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I've usually encountered the phrase "chaff before the wind" in the context of the Bible and the Book of Mormon. I would like to know where it originates from historically and what imagery should come to mind especially in the following quote:

15 And now behold, I tell you by the spirit of prophecy, that if ye transgress the commandments of God, behold, these things which are sacred shall be taken away from you by the power of God, and ye shall be delivered up unto Satan, that he may sift you as chaff before the wind.

Alma 37:15

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  • Ok, again: he may sift you as chaff before the wind means: he will sift you like the chaff in the wind. You will be blown about like chaff in the wind. That use of before is archaic.
    – Lambie
    Oct 11, 2019 at 18:04

2 Answers 2

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Say you are a farmer, you've harvested your wheat or whatever, and you want to separate out the lightweight particles of bits of leaf, stem, etc. and leave just the grain. The lightweight particles are the chaff.

You pick a breezy day. Scoop up some of the harvest into a shallow pan and toss it gently in the air. The wind will blow off the chaff and the kernels of grain will fall back into the pan, because they're heavier than the chaff. Now you can pour the pure grain into the grain sack.

You're just using the relative density of the two materials, and the wind, to do the sorting.

Sorry, I can't help you with the religious part.

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  • Haha no worries, the English side is good enough for this site :)
    – intcreator
    Jul 30, 2015 at 4:54
  • Would you do this with a sieve to sift the grain from sand (or whatever) which serves as the threshing ground, because it's quicker to scoop up, also sand-whashing at the same time??? Or did they have plastered concrete yards and had to pick up each kernel like a chicken head?
    – vectory
    Oct 11, 2019 at 19:55
  • @vectory - can't help you there, sorry. Oct 11, 2019 at 20:09
  • To add to this, the process is called winnowing.
    – bdsl
    May 16, 2020 at 15:20
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"Sift" here is a wonderful word to use because of the echoes of its meanings other than to separate. The numbering, paraphrased definitions, and examples are all directly from the OED; the commentary is mine.

2a. To make a trial of a person. "The more...the Sincere man...is Sifted, the more he is intrusted."

2b. To subject to questioning. "He multiplied his Questions, and sifted me thoroughly."

  1. To scrutinize to get to the truth. "It is very hard to sift a Slander."

  2. To separate from impurities. "Sift it from stones and rubbish" (from a guide on horticulture)

The word brings to mind the questioning, the final Judgment, the determination of the truth of lives, and separation of the worthy form the impure. And Satan ends up with the latter.

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  • For all we know, that may from the influence of scripture. Is your interpretation congruent with the original? Wait: The word looks akin to sieve, semantically and phonetically, and that akin to seven, at least by the looks. If seven relates to an Afro-Asiatic language (viz e.g. [Blazek]) and if that in turn related to Sabbath (for which I need to find a good reference, but it's speculation at this time depth), then a sense of purification, can be seen indeed, but also perhaps judgement. Hundreds of roots with s-b-, s-p-, s-v, etc. seem to fit. It's breaking my head.
    – vectory
    Oct 11, 2019 at 19:46
  • Oh, this is from the book of mormons, so the original is English.
    – vectory
    Oct 14, 2019 at 14:47

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