Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The words for people (λαος, laos) and lion (λεον, leon) are surprisingly closely related, and quite a broad bouquet of Biblical metaphors ties into this kinship:
The noun λαος (laos) is one of a few Greek words meaning men or people. In the Bible it may denote people in general (Matthew 26:5, Luke 1:10), a society at large (Luke 2:10, Acts 4:25), but most often the common people as distinguished from leaders and big shots (Matthew 26:5, Mark 11:32). The latter sense is preserved in our English nouns layman and laity.
The noun ληιτος (leithos) means town-hall. It's not wholly clear where this word comes from but the two candidates are: (1) the noun λαος (laos), meaning people (see above), and (2) the adverb λεως (leos), meaning entirely or wholly (see below). It's not unthinkable that it does both, and that our noun and adverb are in fact close siblings. The noun ληιτος (leithos), meaning town-hall isn't used in the New Testament, but from it derive:
- Together with the noun εργον (ergon), meaning work: the noun λειτουργος (leitourgos), meaning people-worker. It was the regular word for civil servant, that is someone who kept the population organized and administrated. In Athens' glory days, this word described Athenians who served public offices at their own expenses. This noun occurs 5 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, but never to man-appointed bureaucrats and always to the people of God. From this noun in turn derive:
- The verb λειτουργεω (leitourgeo), meaning to work as a civil servant. In the New Testament this word again applies only to God's people (Acts 13:2, Romans 15:27 and Hebrews 10:11 only).
- The noun λειτουργια (leitourgia), meaning a public office or public service. It is used 6 times, see full concordance, and only to describe God's people.
- The adjective λειτουργικος (leitourgikos), meaning public-serving. This word is used only once, applied to angels: Hebrews 1:14. For reasons why this might be, see our article on the word αγγελος, aggelos, meaning angel or messenger.
The adverb λιαν (lian) means very, very much or greatly. It occurs 14 times; see full concordance.
The Ionic equivalent of the previous adverb is λεως (leos), meaning entirely or wholly. It doesn't occur in the Bible but in the classics it's used quite often and even comes with its own derivatives: Someone called a λεωργος (leorgos), was one who'd do anything; a versatile scoundrel or a real dare-all.
The adjective λεωδης (leodes) means popular or common. This same idea may also be expressed by the nearly identical adjective λαωδης (laodes), which derives from λαος (laos), meaning people, as discussed above.
Our noun is of unclear origin but it looks suspiciously like it has to do with a plural genitive of whatever the adverb λεως (leos) has to do with. The adverb relates to the noun λαος (laos), meaning people, but means entirely or wholly, and the noun λεον (leon) looks like it means "all of y'all." But as always, there's much more:
The Lion and the Lamb
The lion often serves as national symbol and that goes way back. Lionesses were observed to hunt in invincible packs, while the pride's alpha male and cubs remained slumbering in the shade. Prowling lions were also observed to drive herds together into compact formations. The lions would patrol the perimeter and the herd would self-organize so that the young ended up perfectly safe at the core of the herd and the strongest adults like a wall around them, facing the threat.
Humanity is among the animal kingdom's youngest offspring, and after eons of simply migrating along with the herd, mankind acted upon their observation that the herd's core is always the safest. This set in motion man's very journey into husbandry, agriculture and urbanization (read our World Mind Hypothesis for more on this), and with urbanization came mankind's signature wisdom tradition, the schools, academia and ultimately science, the Internet and the grand awakening to who we are and who our Creator is (Romans 1:20; Zechariah 8:23).
Remember that the Hebrew noun for honey bee, דברה (deborah), is the feminine equivalent of the masculine noun דבר (dabar), meaning Word (or Logos in Greek), whereas the feminine noun אריה ('urya), means manger or crib, and is the equivalent of the masculine noun ארי (ari), meaning lion. In other words: bees in the lion (Judges 14:8) is the gender inverted equivalent of the Word in the manger (Luke 2:7).
Whatever its guise, our noun λεον (leon), meaning lion, is actually mostly likely Semitic and related to the Hebrew noun לביא (lebiya'), meaning lioness, we mentioned above. This word in turn may have to do with the noun לב (leb), meaning heart (hence perhaps the Slavic word lav, meaning lion). Another Hebrew word for lion is לבי (lebay), which looks like an adjective meaning "hearty".
Both domestic cats and dogs evolved from feline and canine predators. Very early herdsmen who defended the perimeter of their herd must have engaged in an understanding with the smartest predators; the occasional sacrifice kept the predators satisfied and removed the necessity for them to attack and stampede the herd. That created a stable herd with a stable core in which humans could raise their children. But it also motivated the friendliest and bravest of the predators to become friendlier and braver and ultimately even themselves benefit from the safety the herd provided. These neighborly predators soon separated from their main gene pools and slowly formed into man's two best friends.
The Hebrew word for dog is כלב (kaleb), which is spelled the same as the phrase meaning "like a heart" would be. The Greek word for dog is κυων (kuon), which appears to be kindred to the verb κυω (kuo), meaning to be pregnant or cause pregnancy.
The Virgin and the Child
Ancient mythologies were never meant to merely entertain and were always very serious contemplations on the nature of physical reality. The Bible the way we have it is not a shining star in an otherwise pitch black night, but rather the eye of an intellectual storm that covered the entire known world from China to West Africa and Norway to Nubia (read our article on the name Mary). Much of the Bible's earliest concerns relate closely to the Egyptian wisdom tradition; after all, Israel was a mere family when it settled in Egypt (Genesis 46:26) and formed into a nation within the womb of Egypt (Exodus 12:37).
The Egyptian goddess Bastet started out her career as a warrior deity, not unlike Pallas Athena, the Greek deity better known as παρθενος (parthenos) or the Virgin (hence the Parthenon, Athena's main temple). Even YHWH was initially known as a Man of War (Exodus 15:3), and the name Bethlehem both means House of Bread and House of War. The name of the Latin god of war (Mars, Martis) looks suspiciously like the Greek noun for witness (μαρτυς, martus), and Mars was also the father of Romulus and the god of husbandry, shepherds and seers.
The Egyptian version of this universal theme, Bastet, was depicted as a lioness from the 3rd millennium BC onward. But when Egypt became more dominant in the region, she morphed into a protector deity and assumed the shape of a cat. This was really a dominant theme in antiquity — the name Libya, for instance, comes from the same Semitic root as the Hebrew noun לביא, lebiya', meaning lioness (see our article on the name Cyrene).
In western mythology the lioness represented a particular societal function; something that originated in the military but which evolved into an essentially peaceful force that formed society's protective backbone. When tribes grew and settled down, the necessity arose for a dedicated defense force. But any valuable able-bodied young man who joined the army could not work his field and care for his own. And this in turn necessitated the rise of administration: folks who correlated function to benefit and managed the fair distribution of wealth (hence Acts 6:2-3). The rise of administration essentially allowed societies to evolve from natural tribal chiefdoms — large families centralized on one dictatorial "father" or chief — into multilateral complex organisms.
In our modern age most civilized countries recognize that the size of the catfight depends on the size of the cats you keep, and have reduced their military to a core of folks devoted to building bridges and helping out during floods. This reduces the need for weapons, which in turn increases the manageability of such hideous craft. In fact, our ancestors appear to tell us that the height of a society's sophistication can be measured by the cuddliness of its cat. Hence possibly too the Great Sphinx at Giza.
The ultimate origin of our word "lion" appears to reflect the fundamental understanding that any society is an expression of the bonds between its elements. And these bonds depend on the measure of freedom of the individuals. The more free people are, the more diverse they will develop, the broader and thus the stronger both the society and its governing heart will become.
A government that pursues the autonomy of its people is like a lion that compresses the herd, and makes the vast majority of the individuals safe from harm. But in order for the individuals to organize naturally, they must be sovereign in their actions, and that takes some serious governing. Many a government has drafted elaborated legislations (hence the many bad lions in the New Testament), but the best way to ensure the freedom of all individuals is to educate them in the knowledge of nature (Romans 1:20, Colossians 2:3) and let them be (Galatians 5:1, John 8:32).
Personal sovereignty was symbolized by being anointed, which is the meaning of the titles Christ and Messiah, which in turn are not reserved for Jesus of Nazareth but for everybody who is sovereign and autonomous (1 John 2:20-27). The two most enduring symbols of the Messiah are of course the Lion of Judah (Genesis 49:9, Revelation 5:5) and the child at the core upon whose shoulders would be the government (Isaiah 9:6).