The First Occurence Method

by A.E. Knoch

WE HAVE BEEN ASKED to give our opinion of a method which determines the meaning of a word from its first occurrence. This question would not be asked if this plan were given a trial, for it is impracticable, impossible, inadequate, and may be misleading.

It is impracticable for the great majority because, if it is based on the accepted translations, it is worse than no plan at all. It is far better to take each word in its own context than to give it a meaning, based on its earliest appearance, which may be an entirely different word in the original. This method can only be used by those familiar with the Hebrew, Chaldee and Greek to a degree possessed by very few scholars.

It is impossible because no one knows which is its "first" occurrence. I understand that Genesis is taken as the "first" book to which we should go. But there is every reason to think that Job was written long before Genesis, so it is difficult to have any very clear ideas at to which is really the "first" occurrence. What is to determine it? Is it the order of the books? These vary in many manuscripts. Is it the time of the action, or the time of writing? The latter is not always revealed. Many think that first Thessalonians was the first book of the Greek Scriptures to be written. Or should we get all our definitions from Matthew?

Besides this, shall we take the first occurrence of the verb, the noun or the adjective, each for itself, or the first of the three? For sin, shall we take Genesis 4:7; 20:6; 20:9, or 41:9? The first of these, "sin lieth at the door" would bring us into difficulties immediately, and the others are no more helpful than many later passages. How shall the average Bible reader know? There, is no book giving the first occurrences, and if he has a concordance of the original, why not use the most helpful ones, or rather, all of them?

It is inadequate because the evidence of a single passage is too limited to fix the meaning of any word. The Scriptures require the testimony of at least two witnesses to settle any matter. It is always considered difficult to fix the meaning of a word which occurs only once. Why then confine ourselves to the first witness when a second is of great value, and all evidence alone is safe? It is much easier for a judge to decide a case if he hears only one testimony, but Who would countenance such a course?

If the "first occurrence" is a figure of speech, it may mislead us as to the literal meaning. For instance, in Numbers 23:27 we have probably what would be called the first occurrence of the Hebrew word ishr, STRAIGHT. There we read, in the English, "peradventure it will please God," or, as the margin has it, "it will be right in the eyes of God." How much better it is to select a passage which has a literal background, and in which there are synonyms and antonyms which help to clarify its significance! Such a passage is Isaiah 40:3:

Surface the way of Jehovah! Straighten, in the gorge, a highway for our God! Every ravine shall be lifted up, And every mountain and hill shall be lowered, And the detour shall become straight, And the knob be made a defile.

This is an excellent passage for the purpose, as it contains the noun as well as the verb, and has words of like meaning, as surface, and defile, as well as one of opposite sense, detour. Roundabout, crooked roads are to be made such as comport with the passage of kings, and go right on, because all impediments and obstacles are removed. They are straight. From this basic and central meaning, STRAIGHT, the secondary usage (not meaning) is readily derived. Morally, a straight man is upright. An action is right. I well remember, when I first went to a rather wild country in western America, one of my neighbors kindly told me that another was as "straight" as a snake! Highly figurative but very expressive.

Archbishop Trench, author of the standard work on New Testament Synonyms, has a paragraph in his introduction in which he gives the results of his long experience in sinking to grasp the exact significance of the words used by the Holy Spirit. According to him, the results of such efforts will depend largely on the spiritual skill displayed in selecting the most revealing passage. This he leaves to each one. I would add to this a few hints. Seek a passage in which the word is used in its basic, literal sense (though this may be in a figure, as a parable). If possible find one where another word, of similar or opposite sense, is in the context. If possible choose a passage in which the context explains the meaning. One such case is the word sin in Judges 20:16, sling stones and not sin. Genesis 20:6, the first occurrence, cannot compare with this.

Undoubtedly, in some cases, there is a special significance to the first occurrence of a word, but this is connected with matters other than its meaning. And, of course, it may have the most instructive context.

The great advantage of the concordant method is that it uses the concentrated light of all God's revelation, and enables us to escape our own pre- and mis-conceptions and correct our teaching, whereas, if we use only one passage, we seek to bend the meaning and correct the Scriptures. Hence it is unwelcome in many quarters, for it condemns us and our thoughts and enslaves them to God. This is painful and unwelcome to those who are in error. Let us bear with them until God enables them to bow to His Word.

To conclude: To base the meaning of a word exclusively on the first occurrence is too difficult and dangerous to be commended, even for the scholar, and is beyond the Bible student. The meaning should be arrived at from all of its occurrences, especially those where it is literal, used in contrast to its opposite, or parallel to one of like meaning, or better still, where the context illustrates its force. Such passages are a wonderful gift to us from God, and we should not reject them or despise them for the sake of a purely mechanical idea such as the first occurrence.

"IT SHALL greatly helpe ye to understande Scripture, if thou mark, not only what is spoken and wrytten,--but to whom, and of whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstances, considering what goeth before, and what followeth."


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