“O Soulo Mio”: The Hebrew Word נפש (nephesh) and Its Significance for the Doctrine of Man
The Hebrew word נפש (nephesh) is important for the Old Testament (and biblical) doctrine of man. The term appears over 750 times in the OT and is translated in the Authorized Version most frequently as “soul,” “life,” “person,” “creature,” or “-self.” The word is found in all OT genres (narrative, poetry, prophecy, etc.) and may have either a literal or metaphorical sense. A נפש can be living or dead. It can be counted as an individual entity or distinguished from other individual entities. A human being or an animal may be distinguished as a נפש. When predicated of humans, a נפש can think, feel, desire, act, and sin. One commonly finds a plea for the deliverance of one’s נפש from danger or death in the Psalms. Keeping these observations regarding the syntactic and semotactic environment of נפש in view is essential for establishing a proper semantic value for נפש and for developing a proper OT anthropology.
The OT Usage of נפש
The word נפש is predicated of human beings in primarily two ways. Less commonly, the term refers to the animating principle of a physical entity, that is, “breath” (Gen. 35:19; 1 Kings 17:21; Job 41:13) or the existential quality or state of “life” (Gen. 9:4; 19:17; Lev. 17:11; Deut. 9:23; 1 Sam. 20:1). More commonly, the term refers to a human being as a unified entity. This includes both the immaterial and also the material dimensions of an entity.
Most likely, when Moses describes both man (Gen. 2:7) and animal (Gen. 1:20; 2:19) as a “living creature” (נפש חיה) he’s referring to the entire entity, not merely to some immaterial aspect. In the Psalms and Proverbs, a נפש can “wait,” “be afflicted,” “desire,” “despair,” “long for,” “grow weary,” “fear,” “hunger,” “think,” etc., which involve both the physical as well as the spiritual aspects of man (Pss. 33:20; 35:13; 42:1, 6; 84:2; 107:5, 26; Prov. 2:10; 23:2, 7).
In Genesis 46:15-22 and Exodus 12:15, 19, the term נפש is used for countable entities, that is, individual persons who may be constituted a group of persons or be distinguished from a group of persons. This accounts for passages that employ נפש as synonymous or in parallel with a personal pronoun. For example, in Numbers 23:10 Balaam the prophet exclaims, “Let me [literally, “my nephesh”] die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!” (emphasis added) The Psalmist prays, “Oh, guard my soul [נפשי], and deliver me!” (Ps. 25:20a). Isaiah 46:1-2 provides another interesting example in which the antecedents of נפש (plural) are false gods:
Bel bows down, Nebo stoops low; their idols are borne by beasts of burden. The images that are carried about are burdensome, a burden for the weary. They stoop and bow down together; unable to rescue the burden, they themselves [נפשם] go off into captivity (NIV; emphasis added).
Interestingly, a number of texts employ the term נפש for dead corpses, which, in our English idiom, would be equivalent to a “dead person” (Lev. 19:28; 21:1, 11; Num. 5:2; 6:6, 11).
The Significance of נפש for the Doctrine of Man
A correct understanding of the meaning(s) of נפש aids in the exegesis of certain theological passages. For example, when David writes, “For you will not abandon my soul [נפשי] to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption,” he’s not making a distinction between his (and Christ’s) immaterial and material aspects. Both the synonymous parallelism and also the common usage of נפש constrain the reader to interpret the Psalmist as praying for the deliverance of the entire person from the grave. Thus, the believer’s hope is not the deliverance of the soul from the “prison house” of the body. Rather, he hopes ultimately for the deliverance of the whole person, body and soul.
Another important text is found in Isaiah’s prophecy of the Suffering Servant. In verse 10, the prophet informs his audience that Yahweh will appoint the Servant’s “soul” (נפשו) to be a guilt offering. Is Isaiah referring exclusively to Christ’s immaterial aspect? Neither the immediate context, nor the larger context of Scripture, nor the common usage of נפש will allow such a restricted meaning. It was not a part of Christ that would be offered on Calvary. God offered Christ’s total person, body and soul, as a vicarious offering for our sin. The Whole Man (Christ’s complete human nature) died in order that the whole man (the believer’s complete human nature) might live.
Such an understanding of נפש does not preclude the real and biblical distinction between material and immaterial aspects of man, that is, body and soul (Matt. 10:28),1 or the reality of the intermediate state (Luke 23:43; 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:21; Heb. 12:23; Rev. 3:12, 21; 4:4; 6:9-10; 7:9-17; 19:14; 20:4). It does, however, remind the student of Scripture that man is a psychosomatic unity. And what God has joined together neither death nor hell can ultimately sunder!2
- Isaiah 10:18 may be one of the few instances where נפש refers more narrowly to the immaterial aspect of man. That text reads, “The glory of his forest and of his fruitful land the LORD will destroy, both soul and body [מנפש ועד־בשר], and it will be as when a sick man wastes away.” But the reader should note two things: first, the passage is using the terms metaphorically. Second, the term נפש may be rendered “breath” and, in this context, serve to indicate total destruction, i.e., “from the animate to the inanimate.” [↩]
- For further reading on the meaning of , see E. R. Brotzman, “Man and the Meaning of נפש,” in Bibliotheca Sacra 145, pp. 400-409; W. J. Cameron, “Soul,” in The New Bible Dictionary, pp. 1135; R. B. Laurin, “Soul,” in Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, pp. 491-92; G. F. Oehler, The Theology of the Old Testament, pp. 149-51; J. B. Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament, pp. 223-26; B. K. Waltke, “נפש” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, pp. 587-91. [↩]