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Soul (in the Bible)


Soul in the OT is nepeš, in the NT, ψυχή. The definitions and the use of these terms will be treated in this article.

Old Testament. Nepeš comes from an original root probably meaning to breathe. Thus the noun form means neck or throat opened for breathing, thence, breath of life. Since breath distinguishes the living from the dead, nepeš came to mean life or self or simply individual life. Nepeš is used in regard to both animals and humans. If life is human, nepeš is equivalent to the person, the "I." After death, the nepeš goes to sheol.

The above summary indicates that there is no dichotomy of body and soul in the OT. The Israelite saw things concretely, in their totality, and thus he considered men as persons and not as composites. The term nepeš, though translated by our word "soul," never means soul as distinct from the body or the individual person. Other words in the OT such as spirit, flesh, and heart also signify the human person and differ only as various aspects of the same being.

In Ps 68 (69).2, the phrase, "the waters threaten my life," is literally "waters come up to nepeš " (cf. Jn 2.6; Is 5.14; Prv 23.2). The sense of throat for nepeš is apparent in these places. The word nepeš means breath in Jb 41.13: "His breath [nepeš ] sets coals afire; a flame pours from his mouth." In 2 Kgs 17.22, it means breath of life, "And the soul [nepeš ] of the child returned into him and he revived" (cf. 2 Kgs 17.21; 2 Sm 1.9; Jer 38.16).

In Gn 9.4, "But flesh with its life [nepeš ]that is, its bloodyou shall not eat," the comparison shows more of an abstract meaning for nepeš as life in general without signifying breath or breathing (cf. Lv 17.11; Dt 12.23). Finally, nepeš means the individual being itself whether of animals or men. In Gn 2.7, "Then the Lord God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being," the Hebrew word for being is nepeš. Of animals, Prv 12.10 says, "The just man takes care of his beast," literally, "the nepeš in his beast."

As a human life, nepeš can be identical with the personal pronoun or the reflexive pronoun (Gn 27.4, 25; Lam3.24, where "says my soul" could be just as correctly translated "say I," etc.). As the "I," the nepeš performs all the sensations of an individual. The nepeš hungers, thirsts, hopes, longs, loves, and hates.

At death, the nepeš goes to Sheol, a place of an insensitive, shadowy existence. Many psalms pray for the rescue of one's nepeš from death, where the rescue means to be saved from dying, not to be raised from the dead. Happiness after death is known only in late OT revelation.

New Testament. The term ψυχή is the NT word corresponding with nepeš. It can mean the principle of life, life itself, or the living being. Through Hellenistic influence, unlike nepeš, it was opposed to body and considered immortal.

The psyche in Mt 10.28, "And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul [psyche]; but rather be afraid of him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell," means a life that exists separately from the body. The meaning of psyche in our Lord's statement, "[T]he Son of Man has not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life [psyche] as a ransom for many," is obviously His mortal existence (Mt 20.28; Jn 10.11). As a living being, subject to various experiences, it can refer to animals, "And every live thing [psyche] in the sea died" (Rv 16.3), or to humans, "Fear came upon every soul [psyche]" (Acts 2.43; Rom 2.9; 13.1). Thus the psyche feels, loves, and desires. In this connection it can be used to mean the personal or reflexive pronoun, as in Jn 10.24, "How long dost thou keep us [our psyches] in suspense?"

Thus far, ψυχή is quite similar to the Hebrew nepeš, except for Mt 10.28. Under the Greek influence, however, it was gradually opposed to body and was used for the immortal principle in man (Rv 6.9; 20.4).

In summary, the Hebrew nepeš generally is connected with the concrete sign of life in the individual, the "I" that feels, wills, pants for, etc. Its end is Sheol. The Greek counterpart, ψυχή, includes many of the meanings of nepeš; but it has added to the concept "I," the immortality of later philosophy and revelation.

See Also: man, 1; life, concept of (in the bible).

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible (New York 1963) 228690. j. p. e. pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture, 4 v. in 2 (New York 192640; reprint 1959) 1:99181. r. bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, tr. k. grobel (New York 1951) 1:190259. c. tresmontant, A Study of Hebrew Thought, tr. m. f. gibson (New York 1960) 83124.

[w. e. lynch]

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