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Performing Basic Hebrew Word Studies

Hebrew Word Studies -

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An Introduction for Learners of Biblical Hebrew

Overview of the Topic

Although it would be ideal to study Biblical Hebrew by immersing oneself in Hebrew grammar, vocabulary, and the entire range of scriptural readings, most of us are in the midst of the learning process and must still rely heavily on lexicons and other linguistic helps while studying the Biblical text. Although this is regrettable (and in some ways a result of the negligence of our forefathers’ interest in the Jewish roots of our faith), there is still a lot of work that we can do to better understand the Scriptures from the Hebraic mindset.

The Importance of Jewish Culture

One piece of this work is to become familiar with Jewish history, Jewish culture, and the distinctively Jewish ways of reading the Scriptures. This involves, among other things, a ready familiarity with the Jewish cycle of events (mo’edim) as instituted by Almighty God and as practiced by the Jews for hundreds of years before Jesus came to earth. We come to better understand the Jewish mindset when we actively participate in the appointed times and seasons as revealed in the Hebrew bible. We begin to sense the “weight” of certain keywords of the Jewish tradition and assign relative importance to these words as we read the Scriptures for ourselves. We begin to see and experience life differently as we become more attuned to the Jewish calendar and the life cycle of the Jew.

Sadly, most Christian bible colleges and seminaries neglect these crucial subjects and thereby often distort the meaning of Hebrew words when attempting to understand  particular passages of Scripture. This leads to exegetical errors of various kinds and to  defective understanding of the intent of the original authors of the Hebrew Bible.

Moreover, many Christians today simply do not account for the long history of scholarship concerning the various words of the Torah. The (ludicrous) assumption seems to be that since the Jewish scholars rejected Jesus as their Mashiach, they are thereby unable to comprehend the meaning of the words of the Torah. Now while it is true that regarding the Messiah the Jewish sages were blinded (Romans 9-11), this does not in any way impugn their enormous contributions in expounding the meaning of the texts of the Jewish tradition, and in particular the words of the Torah, the Nevi’im (Prophets), and the Ketuvim (Writings). The Lord Jesus Himself did not dispute the value of the Jewish sages and their learning. It is short-sighted to ignore the work of these scholars and it is exegetically perilous to attempt to discern the intent of the original (Jewish) authors of the Hebrew Scriptures without an adequate understanding of the various Jewish expository traditions.

A quick example must suffice for the present purposes of this article. Consider the word “Torah,” which is often translated as “law” in our English bibles. The word Torah derives from a root word (yarah) which means “to shoot an arrow” or “to hit the mark.” Understood in light of this, Torah does not so much denote a set of rules that (legalistically) prescribe behavior, as it reveals a sense of direction or aim in the way of life. Much confusion about the role of the Torah in the life of the Christian has resulted in the inappropriate understanding of this word. For most Jews, “Torah” simply means learning about God and observing His ways, and may include reference to the first five books of the Bible (the “Torah” of Moses), the Prophets, the Writings, the Talmud, or other Jewish scholarship as it pertains to understanding more about God.

What are Hebrew Word Studies?

A “word study” involves learning how a word (or phrase) was most likely used by a particular author when he/she wrote some kind of literary communication. Since we are interested in the words of the Hebrew Bible, performing a word study involves discerning how a given word was most likely used by an author of a particular book of the Tanakh.

At the outset, however, it should be noted that this is not a simple task, since words do not exist in a vacuum (that is, they are embedded in a historically conditioned “circle” of meaning that delineates the scope and meaning of terms), and discerning the intention of the original author through historical investigation is itself problematic. In fact, dictionaries or lexicons are themselves historical documents subject to their own interpretative principles regarding how a particular word was used in various contexts. In other words, simply looking up the meaning of a Hebrew word in a Biblical Hebrew dictionary is not enough to fully understand the meaning of the word.


Required Resources

For the layperson, performing a word study for a Biblical Hebrew word will minimally involve using the following resources:

  1. The Hebrew text (or an interlinear English-Hebrew text). If you know very little Hebrew you may also use an English translation with words keyed to Strong numbers (such as the AMG Hebrew Key Word Study Bible).
  2. A Hebrew Lexicon (for the definition and etymology of the selected word).
  3. A Concordance (for the frequency and the range of usage for the selected word).
  4. Other Bible Research Tools
     

Each of these resources is explained below.
 

1. The Hebrew Text

The Hebrew text, of course, is the starting point for your work, since this is the literature that is under investigation. The Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) is the scholar’s first choice for studying the Hebrew Masoretic text. The BHS includes the scholarly apparatus (i.e., masoretic notes and textual criticism additions) required for doing advanced research. Consider this version mandatory if you are intending on publishing your work in scholarly journals.

Many people (myself included) have found The Interlinear NIV Hebrew-English Old Testament, by John Kohlenberger to be of great assistance when doing word studies. This work includes the BHS text (with major textual conjectures in footnotes) but provides the English translation (unfortunately, the NIV) underneath the Hebrew. This is handy for finding the word of interest while reading passages in the English. Another alternative is to use J.P. Green’s Interlinear Hebrew-Greek Bible.

If you know very little Hebrew you may use an English translation with words “keyed” to the Strong numbering system, such as the Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible (KJV and NASB only). Over 100 years ago, Dr. James Strong indexed each biblical word and assigned a unique number to it. This number was then correlated to a dictionary of biblical terms so that a basic definition could be found simply by looking the number up in the dictionary. Using the Strong dictionary and other research tools that use Strong numbers (such as the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT), the Englishman's Hebrew Lexicon and Concordance, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon, among others), you can perform word studies using only English.

Finally, you can use computer-based research tools such as BibleWorks, Accordance, or various web services. These tools often provide a Hebrew-English interlinear mode as well as Strong numbers with the English text. Personally I would recommend BibleWorks as the best computer-based application for doing serious word studies of the Hebrew (or Greek) text.


2. Hebrew Lexicons

You will need a Hebrew lexicon (dictionary) in order to get a fuller understanding of a given word’s “intension” and “extension” within the Scriptures. The following tools all are coded to the Strong numbers so that you can perform more in-depth analysis:

NIDOTTE

New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (5 vol set) by Willem A. VanGemeren. Available in book form or on CD ROM, this reference work (based on the NIV) is fast becoming the standard lexicon for serious Hebrew word studies.  5 Stars

 

Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament

Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament by Harris, Archer, and Waltke includes discussions of every Hebrew word of theological significance in the Tankah, plus brief definitions of all other words found in Brown, Driver and Briggs Hebrew Lexicon. Keyed to Strong’s Concordance. 5 Stars

 

Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament

A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament by William Lee Holladay. Based on the much larger and more exhaustive HALOT lexicon, the concise HALOT contains most every word in the Hebrew Tanakh without long, drawn-out definitions. 5 Stars

 

Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon

Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. The BDB is considered the finest and most comprehensive Hebrew lexicon available to the English-speaking student. Based upon the classic work of Wilhelm Gesenius. 5 Stars

 

BDB Usage Tips

If you decide to go with the classic (and more difficult to use) BDB as your lexicon, there are a few things you will need to know before you can readily access its content. The BDB is organized according to Hebrew roots, listed in alphabetical order, with the words associated with the root following each root. In other words, in order to use this tool, you will need to correctly determine the root from the biblical text before you can look up an entry (the Index to Brown, Driver, Briggs Lexicon (Einspahr) can help you find the lexical form of a Hebrew word).

Here is a sample entry from the BDB:



Certain symbols are used in the entries for a given word:

  • If a form is in brackets the word does not occur in the Hebrew Bible in that form.
  • A sword symbol indicates that all occurrences of the word are listed in the entry that follows, so that the lexicon, in part, can be used as a concordance.
  • A Roman numeral in front of a word indicates that there are other words in the lexicon with the same spelling but with different meanings (homonyms).

The order in which words are listed is from simple (i.e. no afformatives) to complex:

  1. Forms thought to be original biconsonantal forms
  2. The triconsonantal root is given in the Qal perfect third person masculine singular, except for hollow verbs (which are given in the Qal infinitive construct)
  3. Words with no additional consonants
  4. Words with feminine endings
  5. Words with suffixes
  6. Words with infixes (additions to the middle of the word)
  7. Nouns with prefixes
  8. Compound proper nouns generally follow the verb, preposition or noun which forms the first element of the noun

3. Hebrew Concordances

A Hebrew Concordance allows you to look up a Hebrew word irrespective of the way it may have been translated into corresponding English words.

Englishman's Hebrew Lexicon and Concordance

Englishman's Hebrew Lexicon and Concordance by George V. Wigram. This new edition is improved and corrected and features a new, larger format. Now coded to Strong's, it is invaluable for general purpose Bible study. 5 Stars

 

Using this tool you can look up a Hebrew word to see all the passages where it occurs in the Hebrew text, giving you a comprehensive view of the use and range of meanings of the word. This can be helpful for validating (or invalidating) the definitions of a lexicon and for determining the frequency of various meanings.

An English to Hebrew Index at the back lets you look up a word in English -- such as "joy" to show you the various Hebrew words used (as well as their references) in the Bible. Strong’s numbers are used to correlate to the Strong’s Hebrew lexicon.

4. Other Bible Research Tools

Software programs such as BibleWorks, Accordance, and Logos all provide the tools listed above in a single, easy to use interface. For example, you can read the Scriptures in interlinear mode and click on a Hebrew word to obtain grammatical and frequency information. You can also easily search the Scriptures for every occurrence of a selected word, search on the lemma (root) of the word, etc.

It is more and more common to see web based tools that will provide you with an interlinear translation with Hebrew grammatical information and word frequency information provided by means of hyperlinks.

Doing Word Studies Using Strong’s Numbers

This is the simplest method of doing a Hebrew word study.

What you’ll need:

  • An English translation showing Strong’s numbers
  • Exhaustive Concordance keyed to the Strong Numbers
  • Strong's dictionary keyed to the translation you are using

Note: The Strong’s Dictionary is limited only to words and not the prefixes and suffixes attached to them which can affect the translation. For more serious study of the words, prefixes and suffixes, a lexicon is recommended.

Steps:

  1. Lookup the word of interest in your concordance.
  2. Note the corresponding Strong Number for the word of the verse (if there are more Strong’s numbers, write them down as well).
  3. Lookup the corresponding number(s) in the dictionary.

At this point, you might want to explore the meaning of the Hebrew word Sheol further by consulting the BDB (or other Hebrew lexicon) and the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. You might also want to see all the places where Sheol is translated using the English word “hell” by using a Hebrew concordance.

Finally, since no word exists in a vacuum, you will want to consult some good commentaries (especially those that reference the original languages) and periodicals in order to ensure that you are properly assigning meaning to the Hebrew term of interest.  Do not neglect the work of the Jewish commentators and sages, even those that are post-biblical (e.g., the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, and Targum).

And do not forget about the grammar and genre of literature! Prosaic and poetic usages can appear similar morphologically, but semantically are to be understood differently. For help regarding usage of a Hebrew word, you will need to make sure your exegesis is not flawed because you are missing the point of a given passage or reading into the word ideas that are alien to the original intent of the author.

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