Biblical Anthropology, Part 4

Posted By on October 30, 2009

I’ve posted prelimianry notes on both ruach and nephesh in the previous two posts. Now it’s time to merge those files and observations.  It’s pretty interesting that the terms are used so often in the same ways and to describe the same things. Here’s a list:

1. The term describes that which animates a living thing; many times equated with breath of the act of breathing (but sometimes blood) — and both humans and animals are said to possess this “life”:

ruach: Gen 6:17; Gen 7:15; Gen 7:22; Gen 45:27; Zech 12:1; Psa 135:17; Job 7:7; indeed “breath” (Hebrew: nishmat) and ruach are interchanged in a few passages (note the parallelism): Isa 42:5; Isa 57:16.

nephesh: Gen 1:20-21; Gen 1:24; Gen 1:30; Gen 9:4-5; Gen 12:13; Gen 19:19; Gen 35:18; Exod 4:19; Job 11:20; Job 33:22; Job 33:28; Job 33:30

2. The term is used to describe one’s “inner life”

A. The seat / source of emotions.

ruach: Numb 5:14; 5:30; Eccl 10:4; 2 Chron 18:22; Isa 54:6; Isa 57:15; Prov 14:29

nephesh: Lev 26:15; Lev 26:30, Lev 26:43; Jer 13:17; Jer 14:19; Lam 3:17; Gen 34:3, 8; Gen 42:21; Exod 15:19; 23:19; Num 21:4; 1 Sam 1:10, 15; 2 Sam 5:8; 17:8; 2 Kings 4:27; Job 14:22; Psa 6:3; 13:2; Psa 23:3; Psa 35:25; Psa 42:1-2

B. Enthusiasm / volitional will / decision-making capacity / attitudes / inner disposition / self awareness

ruach: Isa 19:3; Isa 57:15; Isa 61:3; Jer 51:11; Hagg 1:14; Psa 76:13; Job 32:18; Prov 18:14; Ezra 1:1; Exod 6:9; Num 14:24; Josh 2:11; Josh 5:1; Isa 29:24; Ezek 11:19; 18:31; Ezek 21:12; 36:26; Psa 34:19; 51:19; Prov 15:13; Prov 16:19; Prov 17:22; Prov 17:27; Prov 29:23; Eccl 7:8; Jer 10:14; 51:17 (idols lack this; contrasted with stupidity; see also Hab 2:19); Dan 5:12; 6:4; 1 Chron 28:12

nephesh: Lev 26:16; Judges 16:16; 1 Sam 2:33; Psa 42:6; Psa 107:26; Deut 14.26; Deut 21:14; Deut 23:24; 1 Sam 23:20; Prov 19:2; Deut 4:29; Deut 6:5; Deut 10:12; Deut 11:13; Deut 11:18

Now for some differences.  I would suggest that nephesh is the more “comprehensive” term.  That is, while nephesh can refer to the animation of life and the inner life, it can also refer to the WHOLE person, body / flesh + inner, immaterial life. Here are some examples where nephesh is basically equal to “whole person” (including the word being equivalent to personal pronouns like “I”; “me”; “them”):

Gen 12:5; Gen 46:18, Gen 46:22, Gen 46:25-26; Lev 2:1; Lev 4:2, Lev 4:27; Lev 5:1; Num 31:35, Num 31:40, Num 31:46; Ezek 18:4; Lev 11:43-44; Gen 27:19

But why, then, can nephesh refer to only the body (a corpse)? Examples:

Lev 21:1; Lev 21:11; Lev 22:4; Num 5:2; Num 6:6, Num 6:11; Num 9:6-7, Num 9:10; Num 19:13

The answer is because it is a natural human inclination to equate a person with their body (we live in the corporeal realm). Think about it. If you came home and saw your wife or husband lying on the floor, would you pick up the phone and call 911 and say “There’s an unconscious body on my floor!” or “My wife’s unconscious body is on the floor!”  No. You’d say “my wife is laying on the floor unconscious!” It’s really not odd.  When people are at a funeral, they frequently still refer to the corpse as the deceased by name, retaining its *personal* identity. Our lives are lived in the realm of embodiment; we can’t help but think this way.

So, it looks like we have a dichotomous view of humankind from the OT evidence: humans are material and immaterial, body and soul. There are some passages that have “body and soul (nephesh) together (Psa 31:9; Isa 10:18). Nephesh can encompass the totality; ruach cannot — it can just refer to the inner life and all its capacities, and it is not distinct from nephesh since nephesh also often refers to the inner life.

But we’re not done yet. Now we have to test this notion.  Here are some questions and passages that need close attention:

1. When nephesh is described as being in sheol, does the term refer to only the inner part, the body, or the totality? It seems that if Sheol refers to the grave, the answer would be “totality.”  See Psa 16:10; 30:3; Psa 56:13.

2. But then what about passages that have the ruach apparently disembodied?  See Eccl 3:21; Eccl 12:7 (it appears the ruach “goes” somewhere after death; it leaves the body).

3. What about passages where ruach and nephesh both occur?  Are they distinguished or are they “parallel” to each other?  Here’s the list of the ones that matter (i.e., ruling out clear references to wind or God’s spirit):

Job 7:11; 12:10; 1 Sam 1:15; Isa 26:9

Let’s hear what you think.

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12 Responses to “Biblical Anthropology, Part 4”

  1. Nobunaga says:

    i was on the right track then in part 3. Shockaroonie* ! who would have thunk it.

    *Shockaroonie = Scottish term describing amazment and shock.

  2. Nobunaga says:

    I was looking into question 3 and came across Pslam 62:8, heart – lebab is used in the same context as pouring out of the soul – nephesh as in 1 Samuel 1:15.

    Could it be possible to seperate or distinguish soul and spirit in the same way when they are used in the same passage ? the pouring out of your heart ? as long as the context is similar job 12:10 wouldn’t work with this. or i’m i down a dead end here with the heart/spirit.

  3. Jonnathan Molina says:

    I’d have to say the intended audience would have seen a parallel in those last verses; that of what qualities they held in common. The two terms clearly share a quality (that of awareness beyond the flesh) but the soul (to me) stands distinct from the life that is meshed with the body=life in all spheres.

  4. MSH says:

    @Nobunaga: I don’t think so, since the idea is absolutely emotive, and since both words are used many times to express the full range of emotions.

  5. blop2008 says:

    I sense that you will eventually discuss Hell after this series.

  6. MSH says:

    @Jonnathan Molina: I’d agree that humans are material + immaterial (body and “soul”), but none of the terms in the OT can be specifically equated with “soul”. The question we’ll eventually hit is whether the immaterial consciousness is derivative of the flesh (that is the “neuro-theology” issue – is everything biological, even consciousness). While the idea sounds cold and materialistic, there may be justification for that view. To give you a peek ahead in that regard, look up the issue of the origin of the soul in a theology book – and then read about traducianism.

  7. MSH says:

    @blop2008: actually wasn’t planning on it.

  8. Jonnathan Molina says:

    As regards the “neuro-theology” issue, it doesn’t sound cold at all to me. In fact, sounds like just what God wanted us to be like. John R. Searle wrote a paper that I read only a few months ago and it stayed with me because it basically dealt with just this issue (albeit in highly-ordered, secular language that lends itself to our purposes here I believe) the link is here:

    Also, indulge me further and read the following entry (from good ol’ wikipedia…sorry source-snobs) about Searle’s view of “consciousness”.


    Building upon his views, Searle presented a view concerning consciousness in his book The Rediscovery of the Mind (1992). He argues that, starting with behaviorism (an early but influential scientific view, succeeded by many later accounts that Searle also dismisses), much of modern philosophy has tried to deny the existence of consciousness, with little success.

    Searle argues that philosophy has been trapped by a false dichotomy: that on the one hand, the world consists of nothing but objective particles in fields of force, but that yet, on the other hand, consciousness is clearly a subjective first-person experience. Dualists deny the first, but our current knowledge of physics makes their position seem increasingly unlikely, so philosophy, starting with behaviorists, has denied the second. But denying the second has led to endless problems and thus to endless revisions of behaviorism (with functionalism being the one currently in vogue).

    Searle says simply that both are true: consciousness is a real subjective experience, caused by the physical processes of the brain. (A view which he suggests might be called biological naturalism) ****

    It’s that last statement that seems to fit the OT view of the sou/spirit right? In my original comment I misunderstood…I kept trying to see the concept of the “ghost” soul (of greek mythological origin I think…not sure) in the OT but as you pointed out none of the terms seem to be specifically equated with “soul” (though I wonder what category Samuel’s spirit would fall under). I wish I could remember where I read that ancient Hebrews didn’t see the soul as separate but as one with the body…I could be misremembering this. Anyways…off to read up on traducianism.

    (P.S. The paper by Searle is titled “Is The Brain a Digital Computer?” and he basically argues it’s not that simple and probably not even close and a bad analogy (he talks about homonculus which sounds alot like the soul to me)…what struck me about his style is that I felt like I was reading you, Dr. Heiser, in the way he explains stuff lol…it’s like he’s the “Naked Science Guy For Consciousness and Artificial Intelligence”)

  9. MSH says:

    @Jonnathan Molina: Thanks for this – I’m intrigued by the little you put in here; I’m going to read his original article. On Samuel, he is called elohim, as you likely already know – and elohim is simply denoting him now (as disembodied) as a resident of the “spiritual realm”. This speaks to a problem I’m having with what appears to be the OT concept (!). On one hand, we have the OT describing a *person* as the united body and soul, yet the OT still uses “person thinking” for only ONE of those – witness the references to corpses as nephesh, and here the disembodied Samuel (we wouldn’t conclude from this that Samuel was no longer a person, would we?). There’s got to be a way to parse this and be consistent with our language so as to (as best we know) honor general revelation as well (what Searle is working on). One more factor (getting way ahead of myself here): the incarnation. Will that muddy things or will it be an easy fit? Okay, now you see the potholes. I’m going to check out Searle.

  10. DJR says:

    I am convinced that this is simply far, far too complex to comprehend on this side of the grave. Whenever I try to pen something related to this topic I end up wiping it out after a paragraph or two. It’s just all over the place. I do love a quote by CS Lewis that touches on the subject matter: “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” However, this still leaves so many questions. When God made Adam, he had all the hardware that we now possess, yet did not become a “living” soul until God breathed life into him. Is a living soul, a living “nephesh”, a body that has spirit? A dead soul then being a soul without spirit? Thus a dead “soul” is the same as a dead body, it’s simply a soul that has lost the spirit, which has returned to God. But if all “spirit” returns to God, what is it that goes to Hell?

    • WoundedEgo says:

      DJR, it is all sooooo simple…

      * god is a manlike deity who lives in the sky;
      * he made a clay stature of himself (the clay was in the appearance of god)
      * god breathed his own breath into the clay. It was magic breath. It was holy breath. It animated the clay, and thus the claymation sculpture became a living being (soul).

      Paul believed that the clay and the breath were in opposition – “the flesh lusts against the breath…”

  11. […] nephesh, leb/lebab are not divisible into parts is evident from an examination of these OT terms. Part 4 of our biblical anthropology series summarizes the overlapping of ruach and nephesh, and Part 6 […]

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