Organized by Root or Spelling?

What makes a better Hebrew Bible resource: one organized by root or by spelling?

In contrast to older resources, most dictionaries and concordances coming out in biblical studies for the past 50 years have been organized purely alphabetically, rather than by the root. What does it mean exactly that a resource is organized by root or by spelling?

Resources organized by root

Resources that are organized by root will have all known roots arranged alphabetically. Within each root, first the verb(s) will be treated, and then all of the other entries falling under that root will be arranged alphabetically. Therefore, in order to find the entry for any given word, you must first determine its root.

For an illustration of how this works, the word מִזְבֵּחַ, “altar,” comes from the root זבח. To find this word in a resource organized by roots, you would not look under the letter מ, but rather זבח. For words such as this one, identifying the root is relatively straightforward. You can identify three strong consonants plus an initial מ (which is often added to roots to make nouns). However, other words are more problematic. For example, the word עֹז, “strength,” is found under its root עזז. The word מַכָּה, “blow, strike,” is found under its root נכה. In a few cases, the root of a word can still be a matter of scholarly debate.

Resources organized by spelling

Resources that are organized alphabetically by spelling are much easier to handle. If you’re looking for the word מִזְבֵּחַ, “altar,” then you simply look under מזבח. If you’re looking for the word עֹז, “strength,” then you look under עז, and if you’re looking for מַכָּה, “blow, strike,” then you look under מכה. If you need to know the root of each of these words, this is easy: often dictionaries will identify the root for you.

Do remember that even in alphabetically-organized resources, verbs will almost always still arranged by root, rather than by spelling.

So which method is better, organized by root or by spelling?

It is difficult to say which of these methods is better. This is because each method has its advantages. Ultimately which one you choose should depend on the kind of information you wish to gain through your search.

Using resources arranged by spelling is better because words are easier to find. Rather than wasting time trying to determine a root, you can simply look a word up by spelling and have the root provided to you. Whether you are using a dictionary or a concordance, you will have access to the information you seek regarding a word that much faster.

Using resources arranged by root is better because you can see all the meanings and/or uses of words in a particular root at the same time. This can be helpful for words which are extremely rare. Often looking at words from the same root can help to give you a rough picture of the semantic field of a given root and help towards determining the meaning of an unknown word.

As is often the case in biblical studies, no one resource is better than another. Instead, it is important to identify the kind of information that you are looking for and choose the resources that will best help you to obtain this information. Happy searching.