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Saturday, August 15, 2009
 
I was asked in a tutorial this week about resources for students who want to explore the background to Bible passages.

In the class we talked particularly about two sorts of tool Dictionaries and Commentaries. In this post I will focus first on the sorts of task for which different tools are useful, then in a later post I'll describe different sorts of tool found under the each of the two headings: Dictionaries and Commentaries.
Photo by fmckinlay

Different tools for different tasks

For preference one does not dig a trench with a fork, but equally if one is breaking up clods a fork is more effective than a spade.

Bible dictionaries (a catch all term for encyclopedic works that relate to the Bible - not actually dictionaries at all) are really useful to get a quick fix on a person, place, object, activity, custom etc. in the context of Ancient Israel or the world of the Eastern Mediterranean under the Romans. That is if you have a term that needs explaining they are great to give you a quick fix of "background" information.
An example of a "Bible Dictionary"

So, if you are reading Ezekiel 26 you probably realise that Tyre is a place rather than a round rubber tube, but you may want to know more... Likewise in Ruth there is mention a few times that Boaz is a "kinsman" (your translation may vary) and in chapter three Boaz explains that there is "another kinsman more closely related than [he]" (Ruth 3:12). This clearly is more than a matter of "what sort of cousin are you?" it is important to the book. To read Ruth sensibly you need to know more. Bible dictionaries exist to serve such needs.

[In the Ruth example you will meet a frustration known to dictionary aficionados as "hide and seek", most Bible dictionaries will not have a convenient entry headed "Kinsman", this case is particularly hard, and to find the information you were after you may need to spot that older translations speak of him as a "redeemer". Looking up that word may finally enable you to strike gold!]
An example of a commentary
Commentaries work differently they are not organised (like a dictionary) by terms, but follow through the Bible text in order. In a commentary you look up the passage you are studying and all the information provided is conveniently presented together in one place. A commentary will also, usually, conveniently discuss not only things that get entries in Bible dictionaries, but also the wording and literary working of the passage. This convenience, however, comes at a price :( Commentaries are organised around the commentator's idea of what the passage means. They are like railways, if you wanrt to get where they are going they are fast and convenient. Like railways they are less useful if you have a different destination in view ;)

So on the whole avoid consulting commentaries as long as you can. The more you work at a text before reading one the more chance you have of arriving at a destination determined by the text that is different from the one the commentator recommends ;)

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