Seek ye first the kingdom of dog

The Rhodes family acquired a new dog about four months ago. It had been about a year and a half since Whiskey died and Mary declared it time.


Pixie is a 15 month old Lab mix. We got her from the Hayward Animal Shelter after a couple of weeks of to-ing and fro-ing.

It turns out you can’t just walk into the dog pound and ask for a dog anymore. Now you have to fill out a three page application and go through an interview of everyone in the house, and only then will they tell you whether you are allowed to rescue the dog or not. (Here I thought we were doing THEM a favor by rescuing a dog!)

Well, this dog, they said, is not suitable for small children, and it’s true. She’s a 75 lb. bundle of energy. We give her 2 hours of walks every day.  One of the places we take her to run is county owned land above Lake Chabot. lake-chabot1From the hills you can look out over the bay and see San Francisco.sf-in-the-fogIt’s positively gorgeous. There’s a lot of open land, and we let her run off the leash to burn off some of that energy.pixie-on-the-hill

Plenty of dog owners in the area use this same space, and the dogs romp and roughhouse and generally have a great time.

As I said, Pixie is a mix. She’s very much the Lab in looks. Beyond the body type, she has webbed feet and an otter tail, although the hair is a little shaggy on her tail. She certainly acts like a Lab in many respects. Birds engage her complete attention. She points. She has a “soft” mouth — she doesn’t clamp down hard when she carries things. But then she doesn’t instinctively retrieve, and she has ambivalence about water. So we wondered what the other part of Pixie is — which brings me to Thursday three weeks ago.

As I said the land above Lake Chabot where we run Pixie is county land. It’s open for agricultural use, so there are horses and cows that graze there from time to time. But if we get too close, Pixie will bark at them. The horses mostly just ignore her, but she can get to the cows. It isn’t pleasant and it takes a few minutes to get her attention back once she’s locked onto a large animal. So I don’t let her off leash unless we’re far away from them. (Besides, the park rangers can cite you for harassing the cows.)

However, two weeks ago she spotted cows on the other side of the creek, a good quarter mile away, and bolted down the hill, across the bridge, right to the cows. Pixie had discovered her inner collie. She rounded up the cows that were scattered across the hillside during the time it took me to run down the hill, across the creek, and up the other hill to get to her, and she then proceeded to herd them back and forth for about 10 minutes with me trying desperately to disengage her while avoiding being trampled by a moving herd of cows.

You can see the problem.

And we play in the house, too, sometimes for 30-45 minutes. It takes a lot to keep her interested and occupied. We can’t do anything nowadays without taking Pixie into the calculation — a fact which, in the wake of the previous Sunday’s sermon on Matthew 6:19-34, led Mary to observe that for us it has become: “Seek ye first the kingdom of dog.”

That got me to thinking. That phrase rolls off the tongue if you’re churched.  “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.” And if you were around in the right segment of the charismatic movement in the 70’s, there’s a Scripture song of that passage that has one of those too simple melodies you can’t get out of your head. It all makes the expression sound so natural, when, in fact, it’s hard-core Biblish. Without further reflection, it wasn’t entirely clear to me what it might mean to “seek first the kingdom of God”.

ζητεῖτε δὲ πρῶτον τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τὴν δικαιοσύνην αὐτοῦ καὶ ταῦτα πάντα προστεθήσεται ὑμῖν (Matt. 6:33)

It turns out this is an non-trivial question. Even if you factor out the Elizabethan English word order there still is a problem, and it goes right to the heart of how trustworthy the various Greek lexicons are.

Long time readers may remember I have posted in the past that we cannot simply assume that lexicons have the correct translations for words in them. Even the most reliable lexicons, Bauer, Danker, Arndt and Gingerich(1) and Liddell, Scott, and Jones(2), are often 50 or a 100 years behind in English usage. But now, with the advent of internet access and extensive search capabilities, we can now do our own research into how words are used in context so we can work out for ourselves what they mean. So that’s what I’ve done for ζητέω and for seek— unfortunately, it has taken weeks.

There are two problems that my searches revealed. One is that the English word seek is an unusual and specialized word in today’s usage, but ζητέω was a common and ordinary word.

I regularly point out that meaning is more complex than we tend to think. Words not only refer, they also frame — direct you to look at a situation in particular ways.

Elizabeth I had her cousin Mary killed.

Elizabeth I had her cousin Mary murdered.

Elizabeth I had her cousin Mary executed.

Beyond that they can also have status as formal or informal words and more generally connect to the contexts they are used in, both linguistic and otherwise.

So it is with seek. Part of its meaning arises from the fact that it is used in special contexts. Google it and you get 10’s of millions of hits, but start looking at them and patterns appear immediately. For example, it is a headline word. It occurs in headlines, but not in the story, where a more general — or more specific  — expression is used.

Robber sought after failing to return
State police in Pittsburgh are looking for a convicted robber who escaped from a Braddock corrections center last night. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Monday, February 09, 2009)

Habitat protection sought for one of America’s most endangered: Woodland Caribou
Bush Administration Ignored Request to Identify Species’ Critical Habitat for 6 Years
SPOKANE, WA – Conservation groups filed a complaint today in the U.S. District Court in Spokane to compel a response to a 2002 petition for woodland caribou critical habitat which has been ignored for over six years by the Bush Administration. (Defenders of Wildlife, January 15, 2009)

It occurs very frequently in connection with lawbreakers on the lam.

Semi Driver Sought After Bicyclist Run Over
Richmond County Bank Robbery Suspect Sought
Cop impersonator sought in York County

It’s also often used in reference to formal or official actions.

Major U.S. banks sought government permission to bring thousands of foreign workers into the country for high-paying jobs even as the system was melting down last year and Americans were getting laid off, according to an Associated Press review of visa applications. (Banks Sought Foreign Workers as System Crashed AP, 01 Feb 2009)

Paul Yetter of Houston, lead counsel for the Amegy claimants, says to his knowledge, Amegy Investments Inc., et al. v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc., et al. is the first arbitration that an “innocent downstream [local] broker” has sought against a national brokerage firm in the wake of the [auction rate securities] market’s collapse. (Arbitration Sought in Auction Rate Securities Fight,, Feb. 10, 2009.)

And then there’s the famous — and appropriately Jedi sounding:

“These are not the droids you seek.”

The point is that seek is not a good translation for ζητέω, even though it’s the standard gloss given. The problem is that the English word seek brings along baggage that isn’t there in ζητέω. It’s an example of something added in translation. Ironically, the very specialness of seek makes it sound so right for the Bible. It’s almost mystical. This is my ongoing complaint about Biblish. To the ears of the original audience, the Bible was not in Biblish. Sure, it contained passages in Biblish, but they were quotes. The bulk of it was plain speak.

If you want to get to the very ordinariness of the Greek of  Matthew 6:33, then you have to rephrase the whole thing.

Make God’s kingdom and the righteousness that comes from him the most important thing in your life, and all the rest will follow.


(1) Danker, Frederick W. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3d ed. Based on Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-deutsches Worterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der fruhchristlichen Literatur, 6th ed., ed. Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, with Viktor Reichmann and on previous English editions by W. F. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich, and F. W. Danker. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

(2) Liddell, H. R., R. Scott, and H. S. Jones, Greek-English Lexicon 9th edition. Oxford University Press. 1996

15 thoughts on “Seek ye first the kingdom of dog

  1. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    Make God’s kingdom and the righteousness that comes from him the most important thing in your life, and all the rest will follow.

    Great post, Rich. In your “ordinary” translation, I’m hearing a huge echo of a conclusion that Peter wrote on his blog a few days ago:

    […] this implies that we Christians are not to put our effort into doing these good things like submitting to one another, still less into making others submit to us. Instead we are to allow ourselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and as we do so the Spirit will produce in our hearts these good fruits, of worship and thanksgiving and also of the mutual submission which is, or should be, characteristic of the Christian life.

    And yes, now I have the simple song, “Seek ye first…”, running through my head – thanks.

  2. David Ker says:

    So much great stuff in this post. Thanks for the views of the bay and your rascally pup.

    My first inclination was to assume that Jesus’ words here would be heavily stylized and that he might be using language in a marked way. But a quick survey of the uses of ζητέω in Matthew shows that this is a plain-old vanilla word meaning “look for.” So, I wanted to poke some holes in your thesis but you’re right. 😉

    The other problem with that little ditty is that it is actually a fragment of a longer sentence. When read with the verse preceding we suddenly understand the DE and also what “these things” are.

  3. Stan McCullars says:

    Great post! And the pictures remind me just how boring the Florida landscape is.

    I looked up Matthew 6:33 in the REB and it’s close to your translation:

    Set your mind on God’s kingdom and his justice before everything else, and all the rest will come to you as well.

    In his commentary on Matthew, R.T. France translates it as:

    Rather, make it your priority to find God’s kingship and his righteousness; then all these other things will be given you as well.

    Commenting on the verb ζητέω he uses the phrases “eager desire comparable to hunger and thirst (5:6),” “the disciple’s deepest wish and resolve,” and “constant preoccupation.”

    Thanks for the encouraging post.

  4. J. K. Gayle says:

    Yes, ζητέω is common, but a huge concern of the Greeks. And you can go to many English translations of Aristotle, Euripides, Isocrates, Thucydides, Demosthenes, and so forth, to find “seek.” Even a fragment of Sappho gets turned into “I yearn and I seek.” In addition, Plato’s ζητεῖν, πρῶτον has numerous English translators, from the 1800s to 1998, using “seek” “first.” It’s not just bible translators that use what you call biblish :

    “So when anyone anywhere has passed twenty-five years of age, has observed and been observed by others, and trusts that he has found someone who pleases him and is appropriate for sharing and procreating children, let him marry. And everyone is to do so by the age of thirty-five. First [πρῶτον], however, let him hearken to an account of how he should seek [ζητεῖν] what is fitting and harmonious.”
    –Thomas L. Pangle, translating Laws (i.e., 771-772), as late as 1998.

    David & Rich,
    I think you’re right, David, to have us remember that it is Matthew’s words (i.e., ζητεῖτε, πρῶτον)–which implies these are not Jesus’s words exactly. Matthew’s written words curiously echo Plato’s — in Laws but also in Philebus, Euthydemus,Republic,Cleitophon — with his mentions of “kingdom” and “righteousness/ justice” in the context of the “priority / first” “investigation” or “searching” or “seeking so as to find”. Rich, I dare say that this sentence, by Matthew, is “something added in translation.” Jesus, likely speaking Hebrew Aramaic, wouldn’t have had his direct listeners even think of Greek writings on life prioritization relative to politics. But Matthew’s readers sure do get Greek baggage. So what’s a 21st century American, British, or international English translator to do? Ignore what Matthew adds (i.e., the Greek cultural, literate backdrop under the Roman kingdom)? I know I’m veering off topic here a bit, but my two points are: 1 your “biblish” seek may just be old English; 2 Matthew’s translation may be old Greek, but that old Greek may just have had a very contemporary effect on first century readers in the Mediterranean, who knew the Greek plays and epics and politics, (who heard or read LXX, i.e., ζητεῖτε ἱερατεύειν in Numbers 16:10 — the description of all that the rebellious Korah sought). Greek readers (even the Roman army) resisted reading Latin under Rome. Matthew’s Greek translation of Jesus adds (LXX) biblish that reminds readers, especially Jewish readers, of Greek domination and dominion since the days of Alexander (and that first old translation in the Polis Alexandria). How can our rephrased English get at some of that? Or ought it?

  5. Rich Rhodes says:

    Argh. It’s true. The quote is “These are not the droids you’re looking for.” It’s interesting that there are so many who think the word is seek, myself included. (See the clip here.

    You raise the question of what constitutes an allusion. Mere mention doesn’t do it for common words. (There are good neurological reasons for this.) I can’t say look for in any old context and have it allude to Star Wars. Even droid doesn’t do it for me, having become a word like aspirin. It has to be uncommon words or words in salient but not quite fixed phrases.
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to work on the hypothesis that if a lexical item is found in two texts, then it can be understood as allusive. I certainly can’t agree with that. There has to be something else to make the connection. It can be that the word itself that is marked in the linguistic sense (true of seek, not true of ζητέω). It can be that the phrase it is used in is salient — and not overused to the point of becoming a cliche. It is also necessary that the members of the phrase are in the same syntactico-semantic relationship, or very nearly so. It can’t be the metalinguistic πρῶτον that generates a list of points and the ζητέω somewhere else in the sentence, as in your example from Pangle. (BTW, there is a long tradition of translating classics into archaic sounding English, so that’s not a good place to look for how to translate Scripture.)

  6. J. K. Gayle says:

    Pangle’s translation is mangled. Plato has it: τὸ δὲ πρέπον καὶ τὸ ἁρμόττον, ὡς χρὴ ζητεῖν πρῶτον ἐπακουσάτω· The last clause, of course, is something like (with word order retained), “which is what he must seek first to hear.”

    Allusion may be contrived often, but personal context makes it easy. If Matthew doesn’t know Plato’s words, his readers do, especially when he has Jesus speaking Greek about kingdoms and priorities in investigating kingdoms in Roman Judea/ Judah. I think oppressed peoples tend to catch on to and to use ironic allusion more than most. Think Martin Luther (King Jr.). Think Sojourner Truth. Or Mary Daly’s puns in “pun-ishment” in her book Gyn/Ecology (an allusion itself), where she and us her readers play with allusions: ‘the-rapist’, ‘bore-ocracy’, and [Marabel Morgan’s] the ‘Totaled woman’. Sometimes children hear allusions better than sophisticated bible-translating linguists, as I know first hand, by listening to bi- and tri-lingual MKs (missionary kids) play within and between languages in ways that cause naturally-monolingual native speakers (both the missionary parents and the informants) to shake their heads. One of my own children has gotten in trouble calling Cheese Nips “cheese nipples.” The middle name of the President of the USA has (unintended) allusion that’s helped perpetuate (1) his alleged association with a certain infamous terrorist and (2) his falsely rumored membership in the religion of Islam and (3) the incorrect belief by some that he must be more pro-Arab than pro-Israel. Is James not playing with alliteration by writing, “πᾶσαν [χαρὰν ἡγήσασθε ἀδελφοί μου ὅταν] πειρασμοῖς περιπέσητε ποικίλοις”? Doesn’t that allude to some terrible or terrifying tumbling into tempestuous tempting trials — the very thing he’s writing about as a common experience? And, Rich, haven’t you and others played with your name before? That’s “Rich thinking!”

    So back to Matthew and ζητεῖτε πρῶτον. He may not have intended at all the allusions to Plato’s language. (C. S. Lewis says Plato didn’t intend to allude to the passion of Christ; nor did Virgil intend to allude to the virgin birth of the same. Nonetheless, Christians reading both have speculated that somehow God inspired even these pagans to prophesy about Jesus. Why that speculation? Well, even the non-Judeo/ Christian language is so similar, so memorable, so re-minding of its referent.

    Some bible translators to have ears to hear the allusions. I’m thinking of the Jesus Seminar translators (their poor theology, textual criticism, and linguistics aside in The Five Gospels). They render as “Anyone here with two ears had better listen!” Mark’s ota akouein akoueto, and they do this not only because “had better listen” replaces the awkward archaic “let him hear” (which may, in current English, sound like a command to eavesdrop). But the translators also translate very well because they seek “to reproduce the assonance of the Greek text,” noting the “term ‘here’ is a homophone of ‘hear’” and that “the two words are pronounced alike, [so that] one reminds the English ear of the other.” They also say that theiir translation “has the succession sounds –ere, ear, which suggests the assonance of the Greek text. . . the succession of akou, akoue, and of ota, -eto, with a shift in vowels” (page XIV). And yet, a sophisticated linguist may want to discount readers’ allusions, especially in literate phonology, as clear violations of or as merely a supposed “syntactico-semantic relationship.” But I’ll bet you a Roget’s Thesaurus that none of your blog readers had to seek the exact meaning of your allusionary word “biblish” in the Webster’s dictionary.

  7. Rich Rhodes says:

    Allusions, puns, and neologisms do share interpretive mechanisms (based ultimately on the activations of neurons, etc., etc.). But those same mechanisms actually block certain interpretations, which is why we all fell over laughing when early attempts at machine translation (in the 1960’s) on being fed the sentence:

    The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

    rendered a Russian sentence meaning:

    The liquor is strong but the meat is rotten.

    In human language processing, once you activate spirit as referring to a part of a person, it means you can’t read it as referring alcohol — or can’t do so easily.

    The same is true in syntactic contexts, once you’ve started parsing one way, that inhibits parsing a different way. That’s why garden path sentences work the way they do.

    The man whistling tunes the piano.

    It even works across sentences.

    Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.

    My problem with the intertextualities you keep pointing out is that they sometimes look to me like they are cases where inhibitions would arise.

    There are even language specific inhibitions. For example, Germans do not connect common noun meanings with names. No one ever connects Darm ‘bowels’ with Darmstadt, or Klebermass as a name (fairly common in Austria) with Klebermass “a measured amount of glue”. When you ask people with names that would get them teased in the US, it has never occurred to them that their names have meaning.

    This is why I’m forever skeptical of the connections you are so quick to point out. It’s just not that simple. We’re not native speakers. We don’t have the activation/inhibition reactions. Much of the time we can’t tell, and given the general lack of awareness of allusions in the general population, I prefer to err in the conservative direction.

  8. David Ker says:

    Great comment, Rich. Very funny wordplay there. Your insights on allusion and wordplay are very helpful to me.

    JK, I share your interest in trying to discover when the original authors were using words in marked ways. That’s why I rely heavily on concordancing occurrences and comparing their use. In this case, as I mentioned in the comment above I don’t see any marked usage in this case.

    I’ll leave it for others to argue whether classical Greek has any bearing on Koine usage. It seems analogous to the distance between King-Jamesian and modern English.

  9. J. K. Gayle says:

    I’m forever skeptical of the connections you are so quick to point out. It’s just not that simple. We’re not native speakers.

    Yeah, it’s the party bore who has to explain the inside joke to everyone else. That’s no fun at all. To have to explain all your jokes and mine (above) to everyone who doesn’t get them is quite a chore. (I’m glad you’ve laughed at Rich’s funniness with us, David.) But it’s also not what I’m talking about. What I’m saying is The native speaking author may not always know what she or he is doing. I don’t mean that in the way there may be freudian slips or spoonerisms. I do mean that we native speakers often say one thing but actually believe another (as matched guise techniques vs. direct questionnaires can show; as “rules” of phonology and grammar may be betrayed but much deeper culturally supported ideolects). Please stay with me. Pike’s monolingual demonstration (in which he’s not the native speaker) really demonstrated that a native speaker doesn’t know (emically) all that Pike could get at (etically at first). Pike once asked a group of us whether we thought IPA (or any etics apparatus of the outsider linguist) was an “emics.” It’s a brilliant rhetorical question because it acknowledges that objectivity is mere pretense and there’s unconsciousness outsiderness as well as insiderness. The brilliance of Pike is that we human beings need one another, even when listening as a listening in. Some observers are better than others. Jesus constantly talked about those who couldn’t hear even though they weren’t physically deaf, and those who couldn’t see even though not blind. There are reversals that are highly subjective in language. Metaphors flip. Jesus would turn the intentions of lawful executioners on themselves–actually he’d get them to examine the letter of the law in the fullest ways, which included profound subjectivities. (And Pike used a story of one of his early teachers suggesting that a language needs one meaning and only one meaning per word. Says young Pike to the teacher: “How then sir would we learn the language.” His point is that slipperiness and N-dimensionality and multiple listener-or-speaker perspective–i.e., particle or wave or field–is actually an epistemological bonus for linguists and translators). No this is not simple, and yet it’s humanly accessible enough so that Japanese automobile manufacturers exporting the vehicles to the USA as cultural and English language outsiders do something rather consistently: they name the car models with American English sounding names that include phonologically (i.e., phonemically) impossible Japanese sounds. Notice the /r/ and /l/ and /x, or eks/ and /v/ in Corolla, Torneo, Century, Mirage, CR-X, CR-V, and so forth. Most of us (whether Japanese or English native speakers) hardly even notice. Apparently somebody’s convinced (if unwittingly certainly extremely consistently) that this play with language pays off in sales. And that Matthew’s Jesus often sounded “greekish” doesn’t depend on our being native speakers.

  10. David Ker says:

    “The native speaking author may not always know what she or he is doing”

    I agree with this and it isn’t just a matter of the doctrine of inspiration/dictation. To give a contemporary example, when I am writing cyber-psalms I often write things without fully understanding things. And also, as the writer I can not always control how people will perceive my writings.

    To bring this back to the subject at hand, “Seek” has unexpected associations for the modern hearer that were almost certainly absent for this very common word in Greek. Even so, we ought to avoid excising our text of polysemy and ambiguity.

  11. J. K. Gayle says:

    Some even ridiculously render your cyber psalms em Brasileira.

    Isn’t it ironic that current-day seekers in “seeker sensitive” evangelical churches in the USA are the very ones who would, likely, most appreciate a Bible translation without the archaic-English “seek” (i.e., the rendering of Matthew’s ζητεῖτε πρῶτον as “Make… the most important thing in your life… “)?

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