You Should Probably Stop Using Lexicons

Why you should stop using a lexionLexicons are commonly used for studying biblical languages. It may shock you, then, that I discourage beginning Hebrew and Greek students from using them. 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, though that’s true. It also isn’t because I want people to spend hundreds of hours memorizing Hebrew and Greek vocabulary. The reason is that, for those newly initiated to Hebrew and Greek, lexicons just don’t give you much useful information.

Basically, all standard lexicons do is give you alternative English glosses. And yet professors seem bent on the idea that they are indispensable for beginning students.

What’s a lexicon anyway?

A lexicon is a book that lists each word found in a given body of literature in a particular foreign language, and assigns an English equivalent to each word. The better lexicons go beyond that service and list several English equivalents and catalog specific instances of that word in the literature where that word occurs. This informs the user that the given word could be used in many contexts, and it also provides examples.

But if we’re honest, all of this only enables translation and reading—not interpretation. Your teenager knows how to read the English Bible. Do you really presume that just because they can read they are prepared for interpretation? I didn’t think so.

Reading and interpretation are related, but they aren’t the same thing.

Why not just use an English thesaurus?

Lexicons put data in front of you and misleadingly 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.

Thesauruses are often used 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
  • introductory

You could argue for a couple of those as to what was 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 the context.

The latter requires time 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. That’s the process of 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.

That goes well beyond looking for one-word substitutes. Discovering word substitutes is what standard lexicons do for you.

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.

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 Gen 1:1.
bara

So what did we learn? That the Hebrew word baraʾ means “create” in many instances, and that God is always its subject. We’d already know the former if we were using an interlinear, and 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” is a Hebrew word that means “create”? What kind of creating are we talking about? Does the word ever refer to 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 then 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):
bara2

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 many 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 word studies 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 6 then takes that data and renders it in a variety of visual displays and reports—such as the Bible Word Study report, where you see how your word relates grammatically to other words in the sentence—so you can begin to look at the material and think about it from different angles.

Second, you need someone who is experienced in interpretation to guide you in how to process the data in front of you. There is simply no substitute in word study for thinking about the occurrences of a word on your own, and so you need training in what questions to ask and why to ask them. 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 step, by producing over 20 hours of guidance in our Learn to Use Biblical Greek and Hebrew Mobile Ed courses. These courses, which go beyond mere video, are our first step toward helping you understand how to think about words and grammatical concepts so you can begin to discern the nuances of Greek and Hebrew for interpretation. It’s time to learn how to handle the biblical text, not just read English words in a lexicon.

You’re smarter than that.

Save over 55% on Learn to Use Biblical Greek and Hebrew with Logos 6 when you pre-order today!

Michael Heiser earned his PhD in Hebrew Bible and Semitic languages from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Bob Jones University. As a scholar in residence for Faithlife, Mike is responsible for targeting and evaluating potential data projects for scholarly products, overseeing existing academic projects, and the creation of written content.

Comments

  1. On balance they do seem to create more confusion than they resolve.

  2. Matthew says:

    Mike, any update on when this will be released? I signed up for the prepub when you put it on your blog a few months back. Ready for this and Unseen Realm to drop!

  3. I disagree with the whole premise of the article. Lexicons can be quite useful and help you to arrive at meanings. This is just a glossy way of trying to sell a product, though I can’t blame them for that!

  4. Wow, I was hoping for some new insight on Biblical interpretation. Instead all I got was a sad plea to buy Logos 6. Please do not get me wrong I love Logos and use it in my sermon preparation. But the idea that we should not use Lexicons, instead all we need to do is by Logos 6 and then let the program do all of the work, all that does is promote laziness. This article is embarrassing, it is embarrassing to me personally because I encourage people to buy Logos 6. If Dr. Heiser truly believes what he wrote, then I also feel sorry for anyone who would listen to him teach or preach. To the wonderful people at Logos, please pull this article and never let Dr. Heiser write for you again.

  5. Odd article, "Don't use lexicons, use lexicons. By the way Logos 6 has lexicons." One of my favorite features in Logos 6, is its lexicons (such as HALOT). Interesting that you only quoted part of the HALOT entry which goes on to cite relevant passages where brh is used (information that is helpful for a word-study).

  6. I'll stop drinking coffee before I stop using lexicons. But hey, thanks for the suggestion.

  7. Don''t use lexicons. Get logos. Strange advice indeed. You'll get me to stop using HALOT and BDAG when you pry them from my cold dead fingers.

  8. Aimed to "discourage beginning Hebrew and Greek students from using them." I think he encourages us to go to folks like the critics here for help from someone who is experienced in interpretation to guide you in how to process the data in front of you.” That may be a scary prospect.

    I like the article as a beginner. I find myself very easily confused and will give your article serious consideration Dr. Heiser and hope they do not fire your over this as some would suggest.

  9. I find the NIDOTTE/NIDNTT really helpful on important concepts like this.

  10. It's almost like he's confusing a glossary with a lexicon. A glossy is the one-to-one word playground. A lexicon provides REQUIRED insight into the semantic domain of a word. You cannot do anything without that. That information is how you avoid starting a new cult. But, no, no first year learner should touch a lexicon for that language. That's a universal rule.

  11. Its kind of funny how every commenters brains stopped and shut down on the word "lexicon". The point is "helping you understand how to think about words and grammatical concepts so you can begin to discern the nuances of Greek and Hebrew for interpretation". A lexicon by its self will not develop your "thinking carefully about how the context allows or rules out certain meanings". Under AN ANTIDOTE: there are three (3) points to ponder and yes this course in LEARN TO USE BIBLICAL GREEK AND HEBREW "teach you how to handle the biblical text, not just read English words in a lexicon. My Logos should offer a course in reading and understanding English….LOL

  12. I think a better strategy could have been used to promote logos 6, discouraging use of lexicons, even though I see his point, did not help. But I also think some comments on the article are unhelpful. I always cringe when I read people's comments on internet articles, I expect Christian comments to be gracious but I guess that's not true.

  13. Unfortunately this a case of an article searching for a reason to increase sales not knowledge, and the comments have detected this not so subtle approach. Dr. Heiser is a wonderful writer and teacher, and I am certain a thoughtful and faithful man of God. But, there is a cost when the emphasis is on sales, and that cost in this case is a deduction to biblical wisdom.

    Yes I love Logos and use Logos probably more hours in a day than most, but my loving Logos and Logos loving sales are two different things. I have often thought that Logos has reached a point where they need a Christian ombudsmen for users. A wise deliberative past business owner and a person of God that could encourage Logos, yet speak when the natural inclination for sales needs the input of biblical wisdom. The inclination is natural in that it takes income to produce these many great resources, and the inclination is not in any way bad because each company deserves a profit for Godly efforts and risk.

    I hope others would comment on the Christian ombudsmen idea in prayerful consideration. With enough input, Logos and every user would benefit. Logos has a voice, users need a voice, and more importantly all could hear God’s voice.

    The Bible depicts the unwillingness to listen, and accept correction as a form of lacking trust in the Lord.
    Zeph3.2 She listens to no voice; she accepts no correction. She does not trust in the LORD; she does not draw near to her God.
    Job15.8 Have you listened in the council of God? And do you limit wisdom to yourself?

  14. Well I fully agree with you, Jason. A pity I spent time on this.

  15. I do not have the time to look up every word in all its contexts. So I am dependent on what a good lexicon should do: give a summary of all the possible meanings in the different contexts. That there is not a one to one correspondence between the words in one language and another language is clear to me and that is information which every user of a dictionary should have learned maybe already at primary school. I am happy that there have been people who have produced good lexicons/dictionaries on this basis and I have to accept that I have to depend on their reliability. It will be helpful to look into all occurrences in a certain context from time to time, but I do not have the time to do this over and over again. So I would say, please continue using dictionaries. They are not perfect, but one time we will see face to face ….

  16. Maybe it is better to teach how to use lexicons properly, than to don’t use them…

  17. Some commenters are missing the point – the post is directed at “standard lexicons” – those that basically just give you an English gloss. Hence – why not just use a thesaurus. It isn’t aimed at lexicons that have lots of discussion (like NIDOTTE or TLOT).

  18. I would say that the gimmick is out of place. There's a place for lexicons and a place for learning a biblical language with any online programme. I love Logos and have been using if near from inception! With a few more tweaks it will be super!

  19. I'm amazed at the responses so far…what I took away from this article is the three things a new learner of Greek and Hebrew should do…they are highlighted in bold. The first thing is gathering all the data you can about the text you are studying and he states simply that Logos is good at that. He goes on to say that Logos 6 is adept at visually representing that data in enlightening ways…all good stuff. The second thing is having a mentor help you learn to ask the right questions…the kind of questions that yield insight in your life and the lives of others vice "cherry-picking" a list. Great advice…advice that is applicable to many skills in life. And lastly, he seals the deal with the best advice…practice makes perfect. Many people master a skill only after much practice. For me this was a great article! Thank you Sir!

  20. What is this article about? Helping us understand how to think about words and grammatical concepts so you can begin to discern the nuances of Greek and Hebrew for interpretation. It’s time to learn how to handle the biblical text, not just read English words in a lexicon. Basically, all standard lexicons do is give you alternative English glosses. And what is a gloss:

    Glossing is the practice of writing a morpheme-by-morpheme ‘translation’ using English words. Glosses indicate what the individual parts of the native word mean. Glosses do not provide a true translation,……Wilcox.

    If your reading and interpretation of this article is anything like your Biblical Word Study to quote Mr. T “I pity the fool” and I would be ashamed to say I was a Pastor and stated he wanted somebody fired for a well written article. Dr. Heiser made a comment here: “Reading and interpretation are related, but they aren’t the same thing.” and 99% of these comments speak volumes to that end.

    Early in any type of study, bad habits are easy to learn/pickup and later on are very difficult to change, notice the emphasis on “beginning students”. I am guessing we have some “old dogs” posting and the how of “thinking carefully about how the context allows or rules out certain meanings” doesn’t figure into the equation of What Dr. Heiser said: “It’s time to learn how to handle the biblical text, not just read English words in a lexicon”.

    Under AN ANTIDOTE, reread the three points that follow. A good lexicon has its place in Biblical Word Study and I am sure Dr. Heiser will teach how to use it effectively and properly.

  21. The article deserves credit for being controversial, because “only controversy is interesting”.

  22. This article was very distasteful. I would expect better from Logos.

  23. Ian Carmichael says:

    All tools are useful in the right place. Reverse interlinears are all very well – if you already are settled that the English is a reliable translation indicative of the underlying language words structure and meaning. Lexicons are great – for varied usage, provenance both Biblical and extra-bilblical. I do wonder why the article avoided Louw & Nida in its examples of Lexicons. There are also other useful tools – like the grammars, and the commentaries, and the exeperience which comes from using all manner of tools in all kinds of setting. Theological colleges have lecturers and students and colleagues whose wisdom, practice and direct teaching can be effective.
    Oh yes, and prayer and humility may be very helpful in addressing exegetical issues as well.
    So let’s not decry the spectrum of helps for just one wavelength. (Yes, true, I left out the idiom-books, where the combintion of words sometimes don’t mean what the individual words mean the idiom-books are invaluable.

    • Ian Carmichael says:

      And, yes, I apologise for the poor proof reading – and the inability to edit posted posts.

  24. Why did my post "eliminate" lexicons like Louw-Nida? Because it was about "standard lexicons" that provide only glosses. The point of the post is to do your own work and not depend on glosses. Since many others caught the gist (and reverse interlinears are, to date, the best way to mine data to do your own analysis), I think the post was sufficiently clear. If folks don't want to mine the data and think carefully about the data (i.e., do the hard work of looking everything up and thinking), there's no tool that will help them.

  25. Why did my post “eliminate” lexicons like Louw-Nida? Because the post was about “standard lexicons” that offer only glosses. Louw-Nida goes well beyond that. The post was about doing your own work, not just looking up glosses. And I have no trepidation in saying that the reverse interlinears are, to date, the best way to mine data quickly and efficiently so that you can use the most important tool of all — your brain. If folks just want quick fixes and don’t want to do the hard work of looking things up so you know what it is that needs to be thought about, then no tool will help.

    • ROFL…LOLz Well said, I think on the next post it has to be kept very simple. So the brain can process. I still can’t stop laughing.

  26. I really appreciated and enjoyed this article and was even getting ready to share it with others!

    Until I got to "An antidote." With that, it morphed into nothing but a shameless plug for Logos 6. The advice suddenly became: Beginning students [or anyone else, it seems] should NEVER use lexicons, but they should certainly buy Logos 6 (starting at $294.95) and also all the extra goodies they can pay for to pack into it!

    This is advertisement masquerading as academic, educational advice. I find that absolutely deplorable. I expected so much more. I feel confident in saying that I'll never again read another Logos Blog article.

  27. Thank you Dr Heiser. I am very surprised at the strong negativity to your comments. I would refer naysayers to reread the first few sentences. Three times you use the words "beginning students" and once "newly initiated." I did not see any put down on lexicons anywhere.