Book and Product Reviews

Review: Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories

Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories: A Student’s Guide to Nouns in the Old Testament, by J. David Pleins and Jonathan Homrighausen, is a lexical aid for students and teachers of Biblical Hebrew that arranges over 2,000 Hebrew nouns into over 175 conceptual categories, or semantic fields. This book is highly versatile with many uses not only for beginning students but also for intermediate and advanced students as well as for teachers.

I have taught Hebrew to members of my community on several different occasions. From the beginning, I realized that teaching Hebrew the way I had been taught in university (a traditional, largely deductive method using Seow’s A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew) might work for students in a university or seminary setting, but it was far from ideal for the purposes of the working adults and retirees who made up the majority of my students. To be honest, it really is not perfect for any but the most dedicated and academically minded of university students. For many MDiv students in seminaries, the traditional deductive approach, both to Hebrew and Greek (and represented perfectly in Greek by William Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek), just does not work in making the languages accessible and usable for future ministers.

Having seen this reality play out in the academic experience of many of my fellow students when I was a graduate student, and realizing that community members who wanted to learn Hebrew for their own enrichment would find the traditional course structure even less inviting than MDiv students did, I determined to try to find another way. At first, I tried a more or less completely inductive approach (using Kittel, Hoffer, and Wright’s Biblical Hebrew), but the lack of any deductive grammatical structure left my students with formless data and made memorization more difficult. I tried a less dense, more user friendly deductive grammar in Hackett’s A Basic Introduction to Biblical Hebrew, and though I had a bit more success with it than with Kittel, Hoffer, and Wright’s book, I still ran into many of the unavoidable problems of the deductive approach. What was common to these and many other grammars I had encountered was a basically grammar-first-vocabulary-second approach. Vocabulary was introduced each chapter based upon what grammatical features had been covered.

The problem with this sort of approach to learning Biblical Hebrew, and a chief problem motivating the construction of Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories, is that individual words in the vocabulary lists from each chapter of a traditional grammar are usually isolated from each other semantically. In other words, if I have 15 words to memorize, these 15 words are not all words for animals, or for tools, or for landforms. Each word typically occupies a unique semantic domain. The reason why this is problematic is that our brains learn things better in conceptual chunks where multiple related items are learned together and understood partly in distinction one from another. For example, when learning modern languages it is typical not to learn the phrase for “good morning” by itself but within a group of phrases, i.e., along with the phrases for “good afternoon” and “good evening” and maybe a few other standard salutations and greetings, as well. In this way, we help our brain to acquire the vocabulary by creating mental spaces and then populating those spaces with mutually defining webs of words. Otherwise, as the authors of this book note in their introduction, “vocabulary building is reduced to rote memorization that all too often becomes an exercise in futility.” Not only is vocabulary building in the traditional manner difficult and boring, it often fails to stick in the brains of most students, because it is unnatural.

I had just begun to develop a completely new vocabulary-first-grammar-second structure for my most recent Hebrew course and was putting together my own vocabulary lists based on conceptual categories when, lo and behold, Pleins and Homrighausen’s book appeared featured on the cover of the most recent catalog from Zondervan Academic. My initial hope was that Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories would facilitate me creating custom vocabulary lists for my class. In fact, it does that and more. What the authors have produced is a highly versatile tool that not only aids students in learning vocabulary but offers advancing students an introduction into the realm of Old Testament lexical studies. The book can be used to quickly and easily find synonyms or related words for a keyword in a text – a function I can see being very useful for pastors preparing sermons as well as for seminary students and even scholars (albeit in the very early stages of a new research project). As a teaching tool, the book has wide range of potential uses. The authors have suggested some such uses in the book’s introduction.

Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories is arranged simply and sensibly. The book’s conceptual fields are divided into four large categories: (1) The Created Order, (2) The Human Order, (3) The Social Order, and (4) The Constructed Order. Within each of these large categories are between four and eight intermediate categories. Each intermediate category is furthermore subdivided into basic categories wherein the words actually appear. For example, within “The Created Order” the fifth intermediate category is “Animals”, within which one finds in their own respective lists general terms for animals, the names of various kinds of birds, the various words for cattle, the various words for sheep and goats, names for enclosures and troughs, names of tools pertaining to animal husbandry, and so on and so forth in 11 further categories. Within each category, the number of words can vary considerably, from two words to more than two dozen. The book’s arrangement makes sense to me and, in my opinion, makes the book easy to browse.

Pleins and Homrighausen have made a conscious decision to focus on nouns rather than verbs. This includes substantive participles, but other than that verbs make only the rare appearance when, in the authors’ words, “they seem key to the semantic field as an assistance to the student.” The reason for this decision is that, traditionally, the teaching of Biblical Hebrew has been heavy on verbs and light on nouns because of the nature of Hebrew grammar. While this is understandable, the result is that often when students finish a couple of semesters of Biblical Hebrew they find themselves unable to read hardly any of the Hebrew Bible without constant reference to a dictionary. This is unnatural and discouraging for the early Hebrew student. I can attest to the accuracy of the authors’ diagnosis. For several years after learning Hebrew, the main barrier between me and reading fluency was the limited range of nouns I had committed to memory. By having students focus on memorizing thousands of nouns in conceptually related lists, I suspect teachers of Hebrew will see that their students will find Hebrew more accessible and more rewarding, and they will go on to use Hebrew more actively and accurately in their subsequent studies or ministry.

Each word listing is made up of between three and five parts: the Hebrew word, a list of English glosses (one word translations), an optional citation of a scholarly source for one or more of the glosses, a sample scripture reference where the word occurs, and an optional designation of the word as R (meaning “rare” or occurring fewer than 10 times in the Hebrew Bible) or H (meaning “hapax legomenon”, which is a Greek term that means the word only occurs once within a given body of literature). The scope of this book is the Hebrew Bible. It does not include non-canonical Second Temple period Jewish literature written in Hebrew, Hebrew inscriptions, or Late/Rabbinic Hebrew. The authors chose to deal with the issue of word frequency in this manner because they feel that a student ought not to neglect the learning of certain words simply because they occur infrequently in the Bible. Nevertheless, they acknowledge that it is useful to know at a glance which words are more or less common in a given conceptual category.

This book is not a lexicon, meaning it does not offer an in-depth discussion of the various meanings and nuances of each word. Rather, it is a lexical aid for students. Therefore, it presents only a handful of glosses for each Hebrew word. The authors have made an effort, however, to make sure that those glosses are as reliable as they can be. Rather than simply supplying traditional renderings (such as one finds in the dictionary portion of a Strong’s concordance), the authors have made use of new and up-to-date scholarly resources, including newer lexica and specialist monographs and articles. These resources are listed at the beginning of the book in a list of abbreviations and a bibliography.

The citations of scholarly sources show up as abbreviations or author last names in parentheses after the glosses. At times, an entry will consist of two or more groups of glosses with different citations for each group. For example, for the Hebrew word לְטָאָה (ləṭāʾā(h) – which happens to be a hapax legomenon) the entry shows “lizard; reptile (ELT); lacertid lizard (SDBH); gecko (HALOT)”. What this means, if I am understanding it correctly, is that “lizard” suffices as a basic and generally accepted translation of ləṭāʾā(h), but Oded Borowski’s Every Living Thing: Daily Use of Animals in Ancient Israel chooses to render it “reptile” (which is less specific than “lizard”), the Semantic Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew suggests “lacertid lizard” (which is more specific than “lizard”), and the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament offers “gecko” (which is more specific than “lizard” but disagrees with SDBH). These unobtrusive abbreviations quickly enable the reader to see a range of possible meanings for a given word, especially where there is some level of disagreement in that range.

The authors have included at the end of the book two short appendices and two indexes. The first appendix is a guide to further reading on the vocabulary of each intermediate category. The second appendix, titled “Cluster Verses for Study”, is a list of biblical passages that can be read for the purpose of studying each conceptual category in a textual context. This appendix will be especially useful for teachers. The first index is an alphabetically arranged list of all the words that appear in the book. The second is a scripture index.

I honestly can think of no way to improve upon this book, at least not definitively. While I think a similar arrangement of Hebrew verbs would be helpful, the book’s self-imposed limitation to nouns has a rationale that I can understand. Designating words as “rare” or as a “hapax legomenon” rather than giving a comprehensive listing of number of occurrences for each word is a choice that works just fine for the stated purpose of the book. Admittedly, if I had made that choice, I think would have chosen the comprehensive list of number of occurrences. Both of these choices, however, were made in part to keep the book simple and focused. It is intended primarily to be an aid for students of Hebrew, not a reference book for specialists.

I would recommend this book to teachers of Biblical Hebrew as a required textbook for their students. I would also recommend this book for self-motivated grad students and pastors who perhaps need some help in building their vocabulary beyond what they managed to acquire while taking Hebrew courses in seminary or university. While the specialist has resources available to him or her that surpass this book, I, personally, find it to be quite a useful ready reference, particularly as a way of familiarizing myself with the vocabulary of a conceptual category that I had not yet had occasion to master, but also for its curated bibliography and suggestions for further reading. Overall, this is a brilliantly designed and executed book that addresses a real need in the field of Biblical Hebrew studies and pedagogy.

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Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories: A Student’s Guide to Nouns in the Old Testament
By J. David Pleins with Jonathan Homrighausen / Zondervan

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2 thoughts on “Review: Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories

  1. Dr. Lee — I am a co-author of this book. Thank you for your glowing review! As you can imagine, this was not a fun or easy book to put together—lots of tedious tasks—so both David and I especially enjoy such enthusiastic feedback. If you have any suggestions for words to add, find any errors, or have any other kind of feedback, please drop us a line at or 🙂

    1. I’m pleased that my review was able to reach you to give you both a hearty pat on the back. Thank you for your hard work in putting together this tool, and good luck to you both.

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