by Lois Tverberg
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:5)
In Hebrew, the heart (lev or levav) is the center of human thought and spiritual life. We tend to think that the heart refers mainly to our emotions, but in Hebrew it also refers to one’s mind and thoughts as well.
Many cultures assumed that the heart was the seat of intelligence, and without an advanced understanding of physiology, it makes sense. The heart is the only moving organ in the body, and strong emotions cause the heartbeat to race. When the heart stops beating, a person is dead. Because the Hebrews were a concrete people who used physical things to express abstract concepts, the heart was the metaphor of the mind and all mental and emotional activitiy.
Other interesting physical terms are also used – when we read “inmost being” the Hebrew often is literally “kidneys” (Prov. 23:16), and the life was understood to be in the blood (Genesis 9:4).
Understanding that the word “heart” often meant mind and thoughts often helps clarify the meaning of passages. For instance:
“These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.” (Deut. 6:6)
These commandments are to be in your minds, a part of all your thoughts.
“The heart of the wise instructs his mouth and adds persuasiveness to his lips.” (Prov. 16:23)
The wise person’s mind considers his words so that he can speak persuasively.
One more lesson we can learn from the meaning of heart is from the greatest commandment, to “love the Lord with all your heart.” It means we are to use all of our thoughts as well as our emotions to love the Lord. In the Gospels the phrase “and all your mind” is there to emphasize that fact, but from Moses’ time it would have been understood that way. As Paul says, we must “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
See Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. This is a collection of devotional essays that mediate on the meaning of biblical words and phrases in their original setting.
For a friendly, bite-sized Bible study of five flavorful Hebrew words, see 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know, by Lois Tverberg, OurRabbiJesus.com, 2014 (ebook).