How to use the NIV Interlinear Hebrew-English Old Testament

Author's Bias: Unknown

This preintroductory section is designed to acquaint English Bible students and beginning language students with the value and use of this (or any other) interlinear work by describing what it is, what it can do, and what it cannot do. The introduction that follows presents in more detail a technical discussion of the Hebrew text and the translation techniques underlying the interlinear version and is directed to those already familiar with the basics of Hebrew grammar and textual criticism.

What It is

As the title states, an interlinear Hebrew-English Old Testament is a book that interlines Hebrew with English; that is, it provides a line of English translation for each line of Hebrew. Furthermore, it matches these lines word-for-word so that each Hebrew word has a representative word or phrase translating it into English.

This interlinear is difficult to read as a line because Hebrew reads right to left whereas English reads left to right. In the past, interlinears have written their English lines right to left, thus making the English reader read backwards. In this interlinear, on the other hand, each multiple-word phrase that translates a single Hebrew word is written normally in English-left to right-so that when the interlinear is used to read Hebrew a word at a time, its English rendering reads as English should. For example, in Genesis 12:2, the Hebrew word ואברבך in traditional interlinears would be rendered "you bless will I and," but in this volume it is "and-I-will-bless-you."

An interlinear should be read a word at a time, not as a version. No passage in one language can be translated into another language consistently word by word and still make the best sense. Anyone who has studied a foreign language knows that. Thus, for an interlinear to accurately represent the Hebrew (or Greek, for the New Testament), it must not represent itself as a version by itself. In most other Old or New Testament interlinears, words are numbered so they may be read in proper English order, and many words are supplied in brackets or italics because they are needed in English but do not come directly from the original language. This interlinear was not constructed in that way. Instead, a specific rendering is given for each Hebrew word. By comparing the sum total of these English words and phrases with the version in the margin, the reader can see the sort of give and take that must go on in order to express in proper English idiom the sentences generated by theses words.

This brings us closer to defining what an interlinear is. It is a sourcebook for word studies and for the study of Hebrew. It is a source for word studies because the reader can work from the New International Version (NIV), which parallels the interlinear text, and thus discover the Hebrew word that underlies the key words of the text. It is a source for the study of Hebrew because it provides an English translation for every Hebrew word; so the student of Hebrew can read large portions of the text without constant reference to dictionaries or grammar books. These processes will be explained further in the next section.

What It Can Do

Because it is based on the NIV, and NIV is contained on the same page as the interlinear text, one can read from the major words of the English text into the interlinear text and find the Hebrew word that will begin a word study. Needless to say, if you do not know the Hebrew alphabet, this book will be of little value to you. Thus, I have included a chart of the alphabet and vowels with pronunciation as a bare-bones minimum of knowledge necessary to work with this text. It would be of great value, however, if you were to dabble in a beginning Hebrew grammar or, better yet, to learn the essentials of Hebrew sounds and grammar from I. W. Goodrick's Do It Yourself Hebrew and Greek (Portland: Multnomah, 1976; Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1979). Goodrick's book has a companion cassette that pronounces all Hebrew sounds and slowly reads through the first two chapters of Genesis to apply the basic sounds to the actual words of the text.

Suppose you are reading "The Song of Moses" in Exodus 15 and you see the footnote in verse 4 that says the Hebrew meaning of the name Red Sea is really the "Sea of Reeds." As you look over to the interlinear text, you do not even find the word red. The last word in verse 4 is "Reed," its corresponding Hebrew word being סוף. If this is not enough information for you, you will want to take the next step of going to Hebrew dictionaries (or lexicons) and The Englishman's Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970).

Before you can use these tools, you will have to know the root form of the word. Hebrew (and Greek) words change their forms in many ways, depending on how they are used in a sentence, but the dictionaries list only the most basic form of each word. The book that will give you this form is called The Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970). We find the form סוף on page 574 and notice that it is indeed already in its basic form, for there is a definition after it (note that this is the word in the second column [a noun], not the word in brackets in the first column [a verb]). The definitions given include seaweed, sedge, reed, rush, and bullrush, besides the proper name "Red Sea." If you go further and look in a larger lexicon like that of Brown, Driver, and Briggs (BDB)-and you should!-you will discover that the word never refers to the color red at all; it is used only of water plants and of the "arms" of the Red Sea-the gulfs of Suez and Akaba. BDB explains that the term Red Sea comes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament, for the Greeks called these bodies of water by their color, not by their vegetation.

In addition to checking dictionary definitions, you can do your own inductive study by looking at every verse in which a word occurs. Every occurrence of the word סוף, for example, is listed on page 872 of the Englishman's Concordance. After looking them all up, you will see that whenever the word is not used of the Red Sea, it refers to reeds or water plants in general. This does not mean you cannot refer to this body of water as the Red Sea; it simply means that you know the basis for the footnote in the NIV and can explain to someone else what the Hebrew word means. Goodrick's book, mentioned earlier, will not only teach you how to sound out Hebrew words; it will also teach you how to do this kind of word study in both Hebrew and Greek.

This interlinear can help someone learn the Hebrew language, because it is a grammatically literal translation, allowing the Hebrew text to be read without constant reference to lexicons and grammars. When the reader is unable to immediately identify the form or determine the meaning of a word, a mere glance at the English translation will show if it is a noun or a verb, a participle or an imperative, singular or plural, or whatever, besides giving its definition. By comparing the interlinear rendering with the NIV, the reader will also see how the form functions, for sometimes the form in which Hebrew cast a word or phrase is changed in order to make good sense in English.

For example, the first word in Exodus 20:8, זבוך, being an infinitive, is translated in the interlinear as "to-remember." But in the NIV it is rendered as an imperative, "Remember." The student would then understand (or discover in a grammar) that this infinitive is an "imperitival infinitive," an emphatic way of expressing a command. The difference in form between the interlinear translation and that of the NIV does not mean that the NIV is neither literal nor accurate; rather, a change in grammatical form was felt necessary in order to express the same idea in each language.

What It Cannot Do

This brings us to the third section: what an interlinear cannot do. First, it cannot be used by itself to "correct" or criticize a real translation. By "real translation" I mean one that was made for English-speaking people to read in normal English idiom, such as the NIV. As we saw in the preceding example, the form of grammar and even the number and order or words used in an expression may change from one language to another. Because the interlinear supplies only a word-for-word grammatically literal equivalence, it cannot be used as a normal English translation. It is a sort of half-way point between the Hebrew original and its idiomatic English rendering. So, the English Bible student cannot use the interlinear grammatically as he can lexically (that is, as a source for word studies).

Second, in respect to word studies, the interlinear translation cannot fully and exactly express the Hebrew in every instance. It can give a definition for a word in its context but cannot provide a commentary on all of the subtle nuances and meanings of that word. For this, one must consult lexicons and concordances. With the help of a concordance one can examine any word in every location in which it appears in Scripture, and with the lexicon he can obtain categorized definitions and even commentary on key passages. We have already seen this process in regard to the Red Sea.

Third, the interlinear cannot be an independent source of exegesis or interpretation. For example, כראשיח the first word in Genesis 1:1, is translated "in-beginning" (because there is no definite article present in the Hebrew) but this does not mean it should be interpreted as speaking of a beginning (i.e., one among many). An article is required in English-whether "a" or "the"-even though the Hebrew has none, and the NIV has interpreted this verse to refer to the beginning (as have most other English versions). That decision cannot be challenged and refuted solely on the rendering of the Hebrew word in the interlinear.

Similarly, in Isaiah 7:14, because the NIV translators chose "the virgin" to translate the Hebrew word העלמה, the interlinear translation reflects this choice rather than using "the young woman," which might be the better option linguistically, contextually, and theologically. This "proves" only that the NIV agrees with the word choice of some versions-e.g., King James Version, Living Bible, New American Standard Bible-as opposed to the choice of other versions-e.g., Good News Bible, Jerusalem Bible, and Revised Standard Version. It does not prove that העלמה means "the virgin."

In summary, the English Bible student can use this volume to locate and begin to study words in lexicons, concordances, and linguistically based commentaries and even to glean a little information about Hebrew grammar by observing the style of translation. The student of Hebrew grammar can use it more fully, as a companion to translation that provides both form and function and as a pedagogue to lead him to a better reading knowledge of Hebrew-even to the point where he outgrows the book altogether.

The introduction that follows explains more fully to the student of Hebrew how to use the interlinear as a help in understanding grammar. It does so by pointing out the techniques of translation that express the forms of the words. A careful reading of the introduction will give the student a better understanding of the book and a fuller, more satisfying use of it. At the end of the introduction is a list of books basic to the study of Hebrew and of the biblical languages in general.

Taken from THE NIV INTERLINEAR HEBREW-ENGLISH OLD TESTAMENT by JOHN KOHLENBERGER. Copyright ©1987 by the Zondervan Corporation. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House (

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