Review of M. Carasik, Theologies of the Mind

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Michael Carasik, Theologies of the Mind in Biblical Israel (Studies in Biblical Literature, 85; New York: Peter Lang, 2006). Pp. xi + 263. Cloth, US$68.95. ISBN 0-8204-7848-2.

In this revised dissertation Michael Carasik seeks to fill a void in biblical studies by investigating how writers of the Hebrew Scriptures understood the workings of the mind. Carasik defines mind as representing a complex of ideas “that include the areas of knowing, remembering and thinking” (p 11). The first and longest part of the book examines the biblical vocabulary and semantic fields that describe mental activity, while the second section builds on the findings of the first and explores the books of Proverbs and Deuteronomy to discern if they were influenced by a coherent theory of the mind.

Chapter one, “The Receptive Mind,” concludes that the range of meanings for ידע corresponds roughly to the English verb “know.” Interestingly, however, the hiphil form of the verb as well as the noun דעת refer not to ordinary kinds of factual information but to knowledge that originates from the divine realm. This, as well as other observations in later chapters, lead to one of the major theses of the book: that for the biblical writers knowledge and creativity generated solely by the human mind “must be at best wrong, at worst possibly antagonistic to God” (p. 221). On the basis of word studies of various terms related to perception, Carasik claims that seeing and not hearing was the primary sense of perception for biblical writers (contra Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek and others).

Chapter two entitled, “The Retentive Mind,” examines various terms related to writing, remembering, and forgetting. Carasik rejects the term “actualization” which is frequently used by biblical scholars to describe a supposedly peculiarly Israelite mental activity in which a past event somehow became “real” once again in the mind. Because this term is too vague and mystical he proposes that we think of זכר as referring to what we would call “awareness.” While I recognize that the vagueness of “actualization” is problematic, I wonder if “awareness” is not too weak a term to capture the intent of texts which seek to ensure that the salvation experienced by the Exodus generation remain the central reality and determining factor for the life of every later Israelite.

Chapter three which focuses on the creative mind explores the subtle nuances of different ways of describing the process of thinking as speaking to one's heart לב. One insight here is the difference between speaking אמר אל/על־לבו and אמר בלבו. The latter expression implies that the thinker wishes to keep the thought a secret, a desire that is always immediately frustrated, thereby implying that God is both aware of and usually opposed to such secret thoughts. Words that denote human planning for the future are regularly used negatively (except in Proverbs), unless it is God who grants the expertise needed for the planning. Hence, the best translation for חשב is “scheme.” This point and the previous one both illustrate the abiding suspicion towards human thought and creativity which pervades most of Hebrew Scripture.

The second major section of the book focuses on two biblical books which speak most explicitly about the mind. In Proverbs wisdom is not an activity of the mind but an object that comes to the mind of the wise from God. This wisdom can be taught in the form of verbal lessons learned and stored in the mind for use when necessary. In contrast to the rest of Hebrew Scripture, words for planning are not inherently negative, because Proverbs seems to assume that the presence of wisdom in the mind will guarantee proper results for the activity of the mind.

Deuteronomy's concern is the transmission from generation to generation of teachings from and about God. Whereas Proverbs emphasizes oral transmission of information, for Deuteronomy the people's experience of seeing what God has done for them is central. For this visual experience to take on life-giving form it must be remembered (זכר). The point of such remembering is to encourage observance of God's commandments which are to fill the space inside the mind and be kept/obeyed, שמר. Words of planning are absent in Deuteronomy. The admonition to love the LORD with all one's heart, and the book's emphasis on total devotion to God and complete observance of his Torah, leave no room for human creativity or self-generated thinking, as these can only lead people astray.

One of the strengths of Carasik's study is the balance between discerning common understandings that span the biblical materials, and sensitivity to differences among biblical writers with respect to their understanding of the mind and its functioning. The term “theologies” in the title of the book seems a bit of a misnomer, because most of the book consists of detailed word studies of terms related to a psychology of knowledge. While the book does offer significant theological insights, and while Carasik correctly observes that given the nature of the Bible an inquiry such as his inevitably leads into the religious sphere, overall the book does not provide the kind of in-depth theological analysis that the title might lead one to expect. While word studies can provide a helpful and indispensable entry point into biblical understandings of the mind, theological analysis by means of word study is not an adequate approach. As an example, the theological significance of a key text like Gen 8:21 where God states that he will never again curse humankind, because he now recognizes that the inclination of the human heart/mind is evil from youth, is left completely unexplored. It is puzzling that while the book features in-depth analysis of Hebrew terms related to perception, thinking, knowing, teaching, and planning, there is no comparable analysis of לב and its semantic field, when the heart is the organ associated with the mind, intellect, and will. Such an exploration could lead into questions of how the heart/mind relates to human action and character, issues that lie at the core of a theology of the mind.

A somewhat un-engaging and difficult prose style makes the book a bit of a challenge to read, and it may sometimes be necessary to re-read sentences and paragraphs in order to decipher their meaning. On the positive side, the helpful summaries at the end of sections and chapters keep the reader on track and highlight the larger significance of the technical arguments. Two hundred pages of word studies do not always make for particularly interesting reading, but they do contain numerous helpful insights and conclusions.

Dan Epp-Tiessen, Canadian Mennonite University