“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.

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26 COMMENTS

  1. This is a root issue that I do not often hear “regulated”, let alone “well”. It is natural for modern western hemisphere thinkers to have “an internal conversation” in the language and method we are familiar with, so learning to have “an internal conversation” in the way of another culture and time in addition to what is already understood is key to understanding others intent. I like this! J.

        • An interesting thought, Allan! In a way it could. סלה (selah) is not one of the twenty-two words I alluded to in the post, but its meaning is uncertain and has sometimes been interpreted as “pause and think.”

  2. Furthermore, and if I my… traditional Christian theology, rhetoric, dogma result from this lack of regulating our internal conversations with ourselves, in other words our thought process to construct this rhetoric. All too often the result becomes skewed just enough from the original intent to totally miss the mark. First coming to an understanding of the premise put forth in your article is vital in doing away with the untruths we tell ourselves and inadvertently spread to others misconstruction of the truth. Throughout history this misconstruction has resulted in the untimely demise of the worlds innocence. J.

    • A profound insight, Jerry! Hopefully we can help in the slow process of rediscovering some more original conceptions, which in turn makes it possible to reorient those vital internal conversations…

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    • Thanks for your input, Urmas! Your version follows Descartes’ line of reasoning: he argued that the very act of doubting one’s existence proved one’s existence. However, your quotation is actually an adaptation of a later restatement by Antoine Léonard Thomas (in French, 1765). In Descartes’ original French (Discours de la méthode, 1637), the statement is “ie penſe, donc ie ſuis”; in his later Latin (Principia philosophiae, 1644) it is “ego cogito, ergo ſum.” (Not that this makes much difference for the discussion about Hebrew notions of “thought,” but interesting to note nonetheless. In addition, of course, all quotation is selective.)

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  3. This is interesting because our word believe relates to an intentional act. I did not consider myself a believer because I did not know that my salvation was because of something God said (internal).

    • Thank you for your input, Kat! I would argue that the Hebrew words often translated as “believe” are also different from (and perhaps deeper than) the usual modern conceptions. Stay tuned! 🙂

  4. This article is GREAT! Thank you Dr Gruber! I would be interested to know where some of the verses that use the word “amar” is used besides Judges? trying to look up but have been unsuccessful. Any help is appreciated. Thank you again. Im learning so much for you.

    • Thank you, Alice! Another good example is Genesis 20:11: “And Abraham said, ‘Because I thought…'” (here “said” and “thought” translate the same Hebrew verb). In the NASB version the verb אמר (amar) “to say” is translated once as “think,” twice as “thinking,” and 17 times as “thought.” If you want to do a comprehensive study, you can check all 5,308 places where אמר (amar) occurs in the Hebrew Bible (and that’s without mentioning related words):
      https://biblehub.com/hebrew/strongs_559.htm

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  5. I’m so interested yet wonder if I can really understand it , scripture alone is challenging to perceive and remember……

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  6. I have been told that I ‘overthink’. Yesterday, I came on the subject of our internal conversations,and wondered if they hinder hearing the voice of God. I avoid articles which require payment, as pensioner and finance a problem. Heard audible voice say Think and saw word. Was in muddled sleep.

  7. So, what you are saying is that “thought” is different from “thoughts”? Such as in Deuteronomy 15:9 when one says that he will not care foor his poor brother. Or when God says “My thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways not your ways.’ Is 55:8.

    • Thanks for the question, Paul! Here the point is not to make a distinction between “thought” (sing.) and “thoughts” (plur.) — though they do have somewhat different connotations — but rather to show that these English words don’t correspond exactly to any of the many Hebrew concepts that they sometimes translate. So one has to check each time (by reading the original, or via a concordance or similar tool) whether the original concepts are the same in any two cases. In the cases you mentioned, the Hebrew concepts are not the same:
      Deut 15.9 דבר עם לבבך — “a saying within your heart”
      Isa 55.8 מחשבותי — “my designs/plans”
      On the first verse, see also:
      https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/loan-not-loan/

    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Name of God or Exploring Jewish Interpretation. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!

  8. Dr Gruber: Wouldn’t “אמר אמרתי (amor amarti)” be translated more accurately as “I say (said) to MYSELF” – ie with the “yod” (י) being translated, more accurately – as “me” or “my” (as opposed to the suggested, “I said a saying” or “I really thought”)?

    • thus allowing the verb “אמר” to remain “active” rather than “passive” and – too – to eliminate the concern of translating as an “intentional” or “passive” act?
      I am – admittedly – a beginner in Biblical Hebrew – and I offer this merely as a suggestion.

      • Thanks for the comment, Pleasant. The most “literal” rendering would probably be something like “saying, I said.” The תי- suffix indicates the first person singular (“I”) conjugation of the verb. It tells who did the action. I suppose אמרתי could be vocalized differently as imrati (= “my saying”), but then it becomes much harder to make sense of the sentence as a whole. Who said ״my saying״? (Not “I”, in this case.)

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