Abarim Publications' Biblical Dictionary: The New Testament Greek word: κυβερναω

Source: https://www.abarim-publications.com/DictionaryG/k/k-u-b-e-r-n-a-om.html


Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary


A small cluster of very common Greek words have made it into everlasting linguistic glory by forming the source of our English words "government" and "cybernetics". But to the dismay of purists, it's no longer clear where these words ultimately derive from: the trail runs cold at the Greek verb κυβερναω (kubernao), meaning to steer, and particularly to act as the helmsman of a ship — and the word ναος (naos), meaning ship, is closely related to the word ναος (naos), meaning temple, as we discuss in our article on the latter. The provenance of our verb κυβερναω (kubernao), to steer, is formally obscure, but, as you might imagine, here at Abarim Publications we have something to say about that.

Our guess is that our verb represents the confluence of many tributaries, but most obviously relates to a group of words that have to do with bending or curving, and particularly with bending the head downward and thus with directing the head to where it would not naturally have gone. There is the noun κυβηνα (kubena), an old lady, and particularly a stooped old lady as the adjective κυβηβος (kubebos) and adverb κυβδα (kubda) mean stooped. Both appear to derive from the verb κυπτω (kupto) or even κυψω (kupso), to stoop or bend forward, as used in the Septuagint's version of Psalm 10:10 but also frequently in Homer's Iliad.

Also in the Iliad, as well as some other texts, occurs the verb κυβισταω (kubistao), meaning to tumble head first (obviously into a direction where this head would not naturally have gone), which could only exist by virtue of an unrecorded, and thus assumed, noun κυβη (kube), meaning head.

Where this noun κυβη (kube), head, might have come from is still a mystery, but it clearly reminds of words like the German Kopf, head, the Sanskrit kupah, hollow, and thus the Latin word cupa, any hollow thing, which in turn leads back to the Greek κυπη (kupe), which describes a kind of ship, probably one with a decisively large hold. Another Greek word for hollow (anything from natural harbors to ships' holds) is κοιλος (koilos), from which comes κοιλια (koilia), meaning belly or womb.

This still does not explain our word κυβη (kube), but the letter κ (k) does have a tendency to attach itself to roots in a way that reminds of the familiar prefix εκ (ek), out of. This prefix normally becomes ex when fixed to a vowel, but in some cases it appears to morph into a hard k, while dropping the leading e. Take for instance the verb καυχαομαι (kauchaomai), to loudly declare, which comes from the noun αυχην (auchen), neck or throat. That means that our noun κυβη (kube) may very well have something to do with the proto-Indo-European root uper, from which also comes the English "over", the German über and the Greek υπερ (huper).

In Hebrew there is the name of the 19th letter, namely קוף (qop), which likewise denotes anything circular or hollow (and was indeed used to describe the back of a human head). And of course the mysterious sort of wood called גפר (goper), whose name occurs only once in recorded Scriptures (namely in Genesis 6:14), but which may have had something to do with what the Greeks called κυπαρισσος (kuparissos), the cypress tree, which in turn may have given its name to the island of Cyprus, from which in turn comes our word for copper.

Copper marks the point in humanity's development where our ancestors transcended the manipulation of nature as found, and began to use technology to manipulate nature into yielding what it wouldn't yield on its own. And that links copper to our verb.

As we discuss in our article on the verb צרף (sarap), meaning to perform metallurgy (hence also the name Zarephath), the art of metallurgy became synonymous with the art of the pursuit of reason and wisdom. As modern linguists have determined, logic and systematic or categorical thought is not possible without words (read our article on ονομα, onoma, meaning name or noun) and the willful making of all aspects of language is really the same thing as the willful making of anything metal. The Greek verb μεταλλαω (metalleo) means to search carefully or inquire diligently. The derived noun μεταλλον (metallon) denotes a mine or quarry (the place where men search for nature's hidden treasures). This Greek noun became the Latin word metallum, and denoted both a mine or what came out of a mine, and that is how English received its word "metal". The word "metal" literally means "something diligently searched for" and should be synonymous with the word "word".

In Hebrew the word for copper is נחש (nahash), which is identical to a verb that means to divine or soothsay, which is identical to the Bible's common word for snake. And so, the technological revolution that would bring humanity so much blessing, was also mankind's greatest curse, as the snake hid in the tree and seduced Eve. The snake would bruise man's heel (עקב, 'aqeb, hence the name Jacob), but man would bruise the snake's head (ראש, ro'sh).

What the ultimate head of the great snake of technology might turn out to be is not wholly clear just yet, but the chances are excellent that it will have something to do with the Internet, or rather the Internet of Things. This Internet of Things will surely be mankind's greatest blessing, on the proviso that it in turn is captained or governed by the Word of God, like a rider who controls his beast, like a crown of light upon a head of hair.

This Word of God has of course nothing to do with any kind of religion or even any kind of human organization (all willful human organization is part of the snake) but rather with the freedom of a small group of people who form a kind of spontaneous and self-organizing Internet of Living Minds by utilizing freely available natural principles. Like rain in clouds, if you will.

Our verb κυβερναω (kubernao) means to steer, or rather to direct the head, or even more precise: to be above the head of a creature and direct that creature by outranking the head of it. This verb isn't used in the New Testament, although the name Καπερναουμ (Capernaum) may have been intended as a playful reference to it. Anyway, the following Biblical words derive from our verb or relate to it:

  • The noun κυβεια (kubeia), dice-tossing (Ephesians 4:14 only). This word comes from the noun κυβος (kubos), die, from which comes our English word "cube". How this word was formed isn't immediately clear but later cube-shaped objects appear to have been named after the die, which itself originated in pre-history, most likely as an instrument used in divination. Here at Abarim Publications every guess counts, so perhaps the "heads" of a cube were its sides, or its denominations (the numbers on the sides). More likely, however, the die was called a "head" because it had the final say when a discussion, or other means to come to a decision, had met a stalemate. This custom (albeit with lots instead of with dice) was still in use in the first century, as it was deployed to choose Matthias as successor of Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:26). There is of course nothing magic about a die, except that it's a natural random number generator, and the generation of randomness is a very big deal in modern computing (because freedom is the most fundamental principle of reality, and devilishly hard to synthesize; see Galatians 5:1). As with anything holy, petty performers got hold of the die and turned the throwing of dice into a base game of chance, which is also how crystal ball reading works, and, sadly, also directs the attitude of many Evangelicals toward prayer.
  • The noun κυβερνησις (kubernesis), which appears to denote one of the many administrative functions of a properly functioning church, and a minor one at that. It's mentioned only once (1 Corinthians 12:28 only), in vague plural, between "redirections" and "translations". It derives from the above discussed verb κυβερναω (kubernao), and literally means steerage or pilotage in a maritime sense. In the classics this word is used very rarely and only metaphorically to refer to a city's political government. In his Republic (6.488), Plato uses this word to paint the picture of a handsomely tall and strong shipmaster, who is slightly deaf and somewhat blind and endowed with a matching sense of navigation. Hence this shipmaster's sailors all clamber over each other, reaching for the helm, screaming that it's their turn to steer, while remaining silent about where they might have learned how to do that. Worse, Plato continues, they even claim that steerage is an art more than a science, and while going nowhere but to calamity, they plunder the provisions and drink and eat to the master's ruin. This also, sadly, reminds of many an Evangelical church.
  • The noun κυβερνητης (kubernetes), meaning shipmaster in the sense of helmsman or chief navigational officer (Acts 27:11 and Revelation 18:17 only).