Real Meaning of ‘Soul’ in the OT


Soul נפש

The Old Testament. The Hebrew word so rendered is nepes [נפש]. It appears 755 times in the Old Testament. The King James Version uses 42 different English terms to translate it. The two most common renderings are “soul” (428 times) and “life” (117 times). It is the synchronic use of nepes [נפש] that determines its meaning rather than the diachronic. Hebrew is inclined to use one and the same word for a variety of functions that are labeled with distinct words in English.

Nepes [נפש] in the Old Testament is never the “immortal soul” but simply the life principle or living being. Such is observable in Genesis 1:20, 21, 24, where the qualified (living) nepes [נפש] refers to animals and is rendered “living creatures.” The same Hebrew term is then applied to the creation of humankind in Genesis 2:7, where dust is vitalized by the breath of God and becomes a “living being.” Thus, human being shares soul with the animals. It is the breath of God that makes the lifeless dust a “living being”person.

Frequently in the Old Testament nepes [נפש] designates the individual ( Lev 17:10 ; 23:30 ). In its plural form it indicates a number of individuals such as Abraham’s party ( Gen 12:5 ), the remnant left behind in Judah ( Jer 43:6 ), and the offspring of Leah ( Gen 46:15 ).

Nepes [נפש] qualified by “dead” means a dead individual, a corpse ( Num 6:6 ). More significant here is that nepes [v,p,n] can mean the corpse of an individual even without the qualification “dead” ( Num 5:2 ; 6:11 ). Here nepes [נפש] is detached from the concept of life and refers to the corpse. Hebrew thought could not conceive of a disembodied nepes [נפש].

Frequently nepes [נפש] takes the place of a personal or reflexive pronoun ( Psalm 54:4 ; Prov 18:7 ). Admittedly this movement from the nominal to the pronominal is without an exact borderline. The Revised Standard Version reflects the above understanding of nepes [נפש] by replacing the King James Version “soul” with such translations as “being, ” “one, ” “self, ” “I/me.”

Nepes [נפש] is also used to designate parts of the body, primarily to stress their characteristics and functions. It can refer to the throat ( Isa 5:14 ;Hab 2:5 ), noting that it can be parched and dry ( Num 11:6 ; Jeremiah 31:12 Jeremiah 31:25 ), discerning ( Prov 16:23 ), hungry ( Num 21:5 ), and breathing ( Jer 2:24 ). Nepes [נפש] also can mean the neck, and the vital function that takes place there, noting that it can be ensnared ( 1 Sam 28:9 ;Psalm 105:18 ), humbled and endangered ( Prov 18:7 ), and bowed to the ground ( Psalm 44:25 ). Even while focusing on a single part of the body, by synecodoche the whole person is represented.

Nepes [נפש] is often used to express physical needs such as hunger ( Deut 12:20 ; 1 Sam 2:16 ) and thirst ( Prov 25:25 ). It can be used of excessive desires (gluttony Prov 23:2 ) and of unfulfilled desires (barrenness 1 Sam 1:15 ). Volitional/spiritual yearning is also assigned to nepes [נפש], such as the desire for God ( Psalm 42:1-2 ), justice ( Isa 26:8-9 ), evil ( Prov 21:10 ), and political power ( 2 Sam 3:21 ). Emotions are expressed by nepes [נפש] so that it feels hate (so used of Yahweh Isa 1:14 ), grief ( Jer 13:17 ), joy and exultation, disquietude ( Psalm 42:5 ), and unhappiness ( 1 Sam 1:15 ).

Clearly, then, in the Old Testament a mortal is a living soul rather than having a soul. Instead of splitting a person into two or three parts, Hebrew thought sees a unified being, but one that is profoundly complex, a psychophysical being.

The New Testament. The counterpart to nepes [נפש] in the New Testament is psyche [yuchv] (nepes [נפש] is translated as psyche [yuchv] six hundred times in the Septaugint). Compared to nepes [נפש] in the Old Testament, psyche [yuchv] appears relatively infrequently in the New Testament. This may be due to the fact that nepes [נפש] is used extensively in poetic literature, which is more prevalent in the Old Testament than the New Testament. The Pauline Epistles concentrate more on soma [sw’ma] (body) and pneuma [pneu’ma] (spirit) than psyche [yuchv].

This word has a range of meanings similar to nepes [נפש]. It frequently designates life: one can risk his life ( John 13:37 ; Acts 15:26 ; Rom 16:4 ;Php 2:30 ), give his life ( Matt 20:28 ), lay down his life ( John 10:15 John 10:17-18 ), forfeit his life ( Matt 16:26 ), hate his life ( Luke 14:26 ), and have his life demanded of him ( Luke 12:20 ).

Psyche, as its Old Testament counterpart, can indicate the person ( Acts 2:41 ; 27:37 ). It also serves as the reflexive pronoun designating the self (“I’ll say to myself” Luke 12:19 ; “as my witness” 2 Cor 1:23 ; “share our lives” 1 Thess 2:8 ).

Psyche can express emotions such as grief ( Matt 26:38, ; Mark 14:34 ), anguish ( John 12:27 ), exultation ( Luke 1:46 ), and pleasure ( Matt 12:18 ).

The adjectival form “soulish” indicates a person governed by the sensuous nature with subjection to appetite and passion. Such a person is “natural/unspiritual” and cannot receive the gifts of God’s Spirit because they make no sense to him ( 1 Cor 2:14-15 ). As in the Old Testament, the soul relates humans to the animal world ( 1 Cor 15:42-50 ) while it is the spirit of people that allows a dynamic relationship with God.

There are passages where psyche [yuchv] stands in contrast to the body, and there it seems to refer to an immortal part of man. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” ( Matt 10:28 ). While Scripture generally addresses humans as unitary beings, there are such passages that seem to allow divisibility within unity.

Carl Schultz

1. Shades of Meaning in the Old Testament:

(1) Soul, like spirit, has various shades of meaning in the Old Testament, which may be summarized as follows:

“Soul,” “living being,” “life,” “self,” “person,” “desire,” “appetite,” “emotion” and “passion” (BDB under the word). In the first instance it meant that which breathes, and as such is distinguished from basar, “flesh” (Isaiah 10:18; Deuteronomy 12:23); from she’er, “the inner flesh,” next the bones (Proverbs 11:17, “his own flesh”); from beTen, “belly” (Psalms 31:10, “My soul and my belly are consumed with grief”), etc.

(2) As the life-breath, it departs at death (Genesis 35:18; Jeremiah 15:2). Hence, the desire among Old Testament saints to be delivered from Sheol (Psalms 16:10, “Thou wilt not leave my soul to Sheol”) and from shachath, “the pit” (Job 33:18, “He keepeth back his soul from the pit”; Isaiah 38:17, “Thou hast …. delivered it (my soul) from the pit of corruption”).

(3) By an easy transition the word comes to stand for the individual, personal life, the person, with two distinct shades of meaning which might best be indicated by the Latin anima and animus. As anima, “soul,” the life inherent in the body, the animating principle in the blood is denoted (compare Deuteronomy 12:23,24, `Only be sure that thou eat not the blood:

for the blood is the soul; and thou shalt not eat the soul with the flesh’). As animus, “mind,” the center of our mental activities and passivities is indicated. Thus we read of `a hungry soul’ (Psalms 107:9), `a weary soul’ (Jeremiah 31:25), `a loathing soul’ (Leviticus 26:11), `a thirsty soul’ (Psalms 42:2), `a grieved soul’ (Job 30:25), `a loving soul’ (Song of Solomon 1:7), and many kindred expressions. Cremer has characterized this use of the word in a sentence: “Nephesh (soul) in man is the subject of personal life, whereof pneuma or ruach (spirit) is the principle” (Lexicon, under the word, 795).

(4) This individuality of man, however, may be denoted by pneuma as well, but with a distinction. Nephesh or “soul” can only denote the individual life with a material organization or body. Pneuma or “spirit” is not so restricted. Scripture speaks of “spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23), where there can be no thought of a material or physical or corporeal organization. They are “spiritual beings freed from the assaults and defilements of the flesh” (Delitzsch, in the place cited.). For an exceptional use of psuche in the same sense see Revelation 6:9; 20:4, and (irrespective of the meaning of Psalms 16:10) Acts 2:27.

2. New Testament Distinctions:

(1) In the New Testament psuche appears under more or less similar conditions as in the Old Testament. The contrast here is as carefully maintained as there. It is used where pneuma would be out of place; and yet it seems at times to be employed where pneuma might have been substituted. Thus in John 19:30 we read:

“Jesus gave up his pneuma” to the Father, and, in the same Gospel (John 10:15), Jesus gave up His “psuche for the sheep,” and in Matthew 20:28 He gave His psuche (not His pneuma) as a ransom–a difference which is characteristic. For the pneuma stands in quite a different relation to God from the psuche. The “spirit” (pneuma) is the outbreathing of God into the creature, the life-principle derived from God. The “sour” (psuche) is man’s individual possession, that which distinguishes one man from another and from inanimate nature. The pneuma of Christ was surrendered to the Father in death; His psuche was surrendered, His individual life was given “a ransom for many.” His life “was given for the sheep”

(2) This explains those expressions in the New Testament which bear on the salvation of the soul and its preservation in the regions of the dead. “Thou wilt not leave my soul unto Hades” (the world of shades) (Acts 2:27); “Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that worketh evil” (Romans 2:9); “We are …. of them that have faith unto the saving of the soul” (Hebrews 10:39); “Receive ….. the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21).

The same or similar expressions may be met with in the Old Testament in reference to the soul. Thus in Psalms 49:8, the King James Version “The redemption of their soul is precious” and again:

“God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol” (Psalms 49:15). Perhaps this may explain–at least this is Wendt’s explanation–why even a corpse is called nephesh or soul in the Old Testament, because, in the region of the dead, the individuality is retained and, in a measure, separated from God (compare Haggai 2:13; Leviticus 21:11).

3. Oehler on Soul and Spirit:

The distinction between psuche and pneuma, or nephesh and ruach, to which reference has been made, may best be described in the words of Oehler (Old Testament Theology, I, 217):

“Man is not spirit, but has it: he is soul. …. In the soul, which sprang from the spirit, and exists continually through it, lies the individuality–in the case of man, his personality, his self, his ego.” He draws attention to the words of Elihu in Job (33:4): `God’s spirit made me,’ the soul called into being; `and the breath of the Almighty animates me,’ the soul kept in energy and strength, in continued existence, by the Almighty, into whose hands the inbreathed spirit is surrendered, when the soul departs or is taken from us (1 Kings 19:4). Hence, according to Oehler the phrases naphshi (“my soul”), naphshekha (“thy soul”) may be rendered in Latin egomet, tu ipse; but not ruchi (“my spirit”), ruchakha (“thy spirit”)–soul standing for the whole person, as in Genesis 12:5; 17:14; Ezekiel 18:4, etc.


David very often referred to his body as (translated poorly) “soul”… e.g. Psalm 35.

Do contend, O Yahweh, with my contenders; Fight against those fighting me.” 2 Hold fast the buckler and the large shield; Do rise up to my help. 3 Unsheathe the spear and the pike To meet those pursuing me. Say to my soul, I am your Salvation!” 4 May they be ashamed, And may they be mortified, who are seeking my soul; May they be turned away, And may they be abashed, who are devising evil against me.” 5 May they become like trash before the wind, With a messenger of Yahweh expelling them.” 6 Let their way become dark and slick surfaced, With a messenger of Yahweh pursuing them.” 7 For gratuitously have they buried their net for me; Gratuitously have they delved a grave for my soul8 May ruination come upon him when he is not knowing it, And may his net that he has buried seize him; Let him fall into it to ruination.” 9 Yet my soul, it shall exult in Yahweh; It shall be elated in His salvation.” 10 All my bones, they shall say, O Yahweh, who is like You? Rescuing the humbled from one too unyielding for him, Both the humbled and the needy from one pillaging him.” 11Malicious witnesses arise; They ask me that which I do not know; 12They are repaying me evil for good, Seeking bereavement to my soul.”13 As for me, when they were ill my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting, Yet my prayer, it turned back on my bosom.” 14

All these are almost direct references to his own “body” or his “being”… 

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