Man, the Nature of

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in the bible

Names of Man

The idea of man is expressed in the Bible by a number of words that reflect various aspects of his nature. The following are the most important.

ʾadam: collective, "men, human beings," also (in prose, with the article) "mankind," Homo sapiens, in distinction to other creatures (Gen. 6:7), or to God (Isa. 2:17). It is occasionally used of individuals (Neh. 2:10); etymologically it may be compared with Arabic anąm, "creatures," "mankind." The plural is bene ʾadam.

ish: "husband," "male," "individual" (Gen. 2:23–24; 13:16; 41:33; Hos. 2:18 [16]); very often used in collective sense (Josh. 9:6). In certain passages it has the meaning of "servant" or "soldier" (i Sam. 23:3, 12; cf. the expression ʾish ha-ʾElohim, "man of God"). The antithesis in Psalms 49:3[2] between bene ʾadam and bene ʾish apparently contrasts "men of low degree" with "men of high degree." Its etymology is uncertain. The plural ʾanashim is evidently from the same root as ʾenosh.

ʾenosh: mostly a collective denoting the human race. Occasionally it is used of individuals (Isa. 56:2; Jer. 20:10). In antithesis to God it connotes frail, mortal man (Isa. 51:7, 12; Ps. 90:3; Job. 28:4). The word is probably related to the Arabic anisa, Ugaritic ans ("to be friendly, social"), Aramaic enash, and Arabic ʾinsām (pl. ʾunās, coll. nās). Other cognates show that it cannot be related to Arabic anutha, "to be weak."

gever: the adult male being in contrast to women and children (Ex. 10:11; Josh. 7:14). In poetry it often has a more general sense. The stem means "to be strong, mighty."

metim: used only in plural, "males," "men," "people" (Gen. 34:30; Deut. 2:34; 4:27). In Isaiah 3:25 it may mean "warriors." The singular occurs in Ugaritic and other cognate languages and is possibly to be seen in names like Methushael and Methuselah.

According to this terminology, man is conceived as both strong and weak, as a member of the human race and of the family unit, and as an individual.

Psychological Terms

Further insight into the nature of man is furnished by certain psychological terms that describe different aspects of the human personality. Nefesh can denote the essence of any living creature (Gen. 2:7); it may even be equated with the blood (Gen. 9:4; cf. Lev. 17:11). It signifies the "individual," "ego," "person" (Gen. 46:26; i Sam. 1:26; Job 16:4), and hence even "body" (Ex. 21:23). Ru'aḥ "spirit," is sometimes synonymous with nefesh (Gen. 6:17), but is also distinguished from the latter. It represents power and energy (Ex. 35:21; Isa. 31:3) that comes to man from without; it provides the impulse to higher life and finds expression in special skill (Ex. 28:3), might, or leadership (Judg. 3:10; Isa. 11:2). Neshamah, "breath," is not only the vitalizing element breathed into man by God (Gen. 2:7), but the divine spirit and lamp – the soul – within him (Prov. 20:27). In contrast to these spiritual aspects of man, basar signifies his physical nature, the living body (Gen. 2:23, 24), and, as such, it symbolizes human frailty (Isa. 40:6).

The Bible also regards certain organs as the seat of given psychological attributes. Lev, the "heart," is the center of thought (Ps. 45: 2[1]), conscience (i Sam. 24:6[5]; Job 27:6), and emotion (love: Deut. 6:5; anger: Deut. 19:6; joy: Isa. 30:29; hatred: Lev. 19:17; courage: Jer. 48:41, and the like). By synecdoche, the heart represents the whole inner life of man (Gen. 6:5; Ps. 51:10; Ezek. 36:26; Prov. 4:23). Kelayot, the "kidneys" (in artificial "biblical" English "veins"), are likewise the source of emotion and conscience, and in conjunction with "heart" describe the fundamental character of man (Jer. 12:2; Ps. 7:10; 16:7; 26:2). Me'ayim, "bowels," are the seat of overpowering feelings (Isa. 16:11; 63:15; Lam. 1:20); modern versions sensibly substitute "heart" for "kidneys" or "bowels" in such contexts. Kaved, "liver," also means "being" (Lam. 2:11; cf. *Heart). Raḥamim – from reḥem, "womb" – means "compassion" (Deut. 13:18). Yad, "hand," is often used in a conative sense, indicating "power" (Deut. 2:7, 24; 32:36). Other shades of psychological significance are expressed by other parts of the body, e.g., face, eyes, ears, head, and so forth.

This extensive nomenclature points to the complexity of the human personality, but is not exhaustive. The complete picture of man's nature as envisaged by the Bible can only be seen in the full context of scriptural evidence.

Man's Origin

The key is to be found in the story of man's origin (Gen. 1:27; 2:7). He is not a descendant of the gods (as in certain pagan mythologies); the term child(ren) used with reference to man in relation to God (Deut. 14:1; Ps. 2:7) has in Scripture a metaphorical connotation. Nor is man the product (as some philosophical systems hold) of the blind forces of nature. He is the artifact of God, fashioned purposefully out of two diverse elements: his body is of the earth, but it is animated by the divine breath of life (Gen. 2:7). Yet man is not a dichotomy of body and soul (a view characteristic of Orphism and Platonism), and certainly not a trichotomy (i Thes. 5:23). His is a multifaceted unitary being – nefesh ḥayyah, "a living person" (Gen. 2:7). Of particular significance is the concept that all human beings, irrespective of ethnic and cultural differences, stem from two common ancestors, Adam and Eve. Humanity, despite its diversification, is essentially a single family, and men remain brothers even in the face of hate and murder (Gen. 4:9–10). To this inherent Brother-hood and equality of all, even slaves (unlike the Greek view) were no exception (Job 31:13, 15). Furthermore, the world was divinely planned to be one of creaturely peace, harmony, and understanding; man, as well as other living beings, was not to destroy his fellow creatures even for food (Gen. 1:29–30; 2:19). The permission granted to Noah to eat flesh was a sad concession to a world that had lost its original idealism (Gen. 9:3). Monogamy is clearly viewed in the creation story as the proper state of marriage. Women play a pivotal role in numerous biblical stories, and there are women prophetesses, like Deborah and Huldah.

The Image of God

However, the Bible does not merely stress the creatureliness of man. It depicts him as the peak of creation. He climaxes the ascending course of the six days' work of the Beginning. He is formed by special resolve (Gen. 1:26) and in a unique manner (Gen. 2:7), and attracts to himself three of the six occurrences of the stem baraʾ ("to create") in the creation story. However, his crowning glory is contained in the statement that he was made in the divine "image" and "likeness" (for a suggested distinction between the two words see I. Epstein, in bibl., 224), which endows him with unique worth. Man alone among the creatures is capable of sustained thought, creativity, and awareness of God; the light of God is immanent in his spirit (Prov. 20:27). Hence he is given dominion (the "image" is the symbol of the Deity's presence) over the earth (Gen. 1:26, 28) and is privileged to commune with God and enjoy His fellowship (Gen. 2–3). In the language of later rabbinic literature, he became a "partner" of the Creator (Gen. R. ed. H. Albeck (1940), 73; cf. Shab. 10a). The dualism of man's status and significance within the unified framework of his psychophysical being is given unmatched expression by the Psalmist: "What is man that Thou art mindful of him… Yet Thou hast made him little less than the angels" (literally, "God-like beings"; 8:4–5).

Free Will

There is still another aspect of the divine image reflected in man, which plays a crucial role in the profound parable of the Garden of Eden. In a supreme act of self-limitation the Absolute God gave man freedom of moral choice. He could will to do right or wrong, to obey or disobey his Maker. It was heaven's greatest gift to man: he was not to be an automaton. However, the immediate consequences were calamitous. Man rebelled against the Creator; he introduced disharmony into the universal harmony. Sin was born and in turn begot suffering and death. History had begun. Israel was the first people to evince a sense of the historic.

While the Bible is unequivocal in its assertion of the reality of human responsibility for evil (Eccles. 7:29) and in condemning sin trenchantly as estrangement from and treason against God (this is the meaning of the story of Eden), it is no less emphatic in its affirmation of God's grace (Ps. 103:13–16) and readiness to forgive (Num. 14:20; Jer. 33:8). Sin is never final. It is punished, or rather punishes itself. However, retribution is part of the divine redemptive process. It helps man to seek atonement, which the divine love never fails to vouchsafe (Ezek. 33:11).

The road of redemption, however, is hard and long. Outside the Garden of Eden man's iniquity reaches new depths. Brotherhood as well as "sonship" are destroyed. Cain's example was widely imitated (Gen. 6:11). It almost seemed that the making of man was a divine error (Gen. 5–6), which only the Flood could expunge. At this point, however, a new providential principle manifests itself – the elective factor. The family of Noah is chosen from a doomed generation to be saved and to save the world. Later Abraham is elected to be a source of blessing to all mankind (Gen. 12:3). Israel, the seed of Abraham, were chosen to be "a kingdom of priests and holy nation" (Ex. 19:6). Though themselves far from perfect (Deut. 9:5), they were destined to become a light to the world (Isa. 60:3), illuminating the way of ethical and spiritual truth. To this end God made a covenant with Israel at Sinai (Deut. 5:2), which found detailed expression in the Torah. Religious and secular precepts are inextricably intermingled in the Law, for human life is a unity and must be dedicated to God's will in all its diversified aspects. God is served in the righteousness of human relationships – in love between man and man, which reflects God's image – as well as in divine worship. When the "image" is wronged, religious service becomes an abomination (Isa. 1:13–17). The path toward God is further delineated and interpreted by the Prophets, and even by figures (like Abraham, and Job, and some of Psalmists) who question God's moral government of the world. Revelation – the word of God understood in its broadest sense – is the great antidote to sin, leading man to repentance and regeneration. The relevance of this biblical teaching is not confined to Israel. In a deep sense, the Bible tells the story of Everyman in all generations. Even when Israel is the focal point of the Bible's concern, the universal concept of mankind is never ignored (Amos 9:7; Isa. 19:24–25). Israel's significance derives from its relationship to all humanity, whose significance, in turn, flows from man's relation to God. History is thus seen as the moral and spiritual drama of the human species.

The Afterlife

The beginning of that drama, with its hope and tragedy, was enacted in Eden. Inevitably the question arises: Where will the denouement take place? Has human life a divinely designed goal? Later Jewish theology, elaborated in apocryphal and rabbinic literature, answers these questions (solving at the same time the problem of theodicy) on the individual level, by postulating the belief in the afterlife. There the disembodied soul is judged, the wicked are condemned, and the righteous are rewarded with eternal bliss. This doctrine is unknown to Scripture. There is an unmistakable finality about the biblical conception of death (Ps. 146:4; Job 7:9; Isa. 38:18). The Bible is primarily concerned with the world; it seeks heaven upon earth in the form of the kingdom of God (Zech. 14:1), and continued life in descendants rather than in personal immortality (ii Sam. 7:12). Nevertheless death does not mark the complete extinction of existence. The dead continue to live a shadowy, ghostlike existence in Sheol, a region of darkness and silence deep within the recesses of the earth. Yet the dead are not without consciousness (i Sam. 28: 15ff.; Isa. 14:9ff.), nor beyond God's judgment (Ps. 139:8). Two holy men escaped death altogether: Enoch (Gen. 5:24) and Elijah (ii Kings 2:11). In Job there is a yearning for continued life after death (14:13ff.; 19:26); in certain psalms the definite hope is expressed that death will not end the human fellowship with God (49:16; 73:24ff.). Whether resurrection is envisaged in Isa. 26:19ff. is a matter of exegesis, but it is certainly envisaged in Daniel 12:2. The preexistence of the soul is first taught in the Apocrypha (Wisd. 8:19ff.), but Jeremiah was "a thought of God" (B. Duhm) before ever he was formed in the womb (Jer. 1:5). Thus the Bible lacks a definite theology of the afterlife, and belief in resurrection is still vague and inchoate. Yet Scripture contains undoubted intimations of immortality, on which future epochs built their religious doctrines.

The End of Days

The true goal of history, however, is to be sought in "the end of days." It will be the age of regeneration, when the work of creation will be completed in accordance with God's original plan. Man and God, and man and man, will be reconciled. The treason man perpetrated in the Garden of Eden will be transmuted into universal voluntary obedience to God's will, and the crime of Cain will be atoned for in a state of international peace and brotherhood (Isa. 2:2–4; Micah 4:1–5). The immature knowledge man acquired from the forbidden fruit will give way to a higher wisdom. For inherently knowledge is good (Prov. 8); it is man's unwise use of it that vitiates it (Eccl. 1:18). A new earth and a new heaven will issue from the new heart and spirit of man (Isa. 65:17; Ezek. 36:26), and human communion with God will be restored (Joel 3:1–2). The Garden of Eden will, as it were, become worldwide, and the pristine glory of the reflected image of God in man will be renewed. The end of days is undated. It is an elusive horizon; yet its advent remains a prophetic certitude.

[Israel Abrahams]

in rabbinic thought

The Physical Nature of Man

The process of human gestation, and especially the preservation of the embryo, prompted the sages to the observation that these were evidence of both God's skill and solicitude in the fashioning of man (Ber. 10a; Nid. 31a; Lev. R. 14:3, 4; 15:2, 3; 34:3). The fact that every hair of man's head is fed through a separate root is cited as further evidence (bb 16a). Man receives five parts of his body from each of his parents, and ten parts from God. From his father, he receives bones, veins, nails, brain, and the white of the eye; from his mother, skin, flesh, blood, hair, and the pupil of the eye. To his formation, God contributes breath, soul, light of countenance, sight, hearing, speech, touch, sense, insight, and understanding. Hence, the rabbinic saying that there are three partners in man – his father and mother and God (Kid. 30b; Nid. 31a; tj, Kil. 8:3, 31c; Eccl. R. 5:10, 2). A late Midrash (Mss. Midrash ha-Ḥefeẓ) describes the human body as possessing ten orifices, including the navel. The marvel is, the Midrash continues, that when the child is in the embryonic state, the navel is open and the other orifices are closed but, when it issues from the womb, the navel is closed and the other orifices are opened.

In the totality of his physical structure, man constitutes a microcosm (see *Microcosm and Macrocosm). An elaborate parallel, covering 30 items, is drawn between the various components of the human body and similar features in the physical world (arn1:31). A hardly less complex parallel is found to exist between the organs of the human body and the structure and vessels of the Tabernacle (Mid. Tadshe, Beit ha-Midrash, Jellinek, vol. 3, 175f.; cf. the New Testament denomination of the human body as a tabernacle, ii Cor. 5:1, 4; ii Pet. 1:13, 14). A simpler summation of man's physical being is deciphered in the word adam ("man") as being an acronym (*notarikon) for "dust" (efer), "blood" (dam) and "gall" (marah; Sot. 5a). They give a remarkably accurate enumeration of the 248 organs of the human body (Oho. 1:8). It may be fairly said that the rabbinic reflection on the complex mechanism of man's physical structure served as occasion for admiring reverence for the skill and wisdom with which God created him. Indeed, its unknown aspects suggested the argument that if man does not know his own body, he certainly cannot fathom God's acts (San. 39a). But for all its marvelous mechanism, it is destined, save for the soul, to return to the earth from which it originally came. Only one tiny bone remains indestructible and, in the time of resurrection, will serve as the nucleus out of which the body will be restored (Gen. R. 28:3; Eccl. R. 12:5; see *Luz of the Spine).

Nowhere in rabbinic literature is there any denigration of the human body so characteristic of contemporary Platonic, Stoic, and Gnostic thought. On the contrary, since even the body is conceived as having been created in the image of God, man is duty bound to honor it by maintaining it in a state of cleanliness. No less an authority than *Hillel termed such action a religious duty (Lev. R. 34:3).


Since Genesis describes Adam as having been both created in God's image (1:27) and formed out of the dust of the earth (2:7), the sages declare that man possesses both heavenly and earthly qualities. In four respects, he is said to resemble the animals and the angels respectively. Like the angels, he possesses the power of speech, intelligence, upright posture, and glance of the eye. In his physical aspects, he resembles the animals (Gen. R. 12:8; 14:3). Indeed, God created man because he was not completely satisfied with either the angels or the animals. The former failed to satisfy him because they lacked the evil inclination. The animals, on the other hand, lacked the good inclination. God therefore created man, who possesses both a good and evil inclination and is confronted with the need to exercise free will. This is the origin of the ambivalent character of man. If he pursues evil, he is likened to an animal; if he chooses the good, he is likened to an angel (Gen. R. 14:3, 4). The contradictory nature of man is highlighted by the legend describing the sharp difference of opinion evoked by God's taking counsel with the angels as to whether or not man should be created. The angels that favored his creation contended that man would be affectionate and a doer of justice. Those who opposed his creation claimed that he would be quarrelsome and riddled with falsehood (Gen. R. 8:3–9; in the qualities of lovingkindness, righteousness, peace, and truth are hypostatized).

Man's moral ambivalence derives from the two inclinations within him: the good inclination (yeẓer tov) and the evil inclination (yeẓer ra) (see Inclination, *Good and Evil). The fact of human individuality exhibits God's power, for although all men are cast from the same mold since all are descendants of Adam, no two men are alike (Sanh. 4:5). Their physical differences are to be noted in their voice, taste, and appearance (arn1 4).

In their attitude toward possessions, men fall into four distinct categories, ranging from the average to the wicked and the saint (Avot 5:10). It is assumed, as a legal principle, that all men become excited when their property is at stake (Shab. 117b, 153a). This concept is further reflected in the dictum that every artisan is hostile toward his fellow craftsmen (Gen. R. 19:6). It is assumed further, as a matter of legal principle, that in money matters no man is likely to regard himself as culpable (Ket. 105b). The rabbis look askance at him who has an excess of material things. They conclude that such a situation can only produce deplorable moral consequences (Tosef., Sot. 3:6; Ber. 32a; Sanh. 108a; Gen. R. 26:5; 28:6). Indeed, when a man is poor, he can be relied upon to have trust in God. Riches incline him to trust in his money and thus displace his piety (Tanḥ. Naso 28). For all the rabbinic recognition of the powerful influence of the economic motive on human conduct, a certain basic honesty is assumed as characteristic of all men. Hence, the assumption is made that a man makes no legal monetary claim unless there is some substance to it (Shevu. 40b), and that a man is not brazen as to deny outright the existence of his debt in the presence of his creditor (bm 3a). A man's basic character is recognizable by his drinking (how he behaves when under the influence of liquor), by his rectitude in financial transactions (Rashi's interpretation) and by his anger (to what extent he is able to control his temper). To this generalization, some add, also by his laughter (his good humor; Eruv. 65b).

Man and Woman

The difference in the origin of man and woman described in Genesis served the sages as points d'appui for their observations on the contrast between the character and psychology of man and woman. The latter, having been fashioned from a more durable substance (man's rib-bone) than man (dust of the earth), can more readily withstand disagreeable circumstances and possesses greater inurement to pain (Tanḥ. Toledot 8). A woman, moreover, is blessed with greater native intelligence (instinct?; Nid. 45b). Whose intelligence matures sooner is a matter of opinion (ibid.). A man is more hospitable towards guests and more generous than a woman (Sif. Num. Shlaḥ 100). An aggrieved man is more readily reconcilable than a woman (Nid. 31b). Peculiarly characteristic of woman is her proclivity to tears (bm 59a) and an inordinate curiosity (Toh. 7:9). At the time of her creation, God, anticipating woman's faults, sought to obviate them. He knew that she would be arrogant, wanton-eyed, an eavesdropper, a tattler, a meddler, and a gadabout. Hence, he fashioned her from a chaste part of man's body that is free of these faults (Gen. R. 18:2; 45:5).


The phenomena experienced in the theophany afforded the prophet Elijah (i Kings 19:11–12) are interpreted as symbolic of the four worlds through which man must pass. The wind symbolizes the evanescent quality of the life of this world. The earthquake represents the day of death, since on it man quakes and trembles. Fire is the symbol of man's judgment in Gehenna. The "still small voice" is the Last Judgment (Tanḥ. Pekudei 3). A more elaborate articulation of the worlds (i.e., stages) through which man passes in this life describes seven distinct phases. Each phase is marked by its own characteristics, few of which are flattering (ibid.). All of life is clouded over by uncertainty, for a man goes on his way and knows not whether good or evil awaits him (Tan. Toledot 12). A trace of a tragic view of human destiny is to be discerned in a few rabbinic statements. Throughout his lifetime, man is caught in the impossible dilemma of either obeying his Creator (yoẓer) or his evil inclination (yeẓer). Whatever he chooses, he finds himself perpetually at odds with the other (Ber. 61a–b). Though man enters and leaves the world surrounded by love, both his entrance and exit are marked by sighing and weeping (Eccl. R. 5). The vanity of human ambition is expressed in the observation that man comes into the world with his fists clenched, as if to say, "I will grasp the whole world"; he leaves with palms outstretched, as if to say, "See what I am carrying away" (ibid.). Wherever man dies, there the earth will accept him, for the first man was created by God from dust gathered from the four corners of the earth (San. 38a–b; Tan. Pekude 3). Whether it were better for man to have been born or not to have been born is the subject of a prolonged controversy between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. The debate terminates with the decision that it would have been better for man never to have been born. But once having entered the world, "let him scrutinize his deeds" (Er. 13b). The pessimistic conclusion is unique and has no parallel in rabbinic literature. (Talmudic commentators have sought to temper it by interpretation. See Maharsha to Mak. 23b, and Urbach, in bibliography, pp. 224–6.)


Rabbinic thought considers all creation as having been called into being for the sake of man (Gen. R. 8:3–9); he is the only creature formed directly by the hand of God (Alphabet of R. Akiva 59); he was created last because he was to have dominion over all (Gen. R. 19:6). One man is worth the whole of creation (arn1 31). R. Akiva is moved to exclaim: "Beloved is man who was created in the image (of God); still greater was the love in that it was made known to him that he was created in the image of God" (Avot 3:15). Man's likeness to God, a doctrine meant to emphasize the singular position of man in the world, is a common doctrine in rabbinic Judaism and occurs in a wide variety of contexts. (However, one meets the occasional notion that man was created in the image of the angels and not in that of God; (Gen. R. 14:3; 21:5). (See Ginzberg, op. cit. in bibliography, vol. 5, p. 65, note 6 for a proposed explanation of this extraordinary view.) Man's superiority over the angels is to be found in his superior wisdom (Num. R. 19:3) and in his possession of free will (Gen. R. 21:5). In poetic fashion, man is termed God's candle in the world (Tan. B. Gen. 28).

[Theodore Friedman]


I. Epstein, The Faith of Judaism (1954); Kaufmann Y., Toledot; U. Cassuto, From Adam to Noah (1961); N.W. Porteous, in: idb, 3 (1962), s.v. (incl. bibl.); R. Gordis, The Book of God and Man (1965). in rabbinic thought: S. Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1923), ch. 15; W. Hirsch, Rabbinic Psychology (1947); G.F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, 3 vols. (1927–40), index, s.v.Man; Ginzberg, Legends, index, s.v.Man; E. Urbach, Ḥazal (1969), 190–226; H. Malter, in: jqr, 2 (1911/12), 453f.