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The Study of Words

Written by: Ross, Dr. Allen P.    Posted on: 01/30/2008

Category: Bible Studies


The study of words in the Bible is foundational to accurate exegesis and crucial for rich exposition.  Much is available but often the expositors are unaware of the correct procedure and best tools.

It is doubtful that a complete word study has ever, or will ever be done.  There are books on individual words, but even these do not include all the data.  Periodicals, word study books, and commentaries are all helpful in gathering materials; but it all must be carefully evaluated.  One must be satisfied that studying words will be a continuing process.  Nevertheless, with a few good tools and a little practice the expositor will be able to study words easily and quickly to be able to understand and explain their meanings and theirs uses.

There are three areas to be studied in this process: tracing the usage of a word, researching its etymology, and surveying its translations in the ancient versions.  Most word study books will give the etymology first, and then deal with usage and the versions; but we will work with usage first, because it will be the step most frequently used by students of the Bible.    The study of etymology is the most difficult, but since it is necessary for studying the many rare and problematic words in Scripture, it cannot be avoided.  The study of how a word is used is the least complicated; and it is how we proceed on the common theological words.  The study of how a word was translated in the ancient versions (and modern versions) is also a little complicated because it involves languages; but because the commentaries and expositions use them so much, we must know how to use them correctly.



For the study of words that are fairly frequent, especially for the solid theological

terms of the Bible, the basic word study procedure will require learning how a word was used in the literature.  In fact, it is well to keep in mind that when dictionaries of Hebrew or the other Semitic languages list a meaning for a word, they are listing it on the basis of their study of how that word was used in its contexts.

For the basic exegetical work of the expositor, most of the effort will be spent in looking up words in their contexts in the Old Testament and attempting to articulate their meanings in such passages.  While it is true that there are many words that have frequent uses (800 terms occur 25 times or more in the Old Testament), there are many more that occur under 25 times (some 7000).  So most of the time the exegete can look up all the references for a given term.  If the tem is a very common word, the work will have to be selective.  The dictionary definition and the etymology will provide the basic concept, but its range of meanings and specific emphases will come from a survey of how it was used.

Tools for Studying Usage

To do accurate and excellent work in a reasonable amount of time, you have to have a few good tools.  Consult the bibliography for the course for the details on any of these works.

For a Hebrew word study you will have to have a good Hebrew lexicon or dictionary.  The basic work is Brown, Driver and Briggs (BDB); although old, it is still very useful.  The other major one that is complete is by Koehler and Baumgartner (KBL).

The exhaustive dictionaries or word study books that are available include the two volume set edited by Harris, Waltke and Archer, the five volume set edited by van Gemeren, or the larger Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament edited by Botterweck and Ringgren.

Note: For people who do not know Hebrew, then the set edited by van Gemeren is the one to have.  The words are all keyed into the English translations so that the relevant discussions can be found quickly and easily.

The good Hebrew concordances that are helpful for the study of usage are: Solomon Mandelkern, Gerhard Lisowsky, Abraham ’Eben Shoshan, and Englishman’s.  These arrange the references in the Bible in accordance with the Hebrew term.  The fact that some of these do not use English phrases from the verses should not be a problem, for the purpose of a concordance is primarily to give the references in the text.  Many students opt for Englishman’s because under the given Hebrew word it will list the verses of the Bible and beside each verse the pertinent phrase in English in which the term occurs.  The problem with this is that too many students rely on the meaning given in the phrase without looking at the context of the passage.  Mandelkern may be a little better investment because it can be used for grammatical, textual, and lexical studies.  It lists under each grammatical form of the word the respective verses.  All the verses for the term being studied will be on the page--just not in consecutive order in the Old Testament.  Lisowsky offers a straight listing of references under the Hebrew term and may be faster for word studies, Eben Shoshan is the most up-to-date and may be the better all-around purchase--but you will have to get used to Hebrew names of Bible books and Hebrew designations for chapters and verses.

If you do not know Hebrew, you can actually use a concordance based on the English translation, but it involves a couple of steps.  Young’s Analytical Concordance, for example, lists the English word, and then for each passage where that English word is used, gives the specific Hebrew word.  In the back of the book, then, he lists all the English words that that Hebrew word translated.  Each of these would be looked up to get the full list of passages where your word occurs--and that is all you are using a concordance for.

Besides a good concordance and word book, one tool that many have found helpful in doing word studies is the English-Hebrew Old Testament, or an Interlinear (Kohlenberger).  The English in the column Bible may not be the best translation, but as you look up the passage to skim through the story or verse to find the sense of the context, it is helpful to have the Hebrew right beside the English in order to check the exact Hebrew expressions.  The inter-linear Bibles have been used by some in this way, but they are more cumbersome since the Hebrew phrases and the English phrases have to be grouped together due to the different directions of the writing.

Categories of Meanings

The procedure is basically to find the references in the Bible in which the word occurs, look up each (or as many as possible) to determine how the word is used in the context, and group the precise meanings into separate categories.  Before this work is begun, it may be helpful to scan through BDB to see how they labeled the categories.  Often they will simply arrange the word under grammatical sections (Niphal, etc.) or under subjects (Used of Man, Used of God).  These give the exegete some direction for the study, but they should not be considered the categories of meanings, for they tell little about how the word is to be understood.

So the categories of meanings provided by the exegete should be meaningful expressions of the basic nuances of the word.  To say that God is the subject, or that it is always used in military contexts, or various other descriptive comments, will certainly be helpful in the general understanding of the word, but will not tell much about the meaning of the word.  We should strive for categories that will reflect the kind of action or situation that the term portrays.  This may require the exegete to determine what is being produced by the verb, what is described, what is the mood in the context, whether the word is literal or figurative, and how it relates to the other Hebrew words from the same root.

For example, consider the word study of bara’, “to create.” The etymology provides very little help for the understanding of this term.  Usage will show its range of meanings, for seldom can one definition, such as “create”' in this case, adequately provide an understanding of the term for exegesis.  We wish to know more about its range of meanings, how it is used in the Bible.  When you look up the passages in which this term occurs, you will find that most of them are in Genesis and Isaiah.  The categories may include some of the following: the term is used for God’s supernatural creation of the universe (heaven, earth, mankind, creatures, wind, air, etc--all these passages would be grouped together); the term is also used for the formation of a new spirit and a new heart in a penitent sinner, a sort of revitalization; the term is also used for the formation of the nation of Israel, etc.  In each of these categories you would have to study the passages to see exactly how God did the creating or forming, what means He used, and what was the desired result in the action (see the sample paper for the development).

When a word is studied in this manner, the expositor may not be able to define its usage by only one word, but will have a far better understanding of its range of meanings. Another benefit of this study will be finding the literary allusions and correlations that the writers make with other portions of Scripture.

Criteria in the Classifications

Several qualifications must be kept in mind when looking up passages to group  them into denominations:

Circles of Contexts.  When a term is being studied a great deal of concern should be given to the contexts in which it is found.  It would be most significant to observe how a term is used in the immediate context--if a word is used 6 times in a story, for example, that is primary in the study.  The next circle of uses would widen to the book--not just  a chapter now, but the entire book in which the study may occur (assuming the book was written by one person--Psalms and Proverbs were not). The next circle would take in the other literature that an author may have written--the Pentateuch, for example.  It then would move to other literature written at the same time period, and then finally to the entire Old Testament.  These stages may not always be followed easily because of the difficulty in dating some of the material of the Old Testament.  But certainly how one author used a word (e.g., David, Isaiah) will receive primary consideration.

For example, teshuqa, “desire,” occurs twice in Genesis (3:16, 4:7) and once in the Song of Solomon (7:2).  The meaning of the word in 3:16 should be more akin to 4:7 than to Canticles--but commentators often skip the reference in 4:7 and assume the meaning in 3:16 is the same as that in Canticles.  The word means “desire” in all three places, but its connotation will be different in the books.  The English gloss “desire” has several categories of meaning itself, either good or bad.

Type of Literature.  It is important to consider the literature in which a term is used: narrative, poetic, legal, wisdom, prophetic, etc.  Form critical studies have contributed much to the cautious observation of common vocabulary used in the different types of psalms and stories.  The example of “desire” used above could be used here as well, for two uses are in the Torah literature and the other in the exquisite Song of Solomon

Just because words show up in different types of literature does not mean that they must have different meanings.  Many times the psalms or the prophets, for example, clearly used terms from the Torah in precisely the same way that the Torah used them.  At other times, they turned the expression and used it figuratively or ironically.  The exegete must be alert when moving into different types of literature to be sure of how that literature uses the term.

Date.  I should think that if the first two considerations (listed above) have been made, this one will have been made in the process.  The Hebrew of the Old Testament covers centuries.  A term can change its meaning rather quickly in such a period of time.  Consider an example from English: when St. Paul’s Cathedral in London was rebuilt by Christopher Wren after the great fire, King George described it as “amusing, artificial, and awful.”  By those words, however, he meant “pleasing,” “a work of art,” and “awesome,” respectively.  It is possible that in the Old Testament such changes in meaning have also developed.  For example, saris, is defined as meaning “eunuch.”  In Genesis, Potiphar is a “eunuch”--but he had a wife as everyone familiar with the story knows.  It can be demonstrated from Akkadian that the cognate word for Hebrew saris at one time meant “court official,” and later came to mean “eunuch.” It is plausible to suggest that the same development took place in Hebrew, so that the reference in Genesis is confirmed as correct in usage.

Figurative Language.  Words can be used figuratively; some of the figurative uses change the categories of meanings.

We need to make a distinction here between “high figure” and “low figure.” By “low figure” we mean an idiom.  A term has its basic denotative meaning, but by some figurative usage is extended into another semantic field.  If that figurative usage becomes a fixed expression, an idiom, then it more than likely will be entered into the dictionary as one of the meanings of a word.  In English, “shepherd” is a good example. It basically means “to herd sheep” if it were broken down etymologically.  Its normal range of usage would be in the area of animal care.  But through biblical influence it came to be used for spiritual leaders (and “flock” for the congregation). Hence, the dictionary will likely offer a second definition, mentioning it is an ecclesiastical usage.  In religious circles, in fact, this meaning may be the first thing that the listener may perceive.  When figures become idiomatic, they are often called “dead metaphors.” The low figure is important for word studies because it will be a new category.

“High figure” will refer to a word that is used outside of its normal semantic range, but not consistently enough to become idiomatic or be listed as a dictionary entry.  An expression such as “he was dead by foul subtraction” illustrates this.  A mathematical term is used for death.  The term “subtraction” does not mean “death”; it would not have that definition in the dictionary.  But in this line it has been transferred to that semantic range and conveys an emotive sense.  High figures are important because they vary from the categories and have to be dealt with separately.

In studying words you need to be alert to this.  If you come upon a usage in a given passage that seems to be out of its normal semantic range, you will have to 1) understand the basic meaning of the word, and 2) articulate the figurative usage made of the word.

So then, in organizing categories of usage you will be more concerned with the idiomatic usage.  The dictionaries use the term “metaphorical” in a general sense for “figurative.”  Actually, very few of the items they offer are metaphors in the strict sense. We shall have to think in terms of “figurative” for the time being when such a term is used. The two broad groups of figures of speech that have an impact on categories are 1) figures of comparison, and 2) figures of substitution (we will study these in greater detail later).  For comparison the basic idea of metaphor will serve as an example; for substitution the metonymy will serve.

When a word is used as a metaphor, a comparison is being made (this is an oversimplification, but it will do for now).  When a metaphor becomes idiomatic, the meaning of the word is broadened.  For example, “shepherd” in the Bible is used metaphorically: “Yahweh is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1).  A comparison is being made between a shepherd and Yahweh--both words being at home in different settings.  When this is used enough to became a fixed, dictionary meaning, then the dictionary meaning of “shepherd” would be broadened to cover the usage of the term in both semantic fields.  It will probably say that the verb means “lead to pasture, feed, graze” or the like, and then divide the categories of meaning between literal leading or feeding of animals and the figurative usage of a spiritual or governmental leader or teacher.  When you define a word, your one word definition (“shepherd” in this case) is only a starting point; you must clarify how it is used.  Idiomatic usages that came by way of figures of comparison broaden the basic meaning to uses in different semantic fields.

When a word is used as a metonymy, a substitution is being made.  “The pen is mightier than the sword” uses “pen” for what is written, and “sword” for military force. This figure is very common in language, and especially the language of the Bible.  “They have Moses and the Prophets” is not meant to say that they actually have Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.  It means they have what those men wrote--the Bible.  The author has been substituted for the work.  Now when metonymy is used frequently enough to become a dictionary entry, the categories describing each usage will show a closer connection between the basic meaning and the figurative meaning.  In fact, dictionaries often do not name these usages as figurative--but it is helpful to do so when explaining the connections between categories.  For example, !A[;(, ‘awon,  means “iniquity,” but it can also mean “guilt” and “punishment” for the iniquity. These meanings are metonymies, the guilt for the iniquity and the punishment for the iniquity are substitutions of the effect for the cause.  All three meanings could be made subdivisions of a broad definition, for they all remain in the same semantic field of “sin.”  But they are all different categories of meaning.  When  Cain said “My ‘awon is greater than I can bear,” it makes a lot of difference whether that is “my iniquity,” “my guilt,” or “my punishment.”

Verbal Themes or Stems.  Part of the procedure of classifying words into their categories of meanings will involve your understanding the verbal stems, i.e., qal, niphal, piel, pual, hithpael, hiphil, hophal, and the lesser stems.  You should review the basic grammatical material covering these stems whenever it becomes important

in a word study.

On occasion you may find this grammatical classification helpful.  For example, ’aman, essentially involves two stems, niphal (“to be firm, sure, confirmed, faithful”) and hiphil (“to believe”).  The study will necessarily keep the hiphil uses together to determine what was involved in believing.  The connection to the niphal (and perhaps thereby qal) may prove helpful, but a caution is important at this point--we cannot be certain that the Hebrews were aware of etymological connections between the stems.  It is one thing to say that we understand the word better by seeing the relationships between the words; it is quite another to say that they understood and implied this connecting meaning.  I think it is safe to say that if the ideas between stems of a verb are transparent, and there is evidence from usage that they knew the connections in meanings (that is, word plays, contextually clear usage) , we are safe in using the connections to help elucidate the idea.  My point here is to caution you against a simplistic etymologizing approach without confirming the ideas by usage.

Non-theological Usage.  In all your looking for categories of usage, you will come across non-theological usages of the word.  For example, rekhem, as we have seen, was used for “mercy” as well as “womb”; khata’, was used for “sin” as well as “missing” a target. You will have to determine what connection, if any, existed between these terms.  Did the Hebrew--does the modern American--know what words were etymologically connected (for example, how many would know “ligament” is connected “obligation”; the etymologist would see the connection, to be sure, but if you heard a person use “obligation” in a message, could you conclude that the speaker intended the connection)?  Here, too, we are safe to say that if the connection is transparent, and if there is support from usage for the connected significance, we may use the evidence to help our understanding.  I would say that the expositor should withhold this kind of material until the usage of the word has been studied to see what its contextual evidence would suggest.

This raises an academic question as to the origin of the one over the other.  It is impossible to say that a word like aj;(h;(  originally meant “to miss the mark, a goal, the way” and then was transferred to the theological realm to mean “to err, sin.” It is equally impossible to argue that the theological meaning preceded the non-theological.  One might suspect that God would reveal Himself in human language that was understandable, and that the non-theological is basic.  But that is speculative; there is no firm evidence for a historical study like this.  What I would say, however, is that if the usage of the non-theological meaning is substantial, then that is instructive for understanding the theological meaning.  The non-theological is usually a local and concrete meaning, (for example, “miss a mark” for khata');  the theological is more often broad and abstract ( “sin” for the same word).

Synonyms and Antonyms.  If it is possible to find good synonyms or antonyms for the word you are studying, these may serve to enhance the understanding of the word.  A survey of the major synonyms of a word is an important part of the procedure, because you need to consider how the word differs from others in the same semantic field, and why the writer might have chosen the word he did over the others.

How do you discover synonyms and antonyms?  It would be my guess that if you had studied through the usage and used tools mentioned in this discussion so far, you would be on to some of them already.  For example, when you look at words in BDB , say under ratsakh, “to kill,” there will be listed verses in which the Hebrew poetry uses a synonym in its parallelism, and these verses will often have in parentheses two parallel lines and the Hebrew term: ( // tymihe, hemit).  This says that in such and such a verse the word in parentheses is parallel to the word being studied.  Exactly how it is parallel demands your looking at the passage; most of the time it will be synonymous, but sometimes loosely synonymous or even antithetical.  “Put to death” is clearly synonymous with “kill” (other words will be more helpful--this is just an illustration).

As you look up contexts in studying usages, be alert to other words in the context.  For example, a passage may be about “holiness” (qodesh)  and discuss it at length; but in the discussion it might be contrasting it with “common”or “profane” (khalal ).  In fact the text may even say that so and so has “profaned” that which is “holy.”  An antonym such as “profane, common” helps our understanding of “holy” by contrast.

If you cannot find synonyms from your survey, then there are other means of finding them.  A concordance like Young’s Analytical Concordance will serve nicely.  Look up your Hebrew (or Greek) word in the back to see how it was translated in the English (AV).  If you looked up ratsakh, you would find several words: “kill, murder, or manslaughter.”  You then must begin looking up each one of these in the regular part of the concordance.  Under “kill” you will find a collection of several Hebrew words which were translated with “kill.”  After just a couple of places in the concordance, you should gain a sampling of the common synonyms. (You would also see New Testament Greek words as well, and these could be noted for later studies).

In addition to these methods, reference tools will be helpful.  Dictionaries of synonyms and antonyms (in English) will get  you thinking of concepts that might be checked in Hebrew dictionaries, Hebrew word study books might provide general discussions on how the words fit into their semantic field.  Commentaries and Old Testament theologies also are helpful.  Synonyms are easier to find than antonyms; do not be disturbed if little can be found in this step, but evaluate what you can find for the purpose of understanding your word more precisely.

Summary of Usage

Here I should like to review briefly the main concepts in tracing usage before going to the next part.

1)      Scan through the categories given in the dictionaries to see how they have arranged the usage.

2)      Look up the references in the Bible to see how the word is used in the contexts.  Do not rely on the phrases given in the concordances--you need more context to work with (and their English definition might mislead you). If the word has too many references, be selective--check first the references given in the same category first, then problematic references, and then spot check the common usages.

3)              Start to group similar meanings together and write headings for them.

4)  If you come across non-theological usages, pay close attention to them for they might serve as supportive or illustrative evidence, but do not simply read the meaning into the theological usage without validation,

5)  If you came across synonyms and antonyms, try to determine how your word differs from them.

6)  Consult the basic word study books to see if those writers mentioned something that you may have overlooked.  Do not go to these too soon; if you have surveyed usage already, you will be better equipped to evaluate their suggestions, If you have not, they will influence you more,

7)  Put word studies in their proper perspective: they provide the meanings and range of meanings of words--used in statements.  The statements will form the substance of theology.  For example, you do not prove the doctrine of the virgin birth from the word study of Hebrew ‘alma, “virgin/young woman”; you learn the possibilities of this word by usage, and then carry those as options to the context being studied. (The doctrine is taught by the clear statement of Scripture.) You would then need to justify your choice by contextual exegesis.  If you were to ascribe a contextual meaning to the word that was not found in Scriptural usage, your interpretation would be insupportable and questionable.


Understanding Etymology

This section of the notes will establish certain guidelines for etymological (or philological) studies of Hebrew words.  This is the more technical aspect of the study, usually the work of the specialist.  But we still have to learn the basic resources and methods just to be able to use the etymological findings effectively.

A great deal of work has been produced that calls attention to the misuse of etymologies in biblical studies over the past centuries (and this is important because students are still buying those books that were not always done well); we may learn from such careless and dangerous practices how important valid method is.  The most helpful discussions include: P. F. Ackroyd, "Meanings and Exegesis" in Words and Meanings, ed. by Ackroyd and Lindars (Cambridge University Press, 1968); James Barr, Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968); James Barr, "Did Isaiah Know About Hebrew `Root Meanings'?" ExT 75 (1964); James Barr, "Etymology and the Old Testament," OTS 19 (1974); James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961); R. Gordis, "On Methodology in Biblical Exegesis," JQR 61 (1960):93-118; Max L. Margolis, "The Scope and Methodology of Biblical Philology," JQR NS 1 (1910, 1911):5-41; D. F. Payne, "Old Testament Exegesis and the Problem of Ambiguity," ASTI 5 (1967):48-68; S. Ullmann, The Principles of Semantics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1957).

The article by Barr is most helpful in separating the various disciplines that may be called "etymology."  The following is a list of the results. (See also Yakov Malkiel, Essays on Linguistic Themes [Oxford, 19681], pp. 199-227).

Etymology A: Prehistoric Reconstruction.  The first type of etymological operation is the reconstruction of the form and sense of the so-called proto language.  By its own nature, Proto Semitic (PS) lies anterior to historical documentation.

Hebrew        ’amar        “say”

Arabic        ’amara        “command”

Ethiopic      ’ammara    “show, know”

Akkadian    amaru        “see”                    PS “be clear”?

This sort of reconstruction involves two aspects:  phonology and semantics.  Once we have established the corresponding phonemes, we observe that the meanings in the historical languages may suggest what the meaning in the ancestor language may have been, and this in turn may suggest what was the semantic path, in our case the semantic path from a pre-Hebrew stage to the evidenced meaning in biblical Hebrew.

The comparison that we carry out, the operations in which we align an Arabic or an Akkadian word with a Hebrew word, all imply that these languages and the words in question have a common prehistory.

Etymology B: Historical Tracing.  This operation traces the forms and the meanings within an observable historical development. If we cannot carry this out to the full in Hebrew, it is because of the lack of adequate information.  This process overlaps with usage.

In case B the operation is less hypothetical and less reconstructive in character: it works within one known language and traces the development of a root/word through different stages, all of which are extant in historical documents.  There still may be some reconstruction involved.  Although we may have stage one and stage two of a word, the path from stage one to stage two is seldom known with absolute objectivity.

How then do we assess the probability of various explanations of changes of . Two ways: 1) by noting the contemporary developments in thought and culture (development of sacrifice, codification of laws, etc,); 2) some sort of pre

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