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The Human Soul

Deut 6:4-5
Deuteronomy 6:4 NIV
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Deuteronomy 6:4–5 NIV
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
Deut 6:
Soul נֶ֫פֶשׁ ( nefeš)
Some people have a very clear categories in their mind when they say “Your body, your psyche, your soul and your spirit” about these few words. But the category of “soul” (especially to the Asian ears) kind of gets a little fuzzy sometimes. It seems like a disembodied essence of you which you can carry for ever and ever.
When neuroscience tries to explain something like “mind” and “thoughts” as actually just synaptic process or material stuff that is going on, it seems like it is opposite of the common perception of a non-material entity.
People often assume the idea of an eternal, non-physical existence that human living on after death apart from their bodies as “disembodied souls”, they assume this was the main teaching of the Bible, but actually it is quite the contrary.
The word “soul” is used in the Bible not the way we use in English. Most people’s understanding about “soul” is hardly what the Bible means about “soul.” There is a misunderstanding between our concepts and what the biblical text has to say. And at the same time, we also miss out what the text actually wanted to say to us about it.
The word “soul” comes from the Old English sāwol, sāw(e)l, of Germanic origin
Oxford English Dictionary: first literary, datable usage was ini 8th century Beowulf. It was referring to a non-physical essence, a category in the 8th century.
An etymology dictionary says that it may come from a proto-Germanic word Seele which means “see.”
It seems like this word has existed in European languages referring to a non-physical, disembodied you or essence of you, which could not survive death since it is not physical. The idea was imported from a Platonic and Aristotelian “soul” or the word in Greek ψυχή (psuchē), which refers to an eternal, non-physical, immortal entity that exists after death. In fact, the material world is just a second rate; the purest world is still the non-existent one. So you find the notion of “my soul is imprisoned/trapped inside a body,” which is Platonic philosophy. This word is closer to the English word psyche, which refers more to the mind.
But the Bible is not talking about a disembodied part of you. Both the OT Hebrew and NT Greek, there is a category of words where can be used to describe the enduring, human person after death. But the usage is very rare. The word “human” actually also means “body.”
In the NIV translation, the English has “soul” occurring like 160 times in 39 books, and question: Has it been referring to where you are going to go when you die? The answer is NO!
Quite on the contrary, whenever the word “soul” appears, 72 out of 100 times in the OT, it is translating the Hebrew word nefeš (which occurs 754 times in the OT). So think about that, nefeš has been used very commonly, just like the word “God,” “place,” “walk,” “sea,” etc. Only 10% of the time the word nefeš is translated as “soul” in English.
Range of meaning of the word in different context and carries different nuances:
Most common: life
Lives, the living
themselves, you, people, anyone
This word is really plastic and broad. We want to survey the breadth of it. It’s so common like the word “aiyah” or “lah” or “hor” etc.
Just like in English, the word “life”: my physical life, all my life (=years; length of time), get a life (=have a social network), biological life, not on your life (=worth of life), etc. just like the word nefeš.
Psalm 23:1–3 NIV
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.
Ps 23:11
He refreshes my nefeš. The me here is a “sheep” as a governing metaphor. When I eat green grass and drink clean water, then my nefeš is refreshed. But the “soul” here makes it feel really more spiritual. If it says, He refreshes my “body” it would become very physical.
Psalm 42:1–2 NIV
1 As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?
Ps 42:111-2
So my nefeš pants and thirst for God. Me, as a deer, and God as the source of life that is refreshing. As they water can refresh the physical something, so God too can refresh and bring life to the nefeš. We might be tempted to say that, “Sure! Water is physical, God is Spirit, so he refreshes the non-physical part of me.” But is that what it was actually saying?
Ps 42:1
So my nefeš pants for you
If you look at the Hebrew text, the most basic meaning of nefeš is throat. This often happens. Just like the word chabod that gets translated as “glory” or “weight,” the most basic meaning is heavy or weighty. So the original word did not immediately mean glory, it is just that when translators look at the full range of nuances, this word “glory” in English seems to be able to connect it altogether.
So how did the throat get to mean the soul?
Numbers 11:4–6 NIV
4 The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. 6 But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!”
Num 11:
V6 in the Hebrew reads “but now our nefeš has dried up and there is nothing to look at except this manna!”
And so God went on to give them meat and then water.
Our nefeš is dry: it clearly cannot mean their disembodies entity, because here is clearly means they are hungry and thirsty.
The English translations usually paraphrase it that you can’t see the nuances. So which part of your body dries up when you are hungry or thirsty? It is the throat!
Isaiah 58:11
Isaiah 58:11 ESV
11 And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.
“satisfy your nefeš
This was post-apocalyptic Babylon burning your whole country to the ground, but God wants to satisfy your nefeš in these scorched places and you will like a watered garden. Your nefeš will be restored and thenyou will become a source of restoration for others. But once again, this image of dry, nefeš, and the opposite of it is very vicerol images.
Ps 69
Psalm 69:1–2 ESV
1 Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. 2 I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
Depending on translations:
NASB: for the waters have threatened my life (nefeš)
NIV: waters have come up to my nefeš
So if the nefeš is just a metaphor for life, then what does it mean if the water comes up to you life/soul?
But NIV says it in a basic meaning, which nefeš is really a metaphor for drowning, for a really bad day...
Psalm 105:17–19 ESV
17 he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave. 18 His feet were hurt with fetters; his neck was put in a collar of iron; 19 until what he had said came to pass, the word of the Lord tested him.
Ps 105
v18 - NASB: he himself was laid up in iron
NIV: his nefeš was put into iron
So here you have the image of shackles on his feet and shackles around his nefeš
The only time when nefeš refers to a particular part of the body.
nefeš is put in iron; nefeš is dry and thirsty; there is a Hebrew word for neck, and a word for the whole
Oesophagus is nefeš; or the metaphor of what goes in and out of the throat
Jeremiah 15:9 LEB
9 She who gave birth to seven has withered away. She gasps her breath. Her sun set while still day. She has been put to shame and disgraced. And the remainder of them I will give to the sword before their enemies,” declares Yahweh.
He describes how terrifying it is going to be to live in Jerusalem when Babylon comes to town…she would breathe out her nefeš.
Jeremiah 50:9 ESV
9 For behold, I am stirring up and bringing against Babylon a gathering of great nations, from the north country. And they shall array themselves against her. From there she shall be taken. Their arrows are like a skilled warrior who does not return empty-handed.
The verb form of nefeš is נפח (nafaḥ) just like how God would breathe out on the lump of clay in .
So here, she is breathing out her nefeš for the last time. Here it looks more like the רוּחַ (rǔaḥ) or spirit/breath/life-breath/wind. When a person dies, he gives up his rǔaḥ; and God gives you your rǔaḥ and he can take it away.
So rǔaḥ is the invisible energy and refers to nefeš the body part. Your rǔaḥ is in and out of your nefeš.
But nefeš can refer to the physical thing, or it can also mean the passage way in and out—your “lifeline” that is in your body
It is a weird thing to say in English when you are dying, you are giving out your throat.
Here in is a poetic metaphor of a woman breathing out her ______. You would expect breath to filled in the blank, but what she breathes out is her nefeš. It would sound weird to the English ear that when you are dying, you say you are are giving out your neck, as if you have no head and the organ is just exhaling out...
So, the nefeš is how we understand all the other meaning are held together.
How did the organ that pumps blood … doesn’t make a lot of sense to biblical idea.
But one of the very important of your existence
Here in is a poetic metaphor of a woman breathing out her ______. You would expect breath to filled in the blank, but what she breathes out is her nefeš. It would sound weird to the English ear that when you are dying, you say you are are giving out your neck, as if you have no head and the organ is just exhaling out...
So, your nefeš your throat, and food and breath comes in and out, and it is connected to the breath. But now nefeš is abstracted to refer to your life, which is the most common usage of this word, to mean physical life. This is the most basic or concrete meaning. It refers to the physical body part, and from that, we abstract out all the other meanings.
This is what made the English translations hard. It’s just like the English word “heart” which represents feeling. But if you take a step back and observe, you might ask: how did the organ that pumps blood … doesn’t make a lot of sense to biblical idea.
So, the nefeš is how we understand all the other meaning are held together.
Another example is the word “intestine” in biblical Hebrew.
Judges 3:21–22 ESV
21 And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly. 22 And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the dung came out.
The word occurs many times, but mostly translated as “my inward being” rather than “intestines” because it is used as a metaphor of anger, anxiety or fear, or strong affection. Another example is when we talk about a queasy stomach, a physiological response when we feel nausea, or sometimes we say “I have butterflies in my stomach.”
In the same way, when you want to describe your physical existence as a whole, you use the word. There is a word for body in Hebrew, it is called בָּשָׂר (bāśār), which more like means flesh, to describe meat of animal or your bodily existence.
Genesis 17:14 ESV
14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
circumcised in the bāśār of his foreskin…or in the Greek it would most commonly be soma.
bāśār, which more like meaning flesh.
The throat has a sense of centrality that connect my head to my torso, as oppose to “me.” It’s like when you talk to me, you don’t look at my hand, but you see my nefeš. It is like the most vital part of my physical body, if I get stabbed at my nefeš, then I would not survive. It carries a sense of the essence of my being. But it definitely means physical essence, as oppose to the English meaning of soul, which means a non-physical being.
If somebody wants to kill you, he is seeking your nefeš. Just like the example of Saul and David.
In English, it gets translated as seeking your life.
Genesis 37:21–22 ESV
21 But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father.
Joseph was thrown into the ditch because Reuben said, “Let us not strike his nefeš.” ()
Joseph was thrown into the ditch because Reuben said, don’t strike his nefeš.
But one of the very important of your existence
You get the whole point, the nefeš has very little to do with the non-physical part of a person.
It’s just like the air stewardess would say, there are 300 souls here…she certainly didn’t mean the non-physical stuff onboard!
So the “soul” that we currently have in mind—which is non-physical entity, came from the KJV language…and perhaps mixed with the Asian concept of the souls of the deceased become roaming spirits, that worsen the misconception and perhaps why we have the kind of idea of “soul” as some kind of disembodied, non-physical entity of a person.
But one of the very important of your existence.
Genesis 2:19 ESV
19 Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.
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