These Do What Now? A Comparison of Hebrew Lexica (Part 1)

Jimmy and I enjoyed working on a pretty fun first assignment for our Hebrew reading class. Since this semester’s class is focusing on semantics (i.e., the linguistic study of meaning in language), our first assignment was to compare and contrast the three primary Hebrew lexica used for studying Biblical Hebrew. The goal was to write 4-5 pages highlighting the principles on which each lexicon was based, the layout of the articles, and to note some strengths and weakness of each lexicon. We were to write the assignment as if we were addressing students new to Biblical Hebrew, or as we like to call them here at HBU, “Hebrew Babies.” What follows is a synthesis of both Jimmy’s assignment and my own assignment. We hope this will be a helpful summary to everyone no matter your knowledge of Hebrew. As always, we welcome discussion – what are your thoughts on the three Hebrew lexica?

There will be five posts to cover 1-3) introductions to each lexicon, 4) comparisons of article layouts, and 5) lastly a discussion of the different strengths and weaknesses of each lexicon.

Since we will be discussing the idea of “meaning” and other semantic issues, we highly suggest reading through a post from our friend and fellow HBU Husky, Kris Lyle, titled Do words have meanings? over at his blog Old School Script. It is an excellent post so check it out!

So, first things first — a lexicon is an important and invaluable tool for studying Biblical Hebrew, or any language for that matter. Most likely you will be more familiar with the word ‘dictionary.’ While there are multiple Hebrew lexica in existence, there are three primary Hebrew and English dictionaries available to the student of Biblical Hebrew. These are the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (BDB), the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT), and the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (DCH). Navigating these important resources can be a daunting task to the beginner Biblical Hebrew student. This is especially true considering these three lexica are organized differently from one another and are based on (or emphasize) different linguistics principles.

The earliest of these three lexica is the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon which was originally published in 1906. BDB is so named for its authors Francis Brown, R. Driver, and Charles Briggs. Although BDB is largely dependent on the prior work of Wilhelm Gesenius (and completed in his name), it is meant to be a “fresh” and “exhaustive” study of the Hebrew language of the Old Testament which takes the development of the Hebrew language into account throughout the work. The organization of BDB is unlike most dictionaries with which readers will be familiar. With an emphasis on etymology (study of the history of words), BDB is organized around word roots rather than alphabetically. Thus words are classified according to their stems in order to show which words, according to BDB, are related to one another, rather than listed from aleph (א) to taw (ת). BDB aims to be as exhaustive as possible with its material (the biblical texts).

There are two primary methodologies employed by BDB to determine a word’s semantic range or sense. The first and more prominent methodology is comparisons with cognate languages. As the authors undertook the work of the philologist they used other ancient Semitic languages to provide semantic insight into Hebrew words. The Cognate languages explicitly taken into account are Arabic, Assyrian, Syriac, Targemic-Aramaic, Christian-Aramaic, Ethiopic, North-Semitic Inscriptions, 5th century Aramaic texts from Egypt, and Egyptian. Notably absent from the list is Ugaritic* as it was simply not available at the time BDB was under construction. It is clear in the preface of BDB that its lexicographers were somewhat preoccupied with Hebrew cognate languages and the origin of words. The strong emphasis on etymology in BDB stems from the assumption that words “mean” what they “mean” due to the history that they hold. Or, to put it another way, if one can trace the history of a word back to its source, say from another more ancient language, then one can determine what a word really “means”. This assumption is not only present in the etymological information and organization, it is also found in the ordering of the different senses of words found within an individual article. If there are multiple senses of a Hebrew word then the first one listed is considered the most “concrete” sense and is followed by more “abstract” senses. The assumption then is that the concrete meanings are the more basic (and thus earlier) senses, and the abstract senses are developed over time off of the most basic sense.

The second methodology is to take into account the context in which a word occurs within the Hebrew Bible. In its listing of Biblical citations, BDB aims to be as exhaustive as possible. In addition to Biblical citations, BDB incorporates some work done in Old Testament textual criticism but only includes emendations the authors deem credible.

Lastly, the Hebrew baby should know that BDB contains a separate Aramaic section at the end of the lexicon, which will prove helpful when working in the Aramaic sections of the Old Testament.

*We had mistakenly listed Akkadian with Ugaritic as unavailable to BDB, which is not the case. As Brian Davidson (www.brianwdavidson.com) pointed out to me, “Assyrian” is also known as “Akkadian” and thus BDB does incorporate Akkadian into their work. Jimmy and I had inadvertently linked Ugaritic and Akkadian in our minds which led to our mistake. Good catch, Brian! :)

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Stay tuned for Part 2 in our series These Do What Now? A Comparison of Hebrew Lexica in which we will briefly introduce the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, also known as HALOT.

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2 thoughts on “These Do What Now? A Comparison of Hebrew Lexica (Part 1)

  1. Jeremy

    A worthy introduction!

    I’m not sure if here is the appropriate place or if you will discuss this when you talk about the article layout, but one other basic aspect of BDB is that it conveys meaning through the use of glosses rather than definitions, which may differ with the user’s experience with English dictionaries or even dictionaries of other modern languages.

    I think this reinforces the idea of the emphasis on etymology that you mention because it departs somewhat from Gesenius (not that Gesenius is devoid of etymology by any means). Gesenius, at least in some entries, has full definitions or what seem to border on full definitions. But, why include a definition if etymology and context elucidate meaning?

    Reply
  2. lylelife

    I’ll definitely be staying tuned to this series. Can’t wait for the assessment part! Since my MA thesis covered lexical semantics, I also reviewed HALOT and BDB, but not DCH. Though it’s the newest of the bunch, I think it’s a real let-down. Just goes to show that the “newest” and “latest” is NOT always the “greatest”.

    Reply

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