Studying Hebrew

When I began studying at Wesley Theological Seminary (when the ink was barely dry on the Torah and Paul was still writing Epistles – ok maybe not THAT long ago, but it was a long time ago – it was in 2008) the first class I took was Hebrew Bible. It was actually the only class I took that first semester, as I was working full-time then.

So there I was in Hebrew Bible I, and I was just a bit embarrassed. I had spent five years learning Hebrew in Hebrew School as a child, and I could barely count to ten and I couldn’t even remember the whole alphabet. Here I was being taught by a Christian professor (a professor who would turn out to be one of my favorites – a mentor, in fact) who could read the Bible in Hebrew, and I couldn’t do that.

Now, I should give you a little background. When I started at Wesley there were two professors teaching Intro to Hebrew Bible. The Dean, Bruce Birch, was teaching the four-credit all-in-one-semester class during the day, and Mentor Professor was teaching the two credits per semester class in the evening. I was working full-time then, so I didn’t have a choice. I took the evening class.

I loved the evening class. It was great. But it did mean that I didn’t have an opportunity to study with Dr. Birch, who is well-known in his field, and who would be retiring soon. Well, sort of. That kind of retiring where someone retires from the full-time job, but then just does the things he wants and likes to do when he wants to do them. That kind of retirement. Well, until the next Dean left and he came back to be the Dean again (temporarily) last year. But that was just for last year. So anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. Hebrew. Biblical Hebrew.

I freely admit that I’m a grade hound. I fully expect to be graduated with honors in May. But I made a decision early on in my seminary career. I decided that, even though I’ve had a very hard time with languages, I was going to learn Hebrew. So I did it. I took first year intro biblical Hebrew. And the first semester, it was taught by a graduate student from another school who didn’t know how to teach Hebrew. It was awful. But I stuck with it. The second semester we got in someone else. He was great. He taught us in the method that had been used at the seminary for years. I learned. I learned and I loved it. And I couldn’t get enough.

And then, the next year, Mentor Professor offered one credit of intermediate Hebrew along with a psalms class. Heaven! More Hebrew! So I took the psalms class and the optional additional credit in Hebrew. We translated psalms. Poetry is much harder than narrative. But it was great. So I kept doing it. I did it for three more semesters. Until this year.

This year, I’ve been doing my internship at a local congregation. It’s a full-time internship (for credit), and I’m really not supposed to be taking any other classes while I’m doing it. What to do!?!

Well, it turns out the the four credits per semester for the internship didn’t make me quite a half-time student. In order to be half-time (and therefore not have to pay back my student loan yet), I would have to take five credits per semester. So I went to my internship professor and asked permission, and BEHOLD! He gave me permission! So then I just needed a professor to study Hebrew with.

Mentor Professor is on sabbatical. So I went to the Dean. I went to Dr. Birch and I asked if he’d be willing to do a directed study in advanced reading Hebrew with me. And he said yes!

So let me explain about being an academic fan-girl. This is like, if you’re a film student, and if you go to Steven Spielberg and say, “Could I do a semester of directed study with you?” and he says yes. Now, I did get to take a classroom class with Bruce Birch before. I got to take Hebrew Bible Goes to the Movies in summer school, and it was fantastic. Now I was going to get to pick the master’s brain all by myself. How cool!

So we met about once a month, drank coffee, and translated Amos and Habakkuk. There is a whole different vibe doing this one-on-one. No going around the class and reading out loud. He was already confident in my ability to read the Hebrew. By habit, I would parse all the verbs. Until Dr. Birch said that he was pretty sure I could parse verbs. No need to do that (which isn’t to say I never got one wrong, but no need to go through the whole thing). Just read my translation to him. And point out where I was having any problems.

And then we’d talk. About the translation. About why it was better to read it in Hebrew (SO many reasons. I did have to write a short reflection on this). About translation choices – why this word over that word. About context. About prophetic writing. “You might want to get this book.” I got it.

What a privilege to go so deeply into texts this way. What a luxury! To do this, just for my own benefit! Well, ok, it is just possible that others might benefit from it as well. I mean, the more I learn the more I can put into my sermons and  my ministry in general. O God of Torah and wisdom, please, please, please keep me from being pedantic in my sermons.

But the thing is, Rev. Dr. Birch is also completely pastoral, which has been wonderful, as well. And he’s not a Unitarian Universalist. Which is also wonderful. By which I mean that he doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not I get fellowship in the UUA. This has been a completely welcome island away from the preparation for seeing the ministerial fellowship committee (MFC). He has only been evaluating my Hebrew, not my ministry.

Next semester, I will study with New Professor. I’m looking forward to that, too. New Professor is younger than I am. (Dr. Birch began teaching at Wesley when I was still in elementary school). New Professor has only been at Wesley for a semester (so far), and is still finishing up his own dissertation. But I’m looking forward to it. It will be a different relationship, but still more Hebrew.

I am so grateful to Mentor Professor for getting me on the road to Hebrew again – and teaching me more Hebrew for the last couple of years. And to Adjunct Professor who first taught me so that I would learn it. And to New Professor who has agreed, even during his first year as a seminary professor, to take me on as a directed study student, and especially to Dr. Birch, who has guided me as a professor and a pastor this last semester. It has been a joy.

That’s my mite. It’s all I’ve got.


One thought on “Studying Hebrew

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