Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The noun χειρ (cheir) means hand. It stems from a hugely old Proto-Indo-European root ghes, and survives in English in such useful words as chironomy (the art or science of gesticulation), chiromancy (hand palm reading), and of course chiropractor, which in theory denotes someone who puts his helping hands on one's moving parts. Our word is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew noun יד (yad), which means both "hand" and "power," and it occurs 178 times in the New Testament; see full concordance.
Human hands are unique in the animal world. We share our hallowed opposable thumb with the other primates, but ours can move much wider across our palms and that makes our hands uniquely nimble and dexterous. Because of the physical versatility of our hands, but perhaps more so because of what our hands mean to our personal identity and our collective identity, our hands became revered in ways that are no longer clear to us moderns but which still linger in our verbal expressions.
Our hands allow us to grab, move and appropriate things, which is why we say that things we control are in our hands (Genesis 24:10, Deuteronomy 1:25). But originally, our word χειρ (cheir) denoted the whole arm plus hand, and thus corresponds rather to our sense of "embracing" something or someone; to be passionate about something or someone. To the ancients, hands were "embracers" rather than grabbers, and when Jesus "stretched forth his hand" he didn't so much project healing energies (or something to that miraculous extent) but rather intimately embraced the person he was dealing with (Matthew 8:3). In Matthew 12:10 we meet a man with a "withered hand," which suggests that this man may have had trouble bonding emotionally and socially. The "mark of the beast" stamped on one's forehead and arm suggest a tendency to only bond with people when there's a benefit to be had (Revelation 13:16-17; see Matthew 24:12).
Our hands and arms are essential in establishing emotional bonds, and having especially dexterous ones suggests that humans are able to bond more firmly with more things. When bonds occur that are mental rather than physical (we fall in love or see something beautiful), we might think of those bonds as being the result of our "mental arms." And this is why God, even though he is spirit (John 4:24), has hands too (1 Samuel 5:11, 1 Chronicles 6:4, Job 5:18), and everlasting arms (Deuteronomy 33:27), and fingers (Exodus 31:18, Luke 11:20). Likewise angels, which are ministering spirits (Hebrews 1:14), have hands (Matthew 4:6; but see our article on the noun αγγελος, aggelos)
People in cultures all over the world hug and shake hands to express emotional bonds (see our article on the verb χαιρω, chairo, meaning to rejoice). It's been proposed that the handshake evolved from the open-hand salute, which in turn demonstrated that no weapon was readied, but the intuitive connection to bonding in general probably helped in establishing this custom. Some studies suggest that the handshake evolved from our ancestors' wise habit to analyze visitors by smelling their hands, and long before germ-theory, our ancestors had deduced a correlation between washing one's hands prior to eating and staying surprisingly more often healthy where non-washers became violently ill (Exodus 30:19, Matthew 15:2). That correlation was quickly deemed due to magic and evil spirits, and even today people believe that the ritual of baptism has any tangible significance (because no, baptism is a symbolic celebration of adhering to social norms, and thus to not being offensive but to be pleasant company; see our article on the verb βαπτιζω, baptizo, to baptize).
The "work of our hands" covers everything we embrace (not just with our hands; Deuteronomy 2:7), which is why we get our "hands dirty" or "join hands." Paul urges people to work with "their own hands" (1 Thessalonians 4:11), which has not so much to do with a preference for manual over other sorts of labor (such as talking a lot), but rather with "pulling one's own weight" instead of have some employee or supervisor do it for you.
When we engage in the oft misunderstood "laying on of hands" we thoroughly embrace and examine the patient's physical, psychological and social condition and invest all our own private powers, clout and leverage into getting the patient back on his feet (in modern churches, this primary social cohesive is often sadly abbreviated into a quick prayer with no further responsibilities or measurable effects for that matter; see for more on this the verb επιτιθημι, epitithemi, meaning to lay upon).
Our noun is part of a modest array of compounds:
- Together with the pronoun αυτος (autos), meaning self: the adjective αυτοχειρ (autocheir), meaning self-handedly, with one's own hands or rather out of one's own embrace or conviction (Acts 27:19 only).
- Together with the preposition επι (epi), meaning on or upon: the verb επιχειρεω (epicheireo), meaning to take upon one's hands; to embrace, to set out to do (Luke 1:1, Acts 9:29 and 19:13 only).
- Together with the verb αγω (ago), meaning to lead or carry along: the noun χειραγωγος (cheiragogos), meaning to lead on (usually in a derogatory or comical way). This word is used only once in the New Testament, in Acts 13:11, where it is used in indirect reference to the "hand of the Lord." From this noun in turn comes:
- Together with the verb γραφω (grapho), meaning to write: the curious noun χειρογραφος (cheirographos), meaning handwriting (Colossians 2:14 only). This noun is curious because prior to the invention of the printing press, all writing was done by hand, and the distinction implied by the added word χειρ (cheir) probably adds an emphasis toward having personally initiated and written something rather than dictated it or drafted it in response to a command of some sort (see Romans 16:22).
- Together with the verb ποιεω (poieo), meaning to make or do: the noun χειροποιητος (cheiropoietos), meaning something manufactured, something made by hands, something made out of will. This word occurs 6 times, see full concordance, and from it in turn comes:
- Together with the otherwise unused verb τεινω (teino), meaning to stretch, strain or lengthen (also of a period of time): the noun χειροτονος, meaning a hand-outstretching. This noun is not used in the Bible but from it stems the much more common verb χειροτονεω (cheirotoneo), to hand-stretch-out, which is used in Acts 14:23 and 2 Corinthians 8:19 only. This verb is common because it had become synonymous with to vote (to embrace or person or mission), which was in Greek times done by a calm raising of the hand rather than the vocal bellowing from which we get our verb. Voting by itself is of course an incredibly advanced procedure as in most primitive societies an empowered elite ensures to always outgun the dominated masses. When in Roman times individual autonomy and human rights went down the tube, this verb began to mean to appoint (that is: to be according to the single vote of the tyrannical emperor, or any of his tyrannical minions). From this verb in turn stems:
- Together with the preposition προ (pro), meaning before: the verb προχειροτονεω (procheirotoneo), meaning to choose (or appoint) on forehand (Acts 10:41 only). This verb pipes directly into predestination theory, but aspiring predestination theorists should remember that any blessing obtained from the Creator is always intended for the whole of mankind (Genesis 12:3, Isaiah 40:5, Ephesians 3:15). If God's blessing would in any way favor personal salvation, rich people who can afford to have their noses in books all day would go to heaven, whereas the poor slob who's made to slave all day gets handed the ultimate bill. No way.