Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament: Introduction

Author's Bias: Unknown

The value of books for theological word study of the Old and New Testaments has long been recognized. W. E. Vine’s word studies are well-known in the New Testament field. The major work, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, is now being matched by an extensive Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, which will run into many volumes.

Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament follows in this tradition, but approaches the matter from a practical and less exhaustive viewpoint than the major studies. The busy pastor or earnest Christian worker who has neither the time nor background for detailed technical study should yet have a tool for the study of the significant theological words of the Hebrew Bible. The editors and Moody Press are of the conviction that essential to the right understanding of the theological terms of the Old Testament is a belief in the Bible’s truth. Spiritual things are "spiritually discerned" (I Cor 2:14). Therefore, about thirteen years ago, they enlisted the help of some forty evangelical scholars who would write essay definitions of the important theological terms in the Old Testament that would be helpful to their brothers in the work of interpreting Scripture.

Word study does not lead to a total understanding of the Old Testament text-or any text. Words must always be taken in context. They have an area of meaning, thus ‘amar may sometimes mean "speak," sometimes "command." Thus, it overlaps with dabar on the one hand and sawa on the other. Also, the etymologies of words are not always determinative of meanings. In English we use words every day that are of pagan origin but no longer bear any such connotation. We derive the names of our months from Roman deities and our weekdays from the Norse mythologies, but we believe in neither. The Hebrews also did not invent their language. It was used in Canaan before the Conquest. Therefore, some Hebrew words may be of Canaanite origin, which is not to suggest that the Hebrews used them with the original Canaanite connotation. Biblical usage is therefore the best criterion of the meaning of a word, and to that end our authors have depended heavily on their concordances. But usage is often limited, and all the evidence available was evaluated, we think judiciously. There will be differences of opinion among our readers as to some of the conclusions here presented. Such differences will arise in part from different viewpoints brought to bear on the subject. Obviously these studies are neither complete nor final, but the editors and authors believe that the definitions given can be well defended. We hope that the work may result in the edification of the church of Christ through the assistance it may give to her ministers and His servants.

Often it was not easy to decide which words would be defined, and of those, which ones would receive lengthy discussion. In many cases, the decisions made could be questioned. Partly because of this and partly because of the convenience of having all the Old Testament words at least touched upon in one reference book, it was decided to include also the vocables not chosen for essay treatment and give them one-line definitions-usually following the lead of the long-time standard, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs.

It was decided not to include the Old Testament names, except for a few of special theological import, like Abraham, Jerusalem, Jordan, and so on. For the principles of name formation in the Hebrew world, one may consult the work of Dr. Allan A. MacRae, "The Semitic Names in the Nuzi Tablets," in Nuzi Personal Names, ed. I. J. Gelb, University of Chicago, 1943.

The bibliographies following many of the articles were supplied largely by the contributors, but the editors also attempted to supplement their material. Dr. Tom Finch, a recent graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, combed leading theological journals of the past thirty years, especially those in English, for articles bearing on the meaning of the words under discussion. The editors then checked those articles as to their applicability. Other sources have often been noted, such as the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (which has an index of Hebrew words discussed) and the Theologisches Handbuch zum Alten Testament. The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament was not largely available.

The listing is arranged according to the consonants of the Hebrew alphabet (see "Suggestions for Use" for details). The Wordbook collects related words and defines nouns, adjectives, and so on, together with the root from which they are derived. Grouping together related words has the advantage of convenience and economy. It perhaps has a disadvantage of overemphasizing etymology above usage. It has a further disadvantage in that nouns with prefixes appear out of their alphabetical order. To obviate this problem, any word whose spelling differs from that of its root is listed in the proper alphabetical sequence with a numerical cross reference to the root. (Again, for details see "Suggestions for Use.")

In Hebrew, as is well known, most of the roots are verbs, and they are built on a triconsonantal pattern. With only twenty-two consonants, a system of tri-consonantal roots is somewhat limited. The Hebrew vocabulary was far less than the rich English vocabulary of around 750,000 words. And the biblical vocabulary is only a percentage-an unknown percentage-of the words in use in the living language. Even so, some combinations of letters form one, two, or even more roots using the same consonants. These roots are marked as I, II, III, and so forth. Actually, the various authorities sometimes differ as to whether one root has two somewhat divergent meanings or whether two separate roots are involved. In such cases, the writers usually discuss the question.

The value of the Wordbook is largely due to the faithful work of the forty-six contributors who agreed to study the words assigned them and compress their study into the allowed format. Their articles are signed.

The contributors were asked to study their words from the viewpoint of biblical usage, etymological background, comparison with cognate languages, translations in the ancient versions, synonyms, antonyms, and theological significance. Also, they were to consider the use of their words in passages of special difficulty. Naturally, not all of those items were applicable to every word. And the writers felt the pressure of fitting their study into the narrow limitations of a two-volume book of this nature. Many things they would have liked to include could not be worked in.

It should be explained that although the contributors held the same high view of the truthfulness of the Bible and the reliability of its text, they were of different denominational and exegetical traditions. The editors in general have allowed the writers to speak for themselves. Some variations in treatment may therefore be expected. For instance, some use the name "Yahweh" for Israel’s God, some the word "Lord," some "Jehovah." (This matter is discussed under the possible root of the name, haya.) In a number of cases where a writer gave only one opinion on a particular question, the editors for the sake of completeness mentioned a different view. In cases of significance, these additions were submitted to the contributors and approved. In less significant cases, the editors themselves added such additional material, believing that it did not violate the integrity of the author. If in any such case, time and circumstances prevented conference and the authors’ views have not been fairly represented, the editors can only express sincere regret and hope that no harm has been done. In some cases when helpful additional material, perhaps speculative, or other views were available, the editors have added bracketed material with their own initials.

All the articles were read by the editor. Also, the two associate editors each read about half of the articles. So all were double-checked. Final responsibility for what may be amiss rests with the editor.

The work has taken much longer than expected. Selecting authors and encouraging them to meet deadlines was a long process. A number of the authors, as well as the editors, were heavily involved in the translation of the New International Version and gave it priority. But the contributors were careful and faithful, and the material in time became voluminous. We are indebted to Chrisona Peterson (now Mrs. Julian Schmidt), our copy editor, for her very extensive work in editing, styling, alphabetizing, cutting, pasting (ad infinitum), and proofreading. Dr. Tom Finch has already been mentioned in connection with his work on the bibliographies. Two students at Covenant Seminary, Jeffrey Weir and Ken Wolf, worked on the Index of Correspondence, between the numbers of the Wordbook and those of Strong’s Concordance, found at the back of the book. Moody Press and its representatives, for David R. Douglass, then William G. Crider, were most helpful and supportive at every turn. Finally, hearty thanks are due to the Xerox machine and the process of computer tape printing, which greatly assists in producing a book of complicated typography and considerable extent like this one.

With gratitude to the Lord for the completion of this work, we pray for His blessing upon it (Psalm 90:17).

R. Laird Harris, Gleason J. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke

Taken from Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament by R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, Moody Press, copyright ©1980. Used by permission. (

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