“Body Language” in the Bible

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Creative Commons picture by gnuckx

The biblical narrative of Exodus describes how, after 430 years of exile and slavery, the children of Israel were finally released from Egypt. How did God bring the Israelites out? According to the biblical account, He brought them out with a “mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 4:34).

It might strike us modern readers as odd or incongruous, especially when it is used in connection with God. We read about God’s arm, God’s hand, God’s face… and when God is angry, smoke rises from his nostrils and the wrath of his nose (חרון אפו) falls upon trespassers. From the beginning of the book of Genesis we can read about God “walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze” (Genesis 3:8). We call these anthropomorphisms (from the Greek, anthropos = human; morphe = form/trait). This means that God is described in human language.

 Mighty Hand, Outstretched Arm and Other Body Parts

God used his mighty hand and his outstretched arm to free his people from slavery. Most of the texts in the Hebrew bible are very concrete, and the use of body imagery is common, even as an attribute for God (who is long-suffering, or in the Hebrew, “long-nosed”). In the Hebrew bible, people think with their hearts and feel with their kidneys.

Thousands of years and many different cultures later, these idioms and images can sometimes be difficult to understand. Bible translators attempting to translate the Hebrew into a different language must often search for equivalents so as to obtain a text that sounds natural in the target language, as opposed to a literal, word-for-word translation that might not make any sense. Unfortunately, the text often loses some of its richness as it goes from a concrete picture to an abstraction.

Rejoicing Kidneys

Let’s take an example from Proverbs 23:15-16:

“My child, if your heart is wise, my heart too will be glad,

My soul will rejoice when your lips speak what is right”. (NRSV)

The first verse (23:15) presents no problem for translators. The noun “heart” is understandable for a modern reader and has much symbolism connected to it. The heart is a place for both joy and wisdom. The challenges begin in the next verse (23:16), where a literal translation should read “My kidneys will rejoice”. The English NRSV translation renders the Hebrew word kidneys (כליות) “soul”, while other English translations utilize “inmost being”, or a paraphrase (e.g., “I shall rejoice with all my soul”, in the REB). But it is “my kidneys” that will rejoice, not “I” and not “my soul”. Indeed, if the author had so intended, he would have employed those very words in the Hebrew. And while this idiom might seem strange to most of us today, in biblical Hebrew, the kidneys are the center for a rich inner life.

In the most recent Norwegian bible translation, which I was honored to work on, after much deliberation, we translators made the decision to keep “kidneys” in the text. Of course, there was the issue of whether this concrete “body language” would be too bizarre for a modern reader. But a literal rendering of “kidneys” brings us closer to the Hebrew bible and its language, and we keep the Hebrew parallelism, which is part of Hebrew poetry.

Melting Hearts

In the above example from Proverbs 23:15, we saw that the use of the Hebrew word “heart” was easy to translate. But that is not always the case with “heart”. The Hebrew bible also utilizes the expression “melting heart” (לב נמס). In English and Norwegian, a melting heart might refer to falling in love, or having compassion for someone. In the biblical Hebrew, however, a melting heart means “to lose courage”. The expression is found in the book of Joshua several times (Joshua 2:11, 5:1 and 7:5). If this expression were to be translated word-for-word into English, it would leave the reader with the impression that is actually contrary to the meaning in the original Hebrew. In such a case, it’s clear that an idiomatic translation is preferable.

We’ve looked at a few examples of the powerful, and sometimes strange, “body language” found in the bible, as well as the challenges of translating it in a manner that is comprehensible to the reader, while remaining as faithful as possible to the original text. Everyone should have the opportunity to read the bible in their own language, even though sometimes it means compromising some of the richness of the original text. But as you see from this short article, it can be fascinating to search out the original texts and see what more we can learn from them and how much deeper into the Word we can go.

This article originally appeared on Caspari Center, March 21, 2021, and reposted with permission.