The Meaning of the Heart in the Bible - Inside and Out
Recently I was studying Biblical texts with a colleague and I noticed how hard it is to rethink the meaning of a familiar word. It can turn our world upside-down to learn that a word you thought you always understood actually can mean something very different. But at the same time it is incredibly exciting. Take for example, the word heart.
My friend, Rev. John Brown, and I recently focused on the meanings of the word heart [Lev לב] in the Biblical narrative of Noah. We noticed that the human being has a heart with “thoughts” (Gen. 6:5 & 8:21) and that God “Grieved him at his heart.” and ”Said in his heart” (Gen.6:6; Gen.8:21).
In modern Hebrew and in English when we use the word heart, we usually refer to the organ that creates the heartbeat and can suffer heart attack. We also think about this organ metaphorically, as the body part that contains the emotions. For example, if someone screams, he may give you a heart attack and you may skip a heartbeat. In this sense, the heart is usually contrasted with the head or brain where the mind is located and where intellectual activity like reasoning take place. But is this similar to the meaning of the word 'heart' in the Bible? Should we bring with us our current understanding of this word when reading texts that used it thousands of years ago?
I must assure you, “from the bottom of my heart” – no.
Other body parts like the kidneys, liver, digestive system and fat appear in the Bible as part of sacrifice rituals. But the heart is not mentioned as an organ at all. Consider this example:
“And Aaron shall bear the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment upon his heart.” (Exodus 28:29) Most Biblical dictionaries agree that the word heart as a body part indicates the center of the human body, the chest or the torso: “and in the hearts of all that are wise hearted I have put wisdom.” (Exodus 31:8, 1 Samuel 10:9). The heart is the place in the body that holds the emotions, intellect, character, memory, life force, creativity and more. It is the place for all we consider as self. Clearly, the Bible is not an anatomy textbook for today.
If we take a closer look at the use of the word heart in the Bible, we find two categories. The human body described in terms of 1) the visible surface [ראה see] of the body and 2) the heart of the body [לב heart]. For example: ״And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly." (1 Samuel 28:4) These two categories are: the inside, which is internal and private; and the outside, is which visible and public.
When God, Abraham, Esau, Jacob, Hanna and others are portrayed as “Talking to (or 'in') their heart” it is clear that they are engaging in the most intimate and honest internal dialogue of the self. God even teaches Samuel about the difference between the visible surface of a person versus the invisible aspect, the heart: "Do not look at his appearance or his stature, ... Man does not see what God sees, for man sees what is visible, but God sees the heart." (1 Samuel 16:7 ; see also Mark 2:8). The heart is the absolute inner truth of the self.
The heart in the Bible contains all the good and the bad in human nature. But it can change. The heart can be changed by God (Exodus 4 to 14). It can also be change by human being (Ecclesiastes 11:10) or when a person receives a special spirit (Exodus 28:3, 1Kings 3:12). The unavoidable and unwanted part of the heart is sometimes called “the foreskin of the heart” (Deuteronomy10:16, Jeremiah 4:4). The ways to “fix” the heart is to prepare the heart by seeking and worshipping God and following God’s laws (Ezra 7:10, 2 Chronicles 19:3, Psalms 22:27, 1Kings 8:31, 2 Kings 23:25). According to some Biblical texts, when the heart is circumcised it is repaired and made one or whole. [שלם Shalem] (1 Kings 8:61, Isaiah 28:3). I think that this is the state of the heart that the Psalmist describes in Psalm 32:11: “Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you righteous ones; And shout for joy, all you who are upright in heart.”
This new broader understanding about the different meanings of the word heart in the Bible allows for new interpretations. For example, we might conclude that Pharaoh's hardened (or heavy) heart is not necessarily cruel, lacking empathy, or stubborn. A Biblical person with a hard heart can be empathic, but their heart is trapped in misjudgment, a bad plan or by faulty logic (or believing in the wrong god). In this case, we can understand that persons behaviour is the result of the status of their heart.
This image of a “hard heart” emphasises the main distinction of the inside and the outside. The hard-hearted is the person that does not let the good, just and right to penetrate into the self (see Matthew 13:15 and 19:18). It can be a person that is trapped with false information or pseudoscientific evidence.
This understanding may also suggest that in Matthew 15:17-18 Jesus understands the word heart in the same way, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.” The digestive system is actually part of the visible surface and cannot harm the self. Words are part of the inner self, come from the heart, and can be devastating for the person him or herself and for others.
The opposite of a “Hard heart” is possible as well. A whole, united, and soft heart is a good membrane to prevent the bad and to let the good, penetrate the personality, as we see in Ezekiel 11:19: “And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh.” The human heart supposed to be made of flesh and be the kind of healthy heart that can allow for goodness.
We should desire neither a “heart of gold” nor a “heavy heart.” The most important thing, however, is to have your heart in the right place.