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According to the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus definition:

Beat your breast/chest
To show how sad or guilty you feel in an obvious or public way

I understand what is meant by beating one's breast, but why is this the preferred way to express sadness and/or guilt? Apes beat their breasts also, but not with the same aim.

Isaiah 32:12-13 (ESV)

Beat your breasts for the pleasant fields, for the fruitful vine, for the soil of my people growing up in thorns and briers, yes, for all the joyous houses in the exultant city.

Luke 18:13 (ESV)

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

Luke 23:48 (ESV)

And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts.

(n.d.). Retrieved July 29, 2016, from http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/beat-your-breast-chest

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    This is only marginally related to Chrisianity. It might be better on English language site. It might make a good hermaneutics question if rephrased to ask about the Greek and Hebrew words used in the Bible. It is not clear whether you are more interested in the derivation of the words or why humans in some cultures express emotion this way. – disciple Jul 29 '16 at 21:24
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    @disciple It wouldn't really work on Hermeneutics.SE because the OP is focused on a phrase rather than interpretation of a specific passage; it was already asked and answered on English.SE , without Biblical reference; and the OP is interested in the meaning of the phrase in the (Christian) Bible, which to my way of thinking is best answered by reference to languages other than English. For these reasons I concluded that it was (probably) on topic (and thus answered) even though it does not obviously conform to one of the "acceptable question types." – Susan Jul 31 '16 at 2:33
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    This is a sociological question, which is offtopic sorry. – curiousdannii Jul 31 '16 at 9:32
  • You may want to ask this in Judaism.SE's chat. As far as I know, this isn't a Christian practice (I've never seen it). However it could be a practice of jews in earlier days. – The Freemason Aug 1 '16 at 13:30
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The basic idea is that of "smiting oneself." As Howard Marshall puts it, commenting on Luke 18:13:

The breast or heart is regarded as the seat of sin, and hence the act is one of grief or contrition.1

As alluded to here, in the Hebrew background of the expression lies the word for "heart" (Heb. leb or lebab). Nahum 2:7 is a good example:2

... her slave girls lamenting, moaning like doves, and beating their breasts (lit. hearts)

In the Old Testament, the leb is the affective, noetic, and ethical center of a person. Inflicting blows to it, then

expresses a sense of diminution ... it is an act of self-abasement to influence the deity.3

Whereas leb has no specific anatomic referent,4 the reflex Greek translation for the abstract leb is kardia. Like leb, kardia is very frequently used metaphorically, but where there is a concrete referent, it is clearly the organ we know as the heart. It may be for this reason that in the Greek expression we find instead stēthos ("breast"), a part of the body more accessible for beating.


Notes:
This question has also been asked on the English Language and Usage site. To me, the specific Biblical evidence is worthwhile considering in addition to the general conclusions stated there.

1. I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC; (Eerdmans, 1978), p. 680.

2. The OP offers Isaiah 32:12, which may indeed carry a similar sense, but the Hebrew is a bit obscure: "mourning on breasts", so not actually an explicit example of "beating".

3. Heinz-Josef Fabry, "לֵב לֵבָב," TDOT, (Eerdmans, 1972) v.7, p. 411.

4. In the minority of usages (such as this) involving a concrete part of the body, it sees to be located in the area of the thoracic cage, but it is not clearly the heart. See Fabry, TDOT, for extended discussion.

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I think it is a reflexive action of the human body. When one is in a terrible stage of sadness or shock, one is prone to lose breath. Manual pressure on the heart, as is done in resuscitation of victims of heart attack, helps pump more air into the lungs and keeps one alive.

As for children, it is just one of their tricks to attract the attention of their parents!

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