The Figure of Speech – Zeugma as used in the Bible

The ability to communicate by using words is one thing that sets mankind apart from all other creatures. God is the Author of language, and no one has ever used language as precisely as God does in the Bible, including His use 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.

God never uses figures of speech haphazardly in the Bible, but He uses them to place emphasis on what He wants emphasized in the text. Recognizing and properly interpreting the figures of speech in the Bible has many advantages. It helps us to understand the true meaning of Scripture, to see what God wants emphasized, and it enables us 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.

The figure we are going to cover in this article is Zeugma, which means “yoke,” and refers to the fact that two things are yoked together. The English dictionary correctly defines Zeugma as occurring when two words, or two subjects, are controlled (yoked together) by one verb, when lexically and logically the verb fits with only one of the subjects. Zeugma can also occur with parts of speech other than verbs, such as when one noun controls two adjectives, only one of which is logically appropriate. An example of Zeugma from Genesis will show us how this figure works:

Genesis 4:20 (KJV)
And Adah bare Jabal: he was the father of such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle.

Thankfully, the KJV is one of the versions of the Bible that uses italic type to let us know what the translators added to the original text. If we take out the italicized words and some punctuation (all punctuation was added by translators), we can see the Zeugma perfectly: “And Adah bare Jabal: he was the father of such as dwell in tents and cattle.” People can live in tents, but not in cattle, so the verb “dwell” is not appropriate for “cattle.” The figure of speech Zeugma, however, puts people living in tents and cattle, which is not literal and places emphasis in the verse. The Greeks, like modern grammarians, recognized different types of Zeugma, depending on where the yoking word is in the sentence, but as Zeugma is subdivided into categories, the grammarians begin to differ somewhat about those categories. Nevertheless, those commonly recognized include Protozeugma (the controlling word is first), Mesozeugma (the controlling word is in the middle), Hypozeugma (the controlling word is at the end).

Zeugma often is a kind of Ellipsis, and it is sometimes hard to tell if we should categorize the figure as a Zeugma or an Ellipsis. Furthermore, the point of Zeugma is similar to the point of Ellipsis in that the words that are actually in the text are emphasized, while the words that are omitted are deemphasized. In the case of Zeugma, the controlling word (yoking word), gets the most emphasis. As with Ellipsis, when the translators make the decision not to use italic type to show the words they add to the original text, most of the time the English reader cannot see the figure Zeugma or the emphasis that God has put in the text. Thus, the use of italicized words is a great argument for reading versions such as the KJV, ASV, Darby, HCSB or the NASB, which italicize many words that are added to the original text.

In the case of Genesis 4:20, the emphasis is on the verb “dwell.” From the time of Adam and Eve, people had domestic animals, but Jabal was the first to “dwell,” live, in a tent and herd them. Thus Jabal became the first of the nomadic herdsmen, among whom are the Bedouins that still exist in the Middle East today.

Another example is in Deuteronomy:

Deuteronomy 4:12 (KJV)
And the LORD spake unto you out of the midst of the fire: ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; only ye heard a voice.

When we take the italicized words out of this verse, which is translated quite literally in the KJV, the Zeugma is clear: when God came to the Israelites, they “saw no similitude [form], only a voice.” Of course, we cannot “see” a voice, but we get the point. The Zeugma is a beautiful way in which God emphasizes that the Israelites did not see Him, while still making the point that they heard Him.

Exodus 20:18 (KJV)
And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off.

Bullinger considers this complex figure one of the subcategories of Zeugma, but we can clearly see the Zeugma. Note that the people “saw” the “thunderings” and the “noise of the trumpet,” which of course they could not see but only hear. This is a wonderful example of how knowing the Zeugma shows the Bible student what is important to God. From God’s perspective, if the hearing and seeing were equally important, then He would have placed the appropriate verbs with their associated nouns, so that the people would hear the thunder and trumpet, and see the lightning and smoke (some versions do add those words for clarity for the reader, but lose the Zeugma in the process). By leaving out any reference to hearing, God emphasizes that the people “saw” what God was doing with their own eyes.

1 Corinthians 3:2 (NASB)
I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able,

The NASB correctly translates this verse with the verb “to drink,” controlling both “milk” and “solid food.” This emphasizes the word “drink,” and points to the milk, thus emphasizing the care Paul had for the people he was raising up. He was careful to give them milk to drink, and not put too much upon them without properly building a foundation. Many versions, being uncomfortable with the Zeugma, get rid of it by changing the verb “drink” to the more general “fed,” but the verse is easy enough to understand without that modification, and modifying the verb from “drink” to “fed” loses the Zeugma and thus God’s emphasis.

Luke 24:27 (KJV)
And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

This is the sermon that every Christian wishes he could have heard, which Jesus gave to two disciples walking to Emmaus after his crucifixion (and resurrection, which they did not yet know about). They were upset and confused by Jesus’ death, and had concluded that he must not have been the Messiah after all. Jesus taught them about himself, “…beginning at Moses and all the prophets….” He could begin with Moses, because Moses wrote Genesis, but he could not literally begin with both Moses and the prophets. The word “beginning” fits only with “Moses.” The natural meaning of the verse is “beginning with Moses and going through all the prophets,” but the Zeugma lets us know that God especially emphasizes the systematic presentation of the Scripture as well as the Scripture itself, “…Moses and all the prophets….”

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