One of the oldest prayers performed by the Jewish people every morning and evening is the prayer known as the Shema. It says:
The fifth Bible word for study from the Shema series is the word: Nephesh. This word is found over 700 times in the Old Testament.
It is quite unfortunate that the English translation of this word is the word “soul.” The popular view that comes to mind when anyone encounters the word “soul” is quite different from the implication and culture behind the ancient Biblical Hebrew word “nephesh.” This has led many astray in the understanding and application of this word when interpreting the Bible.
Popular View of “Soul”
Many view this word as the non-physical immortal being or essence that is trapped within the human body. This part comes alive and remains that way forever and ever when the body dies. This notion has its foundation from ancient Greek philosophy. It is completely foreign to the Bible, and it’s not what Nephesh stands for at all.
There’s another that many Christians have recently taken a liking to the past century or two. It comes with the phrase: Man is a spirit, has a soul, and lives in the body. This phrase is partially accurate (I will explain why in a moment). The newly popular definition of a soul is the mind, will, and emotions of every human. Partially accurate. Let’s move on to the most fundamental meaning behind nephesh.
Nephesh is Throat
Weird. Right? Lets dig in. The most basic meaning behind nephesh is the word throat. Here’s why:
After they escaped Egypt, the Israelites were wandering in the desert for quite a while. Given the harsh conditions of the environment, they began to feel hungry and thirsty. So, they complained to God:
“Oh had we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our throat [NEPHESH] has dried up…”
Another story is about poor Joseph who was betrayed by his brothers and sold to slavery. When he was dragged off into slavery, the Hebrew literally states that his NEPHESH was put in iron shackles (Psalm 105:17-18).
Though many English translators use the word ‘life’ for the Hebrew word “nephesh.” One example you may have come across in many Bible versions:
The Life of the creature is in the blood.
Nephesh may have some similarities to life, however, those two words are completely different.
In the beginning, the Bible speaks of the creation of living creatures. Did you know that the word “creatures” in the this book of Genesis and many others in the Old Testament is actually the Hebrew word NEPHESH? In the beginning, God made living moving nephesh (Genesis 1:21)… These were called animals.
When God formed the first human, the Bible recounts that Yahweh breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a LIVING SOUL ( nephesh). This is to tell you that according to the Bible, people don’t just have a soul. A HUMAN IS A SOUL. They together with the animals were called living nephesh – living souls. They all have the breath of life. They are living breathing physical beings. The Bible states that there were thirty-three nephesh in the family of Jacob (Genesis 46:15). These nephesh refer to people (Genesis 46:22, 25 -27).
It is from this ideology that we have the popular term “soul-winning” in our Christian circles. This term portrays the winning of a person to the kingdom of God through Jesus Christ.
If the breath of life leaves a human or an animal, the nephesh actually still remains. That human or animal is called a DEAD NEPHESH – a corpse (Leviticus 21:11).
Although this sounds like a cool title for a movie, the Bible calls a murderer – somekne who takes the life out of another – a nephesh slayer (Numbers 31:19). Also, a kidnapper is also called a nephesh thief (Deuteronomy 24:7).
Nephesh – Your Whole Being
Most people assume that the soul survives after death. Though the Bible speaks of the concept of people existing after death awaiting resurrection, the Biblical authors rarely dwell on it, and when they do they don’t use the word nephesh. According to the bible, nephesh dies too. You already know of the dead nephesh.
Ezekiel 18:20 says:
The Soul that sins shall die
This is because the soul refers to a living breathing person. Not just that, the word nephesh is also used to refer to your whole being. Many biblical authors use this word to refer to themselves. Reading the Bible, you would notice them as “me” or “I” in the Bible. One cool example. Psalm 119:175 says in most translations:
“Let ME live, that I may praise you.”
However, in Hebrew the sentence literally reads:
“Let MY NEPHESH live, that IT may praise you.”
The poet in this case (and many others in the Bible) used nephesh to signify his whole life and being praising God.
Sensations Are Nephesh
One of the reasons people and animals are nephesh (souls) is because life is sustained by what goes in and out of the throat – air, food, water etc. On a more intense level, the word throat used as nephesh is sometimes used as a metaphor for the term sensations. This is huge. Humans are nephesh. Animals are nephesh. However, the Bible doesn’t use the same for plants. Why? Because unlike humans, plants don’t have sensations. Our senses define who we are as physical beings. Our sense of touch, hearing, sight, smell, taste, and the emotions we feel within. Also sensations refer to the basic instincts and cravings that arouse in every living being – the craving to satisfy hunger, thirst, sex, safety, comfort, purpose etc. All these are also called nephesh.
The Bible passage I gave earlier about the throat can go a bit more further to describe sensations. The Israelites missed the cucumbers, garlic and meat they were eating in Egypt. They craved for that food… that smell, that taste, that feeling while they were in the wilderness. That was why they complained.
In the Song of Songs, the young maiden referred to her lover as “the One My NEPHESH (soul) loves (Song of Songs 3:1). She used the right word. Because Love is a decision and emotion that stirs up all your senses and sets your whole being on fire for desire.
Psalm 42:2-3 says:
As the deer pants for the water so my NEPHESH (soul) pants after you. My NEPHESH thirst for the Living God.
So physically, throat thirsts. But much deeper, this throat stands as a metaphor for the craving of a living being to satisfy its basic sensations in other to stay alive. Which goes even deeper to express how the poet of that Psalm longs and craves for God with his whole being.
It is from this standpoint of understanding that the Apostle Paul used to compare the soulish (translated as natural in some versions) human to the spiritual human. Why? Because a soulish person is one ruled by his cravings and emotions. Another topic for another time.
LOVING GOD WITH ALL YOUR NEPHESH
This brings us to the SHEMA. Loving God with all your nephesh is quite weighty. Your soul is not just your mind, will and emotions. It also consists of your basic instincts and cravings, your physical and emotional senses and everything that makes you human. Your nephesh consists of your whole physical existence.
Loving God with all your nephesh means offering your physical existence and all the capabilities and limitations that come with it in an effort to love God and love your neighbor.
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