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Word Wisdom: Thumb

The latest inspirational column from Rev. Dr. John Kreutzwieser
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Word Wisdom

“And some of the oil that remains in his hand the priest shall put on the lobe of the right ear of him who is to be cleansed and on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot.” (Leviticus 14:17)

The ancient Israelites had a ritual to declare a person clean from skin infections and thus able to come back into the communal life of the people. A priest helped the person make sacrifices to God for the healing and then anoint the cured person, as indicated above, to confirm their involvement in the community. Oil was put on the right ear to symbolize them fit to hear the holy voice of God. The thumb of the right hand was anointed so that the person could touch and eat the meat from the sacrifice. Oil was placed on the big toe of the right foot indicating the ability to stand unscathed on holy ground in worship. This holy anointing was provided to protect the healed one from further defilement, to sustain health, and to empower with divine strength for the reentry into the community.

It is interesting to me that the thumb (bohen in Hebrew) was anointed with holy oil. Perhaps this was done as the human thumb is what enables people to grasp things properly, and in this case eat the sacrificial meat. The thumb on a human hand is opposable, which is capable of being placed against one or more of the other fingers, as it is for most primates. The opposable thumb enabled human beings to acquire fine motor skills, which may have led to the development of tools. Where would we be without thumbs?

The word “thumb” seems to come from the Proto-Indo-European word “tum,” meaning to swell. The thumb is often viewed as a swollen finger, different in size from the other four digits on the human hand. Middle English (1150-1450) used the word “thumbe.” Eventually the “b” fell silent in speech.

In movies about ancient Rome the thumbs up or thumbs down gesture is used to indicate death or life in the Colosseum combats. This however is not actually accurate according to historians. The signals were; thumb hidden in the fist to indicate “let them live”, while the thumb up was to specify “death.” This gives a different connotation to the popular Facebook symbol for “like”, the thumb up. When the thumb up meaning changed could be attributed to the coachman’s greeting while hands were on the reins, thumbs up. 

The word “thumb” is used in various contexts in English. The phrase “all thumbs” suggests being awkward or clumsy. One may “thumb through” a book, meaning to leaf through the pages, often rapidly. Hitchhikers might “thumb” across Canada, hoping to catch a ride from someone. If you are “under one’s thumb,” you are in a state of subservience or under their control. An expression of disdain or defiance is to “thumb your nose” at somebody. A rule of thumb indicates the method for doing something based on experience rather than theory. The top phalange of the thumb has been used as the rough measure of an inch.

The swollen digit of the human hand has been connected to multifaceted usages and important usefulness. Just try picking up something without using your thumb. The thumb was considered important enough that the Bible makes reference to the bohen in the cleansing rituals and at the consecration of priests. Leviticus 8:24 records, “Then he presented Aaron’s sons, and Moses put some of the blood on the lobes of their right ears and on the thumbs of their right hands and on the big toes of their right feet.” So don’t take your thumbs for granted, they are important. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication.  



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