Grammars for Biblical Hebrew

Grammars are one of the most important tools for studying the Hebrew Bible. The can offer explanations of features that are difficult to understand within a biblical text.

Unlike modern grammars, Biblical Hebrew grammars are not authoritative. Modern grammars can tell you what is “right” and “wrong” about the grammar of a language. However, there are no speakers of Biblical Hebrew alive today who could write such a grammar.

Instead, grammars for Biblical Hebrew work from the text of the Hebrew Bible. These grammars try to describe and explain features of the language found within the Bible using all resources available, such as contextual clues, comparative Semitics, linguistic analysis, etc. Though not authoritative, grammars of Biblical Hebrew are still invaluable for reading and understanding the Bible.

For studying Biblical Hebrew, there are two main kinds of grammars: Introductory grammars and reference grammars.

Introductory Grammars

If you wish to start learning Biblical Hebrew, then you must start with an introductory grammar. These grammars will present the basics of Biblical Hebrew including writing, pronunciation, and an overview of nouns, adjectives, prepositions, and verbal forms. Most will also give you a solid foundation in Biblical Hebrew vocabulary as well.

In all honesty, you probably shouldn’t try to start learning Biblical Hebrew on your own. The language is very different from English and there are many concepts which are best learned through a teacher explaining them, rather than simply reading in a book. You will likely use whatever book your teacher thinks is best.

One important disclaimer about introductory grammars: the texts within the biblical canon were probably written over a period of 600-900 years. Many of the texts also originated from distinct geographical areas. There are also many different genres of texts within the Hebrew Bible, such as prose narrative, prophetic works, wisdom literature, hymns of praise, etc. Thinking that by mastering an introductory grammar that you will learn enough to open up any chapter in the Hebrew Bible and read it without difficulty is highly unrealistic.

Mastering an introductory grammar (which is not an easy task in itself) should be thought of as a good beginning. From there you can begin reading relatively simple texts, working hard on vocabulary, continue practicing parsing verbs, and perhaps working through an intermediate grammar such as Waltke O’Connor.

Reference Grammars

Reference grammars are not designed to teach you Biblical Hebrew. In fact, if you try to use a reference grammar to learn how to read Biblical Hebrew you will likely get frustrated and bored.

Instead, reference grammars should be used when you have encountered an unusual feature or problem within a biblical text that you do not know how to solve. Reference grammars are for reference!

The two most important reference grammars available in English are Gesenius and Joüon-Muraoka. Both of these texts are serious academic works that will give you far more information than you will likely ever need, provided that you can learn how to use them.

Both Gesenius and Joüon-Muraoka use linguistic jargon which can be difficult for beginning and intermediate scholars. Gesenius is slightly more detailed, whereas Joüon-Muraoka is slightly more readable and more updated. It is better not to choose between Gesenius and Joüon-Muraoka, but rather to use both together.

Both Gesenius and Joüon-Muraoka have very useful indexes at the back which, in addition to their tables of contents, can help you find the information you are looking for.

In addition to Gesenius and Joüon-Muraoka, there is a third important reference grammar, Waltke O’Connor. Waltke O’Connor is not as detailed or exhaustive as Gesenius or Joüon-Muraoka. It also only deals with syntax and does not include sections on phonology or morphology.

However, Waltke O’Connor is much more readable than Gesenius and Joüon-Muraoka. It also has a very helpful glossary of linguistic terms. In many ways Waltke O’Connor serves to bridge the gap between introductory grammars and reference grammars. Many intermediate students find it helpful for continuing to learn about particular features of Biblical Hebrew.