One of the key elements for teaching any language is culture. Indeed, many students put themselves through the rigor of grammatical analysis mainly in hopes of getting to the promised land of cultural understanding. Yet in teaching biblical languages we sometimes forget this. How can Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories help students make connections between biblical language and the cultural world of ancient Israel?
The premise of our book is that we should learn Biblical Hebrew vocabulary the same way we learned English. While learning a frequency-based core of vocabulary is important, acquiring and recalling associations between related words is a more fun way to learn them. And if it’s fun, it sticks.
To that end, we have created an appendix in the back of the book of “cluster verses,” grouping multiple words from the same conceptual category. We believe that it’s also better to learn vocabulary in context then as detached lexical items in a list.
For example, for the category “Vine, Wine, Grapes,” one of the central cluster verses is Isaiah 5:1–4 (the beginning of Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard). As a set of cluster verses, how many words in the conceptual category of viticulture are here?
Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard (kerem):
My beloved had a vineyard (kerem)
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines (šorēq);
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat (yeqeb) in it;
he expected it to yield grapes (ʿēnābīm),
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard (kerem).
What more was there to do for my vineyard (kerem)
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes (ʿēnābīm),
why did it yield wild grapes?
I count four separate words for “wine” here. If we add 5:11, we get two more:
Ah, you who rise early in the morning
in pursuit of strong drink (šēkār),
who linger in the evening
to be inflamed by wine (yayin),
Isaiah 5:1–4 and 11 give us six words of the forty words and phrases in the category “Vine, Wine, Grapes.” Not a bad start! Our appendix lists several other cluster verses for viticultural terms: Genesis 49:11–12, Proverbs 23:30–31, Jeremiah 2:21 and 48:32–33, and Micah 7:1.
Cluster verses help us learn these words in context. Using cluster verses, we learn the language, but we also get into the Scripture. And isn’t that the goal of studying Biblical Hebrew?
But wait, there’s more!
Using Isaiah 5:1–4 also moves us into a better understanding of the culture and daily life of ancient Israel. Old Testament scholar Carey Ellen Walsh calls Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard “the most detailed description of vineyard maintenance in the Bible.”1 In her study of viticulture in ancient Israel, Walsh argues that this passage is not only a well-crafted prophetic speech but also a useful window into viticulture in ancient Israel. Were Isaiah’s description not accurate, it would not have been as rhetorically powerful. Walsh assumes that Isaiah’s description of preparing the soil, planting the vines, preparing the winepress, and waiting for good grapes to grow is historically useful.
Walsh’s study of viticulture in ancient Israel is one of several studies that aim to reconstruct elements of everyday life in ancient Israel. In preparing the lists in our book, we consulted these studies to make our definitions as precise and informed as possible. But we also suggest that the learner using our book consult such studies as they study Biblical Hebrew. Then the student can connect language to culture.
Two of the best books in this regard are Oded Borowski’s Daily Life in Biblical Times and Philip King and Lawrence Stager’s Life in Biblical Israel. These books use Hebrew terms throughout, connecting language with archaeology. King and Stager’s book is filled with images of archaeological finds illustrating their hypotheses about the lives of ancient Israelites.
For those who want to use our book to bridge language and culture, another appendix of our book lists the bibliography for each section. For example, anyone curious about food and agriculture in ancient Israel might consult books such as:
- Kurtis Peters, Hebrew Lexical Semantics and Daily Life in Ancient Israel: What’s Cooking in Biblical Hebrew?
- Oded Borowski, Agriculture in Iron Age Israel and Every Living Thing: Daily Use of Animals in Ancient Israel
- Nathan MacDonald, What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat? Diet in Biblical Times
In sum, Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories can serve as a starting point for new ways of teaching and learning Biblical Hebrew. As classicist John Gruber Miller writes of incorporating culture into teaching ancient Greek:
“When learners can use and practice the language to compose meaningful utterances within an authentic cultural setting, then students are able to integrate language and culture so that the two reinforce each other.”2
Once the grammatical foundations have been laid and the core vocabulary acquired, this book can help students advance in the language by connecting vocabulary acquisition with exegesis of particular passages, the culture and daily life of ancient Israel, and the physical findings of modern biblical archaeology. Imagine teaching students words for pots and containers alongside images of pots and containers found in ancient Israel! The risk of anachronism aside—clearly the identification would have to be hypothetical—it would at least spark the students’ imagination and connect linguistic knowledge to other ways of studying the Bible.
This post wraps up our blogging book tour. David Pleins and I sincerely hope that Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories will enrich your study of the Hebrew of the Old Testament. If you have suggestions or find errors, vocabulary, or cluster verses that we missed, don’t hesitate to email either of us at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to hearing from you!
In 2017, David Pleins and I released a new resource designed for students of Biblical Hebrew: Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories: A Student’s Guide to Nouns in the Old Testament, a user-friendly book from Zondervan that arranges Biblical Hebrew words and phrases into categories from water to warfare, from jars to genitalia. Since then, we’ve gotten positive feedback in several journals, including the Review of Biblical and Early Christian Studies, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Expository Times, Bulletin for Biblical Research, Review of Biblical Literature, and Hebrew Higher Education. This blog series at theLAB aims to show how this book can be useful for students of all levels. (Links to previous posts will be at the bottom of this page.)
- Carey Walsh, The Fruit of the Vine: Viticulture in Ancient Israel, Harvard Semitic Monographs 60 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2000), 88. See also David John Jordan, “An Offering of Wine: An Introductory Exploration of the Role of Wine in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism Through the Examination of the Semantics of Some Keywords” (PhD diss., University of Sydney, 2002).
- John Gruber-Miller, “Teaching Culture in Beginning Greek,” Teaching Classical Languages 4, no. 1 (2008).