What is an “Emotion” in the Hebrew Bible? 


An Experience that Exceeds Most Contemporary Concepts


In: Biblical Interpretation
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  • 1 Arizona State University, USA


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As emotions and feelings in the Hebrew Bible are starting to receive scholarly attention, I question here the appropriateness of applying the modern concept of “emotions” to Biblical Hebrew. To which extent do our “emotions” fit the way Biblical Hebrew organizes human experience? The first part of the article analyzes a few Hebrew words commonly translated by terms of emotion in modern languages. Based on existing scholarship and a brief study of the words in their literary contexts, I suggest that the terms are not limited to the expression of what we call emotions; rather, they also include actions, movements, ritual gestures, and physical sensations, without strict dissociation among these different dimensions. This observation casts doubt on the existence of an isolated emotional realm in Biblical Hebrew’s organization of human experience. In the second half, I proceed in an opposite way: I start from a given situation – scenes where the self faces the suffering affecting another person and initiates different actions in favor of the sufferer. The examples highlight that the experience we commonly shape as an “emotion” – compassion or sympathy – does not receive such a construction in Biblical Hebrew. Besides, the experience affects the self not so much in its individuality as in its social relationships; as such, it also functions inside a given social hierarchy. I conclude by considering the potential impact that this reframed view on biblical “emotions” may have on this nascent field.


  • 3

     A. Wierzbicka, Emotions across Languages and Cultures: Diversity and Universals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 3.

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  • 4

     Wierzbicka, Emotions across Languages and Cultures, p. 2.

  • 5

     See, for example, M. Figlerowicz, “Affect Theory Dossier: An Introduction,” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 20.2 (2012), pp. 3–18, as well as G.J. Seigworth and M. Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” in M. Gregg and G.J. Seigworth (eds.), The Affect Theory Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), pp. 1–25.

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  • 6

     Wierzbicka, Emotions across Languages and Cultures, p. 4.

  • 7

     See Aristotle, Rh. 2.5.16 and 3.19.3, as well as D. Konstan, The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), pp. 15–16.

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  • 9

     Konstan, The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks, pp. 16, 244–58.

  • 11

     A. Wagner, Emotionen, Gefühle und Sprache im Alten Testament: Vier Studien (KUSATU, 7; Waltrop: Hartmut Spenner, 2006), esp. p. 14.

  • 15

     W.L. Moran, “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy,” CBQ 25.1 (1963), pp. 77–87, with references to earlier studies; J. Coppens, “La doctrine biblique sur l’amour de Dieu et du prochain,” ETL 40 (1964), pp. 252–99, also with earlier references; D.J. McCarthy, “Notes on the Love of God in Deuteronomy and the Father-Son Relationship Between Yahweh and Israel,” CBQ 27.2 (1965), pp. 144–47; J.W. McKay, “Man’s Love for God in Deuteronomy and the Father/Teacher – Son/Pupil Relationship,” VT 22.4 (1972), pp. 426–35; H.-P. Mathys, Liebe deinen Nächsten wie dich selbst: Untersuchungen zum alttestamentlichen Gebot der Nächstenliebe (Lev 19, 18) (Freiburg, Schweiz: Universitätsverlag; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1986); J.E. Lapsley, “Feeling Our Way: Love for God in Deuteronomy,” CBQ 65.3 (2003), pp. 350–69.

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  • 19

     Lapsley, “Feeling Our Way,” p. 355.

  • 20

     B.T. Arnold, “The Love-Fear Antinomy in Deuteronomy 5–11,” VT 61.4 (2011), pp. 551–69 (556).

  • 23

     Brenner, The Intercourse of Knowledge, p. 9.

  • 24

     Lapsley, “Feeling Our Way,” pp. 354, 362. Arnold also warns, “Too fine a distinction between the cognitive and the affective is the bane of contemporary sensibilities” (Arnold, “The Love-Fear Antinomy,” p. 561).

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  • 28

     See Gereboff, “The Nature of the Beast,” p. 178.

  • 30

     See Arnold, “The Love-Fear Antinomy,” esp. p. 564. The idea of a spectrum is also found in M. I. Gruber, “Fear, Anxiety and Reverence in Akkadian, Biblical Hebrew and Other North-West Semitic Languages,” VT 40.4 (1990), pp. 411–22 (esp. p. 420). See as well V. H. Kooy, “The Fear and Love of God in Deuteronomy,” in J.I. Cook (ed.), Grace Upon Grace: Essays in Honor of Lester J. Kuyper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), pp. 106–116.

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  • 31

     Arnold, “The Love-Fear Antinomy,” p. 563.

  • 35

     G.A. Anderson, A Time to Mourn, A Time to Dance: The Expression of Grief and Joy in Israelite Religion (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991).

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  • 36

     Anderson, A Time to Mourn, p. 19.

  • 38

     Anderson, A Time to Mourn, p. 13.

  • 45

     See, for example, R.S. Lazarus, Emotion and Adaptation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 289.

  • 46

     See Aristotle, Rh. 2.8, 1385b.

  • 47

     See R.A. Kaster, Emotion, Restraint, and Community in Ancient Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), esp. p. 8.

  • 55

     Olyan, Biblical Mourning, p. 57.

  • 57

     See also Olyan, Biblical Mourning, p. 46.

  • 58

     James, “Emotions: Hebrew Bible/Old Testament,” p. 825.

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