Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Hearts and souls... and kidneys!

Yesterday's talk by Rob Bell committed me to looking at the Hebrew underlying our "heart-talk". As I have been preparing my Psalms meditation (hopefully version 1.0 ready by Christmas, in English, French and Arabic), it has been increasingly apparent to me that there is a Biblical tradition that is dying in modern translations. They are tending to lose some of the nuances preserved in Hebrew that express the human condition and composition that is bourn out of a deep process of inner wrestling on the part of the psalmists. As I ran listening to Rob's heart talk (excellent heart talk), I was reminded of this need to look under the bonnet. So here we go, and it's all about kidneys!

kilyah (כִּלְיָה) H3629. This word literally means kidneys, but is used symbolically to mean something approximating the inner man, or some aspect of the inner human being in Job (once), in Psalms (five times), once in Proverbs and four times in Jeremiah. Total: 11. As we will see, there is another word used for heart, that is used much more frequently, so it is really worth trying to see what flavour these symbolic "kidneys" bring to the mix of the Hebrew perspective of who we are. As we go through the 11, we will see that it is probably not a helpful translation to use "heart", which is unfortunately how we will kick off:

Job 19:27 is translated by the NIV with "heart":

I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns [kidneys yearn] within me!

The next concordance entry (Psalm 7:9, but also 26:2, 73:21, Jeremiah 11:20, 17:10, 20:12) of interest to us shows immediately how this kidney thing creates issues when trying to use "heart" to replace it, because kilyah is placed right alongside leb, the main Hebrew word for heart (99 [H3820] + 33 [H3824] = 132 occurrences in Psalms alone)!, the righteous God who probes minds and hearts.

The psalm actually says "... who probes hearts (leb) and kidneys (kilyah)". The issue here is that the same translators who wanted to translate kilyah with "heart" can't do that here, otherwise you end up with a God who probes hearts and hearts. Since the Job author has the kidneys yearning, it seems at first glance that either mind is not the most suitable translation here, that the "yearning" of Job is misleading, or that despite its limited symbolic use, kilyah somehow trumps leb here in Psalm 7:9. In this last scenario, the translators have allowed kilyah to be translated heart, and leb steps aside to become "mind". But that's highly unlikely. So why might translators invert the order if both the Hebrew and the subsequent LXX both have it in the order of hearts then kidneys? The answer, I suspect, is actually in Revelation 2:23 - translators wish to create extra alignment with the word order assigned to the function of the Son of God as expressed in the final book of the Bible. Regardless, Psalm 7:9 shows that both the kidneys and the heart are deep inner spaces into which the God Yahweh has and wants access.

Psalm 16:7 states: "I will praise Yahweh, who counsels me; even at night my heart (kilyah) instructs me." No obvious emotion here, although note that this "instructing" that the kidneys are doing carries more critical, chastising overtones than Yahweh's counselling. If this self-instruction process integrates "feeling guilty" about something, then it could also overlap with what we call "conscience".

Let us now look at Psalm 73:21's use of this kidney word, kilyah:

When my heart [lebab] was grieved and my spirit [kilyah] embittered

Here the NIV may be interweaving the Greek translation of the Hebrew with the Hebrew itself, because this embittering, as far as I can tell is absent from the Hebrew, which has the kidneys being pierced. So what does the LXX say? Along with some of the other research I am doing in the Greek translation of the Psalms, this verse contributes to the sense of professional respect I feel for these translators (even though exegetically speaking, they should be maintained as rigorously as possible in a downstream position with regards to source meaning). In the LXX, it faithfully keeps the word "heart" with the familiar-looking kardia. It then borrows the symbolism from the second Hebrew segment and has this heart being "enflamed" (exekauthē-ἐξεκαύθη) rather going down the "grieved" route. Next, the kidneys are KEPT in the Greek (as nephroi-νεφροί) and their attached verb removes the piercing and replaces with the idea of alteration. There is certainly more going on here, but let us just note with some interest that the idea of kidneys being associated with a place where conscience can be at work is distinctly possible. Where is that place?

Psalm 139:13 is mega-famous, and rightly avoids the kidneys word being translated "heart":

For you created my inmost being [kilyah kilyah]; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

Now that's interesting. This repetition has to be significant and reinforces the idea of the kidneys being symbolically stressed, but is it really "inner parts"? I think that's right. The psalmist here is kind of saying to Yahweh: you created that centre of centres (if - that is - we accept the movement of going in). Another plausible alternative to my mind would be the idea of depth. Note that the psalmist is not saying leb leb (the heart of my heart), he is saying kilyah kilyah. Biology in the first millennium BC would not have been amazing, but they knew what and where a heart was and they knew where the kidneys were.

Look where the heart is:

Now look where the kidneys are:

Not only lower than the heart, the kidneys are also deeper down the torso than even the stomach. In perspective of the rest of the body, not only are they more central, they are also lower. Ancient peoples would have had an idea about the role of the heart. But what on earth are those kidney things for? The context of this 139th psalm is Yahweh's greatness with respect to his wonderful creation in man, whom he brought fourth. That bringing fourth obviously happened in the mother's womb. We're left to imagine with the psalmist, looking at the very start of God's creation of the baby foetus, what that might look like, and guess what - kidney language is right there. It's speculation here, but could we not imagine that the kidneys are seen as central and even the source to human life?

Proverbs 23:16 also has a kilyah kilyah repetition (my inmost being will rejoice when your lips speak what is right), this time associated with the emotion of rejoicing and exultation.

OK our last port of call for symbolic kidneys is the prophetic book, Jeremiah. 11:20 reads: But you, Almighty Yahweh, who judge righteously and test the heart and mind. And so, yet again, we get the curious inversion of the Hebrew word order, which goes kilyah and leb (see comment above on Psalm 7:9).

Jeremiah 12:2, on the other hand, is really quite sad. You have planted them, and they have taken root; they grow and bear fruit. You are always on their lips but far from their hearts. That deep inner space represented by the kidneys has become a Yahweh-free zone.

Jeremiah 17:10 could provide further insight into the heart/kidney distinction, but it will probably have to wait until the next blog post: I, Yahweh, search the heart and examine the mind. Jeremiah has Yahweh doing one action to the heart (in Hebrew this searching-action is chaqar, H2713) and a different action to the kidneys (bachan, H974). Fortunately, the word order is respected on this occasion, which provides further evidence of my Revelation 2 alignment hypothesis I mentioned above. The final Old Testament kidneys reference of interest to us is Jeremiah 20:12, which is a copy-paste of Psalm 7:9 - the same comments above apply here too.

Note that there is thus-far no confusion or parallelism with the key word, soul, nephesh in Hebrew. We will see at some future point that this word is much more loaded with feeling and emotion and movement than the metaphysical "soul"-language came to mean in recent times.

Please also note: all NIV citations today, unless otherwise stated, are from the modern revised NIV usually copyrighted 2011, with my substitutions of Yahweh for "the LORD".

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