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What Kind of Cleaver?

by Tim O'Hearn

English is a strange language. Words don’t always mean what they appear to mean. For instance, you can not be compatible and incompatible at the same time (or you can have inert gasses such as argon and neon, but there are no “ert” gasses). On the other hand, gasoline is flammable and inflammable. You cannot untie your shoes unless they are already tied, but when you thaw a steak from the freezer you are also unthawing it. There is another whole class of words, called contranyms, in which the same word may mean one thing, or its exact opposite. Take that word, unthawed. It can mean something that has been unfrozen or something that is still frozen. It depends on the context. A fast boat can be a speedboat or a boat tied securely to a dock (or a speedboat tied securely to a dock). You can dust a cookie with powdered sugar (apply it), or dust the counter to remove the excess sugar. A handicap in sports may be an advantage to provide equality, or (in general) a disadvantage causing inequality. To strike is to hit something, unless you are playing baseball when it means you missed an attempt to hit the ball. Then there is the old joke where, when someone stumbles, you wish them a nice trip. The King James Version of the Bible uses one particular contranym, and the context alone tells you which meaning is intended, unless you know the original languages.

And he shall cleave it with the wings thereof, but shall not divide it asunder: and the priest shall burn it upon the altar, upon the wood that is upon the fire: it is a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the LORD. (Lev 1:7)

The priest was to divide the bird presented as an offering. Perhaps for that purpose he would use a cleaver.

In a different command (Gen 2:24), a man is to leave his parents and cleave to his wife (although they may presumably live with her parents). It may be that “Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks” (although she was, incidentally, acquitted of doing so), but it is not likely that God expects a man to do that to his wife. Rather, he is to adhere to her.

In the King James Version, most instances of the word cleave have the meaning of clinging to something. “Cleave unto the Lord.” (Deut 4:4) “Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” (Ps 137:6) “Cleave to that which is good.” (Rom 12:9) There are several more examples, including two quotations of the Genesis 2 passage.

Only a few passages use the word in that form. “Thou didst cleave the earth with rivers.” (Hab 3:9) “The mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west.” (Zech 14:4)

There are, however, many passages using various forms of the word. Animals that have cloven hooves are unclean to the Jewish people (Lev 11). The past tense of the verb can also be a noun. The hooves of a pig are cleft, and Moses was hidden in the cleft of the rock (Ex 33:22). The latter context makes it clear that it was where a rock was split rather than where two rocks were joined.

This article is intended simply as a matter of interest; however a valuable point could be made. Context may make it clear which meaning of a contranym is intended. Nevertheless, this shows the difficulty of translating the Bible into English. That makes it more important that you use a reliable translation as opposed to a questionable one.