Biblical Words That Have Changed Meaning: VANITY


Biblical Words That Have Changed Meaning:  VANITY

I am re-posting my remarks I made in early November 2013 which were triggered by a very interesting blog post made by Chris Armstrong PhD.  I just couldn’t stand the poor formatting!  UG!  

Below is the text of my original remarks:

I enjoyed this blog by Chris Armstrong (Ph.D., Duke University;  professor of church history at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, MN).  He shares some of the many words used in the King Jame’s Version of the bible which have come to carry very different meanings – in some cases the opposite of what we assume when reading them from our modern frame of reference!  This seems like a reasonable point of which to be aware.  I hope you enjoy his blog, as have I.

The modern misinterpretation which always jumps immediately to my mind is vanity as in “…vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

The relevant definitions of VANITY are (Merriam-Webster online):

1:  something that is vain, empty, or valueless
2:  the quality or fact of being vain
3:  inflated pride in oneself or one’s appearance :  conceit

Seems clear enough, right?  However, the original Hebrew word is hebel (Strong’s #1891: vapor; breath).  We inherited, habel = vanity, because when it was first translated into Latin, we were given habel = vanitas;  the nearest translation into English being, vanity.  Related meanings in English then extend from this assignment, such as ‘meaningless’ or ‘futile.’

But if we look to the Hebrew roots of the Hebrew word hebel, we find the related meanings to be:

  •   fog
  •   steam
  •   breeze
  •   breath

The flash of an image that comes to my mind is that of being on a small boat, watching the shoreline in the early pre-dawn hours, trying to make out something of interest, but it is being obscured by banks of fog.  These shift and thicken, seemingly causing the object of my curiosity to recede from view.

Another more abstract idea that comes to mind, is to realize the substance of our physical world is as this fog…  banks of shifting and undulating steam or breath (elemental particles adrift in the quantum uncertainty from which our apparently-solid world quickens).  And behind this shifting fog of elemental particles?  Yet another realm, equally fogged by the steamy breath of God!  This is yet another aspect of the Cloud of Unknowing, somewhere hidden within is to be found the Divine Center, to which we aspire.

And what new insight does this bring to the book of Ecclesiastes?

Is life meaningless?  Futile?  This would be the modern interpretation one might very easily glean.  But I feel this is the *wrong* apprehension of this book.  On one hand, yes, leading a life dedicated *only* to physical concerns may very well be meaningless, leading only to disappointment – to this extent I will agree.

But there is a more refined view of reality to which we may cleave.  This is something along the lines of Practical Spirituality.  I believe this is related to us in the Hebrew word chased:  loving-kindness.  When we choose to live our lives from this perspective – “loving wastefully” as bishop Spong says – we discover we are living our life to its fullest potential, and this is the nearest we may approach eternal peace whilst within flesh.

Perhaps the trick is to see the physical world as the ephemeral, and what love and joy we may be able to bring into the world as our vehicle for celebrating the Breath of Life granted us by God, to be the substantial.  Then, after we fade as so much fog against the morning sun, we will take up the next leg of our journey, carried on the breeze of the Divine Breath.

This apprehension offers a quality to our life, far greater than futility and nihilism.  Our earthly lives may be ephemeral, but they are far from meaningless or futile.  So, yes, words do matter;  how we define them matters greatly;  understanding that the meanings of words change over the centuries is a critical aspect of biblical inquiry, and one which may grant us much better clarity and acuity.



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