[b-hebrew] Is "write...on...heart" simply an idiom?

B. M. Rocine brocine at twcny.rr.com
Tue May 10 18:16:18 EDT 2005

Dear Michael,

I suggest a couple of points:

1.  There is a critical difference between an *idiom* and a *figure of 
speech*.  An idiom is a sequence of words that is semantically restricted so 
that the sequence operates like a single term, like with the expression 
"odds and ends."  I put odds and ends in the junk drawer in the kitchen. 
What do I do with only one odd or one end?  We don't even know what the 
question means.  In contrast, a figure of speech, is an untraditional use of 
words used to draw the audience into a comparison or connection, like the 
word *monster* in the sentence "The monster broke past the offensive line 
and sacked the quarterback."  The distinction between idiom and figure of 
speech is very important to translators, who need to translate an idiom as a 
whole and translate a figure of speech as a figure of speech.  I mention 
translation, not because you asked about translation per se, but because of 
how we approach the two distinct phenomena.  We can't understand an idiom by 
translating the parts because the meaning of the expression is not the sum 
of its parts.  If, however, we can access the comparison in a figure of 
speech and enjoy being startled by the untraditional use of words, we can 
put together the meaning of the figure from its parts.

There is a complication (at least one!) that is germane to your query.  A 
figure of speech, once it becomes hackneyed, may become an idiom.  An 
example is the expression *bottleneck.*  It started as a figure of speech. 
A place where a lot of traffic met reminded someone the funnel-shaped 
opening of a bottle, so he used the figure as a simile or metaphor.  In 
time, the term has become so overused, we may no longer think of the 
comparison to a bottle's neck.  The term may have come into a meaning of its 
own, something like "place where a lot of traffic jams up."  Maybe its an 
idiom now.  Maybe the word's evolution into an idiom is why it seems okay to 
say, "There was a huge bottleneck on the highway today."  If we were still 
mindful of the figure of speech, we should say, when there is a huge traffic 
jam, that there was a *tiny* bottleneck on the highway.  "Tiny" seems wrong 
doesn't it?

2.  In trying to learn whether a phrase like `al leb is an idiom or a figure 
of speech, it would be helpful to view a lot of its uses by your author, in 
this case Jeremiah, and then in even a larger corpus.  With the Hebrew 
expression `al leb in Jeremiah, I think you will find it is a common and 
consistent expression rather than an untraditional use of words.  It means 
"to think about carefully," I would say.  The key thing here is that the 
expression is both common and consistent.  That's an idiom.  Since a figure 
of speech may evolve into an idiom, there will most assuredly be a fuzzy 
time when it is fully neither and partly both.

Hoping to help,

> Dear List Members,
> YHWH speaking through Jeremiah stated about "the house
> of Israel":
> "...I will put my torah in their inward [part] and
> upon their heart will I write it..." (Jer. 31:33).
> My observations and questions revolve around the
> phrase (AL-LIBFM  EK:T:ABENFH.
> A similar expression occurs twice in Proverbs:
> "write...upon [the] tablet of your heart..." (3:3).
> And:
> "write...upon [the] tablet of your heart..." (7:3).
> In Proverbs, the writing is to be done *by* the hearer
> of Solomon's torah, the one to whom he refers as
> "B:NIY." In Jeremiah the writing of the torah is to be
> done *by* YHWH. It seems that a key difference between
> the Proverbs usage of the phrase and the Jeremiah
> usage of a remarkably similar phrase would be one of
> *instrumentality* ("My son, write..." vs. "[YHWH] will
> write..."), not of location ("...upon [...] heart").
> Right?
> In fact, I'm inclined to wonder whether *location*
> ("upon...heart") really factors in much at all--in
> Proverbs, or even in Jeremiah. Isn't it fairly clear
> that we have in all three cases the same or a similar
> *idiom* ("write...upon...heart")?
> I was taught in semantics class that if one
> literalizes an idiom one actually obscures the
> meaning. This idiom's basic semantic parameters can, I
> think, be established from all three contexts,
> particularly from the two occurrences in Proverbs.
> There neither the writing nor the location of the
> writing can be literal.
> When we read this understanding back into Jeremiah,
> what do we have?
> Does anyone else see all three occurrences as
> reflections of a single idiom that means something
> along the lines of "regard as valuable enough to
> obey"? Something like that...?
> In both cases in Proverbs, it would appear to be the
> responsibility of the "son" to "regard as valuable
> enough to obey" Solomon's torah. In Jeremiah's
> prophecy, it seems to be YHWH who will aid "the house
> of Israel" to "regard as valuable enough to obey" His
> torah.
> I know that in Jer. 31:33 we still have the parallel
> expression NFTATIY ...B:QIR:BFM to contend with. And
> it seems to point us "inward" for an answer.
> Nevertheless, I am struck by what the Proverbs
> passages might tell us about "write...upon...heart,"
> and can even conceive that this piece of information
> could illuminate Jeremiah's twin phrase ("in your
> inward [parts]"). Am I deceiving myself?
> Any thoughts?
> Shalom from Manila, Philippines,
> --Michael Millier

B. M. Rocine
Living Word Church
6101 Court St. Rd.
Syracuse, NY 13206

ph: 315.437.6744
fx: 315.437.6766 

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