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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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CHAFF.—The term used in English to denote the protective coverings and appendages of the growing corn—the glumes, scales, and awns—after they have been dried in the ripening of the plant and in the wind and sun, and separated from the grain and straw. The Greek word is ἄχυρον (Lat. palea), ‘mostly used in plural for chaff, bran, husks’ (Liddell and Scott); perhaps derived from ἀχ, indicating its pointed nature. But the older authorities, and most writers on the Greek of the NT, incline to regard the ἄχυρον as including the cut or broken-up straw which mingles with the chaff proper.

Schleusner, controverting the opinion of previous lexicographers, says that the word for the outer integuments (palea) is ἀχοη, and that ἅχυρον includes totum calamum frumenti inde a radice usque ad spicam quae grana continet, and that it is equivalent to the Heb. חֶּבֶן tebhen; and Post (art. ‘Straw’ in Hastings’ B [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] ) suggests the use of the Arab. [Note: Arabic.] word tibn, which denotes the nugled chaff and cut or broken straw.

In reaping it was often the practice to leave all the straw, except an inch or two cut off with the ear. The dust of the chaff is in the LXX Septuagint χνοῦς (Psalms 1:4; Psalms 35:5, Isaiah 29:5, Hosea 13:3), and once χνοῦς ἀχύρου (Isaiah 17:13), and once κονιορτός (Job 21:18).

The combination of broken straw with the chaff is explained by the process of harvesting, threshing, and winnowing in Palestinian agriculture. The threshing-machine, or threshing-waggon (see art. ‘Agriculture’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible), which, by repeatedly passing over the sheaves, broke up the short straw into fragments, separated the grain from its dried envelopes. The threshing-floor was so placed, usually in an elevated and breezy position, that the wind could be utilized to separate the lighter, heavier, and heaviest materials from one another, and the method of winnowing secured that the grain should fall in the centre, the heavier straw at a small distance from the grain heap, while the broken straw and chaff (ἄχυρον) were carried away by the wind, either out of the threshing-floor, or so that it could be swept together for burning. The complete separation of the chaff, which included fragments of the awns and straw, from the corn was effected by means of the winnowing-fan (πτύον), the broad shallow shovel with which corn after threshing was thrown up against the wind, and so finally cleansed of the chaff. See art. ‘Shovel’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible. This final stage of the winnowing process is referred to by John the Baptist in the only occurrences of the word ‘chaff’ in the NT (Matthew 3:12, Luke 3:17).

The imagery of the threshing-floor was finely adapted to express the sweeping reform of the national life which the ardent soul of the Baptist expected to characterize the coming of the Jewish Messiah. The chaff well represented (1) the insincerity and hypocrisy of the national religious leaders, profession without substance, looking at a distance like grain, but proving on near inspection to be chaff; and (2) the light irresponsibility, the absence of true principle, in the people who accepted this formalism and pretence as genuine grain of godliness. And the winnowing represented the readiness with which such unsubstantial elements of national character would be carried away by the first wind of trial, or burnt up by the divinely authorized Messiah, whose coming John expected to be with swift discrimination and judgment. John looked for the immediate separation of the false from the true, the bad from the good. The Christ would come as Malachi (Malachi 3:1-5) predicted, with searching and striking condemnation of all that was worthless and injurious; and the comparative slowness and indirectness of our Lord’s method was the moving cause of his perplexed question, when he heard in the prison the works of Christ, and sent his disciples to ask, ‘Art thou he that should come, or look we for another?’ (Matthew 11:3, Luke 7:19).

Literature.—Mackie, Bible Manners and Customs, pp. 34–36; Tristram, Eastern Customs in Bible Lands, ch. 6; Jahn, Biblical Archaeology, pp. 66–73; Thomson, Land and the Book, pp. 538–540; Nowack, Heb. Arch. i. 233 f.; artt. ‘Agriculture,’ ‘Chaff,’ ‘Straw,’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible.

T. H. Wright.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Chaff'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​c/chaff.html. 1906-1918.
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