Matthew 23:4

Jesus has advised his listeners to do what the scribes and Pharisees say, not what the scribes and Pharisees do.

δεσμεύουσιν δέ . . . . they bind, tie up

φορτία βαρέα . . . .  burdens heavy

καί ἐπιτιθέασιν . . . .  and place

ἐπί τούς ὤμους τῶν ἀνθρώπων, . . . . on the shoulders of people,

αὐτοί δέ . . . . they

τῷ δακτύλῳ αὐτῶν . . . . with their finger

οὐ θέλουσιν κινῆσαι αὐτά . . . . are not willing to move them

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.  (ESV)


Some Greek versions have an additional phrase added after φορτία βαρέα – καί δυσβάστακτα.  This is why you see ‘hard to bear’ in the ESV and other translations.

The verb δεσμεύω means something like ‘I bind, I tie up’.  This verb can be used to refer to keeping someone in chains:

καί ἐδεσμεύετο ἁλύσεσιν καί πέδαις

and he was bound with chains and shackles  (Luke 8:29)

Δεσμεύω is related to the English ‘desmid’, a type of algae where two halves of each cell are united (‘bound together’) by a narrow isthmus.  Also, a ‘desmosome’ is a structure specialized for binding two cells together in, e.g., the human body.

‘Φορτία’ is the neuter plural accusative of τό φορτίον  – ‘burden, freight’.  This word can be used figuratively, as above, or literally, as in Acts 27:10:

Ἄνδρες, θεωρῶ ὅτι μετά ὕβρεως καί πολλῆς ζημίας οὐ μόνον τοῦ φορτίου καί τοῦ πλοίου

Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo  (NIV)

The adjective associated here with φορτία is βαρύς, βαρεῖα, βαρύ, ‘heavy, burdensome’.  The English words ‘bariatric’, ‘barometer’, ‘isobar’ and so on are related.

There are two parts of the body mentioned in this verse:

 ὁ ὦμος, ‘shoulder’, and

ὁ δάκτυλος, ‘finger’.

Both of them are used in an figurative sense which corresponds to English usage; the shoulder as a place where burdens are carried, and ‘not moving a finger’ as an idiom for not making any effort.

I do not know of any English relatives to ὦμος, but δάκτυλος gives us dactylic, polydactyl, pterodactyl, and so on.

The form κινῆσαι is the aorist active infinitive of κινέω – ‘I move’.  English derivatives include kinetic, hyperkinetic, etc.

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