speaking tenderly — or not?

I have an abiding interest in the significance of the historical, social, cultural, and linguistic context of biblical literature for understanding its meaning. As such, I was compelled to grab a copy of The Social Sciences and Biblical Translation (SBL, 2008) (available from many places, including Eisenbrauns). There’s much of interest in the slender volume, but I particularly enjoyed Carolyn Leeb’s chapter, “Translating the Hebrew Body into English Metaphor.” This post reflects briefly on one part of her discussion, but I encourage anyone interested to read the chapter for yourself.

Leeb discusses the (mis)translation of the Hebrew expression ‏דבר על לב (dabbēr ʿal-lēb) by something like “speak tenderly to…” (look it up, the expression appears in English in Gen 34:3; 50:21; Judg 19:3; 1 Sam 1:13; 2 Sam 19:8; Isa 40:2; Hos 2:16; Ruth 2:13). But is this what the expression really means? It sounds like it would be right, being literally “speak to the heart of…” But, of course, the problem is that it sounds right if we were trying to discern the meaning of the English expression “speak to the heart of…” as if it were an English idiom, not a Hebrew idiom.

The heart of the problem (sorry!) lies in the meaning of לב (lēb, lit. ‘heart’) in Hebrew. It is correctly and frequently noted that לב in biblical Hebrew does not have identical connotations to “heart” when used figuratively in English. Rather, while it refers in some way to one’s “inner being,” it is often more accurately rendered by the English “mind.”

With this in mind (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one), perhaps the expression is not so accurately rendered “speak tenderly.” If, literally, we are “speaking to the mind” of someone, perhaps we are instead seeking to convince, to reason with them.

The ultimate test lies in the contexts in which the expression occurs. Do the individual contexts support this reading over the “traditional”? This is not so clear — most passages appear to make sense with either rendering. Nonetheless, I think Leeb’s meaning does fit and often gives a somewhat different feel to the resultant translation. Leeb herself suggests that an appropriate translation of the expression in English would be “reasoned with,” “argued with,” or “explained” (p. 121).

The difference this makes to translation is readily apparent. Here, for example, is the ESV translation of Isa 40:1-2 (note that the ESV does not adopt a “literal” translation of this expression!):

1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord‘s hand
double for all her sins.

This might become:

1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
2 Persuade Jerusalem,
and announce to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord‘s hand
double for all her sins.

For those who believe that the solution is simply to translate the expression with a literal “speak to the heart of…,” Leeb correctly notes the problem:

In doing so, the word heart is freighted with the denotations and connotations, the values and significations, of the word heart in our social world. As we saw above, those are not identical to the ideas represented by לב in the ancient world. (p. 112)

There is, I think, something there for us all to take to heart.

4 thoughts on “speaking tenderly — or not?

  1. Very interesting Enkers. The solution to the ‘freighting’ of the word ‘heart’ is more Bible reading isn’t it? Which would eventually show that the word is not being used as we think it is.

    I like your reading of Isaiah 40, though. If that is true, then it is a wonderfully fitting response to the choice put to Israel by the LORD in Isaiah 1: 18f.

  2. Hi Gordo. That might be one solution, but why make things so hard? Why not use words to mean what most people understand them to mean rather than force them to uncover a novel meaning just for the Bible?

  3. I stumbled upon this article, looking for the complete meaning of the word לב. Your linking with the English ‘mind’ was very helpful. I was amazed to see that biblical dictionaries translate לב as heart, core, wisdom, attention, concern, inner man so your suggestion made much sense.

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