The connection between the idea of “measuring” or “weighing” and the idea of “meaning”—and what that may imply for the interpretation of Biblical symbolism

I suggested in a previous post that there might be an etymological relation between the English word “meaning” and the English word “moon.”  The reason why there would be a relation between these words might not seem immediately clear; but I think a nexus between the two can be found in the idea of “measuring,” since for ancient peoples the cycles of the moon were the primary means of measuring time.[1]  And the connection between the ideas of “measuring” and “meaning” will, I hope, be made more clear in what follows.

It is thought by scholars that in the ancient Sumerian language, the word ma-na means “a unit of weight measure,” apparently being related to the later Akkadian word manum, meaning “to count.”  And both of these words appear to be related to the Aramaic noun mene, which means “a weighing, a measurement, an accounting, a numbering, a reckoning,” as well as to the Aramaic verb menah, which means “to weigh, to measure, to number, to reckon, to count, to enumerate, to appoint, to assign” (both of which Aramaic words are found used in the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament).

I must admit that I am generally pretty suspicious regarding the accuracy of scholars’ understandings of ancient Sumerian words, given the fact that there is substantial uncertainty even about the meanings of many ancient Hebrew words (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, ancient Greek words)—which were first used considerably more recently than the Sumerian words.  But in the particular case of the Sumerian word ma-na, I think the meaning “a unit of weight measure” is likely to be at least one of the correct meanings of this word (though not necessarily the only one):  partly because “a unit of weight measure” is a pretty definite and concrete idea, at least when considered at a more superficial level; and partly because of the fact that that meaning receives confirmation from other, later languages in the region.  (And it should also be noted that the hypothetical Proto-Indo-European root *me– (3) means “to measure,” which offers additional confirmation.)

However, there is some basis for believing that in addition to “a unit of weight measure,” the Sumerian word ma-na, like the other “M-N” words that I mentioned in my other post, may have also been capable of conveying a meaning similar to the idea of “meaning.”  I have no hard proof that this is true, but I offer the following evidence indicating that it would be a reasonable belief.

Consider, for one thing, that the Greek word logos can mean “a word, a saying, a meaning” or “an accounting, an enumeration, a calculation, a reckoning, a measure” (as well as “an account, a story, a tale, a speech, a narrative,” as well as “purpose, reason, cause,” as well as “value, worth, esteem, consideration, reputation,” as well as other meanings); and from the noun logos is derived the verb logizomai, meaning “to reckon, to count, to calculate, to assess, to infer, to suppose, to take into account, to consider, to deem, to regard”; and the noun logos is derived from the verb legō, which can mean “to say, to mean,” but more properly means “to lay out in order, to line up in order, to count, to reckon, to enumerate, to recount, to narrate, to tell, to give an account.”  These definitions help one to see why there may have been an historical, etymological connection or overlap between words in various ancient languages having the meaning of “meaning,” and words in those same languages having the meanings of “counting,” “numbering,” “calculating,” “reckoning,” or “measuring”—such that, at the very least, we wouldn’t be surprised if we thought we saw the presence of such a connection or overlap in a particular instance.

Also, consider that determining the “meaning” of someone’s words may have been thought by the ancient Sumerians (as well as their linguistic descendents) to involve “weighing” the “significance” of those words.  The English phrase “weigh the significance” gets 656,000 hits on Google—which would seem to indicate the continuing relevance of any such mental association.  Similarly, when someone speaks of “weighty words,” we know that what he or she has in mind is “meaningful speech.”  We also have the expression in English, “Weigh your words carefully”—which means, “Give careful thought to the meanings or intentions that you will likely be conveying to others by the words you use.”  And a connection between the concepts of “meaning” and “measuring” might be made still clearer if one were to think of “a unit of weight measure” as a kind of “value”—and hence a kind of “significance.”[2]

In addition, note that the hypothetical Proto-Indo-European root *me– (5) means “to be intent; to be of strong will”—which, taken together with the alternate hypothetical definition of that same linguistic root that I already mentioned (namely, *me– (3), meaning “to measure”), seems to bring the idea of “measuring” or “weighing” together with many of the “M-N” words that I listed in my other post—many of them relating in some way to the idea of “intention, meaning, purpose, wish, (ardent) desire.”  So that would once again point to same possible connection between the concept of “measuring” and that of the assigning or assessing of “meaning” that I have been discussing.  And any such historical conceptual connection or overlap would thus help to account for an etymological relation between the English word “moon” (and its Modern German equivalent Monat)—associated with the “counting” or “measuring” of time—and the English words “mean,” “meaning,” “mind,” and “mental.”

Also consider the superficial similarity between the Aramaic word mene—which, again, means “a measure”—and the Greek word méné, meaning “moon,” and the Greek word mén, meaning “month.”  A relation between the Aramaic and Greek words would probably be explained by the same reason why the English words “moon” and “month” appear to be etymologically related to each other—both of them being thought by many scholars to be derived from the same hypothetical Proto-Indo-European root *me– (3), which, again, means “to measure” (although Aramaic is not itself an Indo-European language).

Making a connection between the idea of “moon” and the idea of “meaning” would be especially significant in the specific context of the New Testament (and the Bible as a whole), since it would relate the lunar symbolism of “three days”—that is to say, the period of time separating an “old moon” from a “new moon”—to the notion of some “gap” that separates the passing of some old set of meanings (or “mind-set”) from the emergence of a new set of meanings (or “mind-set”).[3]  For that reason, I suspect that the symbol of “three days” may have been understood to signify a kind of mental “gestalt shift.”[4]

Furthermore, establishing a relation between the ideas of “meaning,” “moon” (and “month”), and that of “measure” (or “value”), might help us to make sense of Daniel 5:25-28 (originally written in Aramaic), in which the prophet Daniel interprets the famous “writing on the wall” to the “King of Babel/Babylon”:

And this is the writing [or edict, or register, or record, or scripture: kethab; LXX: graphé] that was inscribed [or signed, or issued, or recorded, or registered: resham; LXX: en-tassō]Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin [a form of the Aramaic word peras, which means “to divide, to separate, to set apart”; LXX transliteration: phares].  This is the interpretation [peshar; LXX: syg-krima—which can mean “interpretation,” or “comparison,” or “decision, judgment, decree,” or “compound of body and soul,” or “coming together of body and soul”—and which is derived from the Greek verb krinō, meaning “to judge, to separate, to discern, to interpret”] of the matter [or saying: millah; LXX: rhéma]Mene [which, again, means “a measure”; LXX transliteration: mané], God has numbered [or measured, or evaluated: menah; LXX: metreō] your kingdom [malku; LXX: basileia]; and[5] he has made it complete [or made it whole, or perfected it, or fulfilled it, or brought it to a conclusion: shelem (corresponding to the Hebrew words shalem, shalam, and shalom); LXX: pléroō]; Tekel, you have been weighed [or, more literally, “balanced”: tekel] in the balances [or “on the scales”: mozanya; LXX: zygos (a Greek word which is more typically used to mean “a yoke”)[6]] and are discovered [or found: shekach (with the probable implication that what has been discovered or found had previously been forgotten, since the corresponding Hebrew word is shakach, meaning “to forget”); LXX: heuriskō] to be deficient [or “to be lacking”: chassir; LXX: hystereō]; Peres [another form of the Aramaic word peras, which, again, means “to divide, to separate, to set apart”; LXX transliteration: phares], your kingdom [malku; LXX: basileia] is divided [or divided in two, or broken in two: peras; LXX: di-aireō[7]] and given to Media and Persia [paras].[8]

According to one possible reading of Daniel 5:25-28, the first Mene might be understood to involve an initial “evaluation” (or “numbering,” or “weighing,” or “measuring,” or “taking account,” or “assessing”) of the “Kingdom of Babel/Babylon,” while the second Mene might be understood to involve a second “evaluation”:  one that would be “made complete” or “made full” or “fulfilled.”  In other words, it is possible that these two Mene’s were meant to be understood as having been “weighed in the balances” against one another; and the first Mene was found to be “deficient” with respect to the second Mene—perhaps because the first Mene only had one meaning (namely, a “natural” meaning), while the second Mene had two meanings (namely, a “natural” as well as a deeper “spiritual” meaning).  As a result, and in order that “Babel” or “Babylon” would not be found “deficient” or “lacking” (Greek hystereō) in meaning,[9] the first Mene (corresponding to the “Kingdom” of “Babel” or “Babylon”) would be “divided into two (meanings)” (Aramaic paras or Greek di-aireō):  an “outer meaning,” and an “inner meaning”—at which point the previously forgotten “inner meaning” would become publicly known as a result of having been “found” or “discovered” (Aramaic shekach or Greek heuriskō).  And this is the point at which the symbolic “Kingdom” of “Babel” or “Babylon” would cease to exist.

Consider the possible similarity between this interpretation of Daniel 5:25-28, and the symbolism of Christ’s Crucifixion and his Resurrection, focusing especially on the “three days” (thus invoking a lunar symbolic scheme) separating the two events.  The “three days” separating the “first moon” (by which I have in mind the “non-glorified Jesus” or “non-resurrected Jesus”) from the “second moon” (by which I have in mind the “glorified Jesus” or “resurrected Jesus”) would correspond to that which differentiates the “first Mene” from the “second Mene” in the passage from the Book of Daniel.  If that suggestion is correct, then the “Resurrection of Jesus” would symbolically correspond to the “resurrecting” or “making public” or “making apparent” of the previously forgotten “inner meaning”; and so Christ’s “rise” or “rising” would thus correspond to the “fall” or “falling” of “Babel” or “Babylon.”  Also observe that if one assumes that the symbol of “Babel” (and thus also “Babylon”) was primarily understood to signify some original “confusing of language,” then this would imply that the discovery or recovery of the previously forgotten “inner meaning”—signified by the “resurrected Christ,” and perhaps also signified by the symbols of the “hidden treasure in the field” and the “pearl of great worth” spoken of in Matthew 13:44-46—would be the discovery or recovery of an “inner meaning” that was opposed to that original “confusing of language.”

 

Notes

[1] However, it might be helpful to think of the “moon” as a kind of measurement, rather than as a kind of measurer:  in other words, it should perhaps be thought of as “that which is measured” rather than “that which does the measuring.”

[2] This sense of the English word “weight” as a kind of semantic “significance” might help us to better understand what was intended by the authors of the Old Testament when they used the Hebrew word kabowd, which can mean “glory, honor, wealth, abundance”—but which more literally means “weight, heaviness”; and it might therefore also help us to better understand the use in the New Testament of two Greek words used by the Septuagint’s translators to translate the word kabowddoxa, which can mean “glory, splendor, appearance” (as well as “a seeming, an opinion”); and timé, which can mean “honor, esteem, dignity, value, a valuing, a valuation, worth, price.”

[3] Note that, according to the general metaphorical scheme being presented, it would apparently be the symbolic “sun”—perhaps corresponding to the idea of “conscious mind” or “conscious will” or “conscious intent”—that would be responsible for doing the “measuring” or “cutting” or “separating” of one “mindset” (i.e., “moon”) from another.

[4] For this reason, I think it is important when reading the New Testament not to make too much of the period of time separating the symbolic “Crucifixion” from the symbolic “Resurrection,” since I think that, from a certain perspective anyway, the space of time between them was meant to have a purely symbolic significance.  According to such a perspective, the “Crucifixion” and “Resurrection” would both have been thought of as occurring in the same moment of time—with the difference between them created only by the two different temporal “vantage points” that one might choose to adopt when viewing that “single event.”

[5] One might perhaps choose to regard this word “and” as serving in place of the second “Mene.”

[6] In the Gospels, compare the use in Matthew 11:29 of the expression “take up [airō] (Christ’s) yoke [zygos] upon (oneself)” with the use in Matthew 16:24 of the expression “take up [airō] (one’s) cross [stauros].”  It is at least conceivable that the figure of “Jesus” was understood to have been “balanced on the scales and found (temporarily) lacking” when he was depicted as having been “crucified on the Cross”—that is to say, “crucified on the Cross” in order that, after the “dividing” (or “dividing in two”: Aramaic peras or Greek di-aireō) of Jesus’s “body of flesh” from Jesus’s “soul” had first been accomplished with Jesus’s death on the Cross, he could then be “resurrected” (in other words, “fulfilled” or “made complete”: pléroō; see Matthew 26:47-56, and especially the use in verses 54 and 56 of the words pléroō and graphō, meaning “scripture, writing”).  It is also conceivable that the authors of the New Testament understood Christ’s metaphorical “yoke” (zygos) to be what joined together a “body of flesh” and a “soul” (or, later, a “life-giving spirit”) in an individual person—and as such, that these two conceptual entities were thought to correspond to the two metaphorical “oxen” that were being “yoked” together, as well as to the two “sides” of a metaphorical “balance.”

[7] Incidentally, the Greek word di-aireō is frequently used by Plato in his dialogues to mean “to divide, to separate” in reference to his “Forms” or “Ideas.”

[8] Note the close similarity between the Greek word phares, which is used here to transliterate the Aramaic word peras (in its forms parsin and peres), and the Greek word pharisaios, which is used in the New Testament to mean “Pharisee,” a word that is derived from the Aramaic word peras found in this passage—which means “to divide, to separate, to set apart,” and which corresponds to the Hebrew word parash, meaning “to separate, to make distinct, to distinguish, to explain, to declare distinctly, to specify, to translate, to interpret,” as well as “to pierce, to break open,” as well as “to disperse, to scatter.”  (Cf. Greek speirō and dia-speirō, both having more or less the same final meaning of “to disperse, to scatter”; but this may just be coincidental.)  I suspect that the word “Pharisee” is also related to the Aramaic word peshar, also found in the quoted passage; that word means “to interpret, to open up,” and corresponds to the Hebrew word pathar.

In addition, in the quoted passage note the seemingly deliberate connection being made, by means of a pun, between the idea of “dividing” or “breaking in two” (Aramaic peras), and the symbol of “Persia” or “Persians” (Aramaic paras).

[9] Cf. Matthew 19:20-22, which, like the Septuagint version of the quoted passage, also uses the Greek word hystereō, meaning “to lack, to be deficient.”