Feast upon the Word Blog

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Posted by robf on April 1, 2008

I’ve been wondering about my own status with the Lord lately, and have been asking myself the questions found in Alma 5. Have I been sufficiently humble? Do I have a broken heart and a contrite spirit? In researching these phrases, I just read an interesting article about the term brokenhearted:

Boyle, Marjorie O’Rourke (2005), “Broken Hearts: The Violation of Biblical Law,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 73 (3): 731-757. (abstract here)

Boyle argues that the Hebrew notion of having a broken heart is nothing like what we usually take it to mean, but that the heart represented orientation towards God and his law, and the ability to maintain an erect (“an upright heart”) and steady course. Those with a broken heart are those who have lost that ability, who stumble in walking such a course, either due to willful sinning or by being mislead.

Boyle then goes on to show how this concept changed due to the advances in Greek medical understanding of the “heart” and through mistranslation of the Hebrew into Latin, where brokenhearted came to denote contrition for sin, and later changes in English literature where it came to include experiencing grief and other emotions. Boyle claims that we misread “brokenhearted” when we read our current notions of the term back into the original Biblical texts.

As an aside, she has a remarkable discussion of “swaddling clothes” and how the purpose of swaddling an infant was to bind them (as the Lord binds the brokenhearted in Isaiah 61:1) so that they will grow up with a straight posture that will enable them to “walk uprightly”–something we gloss over in the infancy narratives of Christ.

I have yet to look at how brokenhearted is used in latter-day scripture, but find it interesting in light of our colloquial use of the term, as in this latest conference talk. But this conception does raise a lot of questions in my mind.

Does sacrificing a broken heart mean that we should literally mourn and ache in our heart for our sins to such an extent that our will is broken, or does it mean something else, like a more rational and active turning away from sin and our stumbling path of unrighteousness? Is it an emotional thing, or are we really misreading this if we expect that? What is the connection between someone like Alma being “wracked by his sins” and the expectation that we need to have a broken heart as a precondition of repentance? Do we really need all that emotional turmoil, or is having a broken heart a precondition of repentance because having a broken heart is really just the condition of walking a stumbling, sinful path?

11 Responses to “Brokenhearted?”

  1. BrianJ said

    Rob, this is interesting, but I’m a little lost. How does Boyle propose that we translate “broken heart” in the Hebrew scripture? Meaning, is there some other English term/phrase that would more accurately reflect what the ancient Hebrews had in mind? And am I wrong to assume that Greek scripture (i.e. NT) used the term the way we think of it now? I’m trying to read Psalm 34:18 with Boyle’s interpretation, but failing: “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.”

    Boyle’s reading defines “broken heart” as a bad thing—at least as I understand her—but the scriptures don’t seem to.

  2. phdinhistory said

    Is Boyle implying that the ancient Hebrews actually believed that some people (i.e., the “broken hearted”) are sinners and the rest are not sinners?

    What if the broken hearted are the individuals who have abandoned their pride and started the process of repentance?

    I also don’t see why Boyle says brokenhearted is missing from the New Testament. In Luke 4:18 we find the following quotation of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.”

  3. robf said

    phdinhistory, Boyle provides lots of evidence that Luke 4:18 is a recent interpolation, that the earliest mss. don’t’ have it because the phrase didn’t make any real sense in a Greek context.

    Brian (and anyone else), I can send the original article if you want to look at it, just shoot me an email. Yeah, she has a different perspective on this for sure. We should probably look more widely at the term “heart” in the OT, NT, BoM and other scriptures…

  4. RuthS said

    If we assume that what Boyle has written is accurate what implications does that have for the concepts and constructs we have built into our belief systems about humility and other topics that depend on the definitions we have come to accept?

  5. NathanG said

    This is interesting to think through. I’ve always had a hard time conceptualizing a broken heart. I think the general usage of heart is a complicated subject in and of intself. Christ says he will no longer accept burnt offerings, but we should sacrifice a broken heart and contrite spirit and then come unto him with a broken heart and contrite spirit and we will be baptized by fire and the Holy Ghost. (3 Nephi 9:20). If we take Boyle’s view then we would sacrifice our sinful self that is unable to follow God. Perhaps this is similar to a sin offering and a contrite spirit is more in line with a peace offering. (Not that I feel expert on sacrifices).

    With Boyle’s view we could see all as having a broken heart, but the important actions are “come unto Christ” or “heal” the brokenhearted, whereas now we seem to put the action and importance in feeling broken hearted.

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. joespencer said

    Very interesting work, Rob. Could we read, say, Book of Mormon usage of the phrase as suggesting a kind of paradoxical logic (much like the lose your life to find it/seek your life and lose it logic)? That is, one must become brokenhearted in order to be healed, while those who believe they are healed (on their own or by their works) will have their hearts broken?

  7. robf said

    I think I can see it as NathanG (#5) has articulated it, we are brokenhearted (walking in sin), and only by sacrificing that brokenheartedness (turning from sin towards Christ) can we be healed (have our broken hearts bound up, like a broken bone) so that we can walk uprightly before the Lord.

    We have to recognize our brokenheartedness, our nothingness before God, before we can repent. Only then, by binding us up, can we get the new heart, the pure heart, etc.

    To do otherwise, to recognize that we are broken, but not to sacrifice our brokenness, is to procrastinate our repentance.

    Still not sure where our English sense of brokenheartedness=grief has a place to play here. But perhaps an understanding of grief in the OT is a topic for another day?

  8. BrianJ said

    My notion of brokenhearted (in English) has always been more along the lines of “meek” or “humble” as opposed to “grief”. Maybe that’s why I’m still having a hard time understanding Boyle’s point: because my notion of brokenhearted is not all that different from what Boyle is proposing?

  9. robf said

    Boyle is saying that in Hebrew, being broken hearted has nothing to do with being meek or humble. Being broken hearted means that your ability to walk uprightly/desire to follow the Law is shattered. It is more synonymous with “walking in sin”, it is perhaps the opposite of being obedient/steadfast/etc.

    We would then say that what we have to sacrifice is that sinfulness, which entails recognizing our own brokenness. But recognition of the condition is separate from the condition itself. You can be brokenhearted (even willfully disobedient) and proud.

  10. Lisa F. said

    I have pictured the broken heart as the one that the Spirit can enter, at least when I read the Book of Mormon — particularly in 2 Nephi 33, where we see that the Holy Ghost will carry a message “unto” the hearts of men, but if they harden their hearts, it does not enter.

    Is it possible that the meaning, at times, in the B of M is different than the OT?

    I really like the idea of binding and healing, and the symbols that Boyle uses. Could I get a copy of the article?

  11. robf said

    Sure thing Lisa (or anyone else), just go to my blogger profile and send me an email and I’ll forward the article to you.

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