WORD MEANINGS… NEPHESH AND LEB

(July 19, 2022) Dr Jim McClure, noted theologian, explains …

There are two different Hebrew words in the Proverb 23:7 – nephesh and leb, that have in some English translations been translated by the word ‘heart.’  However, there a significant difference between the two Hebrew words.   

1) ‘Nephesh
This word is used many hundreds of times in the Hebrew Old Testament. In the KJV it is translated inmultiple ways such as, life, creature, soul, persons, mind, lust, heart, any, one, thing, yourself, dead, man and so on.

Nephesh‘ is a difficult word to translate into English, but its most frequent translation as ‘soul ‘ possibly comes closer to the meaningalthough ‘soul’ is not an easy word to understand!

A number of verses in the Old Testament associate nephesh with breath, for example, Genesis 2:7 which reads, ‘The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed (naphach – a word related to nephesh) into his nostrils the breath (neshamah) of life, and the man became a living being.’

Nephesh is also closely related to desire, or that which drives us as a person. For example, Hosea 4:8 where God comments concerning the priest, ‘They feed on the sins of my people and relish their wickedness.’ (NIV)  The KJV renders the verse as, ‘They eat up the sin of my people, and they set their heart on their iniquity.’ The words translated as ‘relish’ (NIV) and ‘set their heart on’ (KJV) may be literally translated as, ‘They lift up their nephesh.’

That motivating thing within us is therefore associated with our ‘soul.’ Nevertheless, the word may be understood as describing personality as distinct from the body that houses it.

2) Leb
This word is used almost 600 times in the Old Testament, often translated as ‘heart’, does not refer to the physical heart that beats within us to keep us alive. For example, Ecclesiastes 7:3, ‘Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart (leb).’

Leb is therefore associated with ‘feelings’ and is referred to commonly as the ‘seat of emotions’ (although literally emotions are centred in the brain.)

Also, in Hebrew thought there is a relationship between emotions and consideration of issues. In Proverbs 24:32 we read, ‘I applied my heart (leb) to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw.’

Leb is also sometimes used in association with the whole person. God told Israel in Deuteronomy 6:5, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart (leb) and with all your soul and with all your strength …’

Jesus also quoted this verse, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart (Greek: kardia) and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.’ (Luke 10:27).

Who or whatever we love with all our ‘heart’ is that to which we are wholly committed.

Differnt versions
Different translations of Proverbs 23:7 (as challenged in Dr Robert McQuillan’s article And That’s all That Matters—But is it?) are not particularly accurate nor helpful. Whereas the ‘old’ KJV reads ‘For as he thinketh in his heart (nephesh) so is he: Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart (leb) is not with thee’ the RSV reads ‘For he is like one who is inwardly reckoning. “Eat and drink!” he says to you; but his heart is not with you.’

Inwardly thinking, reckoning about what? The NIV renders the verse in this way: ‘For he is the kind of man who is always thinking about the cost… but his heart is not with you.’ (This suggests that the apparent generous hospitality does not truly reflect what the man was actually thinking!)

One final thought
In Proverbs 23:26 we read God’s appeal to us,  ‘My son, give me your heart (leb) and let your eyes keep to my ways.’

God is asking more from us than just an emotional response. He wants all of us!

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Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.

 His helpful book, Looking for Answers in a Confusing World, is offered free, all of Dr Jim’s writings are highly recommended – such as Grace Revisited, Looking for Answers in a Confusing World, Overview of the Old and New Testaments, Love, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, The Masonic Deception, Word of Life in the Old and New Testaments, Interpreting the Letter of James, and Faith Works – A Commentary on the Letter of James. All are available in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks and. Link for orders and questions: OnlinerConnect@gmail.com

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2 comments

  1. Thanks Jim. Interestingly that verse you quote from Proverbs 23:26 ‘My son give me your heart…’ was the verse the Holy Spirit used many years ago to bring a person to saving faith — he went on to serve the Lord in various ways until he was called home a few years ago. As a Boys Brigade officer he was instrumental in encouraging and strengthening me and other young men who were then in our ‘teens’ in our Christian faith and service.

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