Barry Newman's Blog

February 24, 2010

“The Heart” in the Old Testament (part I)

Filed under: The Heart — barrynewman @ 11:14 pm



“Paul spoke not only with his head but with his heart,” said a friend of mine in one of his sermons.  Nothing wrong with the statement and the hearers probably understood it as intended. Of course by “head” we understand a reference to “mind” as a phenomenon associated with “brain”, which entity is within the head. To translate the words, literally into ancient Hebrew would however have caused some confusion for the ancient Israelite.  He or she would have had some confidence that they were understanding the word “heart” correctly, though they may have been mistaken.  The main difficulty however would be with their understanding of what was intended by “head” and why it was set in opposition to “heart”.   Translating the ancient Hebrew word for “heart” into English also has its problems.

The difficulties arise partly because for the Israelite the brain seems to have had no importance.  In fact we know of no Hebrew word that we could properly translate “brain”, the mainly grey material inside the skull.  Furthermore, we are confident what the ancient Israelite didn’t know, namely, that the heart is a double pump complex used for the circulation of blood, largely under the control of the brain.   The difficulties also arise because in modern times we sometimes use “heart” in opposition to “brain” or “mind” when what is being contrasted with “mind” or “brain” is in fact a state or activity of a mental nature.  We tend to refer to loving God with the heart but knowing about him with the mind. The truth is that the biological heart is incapable of loving. The brain is at work in both of these matters.  The Hebrew refers to loving God with the heart but doesn’t make the distinction we might make between heart and mind. To further complicate things however, like the Israelite, we often use “heart” when referring to those “heartfelt” matters that have some emotional character.  Such usage is part and parcel of the English language. This may be due to the influence of Christendom, with its love of the Bible, upon our language.  However, it isn’t only English speakers that use “heart” in this way.  Once when speaking to a group of Asian ladies with very limited understanding of the English language, I repeatedly using my hands to point to my head, my chest and my limbs to refer to knowing, loving and doing, respectively.  The feedback was that they were delighted to be able to understand what I was saying!


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