Why Word Studies are Useful in Bible Study

Dive deeper into your Bible study. Dig into the Scriptures word by word. 

By Mark D. Harris

The Bible is the very best book in the world. There is none like it, for it is the very word of Almighty God. Therefore every man, woman and child should immerse themselves in it. There are several levels at which we encounter the Bible.

1. Read the Bible
2. Study the Bible – carefully examine every passage and the interaction between them set against their historical backdrop in language and culture.
3. Memorize the Bible – commit large portions of God’s word to memory, hiding it in our hearts (Psalm 119:11).
4. Meditate on the Bible – ponder each concept and statement deeply and ask the Lord to reveal His meaning.

I do not claim to be more than a neophyte in understanding Greek and Hebrew, and I welcome the input of those more educated and experienced than I in this important area. Nonetheless, I do not believe that Bible study, and even word studies, should be left to theologians, linguists, and other experts alone. Using readily available resources, both printed and on-line, pastors, Sunday School teachers and others should probe the meanings of the words they use to ensure that they “rightly divide the word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). In so doing they will gain powerful insights and learn lessons that they can share with others. Such leaders should also, however, ensure that their discoveries harmonize with the full counsel of God; meshing with other clear teachings of the Bible.

Sample Word Study

General Definition of ga’al (Qal stem)
The Brown Driver Briggs (BDB) lexicon describes as a verb meaning to redeem or to act as a kinsman (Strong 1350). It is also frequently used as in “relative” and “avenger”, which was the role of a relative in the Old Testament OT). In Ruth, the sense of “do the part of the next of kin” is prominent. The subject can be a man, such as Boaz, or God, such as in the Psalms. The Messiah is also called the Redeemer in Isaiah. The niphal stem (passive voice in English) means “to be redeemed”.

The second meaning of given in the BDB, with exactly the same pointing (marks used to indicate verb sounds), is to defile (Strong 1351). The use of “defile” is far less common in the Old Testament than the use of “redeem”. The niphal stem means “to be defiled”.

Usage of the verb ga’al
1. To redeem, act as relative, kinsman, avenger
a. Man as the subject and an object as the object – In each of these passages, a person is redeeming something, in the sense of getting it back (Leviticus 25:25, 26, 30, 33, Leviticus 27:13, 15, 19-21). In Leviticus 27:31, man can redeem part of his tithe (for example, a certain beloved animal) by giving 20% more to the rest of the tithe. Interestingly, this emphasizes the presence of some type of “relationship” between a man and his God-given possessions, and implies that a man has a responsibility to steward the other parts of creation under his care (cf. Genesis 1:28)
b. Man as the subject and a person as the object
i. In one case, an Israelite has become poor and sold himself into slavery. A relative, or the man himself, can redeem him (Leviticus 25:48, 49). In another instance, one man has wronged another somehow, and the offender must make restitution to the aggrieved, or to a relative (Numbers 5:8). When one man killed another, it was the responsibility of the relatives of the slain to avenge the murder (Numbers 35, Deuteronomy 19, Joshua 20). This role, as blood avenger, is found frequently in the OT.
ii. In the book of Ruth, Boaz is close kindred to Naomi, Ruth’s mother in law. Since Ruth’s husband has died, it is Boaz’ responsibility to redeem her, to raise up children for her in the name of her deceased husband (Ruth 2:20, Ruth 3:9, 12, 13, Ruth 4:1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 14).
iii. The woman of Tekoa used the law of redemption to persuade David to recall Absalom (2 Samuel 14:11).
iv. In all of these cases, the presence of a relationship between people required action on the part of both parties to that relationship. Unlike the modern West, in which many recognize no responsibility to their families or anyone else, the Hebrew “ga’al” and other key terms prevent us from attributing those opinions to Ancient Hebrews.
c. An angel as the subject and man as the object – As messengers sent to render service to God’s chosen people (Hebrews 1:14), angels play a role in His redemption (Genesis 48:16). Thus God redeems His children via many agents, including other people, angels, and directly Himself.
d. God as the subject and man as the object – One of the most common usages of Ga’al in the OT is the use in which God redeems His people (Exodus 6:6, Job 19:25, Psalms 72:14, Psalms 74:2, Psalms 78:35, Psalms 103:4, Psalms 76:10, Psalms 119:154, Proverbs 23:11, Isaiah 41:14, Isaiah 43:1, Isaiah 43:14, Isaiah 44:6, 22-24, Isaiah 47:4, Isaiah 48:17, 20, Isaiah 49:7, 26, Isaiah 52:9, Isaiah 54:5, 8, Isaiah 59:20, Isaiah 60:16, Isaiah 63: 9, 16, Jeremiah 31:11, Jeremiah 50:34, Lamentations 3:58, Hosea 13:14, Micah 4:10). As a result of His relationship to His people, God moves to redeem them. He does not do so because He is required to by the Law, but does so because His perfect nature, from which the Law derives, can allow nothing else. In none of these circumstances is God’s redemption conditional on His people’s goodness. Rather, He redeems because He is good. The context frequently is God redeeming His servant from an adversary, such as David from the hand of Saul or form foreign nations. In other cases the redemption is from transgressions.
e. The people (“of God”) who have been redeemed (Exodus 15:13, Psalms 107:2, Isaiah 35:9, Isaiah 51:10, Isaiah 62:12). In the OT, these people are the children of Israel, by relationship far more even than by birth. This relationship is the key to the word, ga’al, and the key to understanding how God sees His people, Jews in the OT and Christians in the NT. Physical redemption is the most obvious meaning in Exodus, Psalms and Isaiah, but the NT develops the concept of redemption to include redemption from sin, from death, and into eternal life.
f. Other usages – In Job 3:5, the NASB translates ga’al as “to claim”, as in the darkness and shadow of death are claiming the day in which Job was born. The KJV translates the same word “to stain”, that they are not claiming but staining the day in which Job was born. Either translation communicates that darkness and the shadow of death were prominent and negative on Job’s first day of life.

2. To defile, to stain, to pollute, to repudiate – almost the antithesis of “to redeem”, except in the sense that “to redeem” from sin carries with it the idea of repudiating sin and going away from it. Conversely, being repudiated by God or repudiating a good thing could therefore imply defilement, staining or pollution. The English definition of repudiation is “to refuse to have anything to do with”, “to disown or cast off publicly”, “to refuse to accept or support”, “to deny the validity or authority of”, “to deny the truth of”, or “to refuse to acknowledge or pay”. So, the verb “ga’al – to redeem” and the verb “ga’al – to repudiate” are related in some important and theologically illustrative ways.
a. Defiled with evil, implied by being defiled with blood (Isaiah 59:3, Isaiah 63:3, Lamentations 4:14, Zephaniah 3:1, Malachi 1:7)
b. Defiled in some other way, such as defiled food. Someone might offer defiled food to God, which would be evil. Conversely, food can be inherently unclean according to the Law, or clean food can spoil, thereby becoming defiled (Malachi 1:7)
c. Other usages – refer to item “f” above.

Comparison of ga’al (to redeem, Strong 1350) with padah (to ransom or rescue, Strong 6299)

Ga’al, to redeem, to act as kinsman, relative, etc. is used broadly to indicate many types of redemption. It focuses on the Oriental law of kinship, and emphasizes the family relationships and duties. Ga’al also connotes something being restored to its original state. Padah, on the other hand, points to ransom from sin by way of sacrifice. The root of the word is to sever, as in cutting the person ransomed away from his captor. In so doing, it points to God’s final sacrifice in His Son.

Some support this by noting that the Hebrew “ga’al” stresses the relationship between the redeemer and the redeemed, or the purchaser and the purchased. “Padah”, he says, implies some intervening or substitutionary action. Both are found in the sacrifice of Christ.


The study of the verb ga’al leads to some interesting conclusions. The first is that redemption, both between men and between men and God, played an important role in Old Testament thought. Unlike some other religions and philosophies in which man is seen as inherently good and relationships as inherently harmonious, Ancient Hebrew belief and Christianity see man as inherently morally evil and in need of redemption and restitution. God makes careful provision for this throughout His word. Using the same word for redemption as well as for defilement struck me as odd at first, but seems more interesting and potentially clearer when considered in the light of the concept of “repudiation”. The comparison with “padah” is also instructive, emphasizing the personal/familial and the sacrificial/substitutionary aspects of redemption.

One of the greatest lessons to doing a word study is the far deeper understanding one can gain by looking at Scripture in the original language. English translations are excellent, but understanding the message more as the Hebrews would have opens a door to greater understanding, trust, and obedience to our God. Though the work involved in learning Hebrew or Greek is intense and the differences with English daunting, it is worth the investment.

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