Heart, breath, throat and intestines: Ancient Hebrew anthropology (Proverbs 6)

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Illustration: The Hebrew word for “heart”; Leb or Lev

Biblical Hebrew, like English, uses parts of the body metaphorically to express personality, emotion or thought process. Hebrew, however, does not always allude to the same organs as English to express these functions. A verbatim translation of these terms would often be unintelligible in English, and thus even the most “literal” of translations must resort to paraphrase in order to communicate the intended point. The English reader might have difficulty spotting where the Hebrew word for a body part occurs in the examples below:

  • The word leb (usually translated “heart”) can be used literally of the physical heart (e.g. Exodus 28:29) or metaphorically for several aspects of the personality. Often leb indicates the seat of particular emotions, such as fear, lament, regret, joy, comfort, love, anger etc. (e.g. Psalm 27:3, Proverbs 19:3). It can also refer to thought functions, as the equivalent of “mind” in English (4:10).
  • Hebrew words for “breath” (ruah, neshamah) can refer to a person’s inner being (e.g. Job 32:8, Proverbs 20:27). Thus, they are often translated into English as “spirit” or “soul”. But an individual’s ruah may also experience emotional reactions (Genesis 26:35) and consequently exhibit a particular behaviour, such as stubbornness (Deuteronomy 2:30).
  • There are several Hebrew words for neck or throat (e.g. garon or nephesh). The throat is the means by which a person breathes, eats and thus, so to speak, takes in life. Therefore, the word nephesh, although it concretely means “throat”, is generally translated “life”, “soul” or even “person”. These words are often used to express the inner character of an individual (Psalm 5:9), display arrogance (Isaiah 3:16), express determination or stubbornness (Psalm 75:5) and praise God (Psalm 149:6). The nephesh can be bitter or hot-tempered (Judges 18:25; the NIV’s “hot-tempered men” is actually “men of bitter nephesh“). Literally, necks displayed precious metals and jewels (Song of Solomon 10:27). Figuratively, then, the neck or throat could be said to display what a person deemed valuable (Proverbs 6:21), as well as  the consequences of an individual’s sins (Lamentations 1:14).
  • The words for stomach or womb (e.g. beten) can indicate the seat of emotions, such as titillation (Proverbs 18:8) and sexual desire (Song of Solomon 5:4). Other organs that Biblical Hebrew uses in this way are the liver, intestines and kidneys.

Proverbs 6 illustrates the usage described above. 6:16 states literally that there are seven things that are detestable to the Lord’s nephesh (His very being). 6:30 notes that men do not despise a thief who steals to fill his nephesh  (throat or hunger), while 6:32 claims that the adulterer destroys his own nephesh (life or soul). 614 points out that the individual who plots evil har perversity in his leb (heart or mind), while 6:32 asserts that the adulterer lacks leb (good sense).

The teaching of Hebrew sages are couched in terms that are sometimes alien to the modern English reader, but when understood on their own terms they create a compelling picture of a human being as a bundle of physical, emotional and spiritual capabilities and needs. A man, woman, boy or girl is an integral combination of body and soul; the emotional or intellectual aspects of life simply cannot be separated from the nature of the whole person.


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