Today’s guest post is by Dr. Michael S. Heiser, Academic Editor at Logos Bible Software.
Lexicons are commonly used for studying biblical languages. It may shock you, then, that I’m an advocate for discouraging their use by beginning Hebrew and Greek students. I’m not kidding. I’d be happy if beginning students never used them.
I don’t diminish lexicons because they are so frequently abused. It also isn’t because I want people to spend hundreds of hours memorizing Hebrew and Greek vocabulary. For those newly initiated to Hebrew and Greek, lexicons just don’t give you any useful information—and yet professors seem bent on convincing their students that they are indispensable for biblical interpretation.
What’s a Lexicon Anyway?
To be fair, there was a time when lexicons approached that level of importance. Think about what a lexicon is: a book that lists each word in a given body of literature of a foreign language, while assigning an English equivalent to each foreign word. The better lexicons went beyond that service to listing several English equivalents and cataloguing specific instances in the foreign literature where that word occurred. This informed the user that the given foreign word could be used on many contexts and provided examples. All of that collecting and collating had to be done by hand, and very few people were so expertly trained that they could manage the task. But if we’re honest, all of that work only enabled translation and reading—not interpretation.
Why Not Just Use an English Thesaurus?
In other words, the only thing lexicons really did for the user was put data in front of them and suggest a one-to-one correspondence of each word with an English word. If you think about it, that’s basically what an English thesaurus does for English. You start with one word and then are given a list of other words that you might want to swap in for the word you started with. To be blunt, we use a thesaurus the way beginning students use lexicons. If I wanted to know what the word “beginning” might really mean in that last sentence, I could go to a thesaurus and discover that “beginning” might “mean” the following: birth, commencement, onset, opening, inception, source, emergence, rising, dawning, simplest, initiatory, or introductory. You could argue for a couple of those as to what Dr. Heiser intended, and then you’d pick one. Never mind that each of those synonyms has its own range of nuances. Never mind that this method makes the user the point of origin for “meaning”—as opposed to context. The latter requires time spent reading through the spectrum of a word’s usages and then—most importantly—thinking carefully about how the context allows or rules out certain meanings. In the latter you’re tracing the thought of the text and its author in an effort to describe what his point is in as many words as it takes. In the former you’re looking for one word substitutes. That’s what standard lexicons do for you—provide lists of English substitutes. That isn’t word study.
Reading is not Exegesis
Why do we think that the enterprise of looking up a Greek or Hebrew word to get an English equivalent is a useful thing to do? Professors would answer: “So you can do translation.” We now have hundreds of English translations, so why would we need to do our own? The truth is that knowing thousands of English word equivalents for Hebrew and Greek never made anyone a more careful interpreter. Being able to sight read Greek or Hebrew doesn’t guarantee exegetical accuracy any more than being able to read your English Bible does. Reading and exegesis are two very different things. My eight-year-old daughter can read me any passage in the Bible, but I’m not using her in place of a commentary. Reading is not exegesis.
Illustrating the Problem
You might think I’m exaggerating a bit. Let me demonstrate. Below is the entry from The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament for the Hebrew word baraʾ, the word translated “create” in Genesis 1:1.
So what did we learn? That the Hebrew word baraʾ means “create” in many instances, and that God is its subject. We’d already know the former if we were using an interlinear. The fact that God is the only subject of that verb is interesting, but it tells us nothing about what baraʾ means. Are you more able to interpret the passage? Did your congregation learn anything when you told them that behind the English word “create” was a Hebrew word that meant “create”? What kind of creating are we talking about? Does the word ever refer to creation using materials? Does it always mean creation from nothing? Does it have synonyms that describe the use of materials? How do I find them? What are the verb’s objects, the things created? Why would an author use this verb and not another one? Does an author ever use this verb along with another one in parallel? The lexicon doesn’t tell us. More importantly, the lexicon never suggests that we should even ask those questions. It just gives us an English equivalent and becomes mute.
Maybe the problem is that I used The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament. Perhaps if I used a scholarly lexicon the floodgates of insight would open. Nope. The entry below is from the leading scholarly lexicon for biblical Hebrew, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT):
What did we learn this time? That baraʾ means “create”—just like our English translation tells us. We learned that some other Semitic languages have a verb for “create” as well (really, does any language not have such a word?). The rest of the HALOT entry divides the occurrences of the Hebrew verb baraʾ into something in Hebrew grammar known as stems. Depending on the verb, that can be very important, since translation of a word can depend on the stem. But beginners aren’t going to know about stems, and in the case of baraʾ, even if they did it wouldn’t be useful. The Hebrew verb baraʾ occurs in two stems. In the “Qal” stem the verb means “to create”; in the “Niphal” stem, which is passive, the verb means “be created.” Wow. That’ll preach.
So how can you do better in word study if you’re not a specialist in Hebrew or Greek? There are three truly indispensable things you need for developing skill in handling the Word of God.
First, you need a means to get at all the data of the text. Logos Bible Software is the premier tool for that. Through reverse interlinears, you can begin with English and mine the Bible for all occurrences of a Greek or Hebrew word. Logos 4 then takes that data and renders it in a variety of visual displays and reports so you can begin to look at the material and think about it from different angles—such as the Bible Word Study report, where you see how your word relates grammatically to other words in the sentence. Second, you need someone who is experienced in interpretation to guide you in how to process the data in front of you. You need training in what questions to ask and why you’d ask them. There is simply no substitute in word study for thinking about the occurrences of a word on your own. Lexicons will give you lists of English choices, but cherry-picking a list isn’t the same thing as asking critical, reflective, interpretive questions about the word in its context. Third, you need practice, practice, and more practice.
Logos Bible Software has been helping you do the first of these steps for years. Moving your Bible study beyond perusing a list of English words is precisely why Logos has made a commitment to the second item—by producing nearly twenty hours of guided advice in our Learn to Use Biblical Greek and Hebrew video tools. These video tools are our first step toward helping you understand how to think about words and grammatical concepts so you can begin to discern the interpretive nuances Greek and Hebrew can provide. It’s time to learn how to handle the biblical text, not just read English words in a lexicon. You’re smarter than that.