Book Review: “English Grammar to Ace Biblical Hebrew” by Miles Van Pelt

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Van Pelt, Miles V., English Grammar to Ace Biblical Hebrew. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2010. 106 pp. $14.99. Paperback. ISBN 978-0-310-31831-6

Biographical Sketch of the Author

Miles Van Pelt is the Alan Hayes Belcher, Jr. Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in Jackson, Mississippi.[1] Further. Dr. Van Pelt serves in administration as Director of the Summer Institute for Biblical Languages and Academic Dean for the Jackson and Brazil campuses at RTS.[2] In addition to his teaching and administrative responsibilities at RTS, Dr. Van Pelt is a prolific author and has written or co-written a number of works on learning Biblical Hebrew and Hebrew scholarship, including Basics of Biblical Hebrew, Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary in Context, Biblical Hebrew: A Compact Guide, Basics of Biblical Aramaic, Graded Reader of Biblical Hebrew, and The Vocabulary Guide to Biblical Hebrew.[3]In addition to these Hebrew resources, Dr. Van Pelt has also contributed to Old Testament scholarship as an author of several commentaries, including The ESV Expository Commentary: Deuteronomy-Ruth, Judges: A 12-Week Study, and A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised.[4]

Dr. Van Pelt earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at Azusa Pacific University.[5] After completing his undergraduate studies, Dr. Van Pelt earned the Master of Arts degree at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.[6] He then received his Doctor of Philosophy degree in Old Testament studies from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary of Louisville, Kentucky.[7]

Summary of the Contents

In the present work, Van Pelt advances a valuable collection of grammatical, linguistic, and practical resources helpful to the pastor, seminarian, or layperson aspiring to learn Biblical Hebrew. In his introduction (11-14), Van Pelt notes that he has professional responsibility for teaching all three biblical languages – Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek. Naturally, this unique array of teaching experiences provides Van Pelt with an enhanced understanding of the challenges and obstacles students often face in learning a new language. Specifically, Van Pelt observes that the central obstacle facing students beginning to learn a biblical language is not the language itself but rather a lack of familiarity with their native language conventions. Van Pelt further notes in the introduction that the present work is an effort to rectify that challenge for English-speaking students and provide an accessible solution for introductory Hebrew students.

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Van Pelt begins the book with an acknowledgments section (9). Following acknowledgments, he presents a brief introduction (11-14). The author organizes the introduction along the lines of “why this book” (11-12), “how to use this book” (12-13), “tips for studying Hebrew” (13), and “additional Hebrew resources” (14). The brief introductory section’s highly organized structure foreshadows the superior organization and ease of accessibility found throughout the work. Following the introduction, Van Pelt presented English and Hebrew grammar considerations organized according to their major linguistic elements. Van Pelt organized the contents of the book according to Alphabet (15-19), Vowels (20-25), Nouns (26-31), The, And, Of (32-36), Prepositions (37-40), Adjectives (41-46), Pronouns (47-54), The Sentence (55-61), Mood, Tense, Aspect (62-67), Person, Gender, Number (68-73), Voice and Action (74-80), Imperative (81-85), Infinitives (86-90), and Participles (91-96). Finally, the author provided a Glossary of Terms (97-106).

Critical Evaluation

Van Pelt presents the elements of English grammar in a manner that is both accessible and engaging. The well-organized structure of the book makes the work particularly helpful for elementary-level students intimidated by the study of a foreign language and who may lack familiarity with the foundational elements of the English language required for effective translation. Further, the organization and concise nature of the work provide ease of reference for students looking to review English and Hebrew grammar as they advance through Hebrew coursework. The reader should also note that each chapter in the work is cross-referenced to corresponding chapters in Van Pelt’s seminal work, Basics of Biblical Hebrew.

Each chapter opens with an engaging and illustrative introduction that conveys both the importance of the topic examined in the individual chapter and a non-threatening transition from the technical element emblazoned in the chapter’s title to the more detailed mechanics laid out in the English and Hebrew grammatical analysis which follows. While Van Pelt’s skills and talents as an educator are evident throughout the work, it is perhaps in the chapter introductions where Van Pelt’s pedagogical talents shine brightest. For example, in Chapter 2 (20-25), Van Pelt discusses the linguistic element of vowels – undeniably essential but not necessarily the most exciting element for a beginning student of foreign languages. In introducing this section, Van Pelt begins with a rhetorical question: what would happen if one were to drive their car without regularly changing the oil in the car’s engine? In positing this question, Van Pelt is not interested in the reader’s mechanical skills but instead focuses on the importance of lubrication as a physical concept. Lubrication provides flow, flexibility, and metaphorical liquidity to the various moving parts of a car engine. Van Pelt skillfully applies this insightful illustration to the role of vowels in any language, observing that vowels “…lubricate the constants so that they do not overheat in your mouth” (20).

Following the introductory section of each chapter, Van Pelt provides a concise analysis of the role of the selected linguistic element in the English language. The English language analysis is then followed by an examination of the element’s role and related considerations in the Hebrew language. In each section, Van Pelt manages to present technical and complex linguistic topics in a manner that is both clear and concise. For example, the present author found Van Pelt’s observations on the topic of infinitives (Chapter 13) especially helpful when initially struggling with this element during elementary Hebrew studies. Beyond providing a foundational grasp of the various grammatical concepts and linguistic elements, Van Pelt also provides relevant, engaging, and informative facts throughout the work in the footnotes. An example from Chapter 13 is Van Pelt’s observation that “the infinitive construct occurs 6,951 times in the Hebrew Bible. It appears with the English equivalent of “to” (Hebrew לְ) 4,508 times, or 65% of the time” (89). Such observations are not simply random trivia but serve to emphasize the practical importance of the topic under examination to the understanding and education of the reader.

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The final section of each chapter is a brief collection of exercises. Van Pelt skillfully designed the exercises to afford personal reflection and written review, making this resource a useful tool for students and instructors alike. For example, one such exercise is to “define a diphthong” (25). Such an exercise can be completed independently as a means of reflection on the chapter content but may also be completed in written form and submitted as part of a graded, course-based assignment.

One of the great blessings and privileges of Christians living in a digital, information-saturated age is the overwhelming number of available resources for the study of God’s Word in its original languages. While the plethora of biblical language resources is a blessing in many respects, it is also accompanied by a significant danger: that the aspiring reader of the Bible in its original languages will be unable to see the proverbial forest for the trees. Whether the aspiring reader of God’s Word in its original languages is a pastor, church staff member, teacher, lay leader, or simply a Christian looking for a greater understanding of God’s Word, the reader cannot effectively leverage the immense benefits accompanied by the study of God’s Word in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek without a well-developed understanding of their native language’s mechanics and its grammatical framework. For Christians in the English-speaking world, the study of biblical languages will yield limited fruit without a foundational knowledge and command of English grammar.

Van Pelt begins his work by stating that the tactical objective of English Grammar to Ace Biblical Hebrew is to provide students with a well-developed foundation in English grammar and to connect that foundation in English grammar with its Hebrew counterpart. Further, Van Pelt notes that the intended goal behind this tactical objective is to produce better Hebrew students. Consequently, those improved Hebrew students will then become better pastors and leaders due to their enhanced understanding of the Old Testament through their improved command of Hebrew grammar. In English Grammar to Ace Biblical Hebrew, Van Pelt achieves this objective with remarkable success.

The primary limitation of Van Pelt’s work in English Grammar to Ace Biblical Hebrew is paradoxical in that it is also among its primary strengths: the work’s small size and limited scope. The construction of any book involves compromises between depth of analysis and brevity of presentation. While Van Pelt does an extraordinary job of packing a great deal of information into minimal space, the limited size of the work impairs the depth of examination and degree of treatment applied to various grammatical concepts. While the chapters provide a helpful and engaging overview of the significant grammatical elements and concepts, this book alone would not be sufficient to provide a comprehensive introduction to Hebrew grammar. However, in acknowledging this limitation, the reader should note that the book’s use as a stand-alone resource was not the expressed goal of the author. From the beginning, Van Pelt makes clear that English Grammar to Ace Biblical Hebrew is intended as a companion resource best utilized as a supplementary tool to more comprehensive grammars.

The preceding evaluation reveals that the author largely achieved the objective stated in the preface: to produce an accessible and engaging work that provides students with an enhanced practical foundation in English grammar and to connect that foundation in English grammar with its Hebrew counterpart. The end product is an indispensable resource for the elementary Hebrew student, as well as pastors, teachers, church leaders, and seminary and university professors seeking a resource to enhance the English language skills of their students and help those students assimilate English and Hebrew grammatical concepts through their studies. Consequently, English Grammar to Ace Biblical Hebrew is a work that, while lacking the depth and technical sophistication provided by other, more comprehensive volumes, is an informative, engaging, and insightful exploration of the grammatical elements composing both the English and Hebrew languages. It is a work to be commended to various audiences and applications engaged in the study of the Hebrew language, and, consequently, a work immensely beneficial for the seminary, for the university, and, ultimately, for the church.


[1] “Dr. Miles Van Pelt,” Faculty, Reformed Theological Seminary, accessed May 5, 2021, https://rts.edu/people/dr-miles-van-pelt/

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Author: Dr. Miles Van Pelt,” Resource Authors, Reformed Theological Seminary, accessed May 5, 2021, https://rts.edu/resource_authors/miles-van-pelt/

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Dr. Miles Van Pelt,” Faculty, Reformed Theological Seminary, accessed May 5, 2021, https://rts.edu/people/dr-miles-van-pelt/

[6] “Dr. Miles Van Pelt,” Faculty, Reformed Theological Seminary, accessed May 5, 2021, https://rts.edu/people/dr-miles-van-pelt/

[7] Ibid.

Bibliography

Reformed Theological Seminary. “Author: Dr. Miles Van Pelt.” Resource Authors. Accessed May 5, 2021. https://rts.edu/resource_authors/miles-van-pelt/

Reformed Theological Seminary. “Dr. Miles Van Pelt,” Faculty. Accessed May 5, 2021. https://rts.edu/people/dr-miles-van-pelt/

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