Posted by: mattcolvin | November 27, 2013

Review of A Reader’s Hebrew Bible (Zondervan)


This, the second in my series of reviews of original language Bibles, takes a look at the Zondervan Reader’s Hebrew Bible. (The first post was about the Biblia Sacra Vulgata.)

The book is marketed to seminarians and students of Biblical Hebrew.

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Construction

The RHB is bound in synthetic leather (Italian Duo-Tone) in a pleasing tan color, with matching endpapers and silver lettering on the cover and spine. It’s about 10 x 7″ and 2″ thick. The front cover — or the back, since this is a Hebrew book that reads from right to left — also bears the unprinted Hebrew subtitle, “תורה נביאים וכתובים” – Torah, nevi’im, vaketuvim, or the Law, Prophets, and Writings. The Duo-Tone material is soft pleasant to the touch, but a bit rubbery. It will not be mistaken for real leather, but like Alcantara, it is a nice material in its own right. It bears stitching with matching-color thread around its edges. Some care needs to be taken, however, because the Duo-Tone material can suffer scratches and corner wear more easily than real leather. It does not become more supple with wear, but simply looks dingier. I like the cover, but would prefer real leather of some sort.

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The cover is not a yapp or semi-yapp, but just extends a quarter inch beyond the edge of huge pages.

Mark Bertrand is fond of showing off how flexible a well-bound leather-covered Bible is by displaying them doing “yoga”. The RHB is up to the task — perhaps a little too much so, for the boards are very thin and can easily be creased. To protect the cover, I keep my copy in a zippered case made by Ichthus Witness Gear, which I found in the OMF bookshop here in Davao City.

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The fairly thin pages are edged with silver. There is a single gold-colored bookmark ribbon, and it is fortunately not of the same braided sort as is found in the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft editions, which fray easily. The pages are smyth-sewn, but square-cut, rather than rounded at the corners. This increases the propensity for dog-ears.

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In sum, there is an awkward feeling of fragility, as though the weight of the book were a threat especially to its hinges and endpapers. The overall effect is one of an odd assemblage of classy touches — good paper, ribbon, smyth-sewn binding, silver lettering and page edging — that sit oddly over a deeper lack of quality. It looks good, but it is not going to be an heirloom. Since it is from Zondervan, a mass market Bible publisher, and the price is only $40 or so, I think the defects are excusable. One does not expect a Ford Mustang to have a V-12 and full carbon fibre monocoque.

Contents
The RHB is the work of Bryan Smith of Bob Jones University Press and A. Philip Brown II of God’s Bible School and College in Cincinnati. Smith did the work of readying the text and glosses, while Brown is responsible for the layout. Smith has used the Westminster Leningrad Codex (L) for their text, noting differences from Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) in an appendix.

The books of the Old Testament are presented in the sequence of BHS, with Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the 12 minor prophets following 2 Kings, then the poetical books, with Lamentations following Ecclesiastes and Ruth inserted between Proverbs and Song of Songs. Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles are at the end.

At the very end of the book there is an appendix listing the words that occur over 100 times in the Hebrew Bible. It is only 7 pages long, and can be downloaded and printed as a booklet — a handy way for beginners to keep it at their fingertips and save their RHBs from the wear of flipping repeatedly to the back (front) of the book. This appendix is actually the part of the book that I feel most needs correction, for one simple reason: although the pagination is still from right to left, the columns on the page are from left to right. This makes it very confusing when looking up a word: first you have to find the page, which you do from right to left; then you have to go the other direction to find the column.

The seven page appendix giving vocabulary occurring more than 100 times.

The seven page appendix giving vocabulary occurring more than 100 times.

Where the written text (kethib) of L and BHS is accompanied by an alternate reading that is to be read (qere), BHS prints the qere in the margin, and uses the qere’s vowel points on the kethib. RHB, by contrast, prints both readings in the text, one after the other, with a superscript K and Q denoting which is which. This is handy, but it takes some getting used to: if you are a fast enough reader of Hebrew (or just happen to be very familiar with the English of a particular passage), you may find yourself zipping along and then grind to a halt as you try to parse a sentence that appears to include both the kethib and qere words — and only after puzzling for some moments, you will notice the superscript K and Q, and realize that the sentence makes sense when only one of the two words is included.

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The whole point of this Bible is of course the English glosses. Every Hebrew word occurring less than 100 times (and every Aramaic word occurring less than 25 times) is glossed at the foot of the page. These are keyed to the text with footnote style numbers. Where a glossed word occurs multiple times on a given page, all instances of it bear the same superscript number referring the reader to a single gloss. The meanings are derived from HALOT, with Brown-Driver-Briggs as a secondary source. The glosses are brief and context-specific when HALOT and BDB cited a particular verse for a given meaning: yet occasionally, the lexica do not offer specific glosses, and when this happens, the RHB gives all the meanings, including irrelevant meanings alongside the needed one. The editors explain: “For example, HALOT glosses חג as ‘procession, round dance, festival.’ It should be apparent to the reader of Leviticus 23 that the hag sukkot was neither a procession nor a round dance.” Personally, I don’t find this a problem, but some may object to the need to sift multiple meanings. The only alternative would be for us to trust the editors to choose the right meaning for us. The method used forces us to trust HALOT and BDB rather than the editors. It seems like a good compromise to me, since this book is a pedagogical tool intended to improve one’s ability to read Hebrew. To do scholarship, one needs to use a proper critical edition of BHS and the lexicons, not the RHB.

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There are some errors in the text. I spent a few months reading once a week with a friend from church, and there were two occasions when no amount of glosses made sense of a sentence. I would then open BHS to find that the sentence had been printed incorrectly in the RHB. But in fairness, this only happened twice, and I cannot recall the specific passages now. (Some reviewers on Amazon.com are on the warpath about the RHB perpetuating errors in the glosses first perpetrated by HALOT or BDB; but this seems to me entirely excusable. Correcting such errors throughout the entire Hebrew Bible would effectively amount to re-editing HALOT!)

Design and Typography

The chosen Hebrew font is sourced from Bibleworks. It appears appears to be extremely close to the typeface used in BHS. (Another similar font is Ezra by SIL, whose Asia headquarters is next to the Faith Academy Mindanao campus, where I teach daily.) It is sufficiently bold that it is able to sustain the gloss numbers on top of chapter and verse numbers, vowel points, accents, cantillation marks, and punctuation.

Proper names are usually printed in gray, as a way of alerting the reader that he should not be frustrated by the absence of such words in the glosses, but should try pronouncing them.

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Like BHS, the RHB is presented in a single column layout. A line divides the text from the glosses. There is good paragraphing for the prose portions, while poetry is presented in a line-by-line format. A generous gutter prevents anything from disappearing into the gloom. Unfortunately, the layout does not feature line matching, a technique used by some high-end Bible publishers to minimize ghosting, so there is some show-through. It is mitigated, however, by the very bold Hebrew typeface used for the text.

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Ghosting clearly visible, but not too much of a distraction from the text.


 

I have seen the RHB at the Reformed Episcopal Seminary bookstore and the Trinity School for Ministry bookstore in Ambridge, PA, which is probably an indication that it has caught on nicely at seminaries. The reviews at Amazon.com are quite favorable, averaging 4.5 stars out of 5. (Three people gave one star: one of them, because he doesn’t know any Hebrew yet; another because the book has been edited by Christians; and the third because his Amazon order arrived late.) It’s a very nice Bible for those of us who need some assistance with Hebrew vocabulary, and while the bones of the binding may not be great, the luxurious touches make the book a pleasure to handle and use.


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