Using Old Testament Hebrew in Preaching: A Guide for Students and Pastors

By Paul D. Wegner
Grand Rapids : Kregel (2009). 166 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
21.2 (Fall 2010) : 261-264

Paul Wegner is professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary. His books include A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible (InterVarsity, 2006), reviewed in MSJ 18/1 (Spring 2007):140-42, and Bible Introduction: The Journey from Texts to Translations (Baker, 1999, 2004). This brief volume seeks to remind seminarians and pastors of the benefits that accrue from utilizing Biblical Hebrew in ministry. Wegner arranges the book around key questions that seminary graduates and active pastors might ask. Each chapter concludes with “Things to Consider” and “Further Reading” (e.g., 27-28, 66, 84-85).

Wegner first addresses the question, “How will knowing Biblical Hebrew help me in my ministry?” (13-28). His response includes the capriciousness of Bible translations (15-16) and an appeal to professionalism (17). In order to plan for success in the acquisition and usage of Biblical Hebrew, the minister must assess his motives (19-20), objectives regarding degree of fluency (20-22), and methods for learning Biblical Hebrew (23-27).

“What are the crucial tools that I should get?” comprises the second question that the author poses (29-66). Wegner identifies fourteen essential resources for the minister’s tool box (32-50): an English translation, a Hebrew Bible, guides to BHS, a parsing guide, a reading guide, a Hebrew-English lexicon, a Hebrew- English concordance, a beginning Hebrew grammar, a vocabulary list, a reference Hebrew grammar, a Hebrew syntax book, a Hebrew word study dictionary, a book on OT textual criticism, and a Septuagint. Focusing first on an English Bible version seems somewhat counter-productive to learning Biblical Hebrew. After all, being freed from the constraints of a translation entails devoting oneself to the biblical language. Although this reviewer agrees with most of the author’s recommendations regarding resource choices, the recommendation for a vocabulary list (44-45) should have included George M. Landes, Building Your Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary (SBL, 2001). Directing ministers to a Septuagint sends the wrong signal—it implies the insufficiency or inaccuracy of the Hebrew text. Recommending the quite outdated Brenton text (49-50) is also fraught with difficulties since individuals tend to canonize it and elevate it above better and more recent editions.

Following the fourteen essential tools, Wegner suggests the addition of resources dealing with OT background (50-55): a Bible encyclopedia, a Bible atlas, an OT introduction, an OT survey, an OT history, a chart book, and OT commentaries. Though the Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992) might provide a scholarly Bible encyclopedia (50), evangelical ministers might prefer more conservative encyclopedias like International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 1982) or Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Zondervan, 1995). Harrison’s OT introduction (51) is outdated, though still valuable. Hill and Walton’s A Survey of the Old Testament (Zondervan, 2000) is neither a survey (it is an OT introduction) nor the best edition of the volume (52)—see review in MSJ 21/1 (Spring 2010):117-19. As far as a reference recommending OT commentaries (54- 55), the minister should obtain Jim Rosscup’s Commentaries for Biblical Expositors (Kress Christian Publications, 2003). Wegner provides his own commentary guide in Appendix A (123-33).

The survey of electronic resources and computer software (55-65) provides a helpful listing with prices and a comparison of features. The recommendations for “Further Reading” (66) should include Douglas Stuart, Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, 4th ed. (Westminster John Knox, 2009)—see review in MSJ 21/1 (Spring 2010):129-31.

Wegner’s third question is “What am I looking for and how do I find it?” (67-85). This chapter defines biblical exegesis (68-71) and identifies the steps involved in obtaining an understanding of the Hebrew Bible (72-84). The approach does not create confidence in Wegner’s ability to exegete the text or to train ministers in exegesis. First, reliance upon liberal higher critical methodologies like source criticism (73), form criticism (74), rhetorical criticism (75), and redaction criticism (76) leads the minister away from the authority and integrity of Scripture into the morass of skeptical hermeneutics. Second, identifying Dorsey’s The Literary Structure of the Old Testament (Baker, 2004) as a “helpful resource for determining literary structures” (72 n. 4), limits the literary research to but one literary device: chiasm—far too narrow to provide sound literary analysis. Thankfully, ministers may obtain some degree of help from the brief discussions of immediate context (76), textual criticism (77), lexical analysis (78-79), syntactical analysis (79), historical analysis (79-80), and theological analysis (80-83), and application (83-84). Appendixes B-E coordinate with some of these areas to provide worksheets and greater methodological detail (135-53).

Chapter Four examines the question, “How do I prepare an Old Testament sermon?” (87-112). The acronym “READ THE BOOK” (88) actually forces the order of the exegetical steps into an unnatural and irrational arrangement (88-89). Prayer should come first, not last. Ascertaining the original reading of the text cannot occur without first understanding the grammar and syntax of the text. A number of the headings for resources in the details for each exegetical step are unhappy. For example, placing the Holman Christian Standard Bible with translations like The Message and New Living Translation under “Other Popular Translations and Paraphrases” (93) implies that HCSB is a paraphrase. “Critical Commentaries on the Hebrew Text” (95) does not include any commentaries. The same misuse of “Commentaries” occurs repeatedly (97, 100, 102, 103, 107). In three places, Wegner identifies John MacArthur et al., Rediscovering Expository Preaching (Word, 1992) as a helpful resource on expository preaching (105, 109, 110).

The final question of the volume is “How do I reap the benefits of all the labor of learning Hebrew?” (113-22). Wegner offers a number of helpful ideas for maintaining Hebrew translation skills (114-17) and Hebrew vocabulary (117-19), as well as how to keep using Hebrew in sermons (120-21). Author (155-60) and Scripture (161-64) indexes round out the volume.

While Using Old Testament Hebrew in Preaching does provide some encouragement and guidance to students and pastors for maintaining their Hebrew, it falls short of providing an accurate guide for exegesis. Obtain this volume and refer to it often, but use it wisely. It provides information that is usable, but does not rise to the level of a required seminary textbook.