Inconsistent Translation of Hebrew Words for example “Heart”

by Jeff A. Benner

I am often asked why my definitions of Biblical Hebrew words differ from all other resources available such as Strong’s dictionary and why my translations of the Bible are unlike any other English translation. Most people believe that an English translation of the Bible is a fairly good representation of the original Hebrew text. But, have you ever heard the expression “lost in the translation?” Through my research I have found that the original meanings of Hebrew words are not only lost to us in the translations but have long been buried and hidden from our sight. I believe it is time that we read the Hebrew Bible from the perspective of its original authors rather than from our own modern perspective.

When I first began studying the Bible I loved to do word studies. I would select a word and study its uses and contexts in as many verses as I could find them. One of these studies was with the word “heart” and I would look up verses such as these below.

  1. Genesis 6:5 And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
  2. Exodus 7:3 And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt.
  3. Exodus 23:9 And a sojourner shalt thou not oppress: for ye know the heart of a sojourner, seeing ye were sojourners in the land of Egypt
  4. Proverbs 2:2 So as to incline thine ear unto wisdom, And apply thy heart to understanding;
  5. Psalm 40:8 I delight to do thy will, O my God; Yea, thy law is within my heart.
  6. Psalm 55:4 My heart is sore pained within me: And the terrors of death are fallen upon me.

However, I was soon to discover that there was a flaw in this type of word study. I purchased a Concordance, a book with a complete list of all the words in a particular translation, which would cross reference any word in the translation with Strong’s Dictionary. This would give you the Hebrew word behind the English translation as well as a definition of that word.

With this tool I discovered that the English translation was not very consistent on how it translated Hebrew words. For instance, in the examples I gave above, the word heart is a translation of three different Hebrew words. The Hebrew word Lev, which is the Hebrew word for “heart,” is translated as “heart” in verse #1, #2, #4 and #6 above. The word nephesh, which is usually translated as soul, is translated as “heart” in verse #3. Me’ah, which is literally the intestines, is translated as “heart” in verse #5. Each of these Hebrew words has a specific meaning but the translators chose to ignore this and just translate all three as “heart.”

The use of the concordance also revealed that the Hebrew word lev (heart), was translated with other English words as you can see in the verses below.

  1. Genesis 31:20 And Jacob stole away unawares to Laban the Syrian, in that he told him not that he fled. (A literal translation of the Hebrew is “And Jacob stole the heart of Laban the Aramean because he did not tell him that he fled.”)
  2. Exodus 9:21 And he that regarded not the word of Jehovah left his servants and his cattle in the field.
  3. Numbers 16:28 And Moses said, Hereby ye shall know that Jehovah hath sent me to do all these works; for I have not done them of mine own mind.
  4. Job 36:5 Behold, God is mighty, and despiseth not any: He is mighty in strength of understanding.
  5. Psalm 83:5 For they have consulted together with one consent; Against thee do they make a covenant:
  6. Proverbs 19:8 He that getteth wisdom loveth his own soul: He that keepeth understanding shall find good.

All of this playing with words in the English translations did not settle well with me. How was a person to properly interpret the Bible if there was no consistency in how the Hebrew was translated? If one is given the proper translations and definitions some interesting revelations appear.

Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly corrupt: who can know it?

I had previously thought, based on the above verse, that the heart (in the sense of emotion) was deceitful but the mind was logical and trustworthy. After discovering that the heart to the Hebrews was the mind, I realized that Jeremiah was saying that the “mind” was deceitful. In other studies I discovered that emotion, which we consider to be the heart, is actually the kidneys to the Hebrews.

I should point out that this is not an isolated case by any means, in fact, I have seen this same scenario played out time after time with many different words and in all translations. Anyone desiring to do a serious word study can never rely on an English translation alone, at a minimum a concordance and dictionary are going to be essential.

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