Bible dictionaries offer many benefits, good reasons to include them in your lineup of Bible study tools. But I figured you might like to actually see some of these dictionaries in action. So I put together a case study, examining John 2:13–17 (Jesus’ cleansing of the temple) with the help of Bible dictionaries.
Let’s start with the text itself:
The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:13–17)
I noted six terms in the text above. When studying with dictionaries, it’s a good idea to keep an eye open for such key terms. Then you can look them up in your dictionary of choice, and get a fuller picture of what’s going on. For this case study, I’m going to sample six different dictionaries (one for each term) to demonstrate how they enhance our understanding of the text.
Jesus’ cleansing of the temple took place in the context of the Passover. Let’s see how Philip Schaff’s A Dictionary of the Bible describes this feast:
[It is] the principal annual feast of the Jews, which typified the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world. Comp. 1 Cor. 5:7, 8, Christ our Passover is slain for us, etc. It was appointed to commemorate the exemption or “passing over” of the families of the Israelites when the destroying angel smote the first-born of Egypt, and also their departure from the land of bondage. . . .
This particular entry goes on to describe the Passover in tremendous detail, but we’ll leave it there for now.
What about the city of Jerusalem—what is its significance? Here are some insights from the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary:
Jerusalem is a city set high on a plateau in the hills of Judah, considered sacred by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Its biblical-theological significance lies in its status as Yahweh’s chosen center of His divine kingship and of the human kingship of David and his sons, Yahweh’s vice-regents. . . .
The NT portrays the various Jerusalem-related prophecies as fulfilled in and through Jesus, Israel’s Messiah. . . . Indeed Jesus’ mission ended in His rejection by Jerusalem’s rulers and His death outside the city walls (Mark 8:31; 10:32–34; chaps. 14–15).
We can’t do a study on cleansing the temple without taking a look at the temple itself. The temple Jesus cleansed was not the original temple, as The Essential Bible Dictionary explains:
For several centuries, the center of Hebrew worship was the tabernacle, a portable tent. King David purposed to build a permanent house or temple for God (2 Sam. 7), and his son Solomon was able to fulfill this desire (1 Ki. 6–8). This building was destroyed in 586 BC but then rebuilt by Zerubbabel (Ezra 5:2) and greatly expanded by Herod the Great (Jn. 2:20). Herod’s temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.
Central to this account are the money-changers Jesus drove out of the temple. What about them caused Jesus to react so strongly? The Tyndale Bible Dictionary offers some insights:
Jesus encountered the money changers in the temple courtyard when he “cleansed the temple” (Mt 21:12–13; Mk 11:15–16; Lk 19:45–46; Jn 2:13–22). The reason for this action has been a matter of debate. Worshipers needed to procure the half-shekel to pay their tax. But they needed also to purchase birds, animals, or cake offerings in some cases. This wholesale activity in buying and money changing seemed inappropriate in the temple precincts, which constituted a sacred area (cf. Mk 11:16), although Jesus evidently approved the payment of the temple tax as such (Mt 8:4; 17:24–26; Mk 1:44; Lk 5:14). There is also the possibility that the charge made by money changers and by those who sold sacrificial birds and animals was exorbitant, whether for their own profit or for the profit of the temple authorities. Such operations could be carried on at a suitable distance from the sacred area so that the haggling and noise associated with such activities in an Eastern setting did not unnecessarily disturb the prayer and the offering of sacrifices carried on in the temple courts (cf. Jer 7:11).
What about the whip Jesus made? Sometimes we have to try different entries to get the information we need. I couldn’t find an entry for “whip” in the dictionaries I checked, but the entry for “cord” in Smith’s Bible Dictionary is just what we’re looking for:
The materials of which cord was made varied according to the strength required; the strongest rope was probably made of strips of camel hide, as still used by the Bedouins. The finer sorts were made of flax, Isa. 19:9, and probably of reeds and rushes. In the New Testament the term is applied to the whip which our Saviour made, John 2:15, and to the ropes of a ship, Acts 27:32.
Finally, we ought to look up “father’s house.” As The Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary demonstrates, this term has a rich and varied history that goes beyond a simple reference to the temple:
In ancient Israel, and more broadly in the surrounding region, the “father’s house” (i.e., ancestral family) was the basic unit of kinship, more extensive than “brothers” (Gen. 46:31; Judg. 16:31) or the single “household” (Exod. 12:3) but smaller than the clan and tribe (note the contrasts in, e.g., Num. 1:2; Judg. 6:15). In genealogies the “father’s house” is often rendered “family” (e.g., Exod. 6:14; Num. 1:2 and throughout the chapter; 1 Chron. 4:38). In some instances, the twelve tribes of Israel are construed as father’s houses (Num. 17:2–6; 1 Sam. 2:28). . . .
On two occasions Jesus referred to the temple in Jerusalem as his “father’s house,” once when he was a young man (Luke 2:49), and once when he drove merchants from the temple (John 2:16). On another occasion, he referred to a “place where I am going” as “my father’s house” (John 14:2–4). In addition, we have two references to the “father’s house” as a kinship unit (Luke 16:27; and possibly Acts 7:20).
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Here are all the dictionaries we used in this case study:
- The Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary
- A Dictionary of the Bible (Philip Schaff)
- The Essential Bible Dictionary
- Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary
- Smith’s Bible Dictionary
- The Tyndale Bible Dictionary