How to Use Biblical Hebrew Dictionaries

Biblical Hebrew dictionaries can be used in a variety of different ways to give you information about a word you are examining. They are some of the most important tools for biblical studies. However, it is important to recognize that Biblical Hebrew dictionaries are not like modern dictionaries.

Because Biblical Hebrew dictionaries contain so much information, it is often helpful if you know what kind of information you are looking for before turning to a dictionary. What’s more, you should have some understanding of which dictionary possesses the tools to help you find that information.

Here are some of the main ways that scholars use Biblical Hebrew dictionaries:

Using Dictionaries for Rough Translations

Sometimes you are reading a long Hebrew text and you are not interested learning about all of the minute details of every single word. Instead, you simply want a basic definition or gloss of a word.

If this is the case, then you would use a Biblical Hebrew dictionary in essentially the same way that you would use any other dictionary. You look up the word’s definition (or definitions) and then determine the likely meaning of the word in your passage.

For this type of translation work, it is often easier to use a concise version of a dictionary, such as Holladay (concise HALOT) because this dictionary will give you less information. Similarly, you may want to choose a dictionary organized by spelling, rather than by root.

Bible software or online tools can often be extremely helpful for doing rough translations, although it is important for beginning students not to become dependent on these aids.

Using Dictionaries for Close Readings of Texts

While rough translations of texts can be fun, at some point you may want (or be required) to do a close reading of a text. Such a reading will often involve careful, in-depth analysis of several words in your passage. This type of analysis is called a word study.

In each word study you must try to understand every single feature of a word and then how it is being used in your passage. Word studies can take a while, so you generally won’t perform this type of analysis on every single word in your text.

Biblical Hebrew dictionaries are invaluable for word studies. Below are three important ways that you would use dictionaries to help you discover everything you can about the meaning of a word.

1) Using a dictionary as a concordance

If a word is used infrequently, then often a dictionary will tell you every single place that a word is used in the Bible (and sometimes in extra-canonical texts, as is the case for DCH). This type of information is essentially the same type of information provided by a concordance.

By looking up every instance of a word being used in Scripture, you can get a much better sense of the word. This is because all meaning is ultimately derived from context. By viewing these other contexts in which a word is used, you can learn a lot of valuable information about a word.

Looking up every single use of a word can take a long time, and many new students often balk at the prospect. However, if you really want to have a sense of what a word means, you simply have to do it. Mercifully, using Bible software (and dictionaries included in Bible software) can make this process much faster.

2) Looking up the meaning of different words with the same root

Sometimes you may find a word that occurs infrequently, but has a root in common with other words in Biblical Hebrew. If this is the case, you can often look up the meaning(s) of those other words and get a sense of the general semantic field of the root. This can often help you in determining the meaning of the word you are looking up.

For work such as this, using a dictionary organized by root (such as BDB) can be invaluable. This is because you can look up the word in question and find all of the other words with the same root right next to it.

3) Looking for cognate words

Often a word and a root occur very infrequently in Biblical Hebrew. In cases such as these, determining if there are any words with the same root used in other Semitic languages can be very helpful because semantic fields of roots are frequently shared across Semitic languages.

Information about cognate languages is provided by certain Biblical Hebrew dictionaries, particularly BDB and HALOT. However, students should be careful about overvaluing the information gleaned from cognate languages – context is and will always be the most important factor in determining the meaning of a word in the Bible.

Final Thoughts

Above are some of the main ways that Biblical Hebrew dictionaries can be used to help scholars understand the meaning of texts. Always remember that the methods and tools you use must match up with the information you are seeking.

Becoming adept at using Biblical Hebrew dictionaries is a skill like any other – it will be improved only through regular practice. So happy reading!