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Interview: Robert Holmstedt, professor of Near- and Middle-Eastern civilisations

25 September 2020

‘I’ve taught Hebrew, Phoenician, and Ugaritic, and I’ve recently begun teaching Classical Ethiopic’

My academic home since 2005 has been the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto. Ours is an old department (for North America), with roots in Oriental Studies and the teaching of ancient and classical languages in the 19th century.

The university began life as an Anglican college, and those roots remain in the complex structure that weds the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, and United Church schools with the public research university that emerged in the mid-20th century.

The past 15 years have been very rich and rewarding. I’d venture that I’ve enjoyed one of the friendliest and most dynamic contexts in my field.

Toronto was quite slow to move into online instruction. In the past four months, we’ve jumped in the deep end with both feet. For the coming year, even small in-person class meetings must be simultaneously recorded or live-streamed for students who cannot be present.

My own academic coming-of-age straddled the advent of internet research; so I retain a healthy suspicion of technology in education. Catching the subtle visual or audio clues of a student’s comprehension is very difficult online; so I hope the future holds some return to traditional teaching — but it’s highly unlikely, in light of the relative ease of telecommuting for both students and instructors, and pressure to offer online instruction.

Students take Hebrew for the simple and good reason that they want to understand the Hebrew Bible better. The poet Chaim Bialek said it best: reading the Bible in translation is like kissing through a veil.

I focused on biblical and theological studies at Wheaton College, preparing for a pastoral career; but studying biblical languages opened my eyes. Entering the linguistic worlds of the Old and New Testaments permitted me to see details obscured by translation, while also impressing on me the foreignness of the biblical texts and their worlds. I felt both closer and more distant at the same time. The desire to conquer the distant sense, especially of the Hebrew texts, lies behind my decision to pursue graduate studies. Then I realised I had a particular capacity of understanding the linguistic structure of languages.

An accurate understanding of Hebrew grammar is necessary for an accurate understanding of the Hebrew texts of the Old Testament. All too often, I encounter a statement or translation in some commentary on a biblical book that reflects an ungrammatical sense of the Hebrew text.

There certainly isn’t always just one way to read a given text. Natural languages contain many ambiguities that allow for multiple and equally grammatical readings. But grammar does constrain the options; so much of my research has been focused on identifying the grammatical constraints, and then re-reading whole books in light of those constraints.

The spiritual impact of this activity is less straightforward. When I read scripture, my experience allows me to see both the rich cultural depth of the texts and to isolate the primary propositions from the complicating cultural and rhetorical features. But it’s easy to become distracted by technical details and lose any devotional focus. I imagine it’s a common conundrum for biblical scholars.

I was extremely blessed to be able to finish my last year of doctoral studies in Jerusalem. It was an eventful year that left my wife and me with many intense memories. Among the most joyful were becoming familiar with the Old City in Jerusalem, walking through the Siloam Tunnel, meeting many lovely people, and, of course, welcoming our first child, Avigayil. The year was troubled by the violence of the intifada, the 9/11 terrorist attack, and a growing awareness of the deep vexations that mark life there.

I’m unsure what will prove to be the path to peace as it concerns Israel. What I do know is that, in both ancient and modern politics, the inevitable losers were and are people who simply want to live their lives.

The programme I took in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin emphasised the study of language to serve the close reading of texts. To that end, we studied Hebrew, Phoenician, Aramaic, and Ugaritic. I’ve taught all but Aramaic, and I’ve recently begun teaching Classical Ethiopic. For the purposes of comparative Semitic work, I’ve a basic grasp of the grammars of Classical Arabic and Akkadian.

Understanding how Semitic languages work allows one to distinguish the features that Hebrew shares as a Semitic language and the features that distinguish it. It provides us with the boundaries for Hebrew, and prevents us from making claims about Hebrew grammar that are unreasonable.

In my monograph on the relative clause, for example, I argued that the likeliest analysis of the first words in the Old Testament, in Genesis, represents a type of relative clause in which the modifying part actually defines the initial word being modified. Though English grammar is different enough that a mimetic translation is difficult, the effective result is something like this: “In the beginning in which God created the cosmos . . . he said: ‘Let there be light.’” Some modern translations have the similar “When God began to create . . . ,” but my point was the missing linguistic argument in the traditional understanding.

As with most textbooks, our Beginning Biblical Hebrew and Intermediate Biblical Hebrew were born out of a frustration with existing textbooks and the conviction that we could do better. My co-author, John Cook, and I determined that existing Hebrew textbooks didn’t reflect current linguistic research on Hebrew grammar, or reflect contemporary research in second-language acquisition and teaching. We wanted to present our students with better descriptions of Hebrew grammar, and do it in a way that would maximise the ease of acquisition and the potential for long-term retention.

The use of colourful illustrations of biblical passages emerged out of our search for a way to give students memory-anchors for the words and grammar they learned. In language learning, we draw on all our senses — eyes, ears, mouths, gestures, touch, even smells — to create memory-anchors.

We have already drafted an advanced textbook that combines close textual reading, the most recent linguistic research on Hebrew, and composing in a variety of types of biblical Hebrew.

My father was a farmer in Nebraska who grew corn and soybeans and had a small breeding herd of cattle. I’m the seventh of eight children, and have memories of large family gatherings and a good deal of happy chaos. Farm life cultivated a strong work ethic, while being the youngest son forced me to think beyond the farm for my future. That’s how a “Nebraska farm goy” eventually found his way into Hebrew studies.

Home had simplicity, stability, and faith. It’s perhaps not surprising that my wife and I now have nine children, and the happy chaos continues into a new generation.

I was baptised in the Lutheran Church, and have fond memories of Sunday-school class, church pot-lucks, midweek Advent services, and, of course, an annual Christmas pageant. So my earliest experience of God was through the best things he offers through a faith community.

It’s a conundrum that, though Christ promises the Holy Spirit to the Christian, as a community through the ages we’ve suffered the same sorts of failures Israel was rebuked for by the prophets. If nothing else, it’s pointed me again and again to the deep insights of the Garden of Eden story.

We trouble ourselves with war, oppression, and strife of every kind, just as Israel did. Like the shepherd of Psalms 23, God finds a way to guide each generation towards restful waters.

I hope I’m able meet many grandchildren. My father passed away at 87 at the end of May, and getting to know many of his 32 grandchildren gave him great joy.

What makes me angry is the general loss of reason, logical argument, and civility in public discourse. Snide dismissiveness seems to have replaced reasoned rebuttal, especially on social media.

The chorus of welcomes from my children when I return from some outing makes me happy.

I pray most for wisdom to be a better husband with each year of marriage, and to be the best father I can for my children to prepare them for life in a very troubled world.

I’d choose to be locked in church with my wife. She’s more disciplined in prayer than I am. I suspect as long as I’m with her, there’s a better chance God will listen to me, too.

Professor Holmstedt was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Intermediate Biblical Hebrew is published by Baker Academic.

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