary is painful, to say the least. He frequently groups similar-sounding but entirely-unrelated words in the same list. He sometimes provides the same word in different forms in different vocabulary lists, and does not note that they are the same word. In the first chapter, apparently to complement his own particular teaching approach, he lists the vocabulary in no particular order at all—not grouped by word type, and not alphabetized. In all subsequent chapters, the words are alphabetized—except when they are separated by word type. As noted above, he sometimes provides words in discussions in the chapter, but does not include them in the vocabulary lists, and then includes them in the exercises.

The typography and layout of the text is horrifyingly amateurish. The book seems to have been printed directly from Microsoft Word manuscripts, left entirely unadjusted: it is on 8½×11ʺ pages, set in 12 pt Times New Roman double spaced. There is no vertical rhythm whatsoever, and no visual hierarchy to speak of: the headings are all at the same size, weight, and relative position on the page. The result is a book that is nearly impossible to read, but which is equally unsuitable for reference, with perhaps the exception of the referenc echarts in the back. (I will be writing up a short blog post separate from this review to demonstrate the issues visually—as well as to show how straightforward it is to fix the issues for anyone who cares to try.)

The only redeeming feature of the material—the included CD—is itself problematic.

  1. The material is small enough to have been much more sensible to make available via download, rather than encumbering the book with an increasingly archaic format (as was the case even at the time of the book’s publication, and still more so now). Further, this would have made updates straightforward and simple—as opposed to impossible

  2. The material was distributed in possibly the worst technological choice available: Adobe Flash. Flash is now essentially dead, because its capabilities have been largely matched by other web technologies, but even at the time the software was distributed it was known to be a poor choice for this kind of application. The software is easily the worst battery drain of any software I use on my device—I can run a Windows virtual machine, an integrated development, two browsers, and iTunes simultaneously on my Mac without draining my battery as quickly as this single program does.

  3. The typographical and design choices here are more amateurish than those in the main textbook. The primary English typeface in use is the much-derided Comic Sans. Navigation through the program is wildly inconsistent: keyboard shortcuts that work in one area do not in another, or produce different behavior. Visual cues (like arrows) similarly mean different things in different places. There are no tooltips to aid navigation through the program, so most of the paths to various parts of the program can only be discovered through trial and error.

In short, Webster’s text is a disaster on nearly every front. The pedagogy is atrocious, and the book and CD are both uniquely terrible at a technical level. I am stunned this made it through editorial in its current form, I cannot recommend it in any way. I am sure Webster meant well, and no doubt he is a decent fellow and in all probability a good teacher. As noted in the beginning of the review, it seems likely that as a complement to his own lectures, the book may work well. As a standaone textbook, however, The Cambridge Introduction to Biblical Hebrew is a failure—a pedagogical, technical, and typographical disaster.

  1. Alas, no: a friend who has taken Webster’s class informs me that he actually failed the class, largely due to the book, which he noted “makes no sense whatsoever”—an unfortunately accurate description of the book from my point of view. 

The Cross is Not Enough
(and neither is accuracy)

There are basically three kinds of books in the world: good, bad, and mediocre. By contrast, there are an almost infinite number of experiences of books, for the experience is not merely shaped by the quality of the text, but also one’s expectations. To come to a book of which one expects poor quality and find it mediocre is pleasant; to find a book in which one expected poor argument or bad theology and discover instead real quality is a delight. By contrast, to come to a book that seemed really excellent and find it instead merely mediocre is terribly frustrating – more so, in many ways, than finding a book truly terrible, whatever one expected. With a terrible book, the reader at least can have the satisfaction of hatred. Mediocrity, however, leaves one with nothing but vague disappointment and a sense of a missed opportunity.

Unfortunately, I had high hopes for The Cross is Not Enough: Living as Witnesses to the Resurrection, and it proved entirely mediocre. Read on, intrepid explorer →

Three Shots Across the Bow of Culture

Time for something unusual: a three-way book review. I’ve just finished reading James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, N. D. Wilson’s Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, and Andy Crouch’s Culture Making.

At least in my circles, there has been considerable hubbub over each of these books in their own ways in the last few years. Hunter’s volume is the most academic and the most far-reaching in its coverage of late modern Christianity, Wilson’s far and away the most playfully provocative, and Crouch’s the book in the middle. All three seek to cast a vision of engagement with reality, and all three share much of the same discontent with current Christian approaches to the world around us.

The flavors are unmistakably different, of course. Read on, intrepid explorer →

Family Vocation

In Family Vocation, Gene Veith and his daughter Mary Moerbe apply Luther’s views on vocation to family. (Shocking, I know.)

Sometime in the last two or three years, I stumbled on Gene Veith’s blog, Cranach: The Blog of Veith. Though I didn’t initially add his blog to my reading list, I kept finding myself back there. Links from a variety of other sources I read regularly kept drawing me back, and though in general I tend to skip over blogs with cultural or political emphases – it’s just not my main focus – I found his thought and writing unusually compelling. His blog is now among my most regular reads.

One of Veith’s major projects has been reintroducing evangelicals to Lutheran thought on vocation. I’ve heard nothing but good about his previous book on vocation, so when I saw that he’d released a book on relating vocation to family, it immediately went on my reading list. Read on, intrepid explorer →

Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ

I read Schreiner’s Pauline theology (Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ – A Pauline Theology) over the course of six months, so this is going to be less detailed and more interested in the broader picture than some of my reviews.

An overview: Pauline theology at its best

In the last couple years, I’ve started tackling theology aimed at a more “academic” level and audience, as opposed to the popular-level theology I had typically read before that. This has been helpful to me as I’ve been more actively involved in teaching, especially in the last year or so. However, I’m still just getting going – something that only becomes more apparent as I read more. The sheer number of footnotes in Schreiner’s book boggles the mind; and truth be told this book wasn’t nearly as heavily footnoted as others. There is, as a wise man once wrote, no end to the writing of books, and therefore to the reading thereof as well. Read on, intrepid explorer →

Shepherding a Child’s Heart

Shepherding a Child’s Heart is one of the single strangest books I’ve read in quite some time. The good parts are fantastic, some of the best material I’ve ever encountered on child-rearing. The rest of it left me scratching my head, or wanting to bang it on a table. I rarely have so bipolar a reaction to a book; but then, books are rarely so apt to be described as having multiple personality disorder. Read on, intrepid explorer →

Catherine the Great

Robert K. Massie’s massive one-volume life of the greatest empress of Russia took me the better part of a month to work my way through, coming at it as I did: in small chunks each evening. I came at it nearly every evening, though, because the story and the characters in it were fascinating – often larger than life in their dramas and dalliances and decisions. Read on, intrepid explorer →