Soul or Nephesh in the original Bible language. Are you a soul, or do you have one? Is the soul purely material, or is there an immaterial component as well?
Soul and specifically its nature have been controversial since time immemorial. It’s time to take an in-depth look at the origin of this all-important subject. Why? Because only by understanding what a soul is can we begin to grasp what a human being is.
(Origin of Humankind, chapter 3.4)
Let’s summarize what we’ve covered in Genesis 2:7 so far. Yahveh formed man out of dust, the most sterile part of the ground. Yahveh, the Potter, the future Jesus, then breathed into his nostrils. We shall discuss the breath of life, which is what He breathed into the man. The result was this dust man became a living soul. In Hebrew, a nefesh chaiya.
Frequently the word soul takes on some sanctimonious spiritual notion associated with heaven. What does the Biblical Hebrew say about this?
Over the next few weeks, The Explanation will broach some of the most controversial subjects in theology and science. What is it to be human? The origin of humans? The human mind. Life. Death. Subjects to which each person worldwide is both a witness and a participant. All of us observe the full force of every one of these phenomena in our lives. If you’re a nurse, doctor, fireman, policeman, or in direct service to other human beings, you’re touched daily. We see human lives play out, begin, get jumbled, and end. We see the physical reality, but we don’t know if there are any non-material implications and, if so, what they may be.
If we don’t understand the basics, how can we expect to go on and figure out how to bring peace and prosperity to all of humankind? Here are the basics. What is a living soul, a nefesh chaiya?
And 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 (H5315).
Following the KJV (King James Version), we have all the different English words the translators used for this one Biblical Hebrew word; this is the first of the 7 Keys to Master Biblical Hebrew. At UnlockBibleMeaning.com, you can verify and study the meaning and especially the usage of soul – nephesh.
נֶפֶשׁ nephesh neh’-fesh; from H5314 (נָפַשׁ); properly, a breathing creature, i.e. animal of (abstractly) vitality; used very widely in a literal, accommodated or figurative sense (bodily or mental):
KJV – any, appetite, beast, body, breath, creature, ⨯dead(-ly), desire, ⨯ (dis-) contented, ⨯ fish, ghost, +greedy, he, heart(-y), (hath, ⨯ jeopardy of) life ([idiom] in jeopardy), lust, man, me, mind, mortally, one, own, person, pleasure, (her-, him-, my-, thy-) self, them (your) -selves, + slay, soul, + tablet, they, thing, ([idiom] she) will, ⨯ would have it.
Genesis 2:7 is not the first usage of the term soul. It is present four times before in Genesis 1:20, 30 (where it’s translated, has life), and in Gen. 1:21,24 (creature). Notice that from Genesis 1:20 to 2:7 the term nephesh is used five times. Importantly, in English, the translators omitted it twice and used the translation creature twice and soul once. Check this for yourself using the Interlinear Bible at UnlockBibleMeaning.com.
Sorry to insist on the details, but with this specific, very delicate subject, as you’ll see, the translators took certain liberties. The main one in these five verses is that every time nephesh refers to animals (fish, fowl, fauna), they either omitted it or used creature. Only when it comes to man, do they use soul. This point is essential because, from a Biblical Hebrew point of view, each animal and each man (i.e., human) is a nefesh, a soul, or a creature.
Another of the 7 Keys to Master Biblical Hebrew is to understand that each Hebrew word tells a story. Therefore we need to see how nephesh is used in contexts elsewhere in the Bible. See Further Study below. The Biblical Hebrew word nephesh (H3515) is used over 700 times and translated using over 20 different English words. In your English language Bible or any other translation, you can know neither when H3515 is used nor what the translation is. Hence the necessity to use the Hebrew Concordance.
What follows is only a smattering of the 700+ passages because of space limitations. Yes, I’ve chosen these verses for a purpose. You need to verify that I’m not misappropriating their usage.
Nephesh incorporates two distinct characteristics.
The MATERIAL aspect of life. In the above two verses, the body, and breath. These can be touched, physically felt, and measured.
Leviticus 21:11 Neither shall he go in to any dead body, (H5315) nor defile himself for his father, or for his mother;
Job 41:21 His breath (H5315) kindles coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth.
In Genesis 2:7, Yahveh is making a living soul. He took dust, molded it, and gave it life. Like I have as I write this and you have as you read this. I shall come back to life but understand that this living soul is subject to death. This material body can lose its life and die. Haggai 2:13, “Then said Haggai, If one that is unclean by a dead body (H5315) touch any of these, shall it be unclean? And the priests answered and said, It shall be unclean.”
There are many other verses (read the verses that include the Hebrew word, nephesh) like Ex 21:23 23 And if any mischief follow, then you shall give life (H5315) for life, (H5315). Life can be taken away, and the material soul will die.
Such is the meaning of Genesis 3:19 for dust you are, and unto dust shall you return. On death, the material soul reverts to what it originally was, useless and worthless dust.
It is also why breathed (into his nostrils) includes the notion of snuffing out. (H5301) God can make a living soul. He can also destroy a living soul; in other words, it causes it to lose life, which is to make it die. If this is the first blog post you’re reading about this subject, please read the three previous posts for the details (Yahveh formed man, out of dust, and breathed into his nostrils). See how it fits together. Each blog post is just a little part of the whole picture.
In this same vein, the Bible compares humans to animals. From that point of view, animals and human beings are equal! Job 34:15 All flesh (H1320 – basar) shall perish together, and man shall turn again unto dust. This Biblical Hebrew word basar (H1320) is used in modern Hebrew to mean meat. From an outward, purely visible aspect, humans and animals are simply meat.
Science announces that humans, chimps, and bonobos have practically 99% the same DNA for this reason. Science is right with this claim. The Bible has stated for hundreds of years that animals and humans are physical living meat. The Bible doesn’t talk about DNA and percentages, but it certainly corroborates what Science has discovered. There’s no contradiction here.
The problem is that’s the limit of Science, the material. Science can only see and measure the physical. Its scanners, MRI, electron microscopes, and other measuring devices can observe the atoms of the brain, heart, gut, even cells, neurons, synapses. We have reached the point where we can take cells apart and analyze the millions of minute nucleotides and their makeup. We know their chemical composition and can even split the atoms and witness the Higgs boson elementary particle. But that’s the limit of science, the material, very, very, very small material, but still ONLY material.
And therein lies an insurmountable barrier for Science.
Because the soul – nephesh in NOT just material. The soul, the nephesh, contains an immaterial element you cannot see nor measure—humanly imposed limitations, much less accept it.
The IMMATERIAL aspect of the soul referred to in the following three verses where the translations of nephesh are desire, heart (in a figurative sense), and lust.
Jeremiah 44:14 So that none of the remnant of Judah, which are gone into the land of Egypt to sojourn there, shall escape or remain, that they should return into the land of Judah, to the which they have a desire (H5315) to return to dwell there: for none shall return but such as shall escape.
Deuteronomy 24:15 At his day thou shalt give him his hire, neither shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and sets his heart (H5315) upon it: lest he cry against you unto the LORD, and it be sin unto you.
Exodus 15:9 The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; my lust (H5315) shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.
While reading the above list of KJV translated words for H3515, nephesh, one word might have jumped out at you: mind. Like the human mind. Here are a couple of those translated verses.
Ezekiel 23:17 And the Babylonians came to her (Jerusalem and Samaria see verse 4) into the bed of love, and they defiled her with their whoredom, and she was polluted with them, and her mind (H5315) was alienated from them.18 So she discovered her whoredoms, and discovered her nakedness: then my [the LORD verse 1] mind (H5315) was alienated from her, like as my mind (H5315) was alienated from her sister.
I’m not giving you any background or context to these verses for lack of space and because I wish to remain concentrated on one aspect at a time. There are about fifteen translations of MIND for NEPHESH. Please verify this for yourself. You’ll see that the usage of the term mind in 1600 when the KJV was translated is identical to how we use it today. I shall be elaborating on the origin of this immaterial aspect of humans during the next few weeks as we develop this subject.
Here’s something to ponder. The soul is subject to death, as we saw above. The material part returns to dust, as we saw above. What happens to the immaterial part of the soul, also translated mind?
“Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it,” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). This verse sums up what happens to both the material and immaterial aspects of the nephesh. Spirit is not the same Biblical Hebrew word as soul. Nowhere in the KJV is nephesh translated spirit. It is clear, however, that nephesh INCLUDES an IMmaterial aspect which we could call a spiritual element.
We shall see the Biblical Hebrew meaning of this spirit that returns to God upon death. Suffice, for now, is to grasp that all human beings are a nephesh consisting of a material body that, like animals, will return to dust. And an immaterial aspect, unlike animals, conferring on each of us, all the human singularities which we can sum up as being related to the human mind.
This blog post is an excerpt from chapter 3.4 of the book Origin of Humankind
We’ve seen that the KJV translated nephesh creature for animals and soul for humans. On top of this, they omitted two translations. You have to ask yourself the question, why? For now, let’s say there appears to be a little confusion here. That’s why we need to take the time to look more closely at this subject.
At UnlockBibleMeaning.com (or in a Bible Concordance you might have) in Genesis 2:7, you’ll see soul corresponds to Strong’s H5315. Below the Strong’s entry in the right column (at UBM.com) you’ll see Hebrew Concordance for H3515. Click on that, and ALL the verses with the Hebrew word nephesh will display in the left column. Now, read and study the use of H5315. Only when you put all the usages of nephesh together, can you get a whole picture. Then you can tell the story of creature and soul.
Dig Deeper into The Explanation
Join The Explanation Newsletter to stay informed of updates. and future events. No obligations, total privacy, unsubscribe anytime, if you want.
The Explanation series of seven books. Free to read online or purchase these valuable commentaries on Genesis 1-3 from your favorite book outlet. E-book and paperback formats are available. Use this link to see the details of each book and buy from your favorite store.
Since you read all the way to here… you liked it. Please use the Social Network links just below to share this information from The Explanation, Soul, Nephesh in Biblical Hebrew. Here’s the Definition