Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Heart of the Word

You will never understand the Bible properly until you replace the word “heart” with the word “brain” when you read it.

Isaiah 29:13

Present-day, English-speaking believers have more obstacles to understanding the Bible than they might think. Along with living in a language and culture alien to those for, to and about whom the Bible was first written, modern Christians are also disadvantaged by their radically different perception of the natural world. In our highly technical age, where the sciences of medicine and anatomy are well developed and the basic operations of the internal organs of the body are commonly known, without access to extra-biblical information, it is impossible to understand the meanings of words such as “bowels”, “liver” and “kidneys” in the pre-scientific way they were originally used. And, too often, this extra-biblical information is not being supplied in sermons and Bible studies, resulting in poorer, less enlightened hearers of the Word.
To get an idea of how much meaning can be lost to us modern readers, take a look at this short excerpt of an article by a Dr. Garabed Eknoyan, that I found in the online version of the JASN (Journal of the American Society of Nephrology), entitled The Kidneys in the Bible: What Happened?:
In the books of the [Hebrew] Bible that follow the Pentateuch, mostly in Jeremiah and Psalms, the human kidneys are cited figuratively as the site of temperament, emotions, prudence, vigor, and wisdom. In five instances, they are mentioned as the organs examined by God to judge an individual.
Ancient Israelites knew nothing about the unobservable operations of the organs in the human body. The brain, with no “moving parts”, was a particular mystery to them. In the absence of a neuroscientific model of the mind, they associated each of the various psychological activities and emotions, such as lust, with one of the abdominal organs; generally the one closest to the area of the body where the sympathetic response to the activity was felt. These organs were then thought to be the place where these mental functions, or states of mind, originated. Eventually, the names of the organs themselves were used figuratively to describe the state of mind.

As Dr. Eknoyan notes, the King James Bible translators took steps to differentiate between the literal and figurative occurrences of the word “kidneys” (Hebrew כִּלְיָה [kilyah]; Greek νεφροί [nephroi]), through the judicious use of the word “reins”1:
In the first vernacular versions of the Bible in English, the translators elected to use the term “reins” instead of kidneys in differentiating the metaphoric uses of human kidneys from that of their mention as anatomic organs of sacrificial animals burned at the altar. This initial effort at linguistic purity or gentility has progressed further in recent versions of the Bible, in which the reins are now replaced by the soul or the mind.
Along with these efforts at “linguistic purity or gentility”, the modern Bible editors were responding to society’s wholesale abandonment of the “metaphorical uses” of the bodily viscera. Due to the advances in physiology, psychiatry and neuroscience, and the rush to secularization in the public education systems of the industrial world, common knowledge of the figurative meanings attached to the organs mentioned in the Bible had largely faded; with one very notable exception. Despite all the neurosurgical and psychological development in the 20th Century, our self-styled sophisticated and rational societies have retained a metaphorical use of the word “heart”.
Unfortunately for the large swath of uninformed Christians in these societies, the reasons this non-anatomical use of the word “heart” was retained had more to do with romantic verse than biblical verses. The secular meaning of the figurative term “heart” quickly subsumed the biblical meaning. The modern translators, inexplicably content with this unbiblical metaphoric meaning of “heart”, chose not to follow either the KJV translators’ example with regards to the word “kidneys”, or their own with regards to the word “reins”, but simply let the direct translation stand, leaving the modern Christian to read the wrong metaphorical meaning into every Biblical occurrence of the word “heart”.

The OT word for “heart” is לֵב, lev (a form of levev). The NT word for “heart” is καρδία, kardia. In both ancient languages and cultures, because of its placement within the body, and its direct, detectible connection with the living body, the heart was considered the centre of all physical life. Because of this biological centrality, it was considered the seat of all spiritual life, too—what we call “mental” life. In other words, everything we classify today as psychological, as occurring in the brain, the ancients thought of as occurring in the heart. The heart, to them, contained the mind; which is why the word “mind” occurs in the Bible, but the word “brain” does not.

Notice that time and time again the heart is mentioned with all the words related to cogitation: “thoughts”, “to know”, “to understand” “to think”, “to perceive”, “to reason”, etc.
Genesis 6:5: ...every imagination of the thoughts of his heart...

Joshua 23:14: ...and ye know in all your hearts and in all your souls...

1 Kings 3:9: Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people...

Mark 7:21: For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders...

Mark 8:17: And when Jesus knew [it], he saith unto them, Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? perceive ye not yet, neither understand? have ye your heart yet hardened?

Luke 5:22: But when Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answering said unto them, What reason ye in your hearts?

Acts 8:22: ...the thought of thine heart...
In the OT, the word lev itself was translated “mind” twelve times, “understanding” ten times, and “wisdom” six times. In the NT, we have the parable of the sower, where the “heart” is what “heareth the word of the kingdom” (Matthew 13:19).

There can be no doubt that the primary metaphorical meaning of heart in the Bible is the mental faculty of understanding. It is not the shiny red valentine heart that immediately springs to our minds. Neither is it the seat of mercy, compassion or the tender affections, because, along with the kidneys, the Bible uses another organ (or collection of organs, to be precise) to reference those: the bowels—in Hebrew racham (רַחַם); splangchnon (σπλάγχνον) in the Greek—as in Genesis 43:30, 1 Kings 8:50, Nehemiah 1:11, Luke 1:78, Colossians 3:12, et al.

When Jesus talks of having a hardened heart, as in Mark 8:17 above, He isn’t talking about lacking feelings, He’s talking about lacking understanding, of being ignorant to the truth (cf Mark 6:52 & John 12:40). When He accuses the unbelieving Jews of honoring God with their lips, but having their hearts far from Him (see Matthew 15:8; cf Isaiah 29:13), He wasn’t complaining that they didn’t love Him, He was telling them that they are in complete ignorance as to the nature of God and His Messiah.

Of course, the very idea that emotions occur in a different place than the thoughts is an absurd, self-serving fiction, regardless of whether you believe the latter occur in the heart and the former in the bowels, like the ancients, or whether, like modern Christians, you talk as though you think with your brain but feel with your heart. There’s no desperately wicked heart beating at the command of a renewed mind. All of the emotions, feelings, desire, “love”2 and thoughts—the entirety of one’s inner being—occur in only one place: the mind, the spirit, the essential self. And, if you think about it, what is the mind, the essential self, but the understanding.

The Lord knew that, of course, which is why His Word is sown, and His Law written, in the hearts of men. It is why, for instance, He tells His disciples that the sin of adultery isn’t something you can avoid by simply being faithful to your spouse, because the will to do the action isn’t carnal, but spiritual (Matthew 5:28). It doesn’t originate from the body, but from the heart, the mind, the essential self. And the only thing that can change that, the only way to get a new heart (see Ezekiel 11:19, 18:31, 36:26), a new mind, is to have the mind of Jesus the Christ dwell in you (1 Cor 2:16, Col 1:27).

There’s no getting around it. If we modern Christians want to understand the Bible, we have to see the word “brain” every time we read the word “heart”.

1. This is not the same “reins” you use to steer a horse. This “reins” comes to English from French via the Latin noun rēn, meaning “kidney”; the other “reins” come from the Latin verb retinēre, meaning “to hold back”.

2. I like to put the English word “love” in quotation marks because, like “heart”, the common meanings and associations conjured up by it are not the same as those of the NT Greek words (plural) that it translates.

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