Book Review: J. David Pleins, Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories

Pleins, J. David  and Jonathan Homrighausen. Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories: A Student’s Guide to Nouns in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2017. 176 pp.; Pb.; $17.99.   Link to Zondervan

The goal of this new book by J. David Pleins is to assist students to acquire a more fluid and intuitive grasp of Hebrew vocabulary. Word frequency lists are common, but after memorizing the most common words it is perhaps not as profitable to memorize words which appear rarely in the Hebrew Bible. Reading the Hebrew Bible becomes “tedious page-flipping exercises through lexicons” (16). By collecting Hebrew vocabulary into logical categories, Pleins hopes to provide a user-friendly method for becoming familiar with words via conceptual categories. The authors hope this book will “open the promised land of a more satisfying experience of reading the Hebrew Bible” (21).

There are over 175 word grouping categories in the book, divided into four broad categories, each divided into sub-categories: The Created Order (Heavens and Earth; Metals, Stones; Colors; Time; Animals; Flora); Human Order (Human; Human Anatomy; Disease and Morality; Food and Spices; Clothing), Social Order (Family, Worship; Law and Covenant; Professions, Military; Maritime; Music; Education); Constructed Order (Buildings; Containers and Implements; Tools; Measurement).

Under each category heading, Pleins lists a groupings. Under Food and Spices, there is a list of general vocabulary, then a list of about thirty words for various kinds of grains, seven for threshing, etc. Some groups have even more narrow groupings. For example, under “Vine, Wine Grapes (including strong drink) Pleins has lists for plant parts, wine/strong drink (spiced wine, mixed win, new wine, but also honeycomb), cluster/grape (raisins, etc.), vineyard, and winepress.

Each entry includes a brief gloss, an abbreviation for the lexical work Pleins used for the gloss and a single example verse from the Hebrew Bible. There are five pages of bibliography at the beginning of the book to guide the reader to more detailed works. Many of these are articles in obscure journals or hard to find monographs. Although word frequency is not noted in the entry, words used less that ten times are marked with an R, words used only a single time (hapax legomena) are marked with an H.

I will take one example from the section on Fruits. The noun אֲבִיּוֹנָה only appears in Ecclesiastes 12:5 so it is marked H. Pliens glosses the word as “caper plant, caper bush, caper berry” citing DCH, David Clines, Dictionary of Classical Hebrew and “Koops.” Consulting the bibliography, this refers to David Koops and Donald Slager, Each According to Its Kinds: Plants and Trees in the Bible (United Bible Societies, 2012).

The book concludes with two appendices. First, “A Guide for Further Reading” listing helpful resources for studying the larger macro categories. For each of the categories listed in the book Pleins highlights one or two of the best monographs from the bibliography with a bit of commentary. The second appendix lists “cluster verses” where several words in the book’s categories appear together. This will guide students to specific passage where this method of vocabulary development works best.

This is a fascinating resource for anyone who has already acquired the basic vocabulary of the Hebrew Bible, perhaps after two semesters of biblical Hebrew. Two things might have improved this book. First, the preface explains how to use the book, but there is not enough justification for the use of “conceptual categories.” For example, how does this differ from “semantic domains”? Although based on the New Testament, are “conceptual categories” different than the method employed by Louw and Nida in their Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996)? A second minor improvement would be to include word frequency in each entry rather than the use of R for rare and H for hapax.

One obvious potential problem for this book is the focus on nouns. There are some nouns which are so related to a verbal form that it would make some sense to see them together, perhaps helping a student solidify the concept. For example, the noun לֶקַח is glossed as “learning, teaching” and is listed as rare. But the verb לקח appears much more frequently and has a wide range of meanings involving taking or grasping something. HALOT indicates the two words are related, so by placing this particular verb and noun together might help the student to “grasp” the concept. But since this was not the goal of the book, it cannot be seen as a fault. I imagine a companion volume of verbs at some point in the future.

These are minor quibbles and do not distract from the usefulness of the Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories. The book is both a unique and useful reference for students of the Hebrew Bible.


6 thoughts on “Book Review: J. David Pleins, Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories

  1. Hi Phil — thanks for the review of David’s and my book. 🙂

    To answer your questions.

    First, we decided early on not to focus on verbs or other abstract qualities in general. Notice we do not have a section for abstract ideas such as truth, responsibility, etc. Sometimes of course the lines between verbs and nouns are blurred: our “professions and occupations” section has some participles for those performing particular types of work.

    Second, in your private message you compared our work to Trenchard’s book on Greek vocabulary. However, I think the closest comparison to our book is Wilson and Oden’s “Mastering Greek Vocabulary through Semantic Domains.” Like us, they aimed to make a quick reference work for students and scholars rather than a fully-researched lexicon that would be thousands of pages and hundreds of dollars. As you noted many of the reference works we consulted are expensive and obscure. As far as we know, we are the first to pull together these resources and package them in an affordable and easy to use package.

    While you can use this book to memorize vocabulary, you can also use it to study biblical imagery and do word studies. If you read it alongside King/Slater or Borowski and use the cluster verses, you can use it to connect Hebrew language study with cultural and archaeological studies of life in ancient Israel.

    We did not intend to create a full-fledged lexicon like Louw/Nida. Hence, in regard to leqach, we assume anyone using this has access to BDB/HALOT/DCH and can look up etymological relationships and Semitic cognates. What we did is provide the raw data for a study of these kinds of relationships between words. Our glosses are brief, drawn from multiple sources, rather than exhaustive like the lexicas’. We use “H” and “R” to let the reader know that those glosses are less certain. (BTW, I would take “conceptual categories” as synonymous with “semantic domains.”)

    We are already thinking about a second edition. Some ideas include hiring a graphic artist to make diagrams, incorporating vocabulary from epigraphic and DSS Hebrew, adding a section on emotions, and maybe even including images of artifacts and archaeology. Just as a heads up, I’ve heard it’s already in the works to come out in Logos; when it does, TheLAB will have a series of blog posts further explaining some of the uses of this book, especially for word studies.

    Do let us know how you find it useful in the classroom. We are really hoping for feedback on that to make the second edition even better!

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