Book Reviews

Book Review: A Hebrew Reader for the Psalms (Myers/Kline)

I’ve said this before, I really enjoyed learning Hebrew at Southern. I had a great teacher, I enjoyed the challenge, and it made enough sense to me that I understood it. But then we had kids, moved, I began working, and time got tight. So my Hebrew has certainly slipped. On top of that, what do you do when you get to the poetic books? Narrative follows rules, but poetry is another beast. I’ve reviewed Keep Up Your Biblical Hebrew in Two Minutes a Day: Vol 1 by Jonathan Kline, which helps you dip your toes into different OT texts when it’s been too long since you’ve waded in the pool of Hebrew. 

Jonathan Kline and Pete Myers have really offered a terrific resource aiding you to read 42 psalms in Hebrew. (The psalms are not in canonical order, but you can find the canonical ordering on page xix, footnote 8.) They divide the psalms into seven categories: 

  1. Hymnic/Faith 
  2. Lament/Supplication (part one)
  3. Liturgy (part one)
  4. Lament/Supplication (part two)
  5. Liturgy (part two)
  6. Wisdom/Torah
  7. Thanksgiving

The authors begin by noting how foreign Hebrew can sound when we are so used to the flow of our English translations. If we think about Psalm 23:1, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” any other way of reading that can just seem wrong. But the poetic Hebrew of this verse is terse, literally saying, “Yahweh / my-shepherd / not / I-lack.” But the terseness of Hebrew poetry is important. Note the last line of Psalm 88 (verse 18b). It says, “My companions have become darkness.” In Hebrew, this line consists of only two words, literally “my close friends—darkness.” As the authors note, the “compactness, guttural sounds, and syntactic indeterminacy” of these two words “powerfully express the dejection and melancholy that, alas, can all too often characterize our experience of the human condition” (xiv). Because we are not hearing the Hebrew, we miss how this feels. “These features are impossible to render in English.” “My companions have become darkness” still means the same thing, but we don’t feel it in the same way. 

The Psalms are difficult to understand in Hebrew due to rare words with rare meanings, liturgical technical terms, and an overload of difficult morphology and rare variations. Added to that is difficult syntax found in many places, which when combined with rare words and/or forms, that line of poetry seems plain impossible to understand (and don’t forget about difficult idioms). Are you sure you’re ready to read Hebrew? Yet though these difficulties are onerous, they are also what make the psalms so beautiful and exquisite. We continue coming back to them to “plumb their depths” so that God’s word can “animate both our inner life and our actions” (xviii). 

Psalm 1

Glosses

Above is the text of Psalm 1. Like in Hebrew, the text (and the entire book) reads from right to left. In the right-hand columns on both pages is the Hebrew text, and the glosses are placed in the left-hand columns. The authors have provided a gloss of all verbal forms present in each line of the Hebrew text, and a gloss for most non-verbal forms. Glosses aren’t placed according to the line’s word order. Instead,

  1. Finite verbs are glossed first, in black, in small capital letters. Unpointed root consonants are given. 
  2. Non-finite verbs (e.g., participles and infinitives) are glossed next, in gray. The formatting is the same as for finite verbs.  
  3. Non-verbs are glossed last, in gray. The gloss is in regular type with the lexical form provided. 

The authors note that if you read a line of Hebrew and glance over and see anything in black in the apparatus, then you know that there is at least one finite verbal clause in that line. 

Post-Psalm Apparatus

On the bottom of the left page is the post-psalm apparatus which deals with textual criticism and morphology.

There are three kinds of text critical notes:

  1. a section on what is “read” vs. what is “written” (qere/ketiv);
  2. a section on the differences in pointing (vocalization and accent marks/cantillation) between the Aleppo and Leningrad codexes; 
  3. and a section on alternate versions listing any orthographical differences between the Aleppo and Leningrad codexes not referenced in the section on pointing.

Concerning morphology, all verbs are parsed and in certain cases they hone in on the various parts of a verb (something they do for all non-verbs as well). 

Two appendices offer (1) a description of the main features of the book (mostly what I’ve described above, only in more and clearer detail) and (2) the system of Masoretic accents/cantillation. The information in Appendix 2 is covered in 22 pages and is another example of how the authors really want you to be able to understand the text. 

Kline went through every word of the Hebrew text to see what he thought would be most beneficial for readers when it comes to the glosses, and he crafted the morphology section by hand. Kline and Myer’s understanding of the Hebrew text of the Psalms and their explanations are informed by their own studies and through interactions with their students. This is a wonderful, carefully detailed book that will help students and scholars read the Psalms. This book will aid you in plumbing the depths of the Psalms so that God’s word can move and animate your inner life, compelling you further to worship our Lord. 

Lagniappe

  • Editors: Peter Myers and Jonathan Kline
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher : Hendrickson Publishers; Annotated edition (December 7, 2021)

Buy this from Amazon or Hendrickson Publishers!

Disclosure: I received this book free from Hendrickson Publishers. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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