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Language Studies

Hebrew Thoughts


nephesh - נֶפֶשׁ (Strong's #5315)

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נֶפֶשׁ nephesh (Strong's #5315) in its 755 occurrences is translated by 40+ words (e.g., soul, person, being, self, mind [15x], heart [15x], body [8x], appetite, desire) in the KJV which are freely swapped for alternate words in newer translations.

Even a dead person can be described as a נֶפֶשׁ nephesh (13x in the OT, e.g., Numbers 5:2; 6:6; 9:6-7).

The Greek Septuagint OT translates it 600 times as πσυχη psuchê 'soul', the word from which we derive psychology and psychiatry, literally "soul healing".

70% of the 144 references in the Psalms are suffixed with "my" indicating "my soul" or "me", "my person", not just "my soul".

Over a third of the OT references refer to the whole of life itself (x282), another third (x249) to aspects of the soul proper (will, intellect, emotions etc) and just under a third (x223) to its use as a personal pronoun, i.e., 'me, myself'.

Perhaps from the idea of panting ("As the deer pants for the water, so my soul pants for You, O God", Psalm 42:1-2) after something comes the use of נֶפֶשׁ nephesh for appetite, craving and desire, in terms of food, drink, ambition or sexual drive (e.g., Jeremiah 2:24, of a donkey's desire and mating lust).

Scripture describes man as a living נֶפֶשׁ nephesh (Genesis 2:7) as also there are animal living souls (Genesis 1:20). In fact, Genesis 1:20 is the first reference to נֶפֶשׁ nephesh:

vayyô’mer ’elôhîym yish'retsû hammayîm sherets nephesh chayyâh
"and-said God let-swarm the-waters swarmers soul life/living"
i.e.: "let the waters teem with living soul-creatures"

נֶפֶשׁ nephesh comes from the verb נָפַשׁ nâphash (Strong's #5314) which only occurs 3 times and is usually translated by "refreshed". A good example is in Exodus 31:17 " six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed", literally and anthropomorphically "God took a breather"!

Genesis 2:7's use of נֶפֶשׂשׁ nephesh illustrates well this root meaning. Breathing is the most obvious aspect of man which departs at his death and returns during resurrection from the dead (1 Kings 21:22). It appears to be located in Hebrew thought in the neck (cf. Psalm 69:1-2, "the waters have come up to my neck"), or throat (Isaiah 5:14, paralleled with "mouth"), where one exhales. Man first became a living soul through the receipt of God's breath inhaled through the nostrils: "[God] breathed (נָפַך nâphach, Strong's #5301 - note the verb's common first root syllable with נָפַשׁ nâphash) into his nostrils the breath (נֶשַׁמַה neshamah, Strong's #5397) of life; and man became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7).

So Genesis 2:7 describes "living breath" being breathed into man, almost like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, except mouth-to-nose, and man becomes a "living soul", as opposed to an inanimate soul. Therefore, souls without breath can die, as noted earlier. This obviously causes problems for Christian theology but this study is about what the Hebrew says not what theology says. Furthermore, this verse mentions nothing of a רוּחַ rûach "spirit" (Strong's #7307) at this stage.

נֶפֶשׁ nephesh, as with רוּחַ rûach "spirit", is often used to describe the whole immaterial part of man, i.e., mind, emotions, will, intellect, personality, conscience . . ., that the two are similar is clear by the parallelism in Job 7:11:

“I will speak / in the anguish / of my soul (nephesh);
I will complain / in the bitterness / of my spirit (ruach)”

Job 3:20 also describes the bitterness of soul just as there is a bitterness of spirit in Job 7:11. Other parallelisms between soul and spirit occur in Job 12:10 and Isaiah 26:9.

"Any distinction of a substantial or elemental kind between רוּחַ and נֶפֶשׁ is not to be understood. Neither is the רוּחַ higher than the נֶפֶשׁ, or more allied to God. But the idea of רוּחַ is vitality, strength, power, which is also the idea attached to the רוּחַ of God; . . . The רוּחַ is the נֶפֶשׁ as possessing or showing power . . . רוּחַ and נֶפֶשׁ are the same things under different aspects." F1

Man's spirit is God's influence and vitality in man which can affect body (e.g., Judges 14:6 of spiritual strength given to Samson to defeat a lion) and soul.

Many times נֶפֶשׁ nephesh is used in passages which talk of "saving your life" and here נֶפֶשׁ nephesh means the whole person, because in this life merely "saving your soul" would still result in physical death (see Joshua 2:13; Isaiah 44:20; 1 Samuel 19:11; Psalm 6:5; 49:15; 72:13). On questions of life after death it is the soul, not the spirit, which is not left in Sheol (Psalms 16:10; 30:3; 86:13; 89:48; Proverbs 23:14) on 8 other occasions the soul is spoken of in connection with a grave/pit and silence.

נֶפֶשׁ nephesh is even used of God in the sense of "I" or "me": Jeremiah 6:8; Isaiah 42:1 etc.

Jewish writings speak of the soul synonymously under several words or aspects:

"three names the soul of man is called by, the soul, spirit, and breath"
(Zohar in Numbers 67.fol 3)

"The soul is called by five names: nephesh, rûach, neshamah, yechidah, chayyah
(Genesis Rabbah 14.9)

Of these latter five, the rabbis speak of nephesh as the life and vitality "in the blood" (Deuteronomy 12:23), rûach and neshamah "spirit and breath" as the vitality that specifically comes from God and ascends and descends (Ecclesiastes 3:21), yechidah as the aspect of man as unique and united, and chayyah as "life and survival".

Elsewhere, the rabbis (Siphre Deuteronomy 306; 132a) derive from the Old Testament the idea that man is first a unity but secondly of two natures, one from above (the soul & its synonyms just mentioned) and one from below (the body), but sometimes as we have seen even the soul can be described as from below with just the breath coming from above. Hebrew psychology is not an exact science!

F1: A.B.Davidson (Professor of Hebrew & O.T. exegesis, Edinburgh), The Theology of the Old Testament, Edinburgh: T.& T. Clark, 1904/25, p.200-201, author's italics

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Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 20th, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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