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I Feel it in My Kidneys

June 24, 2013

Your feelings do not come from your heart.  Mostly they come from your brain where specific emotional centers handle the creation and remembrance of emotion.  To some extent your emotions also come from other odd places – research now suggests that nerves attached to your digestive system have some sway on your emotions as well.  However, your emotions do not come from your heart.

It’s not entirely clear why people in the West think your emotions come from your heart.  Perhaps it’s because when one cuts open a human or other vertebrate one can see arteries and veins connecting the heart to the rest of the body and so it makes sense to think of the heart as the center of the self.  Whatever the reason, it’s not a universal one.  Not every culture thinks that emotions come from one’s heart.  More importantly while we in the West separate out the emotions and intellect, assigning them to different organs – the heart and the brain/head – other cultures do not make this division.

In Hebrew there are at least three places from which emotions come: the heart (לב), the kidneys (כליה), and the bowels (מעה).  The heart is by far the most common, so common, in fact, that verifying this word refers to one’s actual heart is rather difficult.  Since many translations readily turn the other words into “heart” when it sounds better to English readers it is worth verifying that לב actually refers to the heart as an organ and not just as a center of emotion.  In 2 Kings 9:24 Joram is shot between the arms and through the heart and in 2 Samuel 18:14 Absalom is killed by a less anatomically-descriptive blow to the heart.  This does tell us that the word we’ve been translating as heart probably is the heart and not, say, the head or intestines1.

What evidence is there that emotions come from kidneys and bowels?  In Job 19:27 Job’s kidneys faint within him.  In Psalm 16:7 the Psalmist is instructed in the night by his kidneys (although here, as elsewhere, many translations choose to render kidneys as “heart”).  In Psalm 26:2 the Psalmist asks the Lord to test his kidneys and heart, a pairing that appears in Jeremiah 11:20, 17:20, and 20:12 as well.  In Proverbs 26:13 the speaker’s kidneys will rejoice when the Lord speaks what is right.  In Jeremiah 12:2 we learn that God is close to the lips of the wicked (presumably meaning that they speak of Him frequently) but far from their kidneys.

The references to bowels are also fairly numerous.  In Psalm 40:8 the Law of God is in the Psalmist’s bowels which apparently accounts for his desire to do God’s will.  In Song of Solomon 5:4 one of the lovers pines after her beloved and her bowels murmur for him (possibly the most hideous anatomical idiom for love I have ever encountered).  In Isaiah 16:11 the Lord feels pity for Moab because of its coming destruction and he feels this pity in his bowels (and also in his inner parts, a word that simply means inside him).  In Isaiah 63:15 the Lord’s compassion is also located in his bowels.  In Jeremiah 4:19 the prophet cries out, “My bowels!  My bowels!” and goes on to say that his heart is distressed because he knows that war is coming.  In Jeremiah 31:20 the Lord’s bowels appear to hold his compassion for Ephraim.  In Lamentations 1:20 and 2:11 distress comes from the speaker’s bowels.

This is all well and good: kidneys and bowels seem to share some responsibility for emotions with the heart.  In fact, it is possible that many internal parts do, given the use of the word “inner parts” Isaiah 16:11.  Perhaps there’s just a general feeling that emotions come from one’s guts.  More interestingly, though, is that the heart does not function entirely as an emotive center.  There are far too many instances of this to list, but several examples will suffice to demonstrate the major patterns.  In 1 Samuel 1:13 Hannah is speaking in her heart.  The text specifies that this means that she is praying silently.  Elsewhere people often speak to their heart (as well as with it) to indicate that they are considering something.  This phrase appears frequently in Ecclesiastes to indicate that the author is considering a new topic.  In 1 Kings 4:29 the Lord gives Solomon great wisdom and understanding – in his heart.  Elsewhere other people’s understanding and skills seem to reside in their heart.  In 2 Chronicles 7:11 Solomon completes all his plans for the Temple.  His plans are referred to as “all that had come into his heart”.  In Isaiah 65:17 former things will not be remembered or come into one’s heart.  All of this internal dialog, inner prayer, understanding, and remembering are things that we associate with our minds and not our hearts.  Indeed, many translations seem to be quite willing to translate לב as “mind” in these situations.  This isn’t strictly limited to the heart either – if you look back at the kidney and bowel lists you’ll see these organs performing functions of the mind as well.

The transition between one’s emotions and thoughts is relatively smooth.  In Isaiah 33:18 the listener is told that their heart will contemplate terror with some accompanying internal dialog.  Is this emotional or rational?  Parts seem like both.  In fact, this is the first major point to bring out of all of this rather dry discussion of the anatomy of emotion: our division between heart and mind, intellect and emotion, is relatively artificial.  The ancient Hebrews saw the heart as the center of decision-making and did not seem to split those decisions into “rational” and “emotional”.  The other organs involved follow no discernible pattern either because they follow no pattern or because it is so foreign to us.  Now, there are pitfalls to both splitting and lumping emotions and intellect but it is worth remembering that emotion and intellect and not natural opposites.  Far too often we map our world out as if anything that is not intellectual must be emotional and vice versa.  For some people these are not opposite ends of the spectrum but slightly different flavors of the same thing.

The other thing that is worth bearing in mind depends on that first observation: because intellect and emotion are not opposites within Hebrew writing we should not assume that mentions of one’s heart in the Bible automatically indicate emotional responses.  (This is true even in the Greek New Testament until and unless you find out otherwise.)  I’ve run across an unfortunately large number of people who read passages in which the Lord stirs the heart of someone and assume that this must be an emotional event.  They then wait for such an emotional event while ignoring a great many mental events that an ancient Hebrew would think of as happening in one’s heart.

Indeed, if you read “heart” as “emotions” in the Bible Christianity ends up looking very emotional.  It’s hard to reconcile this with much of what comes later in Church history and it’s hard to make an emotionally-based Christianity sound serious in our modern world.  Many Christians manage to gain a place for their faith by asserting that it is an emotional event that takes place in that space that our post-Enlightenment world has reserved for emotions, a place for events that are unreal, entirely subjective, and personal.  Christianity is not such a creature nor is that divide a real one.

There is a great deal more that could be discussed here especially as it relates the way we think about our own internal events (like thoughts and emotions).  However, covering all of this would be well beyond the scope of this article.  Instead, I will leave you with the caution that the Biblical world is not divided up like ours and some of our “natural” categories are anything but natural.  Speak to your heart about that.

[1] In contrast the other two words are mostly used as clear anatomical references.  The kidneys come up in extensive descriptions of what parts of an animal to burn in a sacrifice and the bowels cover a range of organs in the lower abdomen including the stomach (one is invited to eat and fill one’s bowels), womb (children may be in their mother’s bowels), and generalized digestive tract (in exceptionally violent deaths one’s bowels may spill out).

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2013 12:14 pm

    In the West, the heart is the center of love but not general “feelings”.

    • Eric permalink
      June 24, 2013 5:18 pm

      Sort of. Love is generally associated with the heart most strongly but we also say things like “your heart not your head” to indicate feelings versus logic or “I feel in my heart” to mean “I feel sincerely”. We also don’t strongly locate other feelings elsewhere – we don’t say that anger lives in your liver or anything like that (although at one point we came a lot closer, assigning various body fluids to different emotions) and so to whatever extent we locate these other emotions we locate them in the heart.

  2. E. John permalink
    June 24, 2013 2:44 pm

    I was struck by the point

    ” our division between heart and mind, intellect and emotion, is relatively artificial. The ancient Hebrews saw the heart as the center of decision-making and did not seem to split those decisions into “rational” and “emotional”.”

    Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of neo-calvanist type theology dominating evangelicalism. One of the pervasive themes seems to be that “we cannot trust our emotions.” I’ve encountered the idea in my weekday bible studies, Christian self help books, in my sunday school classes and from the pulpit. It’s quite frankly a little frightening. Whenever anyone suggests approaching a subject with compassion the canned response is “beware of your emotions” because “the heart is deceitful above all things”. Has anyone else encountered this? How can you make the argument that the element of emotion plays a natural and healthy role in decision making?

    • Eric permalink
      June 24, 2013 5:30 pm

      I would start with the proof-text. If, in fact, the heart is the seat of decision-making overall and not just emotions then saying “the heart is deceitful above all things” doesn’t mean “emotions are deceitful”. In context it actually looks like “people turn away from the Lord secretly all the time” – i.e., their decision-making center betrays what they say they are about constantly.

      The simplest argument that emotion has a role to play in decision-making is that people who are truly without emotion (there are particular mental disorders that can produce this) have a great deal of trouble making any decisions. Emotions add weight to important things (you automatically weight the needs of your children highly when making decisions because you love them) and this is necessary to make good judgments.

      Moreover one cannot avoid emotions in decisions. Even “logical” decisions are frequently built up on emotionally-pleasing frameworks. Most people who talk about the deceit of emotions are aware of this but only in other people.

      This can be a complicated issue. Some emotions are harmful. Emotions are, by nature, rather fleeting and consumptive, using up other mental resources. However, Jesus clearly shows us emotions – he weeps for Lazarus and then raises him from the dead. He’s not a robot without emotional content.

      Honestly, a lot of this will depend on context. I can think of instances in which emotions are serving a good purpose and being squashed and also some really terrible emotionally-driven decisions. I’d suggest that emotions need the same filter as anything else as a decent first rule – emotions are not good or bad, per se, but some emotional impulses are good or bad.


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