The Figure of Speech – Amphibologia as used in the Bible

The ability to communicate by words is one thing that sets apart man from all other creatures. God is the Author of language, and no one has ever used language as precisely as He does in the Bible, including His usage of figures of speech. When most people say, “a figure of speech,” they are speaking in general terms of something that is not true to fact. However, genuine “figures of speech” are legitimate grammatical and lexical forms that add emphasis and feeling to what we say and write. Recognizing and properly interpreting the figures of speech in the Bible has many advantages. We can understand the true meaning of Scripture and be able to more fully enjoy the richness of the Word of God. It is important that we become at least somewhat familiar with the figures of speech in Scripture, of which there are more than 200 varieties. [1]

The figure we are going to cover in this article is “Amphibologia.” Dissecting the compound Greek word describes its meaning well. “Amphi” means “on both sides,” so, for example, an “amphitheater” is a theater with seating on both sides, not just in the middle, which is just a “theater,” like our movie theater. “Bolos” is “a throw” in Greek, and logos is “a word.” Thus Amphibologia is a word or sentence that is thrown to both sides. In other words, it has more than one meaning. The English equivalent is “amphibology,” which my Webster’s [2] says is a phrase or sentence that can be interpreted in more than one way. Sometimes we refer to it as “double entendre.” Bullinger makes the important point that with Amphibologia, both meanings are true.

God packs meaning into words and phrases like most of us pack suitcases for a trip—He fills them to the brim, and thus there are many examples of Amphibologia in the Bible. These often cause translators great difficulty as they try to decide which meaning to bring out or emphasize in the translation. This means that the person reading the translation (rather than the original Hebrew or Greek) gets only part of the meaning. That is one reason why there is no “perfect” translation of the Bible, and why reading many translations helps deepen our understanding of it.

One of the more important examples of Amphibologia in Scripture occurs in Genesis.

Genesis 2:25 and 3:1a
(25) The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
(1a) Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made….

English readers cannot see that the word “naked” in Genesis 2:25 and “crafty” in 3:1 are the same word in the original Hebrew of Moses’ time. The Hebrew word is ARVM. [3] The word has two meanings, and they are so different that it is usually very easy to tell which meaning applies. In English, we constantly differentiate word meanings by context without even thinking about it. If I say I am going to the bank (and I need money) you do not ask me which “bank” I mean, as if I might be going fishing. Similarly, a native Hebrew speaker would instinctively know Adam and Eve were not “crafty” and unashamed (Gen. 2:25), and the serpent was not more “naked” than any other creature in Genesis 3:1.

But what do we do with Genesis 3:7 and 10, when the man knew he was ARVM. Did he know only that he was naked? I do not think so. He was ARVM (naked) before the Fall, and the serpent was ARVM (crafty) before the Fall, and when Adam and Eve disobeyed and ate of the fruit of the tree, they acquired the nature of the serpent. Thus they knew that they were both “naked” and “crafty.” They tried to deal with their nakedness by making fig leaf clothing, but they could not deal with their craftiness quite so easily, and so, in a crafty maneuver, they hid from God when they knew He was looking for them. More craftiness followed as Adam tried to tell God how everything was the woman’s fault, and God’s too, because He had brought Eve to Adam. The point well made in the Hebrew text is that at the fall of man the nature of the serpent became the nature of man, and today we all have a crafty nature that we often refer to as our “sin nature.”

The use of Amphibologia in Genesis 3:7, 10, and 11 leaves the poor translator with a dilemma. If we translate ARVM as “naked,” no one knows about the craftiness. If we translate it “crafty,” it omits the obvious fact that they knew they were naked. This may be one of the places a conflation is required, using “naked and crafty” in the English versions.

Another Amphibologia occurs in Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Of the double meaning in this verse, the first and most obvious is that when we love God, He responds by giving us things we want, just as any parent would do. Almost every committed Christian I know has testimonies of things they really wanted and prayed for that they did receive, often via circumstances that clearly evealed the hand of God. Yet those same Christians also wanted things they never did receive because the Lord worked in them to want something very different, something with which they later became very satisfied. Thus, the verse means both that God will grant us the desires of our hearts, and that He will work in us to desire something we may not have otherwise wanted.

The figure of speech Amphibologia often occurs in prophecies. Many prophecies have a fulfillment or application at the time the prophecy was spoken, and a later fulfillment as well. Hosea 11:1 is a good example. God said that He called His son “out of Egypt,” referring in the context to Israel’s exodus. However, Matthew points out that the prophecy was also fulfilled when Jesus’ parents took him “out of Egypt” and back to Nazareth (Matt. 2:15). Both meanings of Hosea 11:1 are true, and the Amphibologia adds great richness to the text.

The last point I will make about Amphibologia is that sometimes God uses names in a way in which both the name itself and the meaning of the name are important. Most Hebrew names, and many Greek names, had significant meaning, and were not just “names.” Nevertheless, in Scripture, there is little or no emphasis on the meaning of the name; it is only an identifier. However, there are times when the name and its meaning are intertwined. Philippians has a good example.

Philippians 4:2 and 3a (KJV)
(2) I beseech Euodias [Euodia, a woman] and beseech Syntyche [also a woman], that they be of the same mind in the Lord.
(3a) And I entreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel…

In this case, the word “yokefellow” in verse 3 is the Greek word suzugos, and it is a masculine name. [4] Suzugos must have been in a position to “yoke” Euodia and Syntyche back into unity, whereas at the time they were at odds with each other. Paul refers to Suzugos as “true” or “genuine,” and thus the idea of the verse is, “Hey you genuine ‘Yokefellow,’ [live up to your name and] help those women.

God’s exacting use of Amphibologia in the Word of God is one of the pieces of evidence that He, not man, is the one and only Author of Scripture, and it adds great richness to the reading and understanding of the Bible.

Endnotes

[1] E. W. Bullinger, Figures Of Speech Used In The Bible (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1968).
[2] Michael Agnes, editor in chief. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th edition, “(Wiley Publishing, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio, 2006).
[3] The Massoretic vowel pointings that make the “V” into an “o” or “u” were not invented until many years after the New Testament era. Before that, Hebrew was “unpointed,” and thus what we now know as arom (naked) and arum (crafty) were then spelled the same.
[4] For an excellent discussion of that, see R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians (Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, reprinted 1961) pp. 868-872.

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