A Bible dictionary (or Bible encyclopedia) is one of the most helpful resources you can use for studying the Bible. While the text of the Bible is inspired by God, it was written by particular people in a specific culture who wrote to particular people in a specific culture. Sometimes there’s a stark difference between their culture and our 21st century culture. A Bible dictionary helps bridge the gap for the modern reader by explaining how certain terms were understood during the time the Bible was written.
Just like a conventional dictionary, a Bible dictionary has entries that are listed in alphabetical order. It is typically written by a team of scholars who have examined the historical and cultural contexts of the terms in the Bible.
Bible dictionary entries offer explanations of different terms you’ll come across in the Scripture. For example, it has entries about people, like Absalom, Amalekites, or Sadducees. It includes places, like Bethel, Dead Sea, or Assyria. It can tell us about or events, like Purim, The Day of Atonement, or The Transfiguration. It also has entries about terms that have significant meaning, like sacrifice, eunuch, or Selah.
Let’s imagine you were reading Song of Songs, and you come across this verse:
“My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms from the vineyards of En Gedi.”
(Song of Songs 1:14).
Looking up henna in a Bible Dictionary, you’d find this:
Henna (Lawsonia inermis) leaves were crushed and used both as a perfume (Song of Sol. 1:14 NIV) and as a yellow dye for skin, nails, and hair. It is a subtropical shrub with white flowers. (“Plants in the Bible,” Holman Bible Dictionary)
We’ve learned that henna was a plant used for perfume: it smells great! This helps our reading of the passage. We can reasonably conclude that the woman saying that her lover smells great, reminding her of those aromatic blossoms.
Let’s look up another term in the verse, En Gedi. A Bible dictionary is especially helpful with proper names (nouns that are capitalized):
EN-GEDI — A vital oasis on the west side of the Dead Sea about 35 miles (56.3 kilometers) southeast of Jerusalem. Allotted to Judah’s tribe for an inheritance (Jos 15:62), En-gedi contained a hot water spring coming from the side of a limestone cliff, producing semitropical vegetation. The area became known for its palms, vineyards, and balsam. (“EN-GEDI,” Tyndale Bible Dictionary)
Here, we learn that En Gedi was an oasis, a place where lush plants can grow in an area known for having no life (the Dead Sea). We can imagine that our author’s lover is like an oasis to her—a refreshing experience!
Sometimes people or places act as object lessons in order to illustrate certain truths. A Bible dictionary helps us understand how the original audience would have understood the words. For example, in Micah 1:10, the prophet tells the town of Beth-le-Aphrah (or Beth Ophrah) to roll in the dust. A quick look in Easton’s Illustrated Dictionary tells us that the name of this down means “house of dust.” This suggests that the prophet uses the name of the town as a play on words to indicate the condition of the people. In Matthew 16:13–20 and Mark 8:27–30, Jesus takes his disciples to Caesarea Philippi to ask them what they believe about his identity: Who do you say that I am? In the New Bible Dictionary, we learn that Caesarea Philippi was the place where there had been different objects of worship: the Canaanite god Baal, the Greek god Pan, and even Augustus Caesar. With this backdrop of “multiple choice,” it appears significant that Jesus chose this place to ask his disciples about his identity. In the Matthew account, Simon correctly identifies Jesus as the Christ, and Jesus calls him Peter (Matt 16:18). Smith’s Bible Dictionary tells us that Peter means rock, which helps us see the play on words Jesus makes: on this rock I will build my church.
As you study the Bible, a Bible dictionary is a valuable tool. As you read the text, you’ll come across terms that you can look up and gain insight into their cultural and historical significance.
In general, it’s best to consult a Bible dictionary that has been recently published so that you can have the latest insights from scholars. However, there are some Bible dictionaries accessible for free online. While these resources are usually a bit older, they still have plenty of value for Bible study. Here are three examples of websites that offer free access to Bible dictionary entries:
Blue Letter Bible