Most textbooks of biblical Hebrew begin with prose. That has it all backwards.
That is not how we learn a language. We learn it through poetry and song.
My four year old Anna loves it when I read to her. It’s the last thing she wants before she falls asleep. She loves the old nursery rhymes most of all, and I really wish I had parts of the Bible in nursery rhyme style to read to her.
I don’t mean the namby-pamby parts of the Bible – as if there were any – but something even a bit blood-curdling. Anna likes the nursery rhymes – and there are plenty of them in the traditional American repertoire – that get her heart pumping.
The Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) might be a good song to start with. Or perhaps the song of her namesake, il cantico di Anna (1 Samuel 2). Did you know that Anna and Hannah are versions of the same name?
If you know what Channah means in Hebrew, you almost know one of the names of God.
Here is a poem by Adunis (Ali Ahmad Said) that was part of that exhibition. You may want to learn more about this Syrian-Lebanese poet. I translate from the Hebrew, checked against the Arabic as best I could. Are you worried because I’m teaching biblical Hebrew via poetry in modern Hebrew?
Get over it, please. The language hasn’t changed that much. The following poem is beautiful, and will get under your skin unless you are dead as a doornail. That’s how we learn a language: by letting it get under the skin and become a part of us.
הילד שהייתי בא אלי
לא אמר דבר. צעדנו
ושנינו מביטים זה בזה בחטף. צעדינו
נהר זורם זרות.
אדוניס/ מתוך "ראשית הדיבור"
Here’s a translation. I don’t follow the lineation of the original because to do so, paradoxically, would not catch the flavor of the original as well as lineating in the way done below (for another translation, by a talented Egyptian blogger who goes by Zoss, go here. He lineates in a similar way).
The child I used to be
all at once
came to me,
a stranger within.
He didn’t say a word. We strode,
the two of us, glancing back and forth furtively. Our strides
a river flooding, astray.
All of the words in the poem (except זרות, but cf. זר; actually, Job 19:17 comes to mind; בפני, to be sure, means ‘in front of’ in BH, whereas בפנים in MH means ‘within’) occur in the Bible.
By the way, the easiest way to find out the meaning of a Hebrew word in a hurry is to cut and paste it into this online dictionary.
It’s always better to read Hebrew without vowels, but here is the same poem, vocalized:
הַיֶּלֶד שֶׁהָיִיתִי בָּא אֵלַי
לֹא אָמַר דָּבָר. צָעַדְנוּ
וּשְׁנֵינוּ מַבִּיטִים זֶה בְּזֶה בַּחֲטֹף. צְעָדֵינוּ
נָהָר זוֹרֵם זָרוֹת.
אֲדוֹנִיס/ מִתִּוֹךְ "רֵאשִׁית הַדִּיבּוּר"