Yesterday we began to examine anatomical Bible words. We talked about what it means to take the Bible “literally.” We said that taking it literally means to look at who wrote the passage, to whom it was written, why it was written, and how the people of the day in which it was written would have understood it. We looked at the Hebrew word for “kidneys” which is kelayot.
Another anatomical Bible words example is the word leb, which occurs 853 times in the Old Testament. It means “heart,” and that is the way it is translated even though it doesn’t refer to the physical organ. We all know that the heart is the organ that pumps blood through our body, but the word leb is seldom used in that way. First Samuel 25:37-38 says that Nabal’s “heart failed him and he became like a stone. About ten days later, the Lord struck Nabal, and he died.” The word “heart” is used in many different ways in the Bible. Psalms 27:14 tells us that God may strengthen one’s heart–meaning to give courage. Proverbs 23:17 tells us that mood or temperament arise in one’s heart. First Samuel 27:1 and Genesis 17:17 tell us that the heart is a place for thinking and inner reflection.
The New Testament was written in Greek, and the Greek term for heart is kardia. That word is used in the New Testament to refer to various intellectual activities. (See Romans 1:21, 1 Corinthians 2:9 and 4:5, 2 Corinthians 3:15 and 9:7.) Jesus uses “heart” in the same way in Matthew 15:18-19 and Mark 11:23. In Luke 5:22 Jesus accuses the Pharisees of “thinking these things in your hearts.”
Also in the New Testament the Greek word splagchnon, translated “bowels” is used to refer to the intestines in Acts 1:18 and to the seat of emotions in many other passages. (See Colossians 3:12; Philemon 7, 12, 20; Philippians 1:8, 2:7). It is translated “bowels” in the King James Version but usually heart, mercies, or emotions in newer translations.
These biblical passages were written to common people in an ancient time, not to cardiologists or other medical doctors living in the twenty-first century. But let me ask you a question. Have you ever referred to someone having a “broken heart?” Have you talked about sadness as “heartache?” Did you ever refer to having a “gut feeling?” I am sure that you know these emotions do not come from those organs of the body. Did you and those who heard you understand what you were saying? How can we criticize the Bible authors for using language that people in ancient times could understand when we use the same expressions today?
Robert Branson in an excellent article in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (Volume 68 Number 4, December 2016, page 229-236) says it this way:
“…God accommodates His message of salvation to the ability of humans to understand. Cultural factors such as language, view of the physical world, and political practices are not overridden or corrected.”
The Bible is the perfect guide for how to live and how to have a restored relationship with God. We have to spend some energy making sure we understand its message, and we have many tools to help us do that. In today’s world, it is easier than ever to read and understand the Bible. There is no need for us to get hung up on anatomical Bible words. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) involves “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15), and that means understanding the intent of the passage.
–John N. Clayton and Roland Earnst © 2018