John Hobbins over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry describes the need for a handbook of Ancient Hebrew vocabulary based on semantic domains. He contrasts this to most of the handbooks available now, such as Landes and Van Pratico/Pelt:
From a pedagogical point of view, furthermore, there is something perverse about trying to assimilate vocabulary according to frequency spectra.
Hobbins is right: this is not how people learn a language naturally. Of course any language textbook should start with high-frequency vocabulary. But you will learn that vocabulary in the context of the language overall, not as isolated words to memorize in order of frequency.
Hobbins recommends an English-language resource that arranges Ancient Hebrew vocabulary by semantic domains, or logical categories such as colors, anatomy, military terms, etc. He wrote that in 2007. So far nobody has written such a book.
This frustration was what led my mentor, David Pleins, to start writing “And These Are the Words”: A Student’s Guide to Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Categories. At some point in the process he brought he on as co-author. After Pleins devised the initial lists and categories, I scoured books with titles like The Days of Our Years: A Lexical Semantic Study of the Life Cycle in Biblical Israel, The Semantics of Ancient Hebrew Colour Lexemes, and Weathering the Psalms: A Meteorotheological Survey to expand our lists. Oh, and yes, we did crib from Hobbins’ list of human anatomy terms.
I am proud to say that yesterday morning (3 AM!) we got the draft into the publisher. It feels nice to have a contract and know this will come out.
As I said, nobody has published a book like this in English before. Mark Wilson wrote a similar one for New Testament Greek, but it has one fatal flaw: he excludes all rare words except those etymologically related to common words. If we had taken such a principle in our book, it would be 1/4 of its size. This especially applies to many “daily life” words for clothes, furniture, etc., many of which are infrequent in the Bible.
Why might our book be useful?
First, vocabulary acquisition is essential to fluid and fun reading of the Scripture in its original languages. But the Hebrew Bible has many words that are infrequent, words that will not appear in frequency handbooks like Landes and Van Pelt/Practico. And learning vocabulary is best done in context—in this case, in the context of related words. So rather than merely learning a word for “scribe,” we can also learn words denoting books, writings, documents, pens, and ink.
But learning words by semantic domains should not just be an exercise in rote memorization. In an appendix of our book, we have collected “cluster verses” that contain several words for one category. For example, Numbers 31:50 is an ideal verse for those trying to learn words for jewelry:
And we have brought the Lord’s offering, what each of us found, articles of gold [זָהָב], armlets [אֶצְעָדָה] and bracelets [צָמִיד], signet rings [טַבַּעַת], ear-rings [עָגִיל], and pendants [כוּמָז], to make atonement for ourselves before the Lord.’
That’s six different words in the semantic domain of “Jewelry,” which we have under “Clothing.” These verses enable students to learn biblical Hebrew vocabulary by engaging the text.
Second, these lists can serve as a springboard for many exercises in linguistic exploration. Because this is a student handbook, we did not differentiate words beyond basic semantic referents. But of course, words that refer to the same thing can be very different. The word “testicles” and the word “balls” refer to the same thing, but they are not used in the same contexts!
Similarly, we intend these lists to be used by students of Biblical Hebrew to compare words. Is one word poetic and another used in prose? Is one earlier and one later? Is one distinctive to a particular author?
For example, while reading Proverbs, I might come across the word יָפִיחַ, “witness,” as in a legal witness. But I wouldn’t know at first glance that this word is distinctive to Proverbs, and that the rest of the Hebrew Bible uses עֵד to refer to a witness.
Throughout the book, we have marked all words that are rare (used <10 times) as well as hapax legomena. This enables the student to explore words that are rare and have contested or ambiguous meaning. This also signals to the reader that some of our glosses are less sure than others—not because of any shoddy work on our part but because the word itself is infrequent to start with. If a word appears once in the Hebrew Bible, and if it is part of a list in Leviticus or employed as figurative language in poetry, context might not tell us much about what the word means.
Third, this book might be very useful for programs teaching biblical Hebrew using communicative pedagogy, such as Randall Buth’s Living Biblical Hebrew and Paul Overland’s Learning Biblical Hebrew Interactively. The lists in our book supply many terms used in daily life. There is something weird about having studied a language for years and being able to talk about complex morphology and syntax, but being unable to create sentences any five-year-old could create in their native tongue: “I want to eat an apple,” “The tree is in the forest,” etc.
I will continue to post updates as we hear back from the publisher. In the meantime, I might do a few blog posts illustrating the usefulness of this tool.