Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The noun νεφελη (nephele) means cloud in the specific sense of "a cloud", and stems from the more general νεφος (nephos), meaning cloud in the conceptual sense of "cloudness", "cloudiness" or "cloudedness", which in turn comes from the ancient Proto-Indo-European root "nebh-", meaning cloud, but is also suspiciously similar to the verb נפל (napal), to fall down (implying rain from clouds).
From the PIE root "nebh-" also comes our English word "nebula", as well as the name Neptune, which belongs to the Greco-Roman god of the seas, the Latin equivalent of the Hellene name Poseidon. The name Poseidon derives possibly from the PIE root "dah", water, hence the Sanskrit danu, to flow, and ultimately the name Danube. Poseidon (Neptune) was a brother of Zeus (that's Jupiter to the Romans), the alpha-god, whose signature epithet was νεφεληγερετα (nephelegereta), or cloud-gatherer (see Jeremiah 10:13), from our noun νεφελη (nephele), cloud, and the verb αγειρω (ageiro), to collect or gather, hence the derived noun αγορα (agora), meaning market place or place of gathering. Hence, our word νεφελη (nephele) not necessarily describes an mass of water vapor elevated into the atmosphere, but also "clouds" of men interacting (mostly fighting but also trading). The proverbial giants of old, the suspiciously similar named Nephilim may likewise have been great in organization and societal complexity rather than mere physical size.
The ancients not only had a firm grasp of the hydrological cycle (Job 36:27-28, Ecclesiastes 1:7), but also managed to apply it to the cognitive cycle. More precise: the ancients realized that the universe is a fractal and evolves like a fractal, with the dynamic principles of cognition being self-similar to those of the much older hydrological cycle.
The world essentially consists of dry land and water. The people of the dry land (lovingly called Apollonians) think in terms of nations, nationalities and native cultures. They are tethered to their orthodoxies and fashions, heed boundaries and regulations, and cling to law and order. Apollonians worry about aggressive neighbors and invasions by "others". And they worry about torrential rains and floodings, particularly floodings of people: the ultimate "others", namely the Mercurials, the border-crossers, the landless, the "lawless" (more precise: they don't bother much with human law but are eagerly curious after the laws of nature). Mercurials don't bother with orthodoxy or with national borders, only with what works (i.e. natural law) and the road ahead. Their interests are broad and their legacy global. They travel, and entertain, and renew and inspire. But they always move on.
The idea is that the mental world of humanity is really as much a closed system as all the water is on planet earth (even allowing for the occasional comet: Revelation 18:21). Just like there's no such thing as an individual ant or an individual bee, there's also no such thing as an individual homo sapiens. Our celebrated human minds and consciousness derive from our collective culture: every thought we cherish depends on words, and words depend on the interaction of vast collectives of humans, patiently imitating each other's verbal expressions until some kind of consensus is reached about what to call a thing.
When very early humans were physically capable of speech, they still needed to cross vast epochs of mutual exploration to arrive at anything resembling a proper language, with discrete words that were recognized and accepted across vast language basins. Without words there are no conversations and, more strikingly, no conscious thoughts to exchange. Words are the currency of conscious thought, and without currency there is no economy.
If the seas represent the unknown or the subconscious (no footing) and dry land the known or conscious (footing: Genesis 8:9, Matthew 14:26-31), then the earliest words had spontaneously distilled from vast mental swaths like mist from the ground (Genesis 2:6). Only when the first words had distilled within the complex interactions of vast populations of very early humans, modern man could begin to exist: "Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being" (Genesis 2:7). Much later, God promised to Abraham that his offspring would be like that same dust of the earth (Genesis 13:16, see Galatians 3:9). Later still, he again gathered this Abrahamic "dust", and released once again within them the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4) and thus created again a living being (namely the Body of Christ, or εκκλεσια, ekklesia, the "called out").
The Hebrew word מורה (moreh) means both rain and teacher, and relates to the familiar word Torah. As the ancients realized: YHWH is the father of the Logos, and without the word (ονομα, onoma) there is no law (νομος, nomos). The verb נהר (nahar) means both to shine (what a star does; Genesis 15:5) and to flow (what a river does; Genesis 2:10). The Hebrew word for light is אור ('or), from which stem the names Ur (where Abraham was from), and Ye'or (the Hebrew word for Nile). And as we discuss more elaborately in our article on the name Tigris: early human cultures formed around rivers and remained closely associated to those rivers until the modern era.
In the New Testament, our nouns νεφος (nephos) and νεφελη (nephele) almost exclusively describe loose gatherings of human minds: so loose and vague that they merely hover over our cultures and don't lavish any of us with a systematic supply of instructions. The mental clouds of humanity are things like hunches and fashions: mental currents that cast mere shadows on the land but which themselves are only visible through the eyes of artists, who depict them in themes of hope and dread that loom in their paintings, songs and literature. Only when these clouds have gathered critical mass, they begin to yield rain, and the rain waters the plants and washes away loose dust and collect into rivers that flow back to the sea.
These are the kinds of clouds that once bore the Torah (1 Corinthians 10:1-2, Exodus 24:15-18), and later hid Jesus from the sight of the apostles (Acts 1:9). These are also the kinds of clouds that will make him visible again (1 Thessalonians 4:17, Revelation 1:7).
Our noun is used 26 times; see full concordance. It relates to the following:
- As mentioned above, the noun νεφος (nephos) means "cloudness" and occurs in the New Testament in Hebrews 12:1 only, where it obviously does not describe a mass of water vapor but a mass of intuitive human reality: "...since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us".
- The noun γνοφος (gnophos), means darkness or gloom, the proverbial counterpart of light and joy, and is used in Hebrews 12:18 only. Most dictionaries list this noun as descending from νεφος (nephos), but it's not clear at all whether this is technically the case. The chances are actually excellent that this word originated in a now lost pre-Greek (i.e. non-Indo-European) word that described an overcast or rainy sky, and through popular usage in the Greek language basin gravitated toward our Indo-European word νεφος (nephos), meaning cloud. The striking γν- (gn-) with which our word begins reminds of words like γνωσις (gnosis), knowledge, from γινωσκω (ginosko), to know (from the PIE root "gneh-"), and γενεα (genea), generation, from the verb γινομαι (ginomai), to begin to be (from the PIE root "genh-"). Our noun γνοφος (gnophos), however, appears to have artificially morphed into these roots because in older texts appears its original form of δνοφος (dnophos), which is probably pre-Greek, but strongly reminds of the above mentioned PIE root "dah", water, hence the Sanskrit danu, to flow, and the names Danube and Poseidon.
Some noteworthy Hebrew words that mean cloud
- Noun משאה (massa'a), describes a mass of clouds, and comes from the verb נשא (nasa'), which describes an upward and extractive motion. This noun is spelled the same as משאה (massa'a), meaning a loan. The verb משה (masha) means to draw or draw out of water, and is the origin of the name Moses.
- The noun עב ('ab) describes a thick, dark cloud cover, and comes from the verb עוב ('wb), to be hidden or absent. Note the proximity of these words to the nouns אב ('ab), father, and אב ('eb), freshness.
- The root ערר ('arar) describes an accumulation into one place (compare Genesis 1:9, which uses the verb קוה, qawa, to collect, instead) that results in an emptiness or barrenness everywhere else — both cities and clouds form from this principle. Noun עיר ('ir) is the common Hebrew word for city, and note that the heavenly city called the New Jerusalem descends to earth not unlike rain (Revelation 21:2). The related verb עור ('awar) describes a cloudy cataract in the eye, for which the Greek uses νεφελη (nephele).
- Noun ענן ('anan) means cloud, whereas its parent verb ענן ('nn) appears to describe the deriving of solid theories out of hardly related observations (to divine, in other words). This noun ענן ('anan) occurs about eighty times, with sixty of these referring to the pillar of cloud that guided Israel through the wilderness (Exodus 13:21-22).
- Noun עריף ('arip) means cloud and ערפל ('arapel) describes a heavy cloud mass. Both stem from the verb ערף ('arap), meaning to drip or drop.
- The noun אבק ('abaq) describes rain turned to dust as agent of punishment and destruction (Deuteronomy 28:24), stormy clouds beneath the feet of YHWH (Nahum 1:3), or dust thrown up by countless charging horses (Ezekiel 26:10). Its identical verb אבק ('abaq) is commonly translated with "to wrestle", and occurs only in the enigmatic scene in which Jacob "wrestled" with the Angel of YHWH at the river Jabbok (Genesis 32:24). After this struggle, Jacob became Israel (32:28).