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Issue #55 - 07/10
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The Lexicon

Dear friends,

For some students, opening a lexicon and studying its contents with scrutiny might be comparable to the first jump into a swimming pool. There is the fear of cold water and of course of drowning. But once in the water, along with some fatigue, you may discover a new expression of life and a greater feeling of liberty. So it is with the lexicon. It has foreign signs, you run the risk of getting lost, or even making outrageous assumptions. Yet once immersed in the signs and words, you see a wealth of knowledge; even though working your way through it can be rather time consuming.

This newsletter seeks to encourage those who have not made their first jump into the lexicon to do so, to discover its wealth of knowledge.
There are many things to note about a lexicon. The lexicon contains very useful etymological and grammatical information. This newsletter’s focus however, is on the meaning of words listed in the lexicon.

Time constraints allow us to discuss just one example to illustrate how a lexicon works. The example is not the most breathtaking of the Bible, but is sufficient to help you get started using your lexicon. A typical and very good reason to pick up a lexicon is when you encounter those texts where you think that hard-to-understand words are obscuring the meaning of the passage.

An example:צְדָקָה    ṣədāqāh (tsedaqah)
Maybe you have wondered what righteousness means while reading an English translation. Or perhaps you read tsedaqah in the Hebrew Bible and learned that it means righteousness. But what does righteousness actually mean? One of the more catching definitions in a dictionary is “Morally upright; without guilt or sin.” But would this translation work for example in Genesis 15:6b. “It was reckoned to him [Abraham] [as] ‘being without guilt or sin’?”
The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT) lists under "tsedaqah" the following definitions.


► 1. loyalty to the community, in conduct, honesty

► 2. A. justice, of the human judge and of the king;

        it includes the elimination of anything breaking the peace and the preservation of good order;

        B. justness of the actual individual

► 3. justness of the divine judge:

        A. as action which rescues, sets to right; B. as punitive action

► 4. justness, meaning community loyalty:

        A. in general; B. especially in front of God;

        C. humans acting with loyalty towards the community, meaning goodness

► 5. justness, justice, meaning God’s loyalty to the community:

        A. as required of man; B. reliability, the truth; C. proved by God, salvation

► 6. A. entitlement, just cause;

        B. God’s deeds of justice, deeds of loyalty to the community, or covenant

► 7. particular instances:

        A. legal right, entitlement; B. -i. respectability -ii. legitimacy; C. justice as God’s prerogative;

        D. for the spatial and personal connotation.


When looking at this list of words and expressions, a few things become apparent.

First, the very same Hebrew word may be best translated or understood by a variety of English words or expressions.

Second, the word righteousness, which itself is a difficult word to define, may be translated by terms that are better understood in English. Thus, for the word righteousness (tsedaqah) we find for example: honesty, justice, justness, community loyalty, entitlement, just cause, and deeds of justice. (An example of a different lexicon, the Hebrew and Chaldee lexicon by Friedrich Wilhelm Gesenius, is depicted to the right.)


The lexicon’s English descriptions of the word tsedaqah, without looking actually to the references, may be somewhat abstract. Let’s take a look at an example in Genesis 30:33, which is listed as the first reference under the first set of meanings. This is the story where Jacob wants to leave Laban and at Laban’s request, Jacob names a reward for all his service.


וְעָנְתָה־בִּי צִדְקָתִי בְּיוֹם מָחָר כִּי־תָבוֹא עַל־שְׂכָרִי לְפָנֶיךָ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־אֵינֶנּוּ נָקֹד וְטָלוּא בָּעִזִּים וְחוּם בַּכְּשָׂבִים גָּנוּב הוּא אִתִּי׃

And my righteousness will answer for me on a later day, when it {possibly my righteousness or otherwise you} will come about my wages before you. All that which is not speckled and spotted among the goats and brown among the sheep, it will be [counted] stolen with me.

[If the translation above was not clear, please read the NET Bible translation below:]
My integrity will testify for me later on. When you come to verify that I’ve taken only the wages we agreed on, if I have in my possession any goat that is not speckled or spotted or any sheep that is not dark-colored, it will be considered stolen.”Honesty

Should we translate "tsedaqah" here as righteousness? It is possible, but perhaps not the most clear translation. The HALOT proposes an understanding or translation of “honesty.” Incidentally, the RSV has translated it correspondingly. However, while this might somewhat clarify the text, you as the reader do not, per se, have to stick with this understanding.

Other excellent translations of tsedaqah in this verse’s context may be gleaned by looking at other descriptions of tsedaqah under the same entry (tsedaqah), such as “entitlement or legal right.” Using either one of the last two possibilities makes the translation much more specific than the-difficult-to-define-term “righteousness.” Thus, by using the lexicon and rereading the text, you could provide a much clearer translation and understanding (“entitlement”) of the word tsedaqah than you had before you consulted the lexicon (“righteousness”).

It should become clear that the reader (you) should not feel obligated to stick to the specific definition of a certain word as found in the lexicon. It can at least be instructive to look at other translations of other contexts under the same word-entry, as has been shown in our example above. One could even look up other words of the same root, in order to get a wider context of possible meanings. 

In the case of the word tsedaqah this could for example be tsedeq. This last step will not be demonstrated in this newsletter. Whether this last step is executed or not you will find a broader range of definitions for a word in a lexicon than you would in a dictionary. Whether by careful analysis or simply by impression, the meaning of a word can clearly become much richer, once you consult a lexicon.  


We hope that this newsletter hasn't intimidated you, but has rather encouraged you to join the ranks of (Hebrew) lexicon-users!
Have a great week!

Stefan Bosman
The eTeacherBiblical team

Word in Hebrew Transliteration Pronunciation Meaning
צְדָקָה ṣədāqāh  Tsedaqah  honesty, justice, justness, community loyalty, entitlement, just cause and deeds of justice
צֶדֶק   ṣedeq     Tsedeq accuracy, the right thing, what is honest, equity, what is right, communal loyalty, conduct loyal to the community, salvation, well-being
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