Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Please discuss the meaning of the word “soul” in the Bible. What does it designate?
The Hebrew term nephesh in the Old Testament and the Greek psuche in the New Testament are sometimes translated “soul,” but they both mean “life, person.” The different uses of those two words help us to obtain a better understanding of the biblical view of human nature. The confusion we face concerning the nature of the “soul” is because of the introduction of the Greek idea of the immortality of the “soul” into Christian doctrine.
1. The Hebrew meaning of nephesh: In the Old Testament the term nephesh is used in a concrete way to refer to the throat as it relates to breathing and eating (gullet). In Isaiah 5:14* the word nephesh is translated “appetite,” but it really means “throat” (see also Ps. 107:9, where “the thirsty” is literally “the dried-out throat” (nephesh). The throat is also the instrument of breathing (Jer. 15:9). The use of the word for the throat indicates that nephesh expresses the idea of life and desire, in this case for food and water. The other uses of “soul” appear to be derived from this more concrete one.
2. The person as a being of desires: The need of the “soul” for food, water, and breath extends to include desires and emotions in general. In the Bible the “soul” designates the whole person as characterized by desires, wishes, even cravings. This emphasizes that humans are emotional beings. Proverbs states: “The laborer’s appetite [nephesh, desires, needs] works for him” (Prov. 16:26), that is to say, motivates him to work. The psalmist prays, “Do not turn me over to the desire [literally, “Do not give me up to the nephesh (desire, greed)] of my foes” (Ps. 27:12). Jesus said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow,” that is to say, as an emotional being I am possessed by sorrow (Mark 14:34).
3. The person as a living being: The need for air or breath allows for “soul” to be used in the sense of life. We find such phrases as “I took my life [nephesh] in my hands,” meaning I risked my life (Judges 12:3; cf. Phil. 2:30); enemies “seek my life,” or attempt to kill me (Ps. 35:4; cf. Matt. 2:20); “Your life [psuche] will be demanded from you” (Luke 12:20). “Soul” does not designate a part of human nature independent of the body, but the totality of the person as a living being (Gen. 2:7). In fact, “soul” is another way of saying “person” or “human being.” The Lord said, “The soul [nephesh, person] who sins is the one who will die” (Eze. 8:4). The church must contend “as one man [psuche, person] for the faith” (Phil. 1:27). The “soul,” as a human being, is fundamentally a self, an individual who can in fact die. “Soul” in the Old Testament refers not only to a living person (Gen. 2:7), but also to a dead person (Num. 5:2; Lev. 21:11).
4. Grammatical use of “soul”: Since “soul” is used to refer to the person as a self, the term came to be used as a pronoun to designate a person. Abram asked Sarai to say that she was his sister in order that “my life [literally, “my soul,”] will be spared” (Gen. 12:13). The Hebrew way of saying “Let me live” (1 Kings 20:32) is “Let my soul live.” The phrase “that my soul may bless you before I die” (Gen. 27:4, NKJV) simply means “that I may bless you.”
The word “soul” is not the best translation of the original Hebrew and Greek terms. In the Bible the “soul” is not immortal and cannot exist independent of the physical body. From the point of view of biblical anthropology (the study of human nature), the term “soul” expresses two main ideas. First, humans are by nature creatures of desires and ongings. Second, humans are living beings who eagerly seek to live but are unable to acquire or preserve life by themselves. “Soul” refers to the whole person in need of God, who is the only one who can preserve a human being or extinguish the self forever (Matt. 10:28). Therefore, nephesh/psuche refers to the totality of the person as a center of life, emotions, feelings, and longings that can be fully realized only in union with God.
*Unless otherwise noted, Bible texts are from the New International Version.