Book Review: A Basic Introduction to Biblical Hebrew

I recently reviewed a new introductory Hebrew grammar by Prof. Jo Ann Hackett of the University of Texas at Austin. Prof. Hackett is perhaps best known for her work on the Balaam texts from Deir Alla. My review of her grammar book, A Basic Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (Hendrickson, 2010) is now up at Review of Biblical Literature, along with reviews by two others (Bernard Levinson and James Robson).

In short, I think this new grammar is a marked improvement on other older texts, especially in its attempt to be a true introductory grammar, rather than an undercover reference grammar. However, Prof. Hackett does make some choices that I do question.

Just after it became publicly available, Prof. Hackett contacted me about the review. With her permission, I’ve made some of her comments available here. As far as I know, no journal actually publishes an author’s response to reviews, so I’m glad to provide her with a public right of reply here. It’s best to read the review first, and then her comments below.

Jo Ann Hackett: I have just read your review of my textbook, and I must say that most of your negative reactions have been mirrored by others.  And I remain unconvinced, of course!  I do want to question, however, your suggestion that I treat what you call the “vav consecutive” as if it simply reverses the tense of the verb, because that is something I most certainly do not do, and I’m not quite sure how you could assume that I do.  I would suggest you read 15.3, where I specifically reject that point of view, and 15.4, which I hope shows that I think the historical explanation is correct.

In 16.8, where I say that some people believe that the vav of the ve-qatal form exists as an imitation of the wayyiqtol vav, I suppose you might read it the way you did, but even there, the explanation depends to a certain extent on the historical explanation of the wayyiqtol form.  So I don’t understand that part of the review, and to be honest, I really hate it that such a thing is out there about me, being read by people who don’t know any better.

Let me add a less serious aside.  The objections I’ve gotten to the fact that we call the verb by the 3ms SC form, even though I don’t start there, have all come from teachers.  I’ve taught this to all sorts of students, and I’ve yet to have a single one confused by it.  The same goes for the 1st-person first decision.  Teachers often hate it because we all learned it the other way.  Students, who don’t know any better, never even notice.  I have to admit that it’s hard for me, too, because I have them recite the paradigms and have to remember that they’re doing it in the way I taught them, not the way I learned it.

As you will see in her first paragraph, Prof. Hackett takes me to task for misrepresenting her on the ‘vav consecutive’. Having had my own arguments misrepresented in reviews, I can understand the frustration this can cause an author. However, in this case, I think there is some ambiguity inherent in the wording used within the grammar book that explains why I received the apparently wrong impression. In the review I state that it is unfortunate that Hackett opts for viewing the waw (or ‘vav‘) prefix of the wayyiqtol as a ‘waw conversive’—that is, an element that somehow converts or reverses tense. I quote §15.3 (p.90) of the book in its entirety:

15.3 Other Names For the Consecutive Preterite

The form we are calling the consecutive preterite is usually called “converted imperfect,” as if the addition of the וַ somehow “converted” a future-tense verb into a past-tense verb. It is also called the “imperfect with vav consecutive,” a better choice, but also misleading, since the basic verb is not the “imperfect” (our prefix conjugation) but rather the jussive.

You will see from this paragraph that there is no specific denial of the concept of a converted imperfect. The first sentence is stated without challenge. It is most likely that Prof. Hackett intended the ‘also’ in the phrase ‘but also misleading’ (second sentence) to signify a denial of the veracity of both the ‘converted imperfect’ and ‘imperfect with vav consecutive’ terminologies. However, since the concept of a ‘converted imperfect’ is not labelled misleading immediately after it is described, the impression I gained was that ‘also misleading’ applied only to the use of the word ‘imperfect’ in the terminology. In other words, I read the paragraph as saying that the wayyiqtol (or ‘consecutive preterite’ as Hackett terms it) can also be conceptualised as a ‘converted imperfect’ or, even better as an ‘imperfect with vav consecutive’, even though the wayyiqtol happens to be using the jussive, rather than the imperfect (yiqtol). Thus, although Prof. Hackett meant to put these other terms forward so as to deny their veracity or usefulness, there is no specific and unambiguous statement to that effect, and the paragraph can plausibly be read as though it were a mild endorsement (albeit with slight correction) of these conceptualities.

I am quite relieved to learn from Prof. Hackett that she does not endorse the ‘waw conversive’ or ‘consecutive imperfect’ views of the wayyiqtol. Yet, that makes the ambiguity inherent in the wording of §15.3 all the more unfortunate. I’m quite glad, however, that this issue could be raised and clarified here, and hope that instructors using the book are aware of the ambiguity and can take action to ensure a proper understanding of this particular section the way Prof. Hackett intended it.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: A Basic Introduction to Biblical Hebrew

  1. FYI, I know that a lot of us second-years still reach for your grammar on a regular basis. It’s simplicity is appealing, and the frequent ‘key principles’ are gold. Plus, it’s the only place we can go to get Verbal Aspect definitions for the conjugations.

  2. Oh, and I totally agree with you on the merits of having the 3ms first. Sure, students might not notice if you force them to learn the 1cs first, but it’s definitely got to make it harder. Maybe in the Yiqtol it works, but definitely not elsewhere. Plus, why call it the ‘Qatal’ if you learnt it as the Qatalti, or the ‘Yiqtol’ if you learnt it as the Eqtol?

  3. Sorry George, it’s probably due to reading her objection first, but par 15.3 sounds pretty slighting to me: ‘as if … somehow’ sounds like, ‘I don’t agree with this view, you might as well believe in pixies.’

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