Books Worth Reading– Part Three

Books Worth Reading– Part Three June 4, 2023

There have always been problems with word dictionaries.  Why?  Because words don’t have meanings in isolation from their contexts.  It is not true that ‘in the beginning was the Dictionary, and the Dictionary was good’.  Every existing dictionary of whatever sort involves persons having done detailed study of the use of words in numerous contexts, to establish the semantic range of the word.  And often enough, that range is broad, though not quite free range like the chickens.  And the danger of such a dictionary is one attempts to squeeze words into procrustean beds. into which they don’t easily fit.  Let me give one example— take the OT word HESED.  

I once asked a famous OT scholar what HESED means, and he replied instantly— covenant faithfulness, whether applied to God or to human beings, particularly God’s chosen people.  The problem with this idea is that it simply doesn’t work with too many examples of HESED in the Bible— for example the term is used of Rahab, in the spies story,  or Ruth the Moabitess, neither of whom had any covenant relationship with Yahweh, nor did Yahweh owe them anything ‘by previous contract’. In fact, the term normally means something like loving kindness, or even mercy, and the latter is how the word is regularly translated in the LXX (see my study of this word in Psalms Old and New, and Isaiah Old and New).  That OT scholar had imported into the word the way scholars of the Reformed tradition had regularly understood it to mean— based on their pre-existing covenant theology.  Anachronism is never a good way to do word studies, reading words in light of later theological systems.

This brand new, over 1,000 page dictionary edited by two seasoned and careful scholars. Tremper Longman and Mark Strauss, and assigned to a large group of young scholars with PhDs, whose names you mostly are not likely to know, approaches things well aware of the pitfalls of previous such dictionaries, for example the famous or infamous Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the NT on which many of us were raised.  This particular dictionary calls itself an expository dictionary, which I take to mean its mainly targeting preachers and teachers of the Bible, not primarily scholars. The intended audience is ministers, teachers, educated laity it would appear.

As the Introduction to the volume indicates, in fact this is three dictionaries in one, the front part of the book being catalogued alphabetically with English words  and their Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek equivalents, whereas the back part of the dictionary begins with the words in their original languages and then labels them either with the older Strong’s numbering system, or the more recent Goodrick and Kohlenberger system.  You can start with the English term or with the original language term.  This is a rather unique feature of this dictionary.

The authors and editors are more than well aware that ‘every translation is already an interpretation’ because decisions have to be made as to what a word or phrase means in a particular context, and from the outset they give the much debated example of 1 Thess. 4.3-4. Is Paul talking about how to control one’s own body and so avoid sexxual immorality, or is he talking about how to obtain a wife!  There is a big difference between these two interpretations, in particular of the word ‘skeuos’ or vessel.    Thankfully, the contributors and editors of this volume are well aware that there are no infallible translators into English, whether we are talking about ancient translations by a Tyndale or the KJV team, or modern translations teams or individuals.  But at the same time, there is a strong commitment by the team to a high view of Scripture as God’s Words in human words,  not merely human words about God.

What you will not find in this dictionary is a lot of scholars debating scholarly issues with each other, nor should you expect a bunch of footnotes pointing you to further more scholarly resources.  In this regard, this volume is very different from the original Kittel dictionary volumes translated by Geoffrey Bromiley.   That’s o.k. because this dictionary will serve the church and those who serve the church well, and hopefully prevent a lot of misreadings of key terms and key texts.   Let’s hope so anyway. One grows weary of pontificators on You Tube, especially about matter of eschatology, who wouldn’t know a Hebrew or Greek word if it hit them in the face, or at least was transliterated into English characters.  My advice to You Tube surfers is to consider the source of the pronouncements, and ask the proper question— do these people even know the Bible in its original languages or not?   If not,  caveat emptor.  As for this volume, there are no such problems, and I am happy to commend it to preachers, teachers, and just good students of the Bible everywhere.   Real Biblical knowledge usually doesn’t come free, and this volume is worth the investment as a good reference tool.

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