In our culture and language, the word heart is used two ways, there is the physical muscular organ, and there is the figurative heart, the seat of love and emotion. While there are some similarities with this figurative use of the heart, the ancient Hebrew culture and the Old Testament scriptures make use of other internal organs to figuratively represent various feelings and emotions. The Hebrew language had separate words for the various ways that we use only the word heart. In this article, we will examine these words and how they are used in the Old Testament text, in hopes that this brings more light, color, and depth to your reading and study of God’s word.
The Hebrew word for heart is leb or lebab. The ancient Hebrew pictographs illustrated leb as a shepherd’s staff (meaning authority or guide) and a tent (meaning within or inside). Together, the heart is pictured as the authority or guide that is within us. As we can see from the pictograph, the concept of the heart was flooded with figurative meaning from the beginning. Jesus speaks to this meaning of the heart when he said, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things.” (Matthew 12:35). We speak and act according to what is in our heart; this is the original idea of the word leb as “the authority/guide within us”. Jesus pointed out that this authority within is not necessarily right, and the heart can guide us to do evil things. Let’s consider a few examples of this use of the word heart in Old Testament scripture:
Genesis 6:5 “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
Exodus 7:14 “So the LORD said to Moses: ‘Pharaoh’s heart is hard; he refuses to let the people go.’”
Deuteronomy 6:5 “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
Now, in all this, we are still not addressing the heart as the muscular organ, and like the English language, the Hebrew word leb is also used for the literal organ, it all depends on context. But where the English language stops, the Hebrew just keeps going.
As the heart to the Hebrews was the vital inner core of man and therefore the seat of this thoughts/mind, so another organ was looked to for the more vulnerable thoughts and emotions within the mind of man. The kidneys, the place of vulnerability, was a suitable organ for the Hebrews to figuratively make the seat of emotion. This is a lost concept in western culture, even though we carried over the heart into figurative depth, we tend to leave most of our other organs out of symbolism. The Hebrews put a lot of stock in the kidneys, for the word comes from the root ideas of completeness and vessel; thus, the idea of the kidneys is wrapped in the concept of the complete/whole of man. Often used as the innermost depths of man, it is an organ that is heavily protected by the enveloping visceral fat. The kidneys and the surrounding fat were always given to God in the old covenant sacrifices; thus, representing the whole of man that ought to be given to God. The symbolism of the kidneys is lost in the English translations of the Bible, for whenever the scriptures use the word kidneys in a figurative sense, the English translations will use a variety of words like reins or heart. Below are a few examples; the underlined word(s) is kilyah (kidneys).
Psalm 16:7 “I will bless the LORD who has given me counsel; my heart also instructs me in the night seasons.”
Proverbs 23:16 “Yes, my inmost being will rejoice when your lips speak right things.”
Interestingly, in the New Testament Greek text, the kidneys make an appearance in the book of Revelation, a book shrouded in the Hebraic manner of speaking:
Revelation 2:23 “…and all the churches shall know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts [literally: kidneys]. And I will give to each one of you according to your works.”
So, we see that the Hebrews used the kidneys in a similar way that we use the heart figuratively. But there is yet another similarity between our modern language and the ancient Hebrews; if you have ever said that you had a “gut feeling”, then you have helped preserve a concept and manner of speaking from ancient times.
The Hebrews counted the gut as the place of various emotions, distresses, and loves. Notice, for example, how the Shulamite yearns for her beloved shepherd: “My beloved put his hand by the latch of the door, and my heart [literally: gut] yearned for him.” (Song of Solomon 5:4). Unfortunately, the NKJV is quite colorless with its use of heart in this text. The KJV uses the word bowels, which is more accurate. The Hebrew word is meah, it comes from the root meaning of soft, and is defined as the abdomen, belly, gut, and womb. The Hebrew pictographs paint a very colorful and figurative picture of this word. Meah is spelled with the picture of the seas and the eye. The seas represent the unknown, while the eye represents what is known. Altogether the pictograph means “unknown knowing”. To the Hebrews, the gut was often used for the unconscious mind of man. This is how we use the gut in the figurative “gut feeling”, as in something that is unknown to our eye, yet our gut feeling seems to know whether it is good or bad. As Christians, we ought not to rely on gut feelings unless they are feelings aligned with the word of God. This is the example that David left us when he said, “I delight to do Your will, O my God, And Your law is within my heart [gut].” (Psalm 40:8). Here is David’s “gut feeling” that moves under the influence of God’s law alone, that’s an important application. Interestingly, the doomed people of Judah and Jerusalem flip the word meah onto God as they make their final appeal for mercy, saying “Look down from heaven, And see from Your habitation, holy and glorious. Where are Your zeal and Your strength, The yearning of Your heart [gut] and Your mercies toward me? Are they restrained?” (Isaiah 63:15). The KJV reads “the sounding of thy bowels”, and the idea is that the gut is the figurative seat of feelings of compassion, and they are calling upon the gut of the Lord to show them love and mercy once more.
In summary, the Hebrews used the heart, kidneys, and gut to figuratively communicate various thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the mind. While we have followed suit with the figurative use of the heart, and even the “gut feeling”, we have lost the role that kidneys once played in communicating one’s inner self. Nonetheless, recognizing these distinctions in the scriptures can bring warmth and depth to our studies and understanding of God’s word.
Article by Tanner Campbell.