Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Verbs and Biblical Exegesis - Two Examples

I recently came across the following paragraph that captures an issue that turns out to be significant for exegesis as it relates to Calvinism and also to Hell.

Any event can be construed from a variety of perspectives. While this flexibility is fundamental to human ingenuity, it poses a challenge for language learners who must discern which meanings are encoded in their language and by which forms. The papers in this dissertation focus on verbs encoding directed motion (e.g., a girl runs into a house) and caused change-of-state events (e.g., a boy blows out candles). Both classes of events can be expressed by verbs that lexicalize different components of the event, namely Manner-of-motion (e.g., run) or Path (e.g., enter), and Means (e.g., blow) or Effect (e.g., extinguish), respectively.

Amy Celine Geojo, "Breaking and Entering: Verb Semantics and Event Structure," Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences (2015), p. iii (bold and underline added, italics original)(link).

While there are numerous verbs encoding directed motion and caused change-of-state events in Scripture, and an even larger number of associated nouns, there are two particular cases that I have noticed in the last few years that seem significant to controversies.

A first case is found in Matthew 25:46:

And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

In this case, "punishment," is a noun taken from the verb kolázō (κολάζω).

The verb as such is only used twice in the New Testament, once in Acts and once in 2 Peter 2:9:

The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished:

Interestingly enough, these refer to the same thing.  The punishment that is judicially assigned at the day of judgment mentioned in 2 Peter 2:9 is the "everlasting punishment" mentioned in Matthew 25:46.  The verb, punish, refers to the carrying out of the action, rather than the conclusion of the action.  Even if it can have other uses (and perhaps it can), when the noun form is tied to an adjective that expresses duration (everlasting in the phrase, into punishment everlasting - εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον) it becomes clear that what is in mind is an unending punishment - an action of punishing that goes on and on and on forever.  The verb "punish" (at least in this context) is more like the verb "blow" than it is like the verb "extinguish."

The reason for this difference is that the verbal focus is on the actor and action rather than on the acted-on person and the result.  In the case of "blow" and "punish" it is the action that is the focus of the verb, as distinct from "extinguish" or "kill," where it is the result of the action that is the focus of the verb.  While blowing and extinguishing may be descriptions of the same birthday cake event, the emphasis is different.  

A second case is found in John 6:44: 

No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.

The verb to "draw" here is more like "extinguish" than "blow."  It conveys a result, rather than simply an action in progress.  The Greek verb, helkuo (ἕλκω), is used eight times in the New Testament.  Normally it is used of a force that accomplishes the movement intended.

In English we see this difference more clearly encoded in the difference (in English) between "pull" and "drag."  The former implies the process, the latter implies the result.  If you are pulling something and it is not moving, you're not dragging it.

We sometimes express that difference with the use of prepositions functioning as particles.  For example, to "pull out" a tooth implies motion of the object in the verb itself.  If you yank on a tooth but it doesn't move, you didn't pull it out.  By contrast, to "pull on" something only implies the exertion of force, not any resultant motion.  You could pull on a tooth without pulling out the tooth.

God willing, I will post again soon to discuss the use of helkuo in Septuagint Nehemiah.