Lexica, Part 1

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 which 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 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 two parts 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 to once (a "hapax legomenon"), and whose meaning is not clarified by context, is well-known in some other Semitic language. Given that these languages are genetically related, this cognate use may shed light on the meaning of the Hebrew term. (Note: one cannot, however, assume, that the word means exactly the same thing in Hebrew.) 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 always possible, for example, that a translator of the Septuagint in the second century BCE still had a sense of what a biblical word that is obscure to us might have meant. Thus, these ancient translations at times provide valuable lexicographical information, though at times they too 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, there has been a substantial advance in our understanding of Akkadian over the last ninety years, so the references to Akkadian in BDB must be used with great care. Despite these shortcomings and its age, it is an extremely valuable and reliable tool.

BDB is divided into two sections: Hebrew and Aramaic, so when looking up Hebrew words from the end of the alphabet, one must 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 are found on pp. 1119-1127. (Entries which are corrected are indicated with an * in the main entry.) and are treated separately, with preceding ; people using the lexicon must be careful then when looking up words with either of these consonants. Many entries begin with an obelus (†). This 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 is found under .) In some cases this is difficult. BDB often provides cross-references under the alphabetical listing (so for 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. Finally, the Index to Brown, Driver and Briggs, ed. Bruce Einspahr (Chicago: Moody Press, 1976), is helpful, but should not be overused.


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