Lexica

Creating a dictionary (or "lexicon") of a "dead" or literary language is fundamentally different from creating a dictionary of a live language. In the latter case, there are often many more sources that could be consulted, and if a lexicographer is unsure what a word means, he or she could either ask a native speaker ("an informant") or could create certain sentences using the word, and could ask an informant which are correct or reasonable. This obviously is not possible with a case like biblical Hebrew. Therefore, lexicographers, scholars who examine the meaning of words and compile dictionaries, must use other methods to reconstruct the meaning of words.

The main tool for understanding a word's meaning is context, what the surrounding words suggest that the unknown word might mean. Given that the Bible tends to use near synonyms in a single context, or, especially in poetry, tends to structure verses in parallelism, where the second part either "seconds" the meaning of the first part in a somewhat synonymous or antithetical fashion, context is often very helpful. In fact, context is the primary means of determining a word's meaning — any other method used must ultimately be checked against context.

The second method is etymology — what similar ("cognate") words mean in related ("cognate") languages. Many Semitic languages (of which Hebrew is a constituent member) are much better attested than Hebrew, so it can happen that a word which is attested only once (a "hapax legomenon"), and whose meaning is not clarified by context, is known in some other Semitic language. Given that these Semitic languages are genetically related, this cognate use may shed light on the meaning of the Hebrew term. (Note: It is not prudent, however, to assume, that the word means exactly the same thing in Hebrew, just as related words in Spanish and French, closely related Romance languages, may have different nuances.) In general, the more closely related the language is to biblical Hebrew, the more useful its evidence is — so, for example, rabbinic Hebrew, Aramaic and Ugaritic (a language used at Ugarit on the Mediterranean coast in the late second millennium) are especially useful, while Arabic is less useful, because it is more distant chronologically and geographically.

Finally, the ancient translations ("versions") provide useful information for the modern lexicographer. It is possible, for example, that a translator of the Septuagint in the third century BCE still had a sense of the meaning of a biblical word that is obscure to us. Thus, these ancient translations at times provide valuable lexicographical information, though sometimes they might have been guessing what a word meant, rather than preserving a correct tradition concerning its meaning.

A standard biblical lexicon is Francis Brown, S. R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, completed in 1907, and available in various editions. It is known by the initials of its authors as BDB. It is a very careful, useful work and is packed with information. Its main weakness is that it predates the discovery of the first Ugaritic tablets in 1929 and their subsequent decipherment. It also contains relatively few references to Akkadian, the ancient Semitic language of Mesopotamia. In addition, our understanding of Akkadian has vastly improved over the last century plus, so the references to Akkadian in BDB must be used with great care. It also predates modern linguistics. Despite these shortcomings and its age, it is an extremely valuable and reliable tool. The 1994 edition of BDB published by Hendrickson contains a helpful  index of Hebrew verbal roots. BDB can be accessed online here:
 http://www.greeklatin.narod.ru/bdb/0.htm.

BDB is divided into two sections: Hebrew and Aramaic, so when looking up Hebrew words from the end of the alphabet, it is important to be careful not to end up in the Aramaic section. A key to its common abbreviations is found on pp. xiii–xix, and addenda et corrigenda (additions and corrections) are found on pp. 1119-1127. (Entries which are corrected are indicated with an * in the main entry.) שׁ and שׂ are treated separately, with שׂ preceding שׁ; be careful then when looking up words with either of these consonants. Many entries begin with an obelus (†), which indicates that all biblical references for that particular word are cited. In such cases, BDB may be used as a concordance.

Biblical lexica and similar works may be organized in two ways: by root, and by word. BDB is organized by root, so all nouns, including personal nouns, must be looked up by root. (For example, the personal name נפתלי is found under פתל.) In some cases this presents difficulties to the user. BDB often provides cross-references under the alphabetical listing (so for נפתלי on p. 661), and anyone who uses BDB must get used to looking for these cross-references which are very easy to miss. Additionally, other tools, especially concordances, which will be discussed below, provide useful information about a word's root. The Index to Brown, Driver and Briggs, ed. Bruce Einspahr (Chicago: Moody Press, 1976), is helpful, but should not be overused. I have provided a helpful list of BDB abbreviations (translated into English and Hebrew) compiled by my colleague Yael Avrahami, which is available for download at the bottom of this page.

Skim through BDB, and open to pp. 131-132 (or you may download pp. 131-132 at the bottom of this page). I am assuming that the reader was working through Genesis 22, and in v. 3 encountered the somewhat unusual word וַיְבַקַּע, which was recognized as coming from the root בקע. Given the דגשׁ חזק in the middle root letter, this must be a 3ms פִּעֵל converted imperfect of בקע. This entry begins with an obelus (†); this means that every occurrence of the word will be listed. After that, it lists the root as a 3ms perfect Qal form. In some cases, the lexical entry is enclosed in square brackets, as in (p. 130) "[בָּצָר]": this means that the form adduced is not attested in the Hebrew Bible. (In other words, it is extremely likely that the 3ms Qal perfect of the root בצר is בָּצַר, but that form is coincidentally not found.) BDB then notes the word's part of speech ("vb." = verb; cf. the abbreviations on p. xviii), and it offers a general set of meanings: "cleave, break open or through." The Hebrew root, part of speech, and main definition is followed by etymological information, enclosed in parentheses--this does not mean that this information is unimportant! In this case, the etymological information cited is from rabbinic Hebrew ("NH" = New [Rabbinic] Hebrew), Aramaic and Ethiopic. Then, the meanings of the root in various בנינים are investigated; the root בקע is atypical in that it appears in all of the (major) בנינים. The order in which BDB lists the בנינים may be seen from this entry.

At the beginning of each בנין, BDB lists the attested forms of the word. (Nouns are listed in the lexicon in the unbound singular form, and other forms, including constructs, plurals, and forms with suffixes are found immediately after the etymological information.) Thus, our verb "וַיְבַקַּעis listed on the middle of the left hand column of p. 132. This listing reassures the user that the correct word is being looked up in the right place. This is followed by the meaning of the word in the particular בנין, in this case "cleave, cut to pieces, or rend open (oft. more complete or more violent than Qal), sq. acc." The definition part is straightforward. What follows in parentheses is an attempt to distinguish the Piel meaning from the Qal; "sq. acc." refers to the syntactic use of the word, in this case, that the verb (in the Piel) is followed by an accusative, namely a direct object with no intervening preposition וַיְבַקַּע עֲצֵי עֹלָה. It is often a good idea to read through the complete entry, at least of the relevant בנין; in this case, it suggests that "cut" or "cleave," while an adequate translation, does not convey all that בקע in the Piel conveys — namely a sense of violent cutting into pieces. Thus, a careful look at the lexical entry allows for the possibility that the use of this root plays a role in making Genesis 22 a "text of terror."

It is quite likely that the reader of v. 6 would not know the meaning of הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת. This may be found in BDB under the root אכל; this might be guessed because the מם is typical as a preformative, while the תו is a common afformative, leaving the root אכל; additionally, BDB p. 549 provides  a cross-reference to אכל, under the alphabetical listing of מאכל

Open to the entry on p. 38 (or download it at the bottom of this page). Again, the initial obelus ( † ) means that every occurrence of the word is listed; it is thus clear that it is a very unusual word. "n.f." means that it is a feminine noun. In this case, the parentheses enclose bibliographical information; given the age of BDB, these bibliographical references are of limited usefulness. The forms and their attestations are then given. In cases like this when a word is infrequent, it is worthwhile looking up all of the other passages where it is used; here, Judges 19:29 is helpful because it shows that a מאכלת is large enough to dismember a human body, and thus is not a small ("Swiss Army") knife, but a large, strong, sharp knife. This might be difficult to reflect in a translation, but is important information for understanding the tone of the story.

BDB has, to some extent, been supplanted by The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 2002), abbreviated as HALOT. It contains many more, and more recent etymologies than BDB, especially from Semitic languages that are now better understood (e.g. Akkadian) or were not even discovered at the time that BDB was completed (e.g. Ugaritic). Its principles and structure are similar to BDB, with one important exception: HALOT lists nouns alphabetically rather than by root. 

Get to know the HALOT: Compare the entries on בקע in BDB and HALOT; note in particular how HALOT has more etymological information than BDB, including Ugaritic. Find the entry on מאכלת in HALOT, and compare it to BDB.  (These entries are available for download at the bottom of this page.)  It is appropriate to use BDB and HALOT together, though HALOT is more useful for rare words, and words whose meaning have been refined in the last century as a result of new research or discoveries.

The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (DCH), edited by David J. A. Clines at Sheffield is an eight volume lexicon. It is more comprehensive in its corpus than BDB or HALOT, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, and excludes etymological information, but includes comprehensive syntactical information, and utilizes modern linguistic 
principles. It maximizes homonyms, and includes, in most of its volumes, a very useful bibliography. The one-volume The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew offers the basic lexical information found in the larger lexicon, and is especially useful to students. 

Get to know the DCH: Compare its discussion of בקע in volume 2, pp. 248-249, to what you read in BDB and HALOT. Notice that בקע II and III on page 249 have a * next to them. This means there is information on this word in the back of the volume. Find the entry for בקע in the back of the volume. What is the nature of the information given? How could it be helpful as you look up other words in the DCH? If you do not have access to the DCH, you man download the relevant pages at the bottom of this page.

מילון העברית המקראית : אוצר לשון המקרא מאל"ף עד תי"ו, compiled by Menaḥem Zevi Kaddari, and the eighteenth edition of Gesenius's lexicon, Hebräisches und Aramäisches Handwörterbuch über das Alte Testament: Gesamtausgabe (2013 German Edition), are the most recent lexica, in Hebrew and German respectively. Students who do not read those languages may still find their extensive bibliographical observations helpful. Finally, although both of the following lexica contain the word "theological," they both contain much straightforward lexical information: Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann, Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, 3 vols (Peabody MA: Hendrickson 1997); and the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 5 vols (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1974).  (See more info and samples of these two resources on the research tools page.)

It is important to remember that biblical lexicographers are making decisions based on their interpretation of evidence — what the context implies, which cognates are relevant, and the relative importance of the traditions found in the ancient versions. In addition, lexicographers may emend the biblical text, and may base their lexical entry on something other than the MT; this is often noted through abbreviations (e.g."emend." in HALOT; "em." in DCH) and "small print" in the entry.  You must decide if you view the evidence in the same way, and understand the word similarly. Sometimes, a reader might legitimately decide that a word has a different nuance than the one suggested, or might decide that a word was mis-categorized by a lexicon: it might belong with its homonym (the lexica list homonyms consecutively, typically using a Roman numeral to distinguish them [e.g. BDB p. 557 I מול "front, in front of" vs. II מול "circumcise"]), or an ambiguous form might be parsed differently than the lexicon suggests (e.g. וַיַּ֫֫עַל might be a הִפְעִיל rather than קַל or vice versa). Although BDB, HALOT and DCH are useful, they must not be confused with modern English dictionaries, which are frequently used by us as authorities for understanding the correct use of a word.
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Jamie Bryson,
Jun 1, 2015, 8:32 AM
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Jamie Bryson,
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Jamie Bryson,
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Jamie Bryson,
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