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Language Studies

Hebrew Thoughts


neshamah - נֶשַׁמַה (Strong's #5397)

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נֶשַׁמַה neshamah (Strong's #5397) means "breath" and is sometimes used in place of nephesh or rûach (see below), it derives from נָשַׁם nâsham "to pant or blow away" (Strong's #5395). This root verb only occurs in Isaiah 42:14 where it is paired with שָׁאַף shâ’aph "to inhale, pant after, covet, crush or destroy" (Strong's #7602).

Genesis 2:7 is the memorable first use of נֶשַׁמַה neshamah in which,"the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul". The verb to breathe, here, though is a different unrelated verb נָפַח nâphach (Strong's #5301, x12). In 2 Samuel 22:16 God's rebuke is described by the phrase מִנִשְׁמַת־רוּחַ minishmath-rûach "from-breath of spirit of his nose", so that even רוּחַ rûach "spirit" (Strong's #7307, x378) seems to have the connotation of divine and consequently human breath.

There is, therefore, a very strong affinity between what we think of as the very natural function of breath, though nonetheless miraculous, and the word רוּחַ rûach "spirit" opften considered as the more divine spark of life or higher consciousness. But in several locations we see רוּחַ rûach "spirit" as no more than a synonym for "breath". For example, note the obvious parallelism in Job 4:9; 27:3; 32:8 and also 33:4:

"By the נֶשַׁמַה neshamah breath of God they perish,
and by the רוּחַ rûach spirit of His nostrils are they consumed" (Job 4:9)

"As long as my נֶשַׁמַה neshamah breath is in me,
and the רוּחַ rûach spirit of God is in my nostrils" (Job 27:3)

"Surely there is a רוּחַ rûach spirit in man,
and the נֶשַׁמַה neshamah breath of Shadday gives him understanding" (Job 33:4)

"The רוּחַ rûach spirit of God has made me,
and the נֶשַׁמַה neshamah breath of Shadday gave me life" (Job 32:8)

This is not a mere poetic usage confined to the ancient book of Job which has a lot of references reflecting on the creation of man, for, Isaiah too has the same parallelism:

"...He gives נֶשַׁמַה neshamah breath to the people on it,
and רוּחַ rûach spirit to those that walk on it" (Isaiah 42:5)

Conversely, נֶשַׁמַה neshamah is twice translated by the word "spirit" in the KJV and NAS Bible versions of Job 26:4 and Proverbs 20:27, "the נֶשַׁמַה neshamah of man is the lamp of the Lord searching the innermost parts". It is also by "soul" in Isaiah 57:16, "the souls I have made".

נֶשַׁמַה neshamah is again combined with רוּחַ "spirit" in Genesis 7:22 during the flood narrative when all flesh apart from those on the Ark dies, "all in whose nostrils was the נִשְׁמַת־רוּחַ nishmath-rûach breath-of-spirit of life". Indeed, in several verses (e.g., Deuteronomy 20:16, Joshua 10:40; 11:11) the word is used frequently to describe all those with "breath" prior to their absolute destruction.

So "breath" is a sign of life, and a frequent synonym for spirit or soul.

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Lectionary Calendar
Monday, August 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20
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