A great deal of Bible study can be done with a few basic tools. As with any tool the questions are: what is it and what do I do with it? Let’s begin with every reader’s friend, the dictionary.
Through the years, I have asked people in classes and one-on-one Bible studies, “What does this word mean?” I have consistently received fuzzy to wrong answers, which is why I keep asking the question. When you run across a word that you don’t know, you may discern the general meaning of the passage by context. But you won’t really know what the word means until you look it up in a dictionary. Guessing rarely works well especially when the goal is understanding. I’m constantly looking up words.
A standard English dictionary has its place in Bible study. The Bible may have words that are not yet in your vocabulary, and the regular dictionary comes to the rescue. However, a standard English dictionary does have a limitation. It is defining what words mean now. As we read the Bible, we are wanting to know what the word meant at the time this passage was written. For example, the standard English definition will define baptism as sprinkling water onto a person’s forehead or immersing them in water because that is the way the word is used in the religious world today.
The Bible dictionary helps by dealing with words in their biblical context and dealing with the specialized words and names of the Bible. What are some of the things you can look up in a Bible dictionary?
- Words that you don’t know or are fuzzy on, e.g., propitiation, grace, justification, sanctification.
- People. If there is more than one person by the name you have looked up, the dictionary will help distinguish them. It will give a survey of what the Bible says about this person. Some dictionaries give pronunciations.
- Bible Places. It will give a description of what happened at this place and what we know about it, and it will describe its location.
- Books of the Bible. It will provide basic information to the reader: author, date, destination, origin, and an overview of the book.
I would choose a newer dictionary over an older one, so that you have recent archaeological information. The venerable Smith’s Bible Dictionary published in 1863 has Dagon as a fish god. Archaeology has demonstrated he was a grain god. I would choose a dictionary written by conservative scholars (e.g., dictionaries from Holman, Nelson, and Zondervan). Check the preface for theological outlook of the editors and contributors. Dictionaries are also keyed to a particular translation, and some are cross referenced to several translations (like Nelson’s and Holman’s). The preface should let you know the translation on which the dictionary is based. Finally, remember that with all reference works, they must be tested by scripture itself. Bias that doesn’t match up with what the Bible actually says can be found in dictionaries as well as commentaries.