Late Night Rant: Word Study Problems that REALLY annoy me!

Time to vent at something that REALLY salts my soup, and it’s something that I see everywhere: Biblical Word Study Incompetence.

If you think you’re a Bible scholar and like to cite Hebrew or Greek but don’t actually know the language, let me offer you a hint to hide the obvious fact that you don’t know what you’re talking about (and those of us who have put in the years of slugging through paradigms, 900 page grammars, and principle parts lists all know full well that you’re simply making up half of what you say).

Here’s the hint:

When you do a word study and find your Hebrew/Greek word in the lexicon, you’ll see a long list of words (like “to rebuild, recover, restore, relive, repair, refresh and revive”) after and word (like חָיָה) and you’ll try to figure out what the word means.  There’s 2 things you should know:

1.  Lexicons list words in order of frequency in the Biblical text.

1a. That means it’s not a “choose whatever meaning you think sounds great here” list and then you simply plug in whatever meaning warms your heart the most.  You start with the first word on the list of semantic range, and assume it’s that unless you have sufficient (contextual) reasons to think otherwise.  You move down the list in sequence; you don’t just jump around.

1b. It’s also not a “this one word means all these things” list.  The word you’re looking up cannot possibly mean every single meaning in the list in the verse in question.  Words have a single meaning, and that meaning is declared by the usage of the word in the sentence in which it’s found.  I mean, consider that previous sentence:

“Words have a single meaning, and that meaning is declared by the usage of the word in the sentence in which it’s found”

You know what that sentence means, simply because you know English enough to understand all the words of that sentence used in context (i.e. in their setting).  How many words in that sentence have at least a range of 2 or more possible meanings? When you see the word “single” and “meaning” in the phrase “single meaning”, you don’t dig out the dictionary (or lexicon, if anyone has made one of my writings…), grab two random words from the semantic range of those two words and then wonder if I’m talking about whether or not words have the “intention to be unmarried”.

You don’t even think it because you know English well enough to know I wouldn’t possibly mean that.

If someone asked you why I was talking about words having the “intention to be unmarried” after hearing/reading that sentence, what would you think?  You’d probably think that they were not a native English speaker (at all)…or, well, mentally deficient.

If you do either one (1a or 1b), like is irresponsibly done here on (point 2 – Psalm 119:107), those of us who know their biblical languages think the same thing: we basically assume you’re as familiar with the biblical languages as your average Asian marketer is with English (because we’re nice and assume your brains works just fine):



2.  Every listing in a lexicon isn’t fair game.

A word is used in a sentence in a distinct form in both Hebrew and Greek, and many of the definitions are limited to certain specific forms (a simple example of this is the different meaning of Greek Prepositions in their various case forms).  That means, from the big list of the semantic range of a word (like “to rebuild, recover, restore, relive, repair, refresh and revive”),that list is immediately chopped because of the form of the word in the sentence.  Because of the form of the word in the passage in question (Piel imperative), that list is chopped down from seven words to one: “revive”.

That’s it.  Of that whole list, the word only means “revive” in Psalm 119:107.  The other “meanings” aren’t options at all.  The word has 1 meaning in the sentence, and if a person has to select from the list given (“to rebuild, recover, restore, relive, repair, refresh and revive”), that meaning is “revive” and only “revive”.

So, if you don’t know Greek or Hebrew, you have 3 choices:

(a) Stop passively lying about your ability with the biblical languages by referencing them without admitting that you are unfamiliar with them enough to use them with confidence (and your constant word study fallacies publicly display this with neon lights).

This might come as a shock to many, but you can learn the gospel, all major (and minor) points of theology, and work out a majority of important issues just fine with your English Bible.  You need to be far more worried about obeying what you do know of the scripture than mining out all the hidden gems in the original languages, and if you think “going to the Greek” answers all your exegetical/theological questions, you’ve embraced a very subtle form of gnosticism; the Greek doesn’t have the “secret knowledge” that solves all your problems.

(b) Learn your original languages and start using them properly.  For a majority of people, this simply isn’t happening.  It takes a lot of work and discipline, and you need someone to teach you.

(c)  Keep doing what your doing and take the gamble that you’ll get away with it more than you’ll get caught.  You already are, so why change?

Oh yeah.

There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that make haste to run to evil,
a false witness who breathes out lies,
and one who sows discord among brothers. (Proverbs 6:16-19)

Falsely portraying yourself as competent/an expert in biblical languages isn’t exactly “breathing out lies”, but it might be a reason to consider being more honest with yourself and those you instruct about your abilities with the original languages.

Just a late night rant after my wife asked me to check out something for her.  After encountering my 10,000th word study fallacy this year, I needed to explode.  Hopefully, a little of what I’ve said might be somewhat informative to people (at least regarding word studies).

Until Next Time

Lyndon “The Susan Powter of Word Studies” Unger


4 thoughts on “Late Night Rant: Word Study Problems that REALLY annoy me!

  1. Just outstanding ! I was ROFL reading your post… (physically It’s quite difficult to be simultaneously ROFL AND reading on a computer, but you see what I mean). And signing “The Susan Powter of Word Studies”, that almost killed me. Thank you so much for such an insightful AND hilarious article. I needed that as I just lost a very close friend of mind and was angry at about almost anything… Your “anger” help me combat mine. Thank you.

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