Strong’s Theology (updated)

Strong's ConcordanceThe Strong’s concordance is a great tool, but one that is too often abused. The biblical lexicon’s numbering systems allows one to identify lexical forms (i.e. roots) of Hebrew and Greek words that are used in the source that is represented in a text of a translation. Originally, this was intended to be used by biblical language students to aid in decoding lexical forms that might be difficult to recognize in the biblical text. For example, in Hebrew it is very common for the first letter of a root to be dropped in the form used in the biblical text  For the beginning Hebrew student, finding words like these in a lexicon is nearly impossible because the entries are listed alphabetically. Before the development of computer bible software, a Strong’s concordance was one of the few ways possible for a biblical language student to identify the lexical form of words used in the biblical text.

 

The wrong tool for the job

Unfortunately, people sometimes believe that they can provide a better interpretation of  their English translation by looking up the Hebrew and Greek roots and then choosing a new meaning from the ones listed in the definition for that root even when it differs significantly from the one chosen by the translators of their bible. This is something this tool was NEVER designed to do and using the tool for this purpose is an endeavor that can lead to disastrous conclusions. Few realize is that the lexical form (found in a Strong’s lexicon) is seldom the form that is found in the text itself, and yet it is absolutely necessary to understand both the form in used in the text and the context in which it is before the meaning of a word itself can be understood. Too often people misuse a Strong’s concordance by simply looking through the list of definitions and then picking the one that “they like best”; frequently picking a definition is not even possible when the context and grammar are considered.

In Hebrew, for example, each root (lexical form) can be conjugated in seven different constructions i.e. passive, active, intensive, intensive/passive, causative, causative/passive, and reflexive. Looking at the root אכל (to eat) we find that these constructions would correspond to eat, be eaten, devour, be devoured, feed, be fed, digest. Understanding the particular construction used is required before deciding which meaning is intended. Full lexicons, like HALOT or BDB, will separate the meanings by the corresponding construction but there is not enough room in Strong’s to provide this information. Looking at the Strong’s entry below, one must realize that definitions given are examples from several different Hebrew constructions i.e. “eat” is the qal form אכל, “devour” is the piel form מאכל, and “feed” is the hiphal form מאכיל; simply choosing a definition without regard to the form used in the text and the context in which it is used is almost guaranteed to lead to error (sometimes serious error). For example, Strong’s concordance  provides the follow definition for the root אכל:

398 אכל a primitive root; to eat (literally or figuratively):– eat, burn up, consume, devour(-er, up), dine, eat(-er, up), feed (with), food.

To demonstrate how important these constructions might be in understanding a text, both of the following sentences below contain a words from the same roots i.e. Strong’s 935 (to come), 1004 (house), 398 (eat).

תבוא לביתי לאכול

תבוא לביתי להיאכל

One says, “You will come to my house to eat” and the other says, “you will come to my house to be eaten.” A Strong’s will not help one determine which form of Strong’s entry 398 was used. If you were given this invitation, don’t you think it would be important to know which form of the verb אכל was used?

 

Why does it matter?

There are many examples of popular fallacies that are passed along within evangelical circles that are the result of failing to understand the limits of word studies done with tools like Strong’s. For example, it is commonly taught that Proverbs 22:6 “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” intends to convey the idea that we are to train up a child “according to the way God created him i.e. according to his ‘bent’.” It is claimed that the real meaning of the word “way” (דרך) is “to bend” and verses like Psalms 11:2 “for behold, the wicked bend the bow” are used as proof of this original meaning. However there are several serious problems with this claim, let’s look at a few.

1) The root really does not mean “bent”; in this context it really carries a sense of aiming a bow. “Bending a bow” in preparation to aiming it is an English idiom that doesn’t work in Hebrew. This becomes readily apparent when we look at a verse like Psalms 58:7 “when he aims his arrows.” In this verse, the exact same verb is used to describe aiming (not bending) an arrow.

2) Idioms in one language frequently do not translate literally into another language.  For example, few English speakers would understand the Hebrew idiom of “doing something while standing on one leg” just like Hebrew readers would not understand a literal translation of the English idiom “according to his bent.” The English idiom that speaks of “one’s bent” does not translate directly into Hebrew.

3) Even if the etymology of this word had been “to bend” (which it is not), leaping to the conclusion that words that come from the same root must have the same meaning is also a mistake (especially when comparing verb forms with noun forms!). For example the noun “לחם” means “bread” but the verb “לחם” means “to fight.” While both come from the same root, it would be a huge mistake to assume that “giving bread to one who is in need” implied that you intended to fight with them.

While the taking into consideration the character and personality of your children as you seek to raise them is good, it simply is not an idea that is taught in this verse. It is a fallacy that is the result of using biblical study tools in ways that they were never intended to be used. And while no one will likely get hurt by misunderstanding this verse in this way, similar examples of bad teaching can be down right dangerous. For example, one very popular evangelical author teaches that Ge. 2:24 tells us that we must “abandon” our mother and father when we get married. He claims that, based on his word study, he has discovered that the word translated “leave” really should have been translated “abandoned.” How many family relationships may have been hurt by those seeking to be obedient to what they have been told was the intended meaning of this passage?

 

These are mistakes that CAN be avoided!

Fortunately this kind of mistake is easily avoided. In English we have an wealth of good English translations and by comparing a text in different English versions we can gain a deeper understanding about what the original Hebrew and Greek words really mean without needing to consult the Hebrew and Greek texts. Whenever we are told that a word study of the Greek or Hebrew has revealed a “new” meaning in the text, we should respond with a high degree of skepticism if that meaning is not easily recognizable in our English texts. If the claim comes from a competent Hebrew or Greek scholar then further research may be warranted but the opinions of other competent Hebrew or Greek scholars should be consulted before adopting this new meaning. However, if the claim comes from one with little or no training in the biblical languages then it should probably be dismissed. It is hard to imagine how someone with no training in the biblical languages could use a Strong’s concordance to discover a “new” meaning in the text that was missed by thousands of qualified scholars who have devoted their lives to studying God’s word in its original languages.

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