“I think, therefore I am!” the French philosopher René Descartes famously exulted. Theologians, too, often emphasize rationality as a dividing line between humans and animals. But what do we mean by “thought”?
Biblical translations make liberal use of the verb “to think” and the noun “thought.” As usual, however, these terms in English (and in other modern languages) do not match the earlier Biblical Hebrew concepts, which are far more diverse.
The NASB version – which actually tries to stay closer to the original words than many others – uses “think” and “thought” to translate no fewer than twenty-two different Hebrew and Aramaic words. It therefore dramatically reduces a vast richness of meaning.
The main Hebrew word often translated as “think” is actually אמר (amar) “to say,” sometimes found in the expression אמר בלבו (amar be-libo) “to say in one’s heart.” In Judges 15:2 the Hebrew text has אמר אמרתי (amor amarti), literally “I said a saying,” but most English versions translate as “I really thought.”
In English a “thought” might be a mere passing fancy that happens to “pop into” one’s head. By contrast, the Hebrew idea of “saying” (whether internally or externally) relates to an intentional act.
This difference has practical implications! In the words of another French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, each person makes up “an internal conversation, which it is important to regulate well.” Similarly, in Biblical Hebrew random “thoughts” are not the same as purposeful mental statements or decisions.