How Biblical Hebrew Dictionaries are not like Modern Dictionaries

When you use a normal dictionary, you look up the meaning(s) of a word and then you have an idea of what the word you’re examining might mean. In Biblical Hebrew the process is not so simple. This is because of the nature of dictionaries.

How Modern Dictionaries Work

Modern dictionaries are created by looking at how words are used in their original language and then deriving their meaning from this usage. No word has an absolute meaning, but rather the meaning of each word is derived from its context.

One difficulty facing the creators of modern dictionaries is that language itself is always changing. Some words will fall out of use as other words are being created. Often the “meaning” of a word can shift, and it can be used in a very different way than before.

For a modern language, there is a huge corpus of written and spoken language constantly being used that dictionary creators can draw upon. However, even with all of this readily available information, dictionary creators often have difficulty keeping up with the many shifts of modern languages.

How Biblical Hebrew Dictionaries are Different

Biblical Hebrew dictionaries are created in mostly the same way as modern dictionaries. The meaning of words is derived from examining how those words are used in context.

However, while modern dictionaries have a large amount of linguistic data to draw upon, this is not the case for Biblical Hebrew. Instead, Biblical Hebrew exists only in a small corpus of writings we call the Hebrew Bible, and in a few extra-canonical works and inscriptions.

What’s more, just like modern languages, Biblical Hebrew has also undergone many changes. As we read Scripture, we find evidence that words were created and discarded over time, while others display shifts in meaning.

Dealing with semantic shifts within Biblical Hebrew can be very difficult because it is often virtually impossible to determine the dating and provenance of a particular text. There is no easy solution to this problem.

How Biblical Hebrew Dictionaries Work

Because of the relatively small size of the linguistic evidence available to scholars, there are frequently words in Scripture whose meaning is under dispute, particularly if they are used only once.

Scholars use various strategies to help them determine the meaning of some of these difficult words. Below are some of their most common strategies:

  • Scholars examine ancient translations of Scripture, such as the LXX, Targums, and Vulgate. Often times these translations will provide a helpful interpretation of the meaning of a word. However, often times these ancient translations did not understand the word in question either!
  • Scholars look at cognate languages. Semitic languages all have a trilateral root system and roots are frequently shared across languages. Sometimes a root that is not common in Biblical Hebrew can be found in another ancient Semitic language. This second language can frequently (but not always) help explain the meaning of the Hebrew word.
  • Scholars look at the context in which a word occurs. Context is always the most important factor for determining the meaning of a word. If a word occurs infrequently within Scripture, then a dictionary will often indicate every single place a word is used (and the dictionary thus becomes a concordance).

Final Thoughts

As has been seen, Biblical Hebrew dictionaries are not like dictionaries for modern languages. However, they can still provide very important and helpful information as scholars use all of the evidence available to them to construct a definition of a word.