Barry Newman's Blog

February 26, 2010

“The Heart” in the Old Testament (part II)

Filed under: Lev and Levav,The Heart — barrynewman @ 9:18 am

For lovers of the Old Testament, our problem is to know how the Hebrew words that could be translated “heart” should be properly understood.  We need to keep in mind that there isn’t a word that we would translate “brain” and that in some sense or another our minds are where our dispositions, interests, attitudes, knowledge and understandings are “located”.  We also need to remember that a Hebrew word might not function in the same way as a so-called English equivalent word might function.  For example, the Hebrew word might have a very different semantic field than the English word often provided as a translation.  Furthermore, the Hebrew words may have changed their function in the course of time and during the development of the Hebrew language, though the Hebrew text we generally rely on, and relied upon below, the Masoretic text, was finalised in the second half of the first millennium A.D.  The linguistic general context in which the words are found may help immensely.  However, no matter how carefully we attempt to arrive at a correct understanding in some cases doubt about our translation will persist.

By far the most common Hebrew words underlying the English word “heart’ are the two words: lev and levav[1].  They are considered to be equivalent.  They and their derivatives[2] occur in excess of 850 times[3], with the English translation very commonly being “heart” or one of its cognates.  Unless otherwise obvious, references to leb or lebab below are to be understood as including any derivatives.  There are other Hebrew words or their cognates which are sometimes translated “heart”. One word is commonly understood as “kidneys”, another as referring to “bowels”, “abdomen” or “womb”, another is commonly translated as  “breast”, “bosom” or “lap”, another is sometimes translated “viscera” or “innards” or by use of a personal pronoun but commonly translated with the sense of  “midst”,  another is commonly translated “stomach” or “womb”, another is commonly translated “liver” and the word, nephesh is commonly translated “soul”.  Nephesh aside, of all the instances where these latter words (and two other words which occur only once each) are used, about 50 appear in contexts where it could be plausibly argued that they perform functions similar to those performed by either lev or levav. On 17 of these 50 odd occasions the New International Version (1986) uses “heart’ as the translation.   On these 50 or so occasions, even if the Hebrew words were translated “heart”, they would add no new sense to what can be discerned by simply examining leb or lebab.  For this reason and because lev and levav are the words most commonly underlying translations involving the English word “heart”, the focus below is on these two Hebrew words alone.  Some mention of nephesh and its relationship to lev or levav will be given below.  Each textual reference was checked at least twice.  In many instances a textual reference was checked three or more times.

[1] There are valuable discussions on the two main Hebrew words for “heart” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (eds. G. J. Botterweck, H. Ringgren and H. –J Fabry; translated by: D. E. Green) Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI: H. –J. Fabry, VII [1995]:  399-437 and in Anthropology of the Old Testament (Sigler Press: Mifflintown, PA:  H. W. Wolff, 1996): 40-58.

[2] In addition to about 847 uses of lev, levav, their cognates and their combinations with other words, there are 8 Aramaic forms.

[3] Occurrences occur in all Old Testament books with the exceptions of Amos, Micah and Habakkuk.



  1. Thanks for your post. Even when lev/levav is used in Hebrew to mean thinking/person etc., heart is still a good translation in English because English often does use heart in this way. Kidneys (kelayot) on the other hand, is completely different in Hebrew and English.

    Comment by Hebrew Scholar — February 28, 2010 @ 9:42 pm | Reply

  2. Many thanks for your comment. I would have preferred to have had the posts exhibit Hebrew script but not knowing how to do that or if it were possible I have used English equivalents – but realise that my equivalents are probably not the most appropriate – I probably should have referred to lev/levav rather than leb/lebab. By the way, do you have any ideas on why or how these two forms came about? I could not come up with any tight cohesive explanation.

    As you probably realise, I am no Hebrew scholar. I have carried out an analysis as a complete amateur. With reference to kidneys, I tried to be generous and of the 31 usages of kelayot, I considered that 12 of these seem to perform a similar function to lev/levav with 7 of these 12 occurring in close association with lev/levav in the text. I am not saying that these 12 perform the same function, only a similar one, but perhaps I was too generous in my thinking!! The same applies to the other “organs” I mnetioned.


    Comment by barrynewman — March 1, 2010 @ 12:11 am | Reply

  3. Hi Barry,
    Have you seen F H von Meyenfeldt’s study (unfortunately in dutch, not english) “Het Hart (Leb, Lebab) in het Oude Testament” (1950) which is available at the Moore College Library? von Meyenfeldt has a short summary in english (also available in the M C Library), in his little booklet “The Meaning of Ethos” (Christian Perspectives, 1964) on pp 49-54. There was a study by J H Becker done in 1942 in the netherlands on “Het begrip nefes in het Oude Testament I thought that there was a copy of this in the University of Sydney library but that doesn’t seem correct on checking.


    Comment by Ted Fackerell — April 30, 2010 @ 9:12 am | Reply

    • Thanks for the comment Ted.

      No I haven’t seen von Meyenfeldt’s study and unfortunately being in Dutch I wouldn’t be able to read it. I am sure people have done a better analysis than I have of “heart”. However I wasn’t aware of anyone examining every incident of lev/levav and then publishing a complete “statistical” analysis. so I thought I would do both in case it was of any assistance to anyone. In fact originally I simply wanted to carry out an independent study for my own sake. In the blog series do refer to Wolf’s “Anthropolgy of the O.T. and Fabry’s article in the Dictionary of the O.T. I’ll have a look at the von Meyehfeldt’s summary in English in the near future. Thanks Ted

      It was good to see you and Ruth yesterday. Take care both of you

      Best wishes


      Comment by barrynewman — April 30, 2010 @ 11:11 pm | Reply

  4. What do you think about the NIV’s rendering of “umoi emu oliu” as “my heart began to pound” in Song of Songs 5:4? I’ve noticed that there are a lot of different ways to translate the text (my favorite is “I trembled to my very core”) and I’m curious if something as specific as the beating of the heart is a fair reading, given that (as I understand it), heart (as a specific organ) is normally denoted by “lev.”

    Comment by Jason Johnson — May 26, 2013 @ 7:40 am | Reply

    • Hi Jason,

      I don’t have any of my resources with me at the moment as I am on an island in the Pacific, called “Lord Howe Island” and I will be here for another 2 months. Furthermore, I am no expert. However, as fas as I can work out, a more literal translation would be, “my bowels” “surged/clamoured (?). The NIV’s rendering of, “my heart began to pound” is a nice way of expressing something similar in our culture where mention of “bowels” is not regarded as all that appropriate in polite company. However the Hebrew thought differently. It certainly means that she was physically affected by her lover’s approach. By “bowel” the reference would be to some part in her lower anatomy, not necessarily her actual bowel as we understand “bowel”. I think “heart” is actually misleading and “beating of the heart” is too specific to be true. It’s neat but I think says more than we can be sure of. My guess is that it may be something of a more sexual nature that we in our modern western world would find difficult to have in an English translation of the Scriptures. What one society finds “inappropriate” in “nice” literature, another might find quite appropriate. As another alternative it could also be an idiomatic expression and actually mean something like your favourite – If I had to give an English translation I would be more inclined to go for yours!

      Best wishes


      Comment by LHI — May 26, 2013 @ 12:48 pm | Reply

      • Barry –

        I hope then that Lord Howe Island is treating you well! I also suspected that “my heart beat” was far too *specific* of a way to translate it, so it’s good to see that suspicion confirmed by someone else – expert or not.

        The reason I ask is because one of my larger goals in life is to copy the Scriptures by hand (over maybe 4 to 6 years), and it occured to me that as long as I’m going to commit to doing it, there’s no good reason why I can’t also “improve” my source text (1984 NIV) where the text is translated less-than-ideally. So I’ve been making a point to keep a running list of tricky passages like this to evaluate and improve where I find them lacking. (I envision this being my primary “desk Bible” ie regular-use Bible that I never put away on the shelf, when it’s finished.)

        Given that the surrounding verses are (in my opinion) almost certainly a double entendre, I also thought that there was a highly sexualized idea here (again, good to see someone else sees it – I knew I wasn’t crazy!), so I am leaning towards something that preserves that. Right now I’m thinking of wording it as, “My beloved thrust his hand through the latch-opening; he caused me to tremble deep inside.” That would seem to me to keep with the surface text of excitement of the lover at the door, but also read nicely into the double entendre.

        Of course, it doesn’t matter greatly – one of my “guiding principles” going in is that, as a very general rule of thumb, I prefer beauty over literalism (the reason I don’t just say, “my bowels clammored for him”). The reason for this is because I tried switching to a more literal translation a few years back, and one of the first passages I read (I think in Exodus maybe), every sentence started with the word “and.” Of couse this reflected the underlying Hebrew very well, but it made for choppy reading in English – and I thought it over and decided that beauty is more important (to me) because I can ALWAYS throw in a margin note to bring out something missed by not translating ultra-literal, but the awkward wooden text is something you’re just stuck with. Know what I mean? Just my opinion on the matter. Course I don’t mind the margin notes – I use post-it’s now, so it’s super easy to update or expand them, or even switch Bibles entirely without having to re-copy everything.

        Was that enough rabbit trails? I guess all I meant to say was, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I might take a look around more of your blog now. 🙂

        Comment by Jason — May 26, 2013 @ 11:52 pm

      • Jason,

        No problem.

        My own way of translating is to see what the text seems to say literally, then to think on how can I put that into reasonable English, (you are absolutely correct – trying to have a literal translation is ridiculous – languages don’t have neat correspondences in other languages), trying to keep in mind that the text has to make sense (for me the literary context can be vital for determining sense but cultural context can also be important.) In the case of Hebrew I basically only have the Scriptures to see how words, phrases etc. are used. In the case of Greek, I have sometimes had to search how a word or phrase was used outside of the NT at around the time of the 1st century. Then again there is sometimes competing manuscript evidence. In spite of such as these I am grateful to God for such reliable texts.

        I can’t understand why the NIV sometimes puts in extra words, when it really seems unnecessary – such as “my” in “my brothers” when the text simply says “brothers” (of course not all that important) or “powerful forces” when there is no mention of “powerful” – somewhat more important (both examples come from Galatians.) perhaps having committees decide, forces the issue!

        All the best with your endeavours



        Comment by LHI — May 27, 2013 @ 6:15 am

      • Barry –

        Interesting – can you give me the references for those verses in Galatians when you have opportunity?

        Peace to you,


        Comment by Jason — May 27, 2013 @ 3:50 pm

      • Hi Jason,

        My semi-apologies to the writers of NIV. I thought after sending the email I may have muddled up the NIV with another translation. I have been looking at a number lately. In fact I can’t recall which translation had “powerful forces” and forces”.

        However the NIV still has a word in one place and not in another. Gal 4: 9 refers to “principles” and Gal 4: 3 refers to “basic principles” for the same word, “stoicheia”. Admittedly “stoicheia” is difficult to translate (the related verb in Gal 5: 13 is just as difficult) but to be inconsistent is misleading. Another translation simply refers to, “elemental spirits” in both texts which at least is being consistent. (I think, “ground rules” is probably not far off the mark.)

        The insertion of “my” occurs at Gal 5: 13. It is not inserted at 4: 12.

        I just mentioned these two instances as examples. There are many such.



        Comment by LHI — May 27, 2013 @ 11:08 pm

      • Interesting. When it says bowels surged/clamored it reminds me of when you get butterflies when you’re in love or infatuated. Its similar to the quickening women feel during pregnancy when the baby is very tiny and moves. I don’t know if men get butterflies when they’re in love. It might be a surge of oxytocin to love hormone.

        Comment by Wrenn — January 28, 2018 @ 5:26 pm

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