You Are Smarter Than a Lexicon

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.

Bara Strongs

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):

Bara 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.

An Antidote

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.

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8 Responses to “You Are Smarter Than a Lexicon”

  1. Captain Faris June 2, 2010 at 8:10 am #

    Your conclusion–that complete Word Studies are required for exegesis and interpretation–is correct, of course. And your suggestion that L4 is the unchallenged leader in software to assist in making rapid word studies can’t be challenged. All this is true.
    But I wonder if your portrayal of how students use lexicons is quite right. I teach students to use lexical entries to remind themselves of the whole range of semantic meanings that the original words span so that they don’t unconsciously think the word occupies the same semantic space as the word chosen for translation. Essentially, I use lexicons to motivate the students to do a full word study to clear up the confusion this new range of meanings creates.
    Also, you don’t mention the fact that literature often communicates most clearly by using a word outside of its semantic range–as a pun, for example. Or in a word-game or sarcasm and mockery. In those cases it helps to know what lexical boundaries have been crossed.

  2. Todd Price June 2, 2010 at 8:31 am #

    Good blog post. I read it with great interest since I’m writing my PhD thesis on a specific application of componential analysis and collocations in Paul’s usage of certain lexemes, and I have some of the exact same concerns with the dangers of relying too heavily on lexica.

  3. Keith Crosby June 2, 2010 at 10:04 am #

    I do agree that students (pastors) can rely too heavily on lexica; however, this is solved by, as one before me put it—thorough exegesis. Nonetheless, with all due respect, I believe you have slightly overstated the problem.
    I am grateful for l4 platinum. Wish I’d had it in seminary:)

  4. denise barnhart June 2, 2010 at 11:14 am #

    Appreciate the blog posting; clearly you went to some trouble and it’s well written. I do think (however; smile) that the issue you bring up likely existed within just a few generations of the original writing (Origen and John/Rev being a good example). Were the latin translations good? Was the introduction of the vernacular wise, a thousand years later? Today, I spend quite a bit of time with the Navajo / English Bible translation, plus having familiarity with the underlying hebrew/greek. Quite a bit of the time, I think the Navajo provides a better translation, and potentially closer to aramaic. Certainly in learning hebrew/greek, ‘more is better’, but I am reluctant to throw stones at beginners, knowing that even english has is challenges in the translation.

  5. Rob Haskell June 2, 2010 at 12:11 pm #

    Hi Mike – Interesting post. I wonder if you are critiquing poor uses of lexicons rather than lexicons themselves. Of course we can’t cherry pick definitions, but that was never the intention of a lexicon, right? A good one tells us what the options are, just like a good English dictionary. Also, their greatest value is where ambiguity exists. So your example isn’t really the best. There isn’t much debate about bara in Gen 1:1! Finally, there are people who only dip into the original languages occasionally and there are people who study them in depth. I personally think the first group should stick to commentaries and not even crack the cover of a lexicon. The second group, though, can get much useful information from this resource: semantic range, important examples, parallel uses. In some cases a complete listing of uses. I do have a complaint of my own thought, which is that lexicon’s don’t often seem to know what they are doing in terms of linguistics. Are they providing a list of terms that translates a word or are they providing a list of terms that approximate a single meaning of a word, or are they providing a list of words that together explain all the dimensions of its meaning? These things could be clarified but they never are. Well, we are stuck with them. But I think there is too much useful info to discount them. Blessings,

  6. Jayson Bradley June 2, 2010 at 12:16 pm #

    The following is a response to your comment from Michael Heiser. Thank you for reading the blog and we appreciate the comment!
    Using a lexicon to get a full range of meanings is what I was referring to — getting the spectrum of English glosses. All of that work is actually done for students in the reverse interlinear via a right-click on any word and running “Bible Word Study” (BWS) – you get all the ways the word is glossed in your particular translation. In the video tools I start the word study procedure by recommending students create a beginning list of English glosses, either via a lexicon or the BWS, and then put the lexicon away. Sounds like your approach is similar.

  7. Jayson Bradley June 2, 2010 at 12:27 pm #

    The following is a response to your comment from Michael Heiser. Thank you for reading the blog and we appreciate the comment!
    I’m not throwing stone at beginners. I’m sympathetic to them. What I want is for them to get training and more useful tools. I think that’s clear from the article.

  8. Jayson Bradley June 2, 2010 at 12:42 pm #

    The following is a response to your comment from Michael Heiser. Thank you for reading the blog and we appreciate the comment!
    It’s not an overstatement if people aren’t trained in exegesis. Hence the emphasis on beginners. A beginner is *not* trained in exegesis.