When we read Scripture through our modern translations (primarily English, but be it in any language), we tend to miss some of the little nuances and nuggets that are present in their original language. The Hebrew language is a perfect example of this, especially in the words it uses to describe the parts of the human body.
In Part 1 of the Hebrew Anatomy series, we looked at what is one of the most important organs in our body: the heart. We saw how it connects to the mind, and the thoughts. In Part 2, we looked at the kidneys, and how they connect to the emotions. In this installment, we will examine the liver.
Now chances are, you have not given much thought to the specific times (and places) that the Word mentions the liver. To be sure, most people don't know much about how Scripture speaks of the liver, or even why it speaks of the liver. But in this article, we'll dig out a few Scriptures, as well as study the cognates (related words), culture, and context, and see what that yields.
First off, let's break down the word 'liver' in Hebrew. The word is כָּבֵד (ka'veid), and is represented by the three consonants kaf-bet-dalet. These same three consonants, given different vowels, make up the root verb כָּבַד (kaw'vad), which means "to be weighty" (note the only differences being the niqqudot, or "vowel points"). Now this is where it begins to get interesting. We know that, for the typical adult human (barring those with specific medical conditions), the liver is the largest, and indeed heaviest, internal organ in our bodies. [i] So this, then, makes sense why the Hebrew word for "liver" comes from the word meaning "to be heavy." Here again the concrete and literal nature of the language is ever-present: the word for "liver" means "that which is heavy" because it is the heaviest organ.
Now if you look in a good concordance, you'll find the word "liver" is used (with the exception of a time or two it is translated as "heart") 14 times in the Tanakh. Of these, all but three refer to the liver of an animal sacrifice. But we are looking for the meaning BEHIND the physical, so we'll look at the other times this word is used.
Lamentations 2:11 - My eyes do fail with tears, my heart is troubled; My liver is poured on the earth, because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, Because the young children and the infants swoon in the streets of the city.
Proverbs 7:23 - Until an arrow pierces through his liver; As a bird hastens to the snare, So he does not know that it will cost him his life.
Now in the two verses above, it is easy to gloss over what the intended meaning is here. However, after further examining the word, we will circle around back to these two verses and explain them fully. For now, let's look at the third verse, and then get some culture and history.
Ezekiel 21:21 - For the king of Babylon stands at the parting of the way, at the head of the two ways, to use divination; he shakes the arrows, he consults the household idols, he looks at the liver.
Now if you are familiar with Ancient Near Eastern customs (or, indeed, even just the customs of many different ancient pagans), then you may be familiar with haruspicy. Okay, fine, you probably don't know the word, but you may know the practice. Haruspicy is a type of divination performed on entrails and organs of slaughtered animals (or in some cases, humans). Though popularized by the Etruscans and Romans,[ii] it was also common for Babylonians and Hittites. Essentially, an animal was sacrificed by a haruspex (practitioner of haruspicy), and its liver was examined. Upon examination, the haruspex looked for signs and messages within the liver, that he/she believed would tell them things about a person's illness. For example (a completely fictional account used for illustration), Shalem was a young Babylonian boy, 12 years of age. He became ill, and no one knew why. The healers' medicinal herbs didn't fix anything, so his parents consulted a haruspex (in Babylon, called a Baru). The haruspex (Baru) sacrificed a goat and examined its liver. Due to the condition of the liver (certain vein paths, size, shape, color, etc.), the Baru would believe that it was indicating a certain illness for young Shalem. So, the Baru would advise the boy's parents on which treatment to try, given his interpretation of the "data" he received from the liver.
Now it can be debated whether this divination ever actually worked or not (I mean, even a blind squirrel, right?), but needless to say it is well-attested in ancient cultic practices. When the prophet Ezekiel mentions it, he is talking about the different forms of divination and sorcery that the Babylonians practiced. Shaking arrows, consulting household idols (Teraphim, a type of shrunken head), and examining animal entrails were all common forms of this type of divination. But let's go back to our word study.
We have already seen how ka'veid means "liver" and kaw'vad means "to be heavy" but what about another cognate? Those with a basic vocabulary and understanding of Biblical Hebrew should immediately recognize the word כָּבוֹד(kaw'vod) which means "glory." Here are a couple example Scriptures which use this word:
Proverbs 25:2 - It is the glory of Elohim to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.
Exodus 16:7 - in the morning you will see the glory of YHWH, for He hears your grumblings against YHWH; and what are we, that you grumble against us?
The word for "glory" in both cases (as well as in nearly 200 others) is kaw'vod. So how is "glory" related to the liver, and related to something being heavy?
Well for starters, we have already established that the liver is the "heaviest" organ in the body. We also know that the "glory" of Elohim has weight. This is most often represented by the word shekhinah. We have heard this term in worship songs, liturgy, sermons, and so on. However, the word shekhinah is actually not found in the Bible at all. Not even once. It is derived from a word that is found in the Bible (sharing the same root as the word Mishkan which means "Tabernacle" or "dwelling place"), but it itself is not. The word does, however, describe the "weighty presence" of Elohim that dwelt in the Temple, and it was a term well-known in the time of the Second Temple at the latest. The Talmud records that this divine presence was found wherever faithful believers were located. The Mishnaic book Pikre Avot (ethics of the fathers) records, "Two that sit together and are occupied with words of Torah, have the Shekinah among them." Talmud Sanhedrin 39a also reads, "Whenever ten are gathered for prayer, there the Shekinah rests."
These statements should be very reminiscent of Yeshua's statement in Matthew 18.
Matthew 18:20 - For where two or three have gathered together in My Name, I am there in their midst.
We also note that Ezekiel, in his vision, saw the "divine presence" when it was being drawn away from the Temple.
Ezekiel 10:4 - The glory of YHWH mounted up from the cherub, and stood over the threshold of the house; and the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was full of the brightness of the glory.
Ezekiel continues making note of watching the "glory" of YHWH, as he describes its movement from the Temple.
Ezekiel 10:18-19 - 18The glory of YHWH went forth from over the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim. 19The cherubim lifted up their wings, and mounted up from the earth in my sight when they went forth, and the wheels beside them: and they stood at the door of the east gate of the house of YHWH; and the glory of the Elohim of Israel was over them above.
Ezekiel describes the presence of YHWH as "glory" (lit. "that which has weight."), and he watched as it withdrew from the Temple, out the door. This must have been a horrifically tragic vision. But leaving eschatology aside, let's continue with our examination of the word "glory."
We have established the following, either by direct Biblical proof, linguistic proof, or scientific proof, all of which is substantiated by the other:
Now we understand that "glory" is heavy, so how does that connect to anatomy? Or more specifically, what is the relation between glory and the liver? Plainly stated, just as the heart is the seat of the mind (see Part 1) and the kidneys are the seat of the emotions (see Part 2), the liver is the seat of glory and honor ('honor' being the other word that kaw'vod is commonly translated as). Now go back and re-read the verses from earlier, the one from Lamentations and the one of Proverbs. Taking into account the context of the surrounding verses, you should note about Lamentations that:
So given this, we can see Jeremiah the prophet, as he writes Lamentations watching the impending doom and destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, see as the glory of Israel is poured out. The once honorable city (Jerusalem) has been laid waste. Thus he says in verse 11, "My liver is poured out on the earth." His specific terminology here shows us that he is speaking not of his heart (mind), nor of his kidneys (emotions), but of his honor, his glory (liver).
Next, in Proverbs 7, we see a familiar chapter to most young men who have ever been warned about the Ways of the Harlot. The entire chapter is about the adulteress, and the many ways she seeks to seduce and draw away the heart of the unsuspecting man. The context from verse 5 on through the end of the chapter shows how the adulteress works. How she waits until her husband leaves, then sits outside, waiting to seduce the young man passing by. Here's verse 22:
He followed her immediately, as an ox goes to the slaughter, as a fool stepping into a noose.
Following the adulteress leads to death. Now this can, in many cases, mean a physical death (I won't go into that). More importantly, however, this implies a spiritual death. Verse 23:
Until an arrow strikes through his liver, as a bird hurries to the snare, and doesn't know that it will cost his life.
An arrow will strike through his liver. Is this literal, and physical, or is it metaphorical, and spiritual? Perhaps both? I believe the deeper lesson here, is that going in to the lustful attraction of the adulteress leads to a spiritual death. It leads to a destruction of a man's honor, and in turn his glory.
1 Corinthians 6:18-20 - 18 Flee sexual immorality! Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which you have from Elohim? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. Therefore glorify Elohim in your body and in your spirit, which belong to Elohim.
Notice Paul connects sexual sin with a sin against the Temple. If the Temple is the house of the "glory" (kaw'vod) of Elohim, and we already see from Proverbs 7 that sexual sin destroys the "liver" (ka'veid) of man, is it safe to assume there is a parallel here? Perhaps I am reaching, but I believe there is a connection between the two. A connection between sexual sins, and the loss of glory.
Due to David's sexual sins, his household was severely punished (one son [Amnon] raped his daughter [Tamar]; another son [Absalom] murdered his half-brother [Amnon]; then tried to usurp the throne, then his nephew [Joab] killed that son [Absalom], then Solomon had to kill his brother for the throne, etc.). David lost honor (glory) in his encounter with Bathsheba. Solomon, too, lost honor and glory as a result of sexual sin. Despite having the greatest kingdom, the kingdom of peace, his kingdom was lost soon after his death. Why? He let his sexual sins (he multiplied wives unto himself, as well as concubines) lead his heart astray. He built altars to other gods on the high places.
And so it goes down through history. Sexual sin, I believe, leads to a loss of glory, a loss of honor.
So, in conclusion, we noted that honor and glory are linked to the liver. Just as the mind and thoughts are to the heart, and the emotions are to the kidneys, so is honor and glory to the liver. It is worth mentioning, I think, even if just briefly, that Ezekiel DID see the glory of YHWH return to the Temple. Not the same Temple of His day, mind you, but a future one.
In chapter 43 we read, "1Afterward he brought me to the gate, even the gate that looks toward the east. 2Behold, the glory of the Elohim of Israel came from the way of the east: and his voice was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shined with his glory. 3It was according to the appearance of the vision which I saw, even according to the vision that I saw when I came to destroy the city; and the visions were like the vision that I saw by the river Chebar; and I fell on my face. 4The glory of YHWH came into the house by the way of the gate whose prospect is toward the east. 5The Spirit took me up, and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of YHWH filled the house."
If we can, let us connect this back to the liver. Of all the internal organs in the human body, the liver is especially known for its regenerative ability. Of all organs, the liver is the only one (in humans) capable of naturally regenerating massive amounts of tissue. As little as 25% can regenerate into a whole liver.[iii] (Note: This regeneration is in function, not form. Though the entire liver will not grow back, its function can build back up to 100%. Thus for someone who only has 25% of their liver, it can regenerate its function and end up working as well as a normal sized liver).
Comparing the two, we see that the glory of man can be regenerated as well, just as the glory of YHWH will return to His Temple (again, see Ezek. 43).
And one final point is about the destruction of the liver. We see it far too often in our modern American society, but other countries and cultures have seen it as well. One of the leading causes of liver failure is alcoholism-induced cirrhosis [iv]. Now the reason this is interesting (at least to me), is how this relates to the study we have just gone through regarding glory.
If I were to ask you what the opposite of honor is, what would you say? Most people would say "shame." And they would be correct; the opposite of glory and honor is shame and dishonor. So it stands to reason, then, that those things which damage the liver in the physical, damage the glory/honor in the spiritual. And that is exactly what we find.
Habakkuk 2:15-16 - 15“Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink; you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness! 16You will have your fill of shame instead of glory. Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision! The cup in YHWH's right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory!
Drunkenness (alcoholism) brings shame and dishonor. It destroys the liver physically as well as spiritually. We see this with Noah in Gen. 9, when he became drunk and was shamed by Ham. Just as the sins in the physical harm us physically, so too do sins in the spiritual harm us spiritually.
I hope and pray this study has blessed you. Be Berean. Shalom.
[i] Tortora, Gerard J.; Derrickson, Bryan H. (2008). Principles of Anatomy and Physiology (12th ed.). John Wiley & Sons.
[ii] Sarton, George. Ancient Science Through the Golden Age. p. 93.
[iii] Häussinger, Dieter. Liver Regeneration. p. 1
[iv] National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Cirrhosis. 2016.