Principles for Productive Word Study (Walton)

New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (5 vols.) Word studies are a helpful tool in the exegetical toolbox.  There is a lot more to studying Scripture than doing word studies, to be sure, but word studies are helpful in determining the meaning of a text or texts.  Now there are wrong ways to do word studies.  There are exegetical fallacies that are quite common in word studies.  Nobody is immune to these fallacies; we all make mistakes from time to time when it comes to word studies.  I’m sure others have heard some doozies!

However, there are good helps for good word studies.  One that I highly recommend for word studies in the OT is “Principles for Productive Word Study” by John Walton (it’s in the NIDOTTE).  I can’t summarize the whole article here in a brief blog post, but below are a few parts of this article I’ve found helpful:

In order to understand what an author invests in the meaning of a word, we must think about what goes into the choice of a word. Biblical authors did not use some special heavenly language with mystical meanings. Like any other author, a biblical author chose a particular word because it carried precisely the meaning that he wanted to communicate. That sounds too obvious to mention, but it must be realized that there are other alternatives….

When we choose to use a particular word, we are often not conscious of the parts that make up that word. For instance, we use the word “awful” without even noticing that it is a combination of awe + full. English is full of compound words, some easily recognizable, such as “understand,” others not as readily noticed, such as “syllabus.” Our usage of these words does not imply knowledge of the parts, nor does it intend to convey what the parts meant in their individual forms. Therefore, when we analyze the word choices of the authors of Scripture, we should not assume that the use of a compound word assumes knowledge of or carries the meaning of the parts.

Avoid the “cafeteria” approach. In a cafeteria the diner moves through the line choosing whatever food he likes. In a similar fashion some interpreters feel that it is their free choice to decide which aspect of the semantic range to associate with a particular occurrence of a word. Sometimes this is done to the neglect of categories established in the semantic range.

The fact that a word can have a particular meaning does not prove that it does have that meaning.

Again, there is more to this helpful article.  Walton gives some positive ways to do word studies and gives pitfalls to avoid in them. If you are someone who does word studies in Scripture, you should read this article.  Although it is specifically for OT (Hebrew) word studies, there are principles in it that apply to NT (Greek) word studies as well.

John Walton, “Principles for Productive Word Study,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, pages 161-171.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015


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