For thousands of years every morning and evening, Jewish people have prayed these well-known words as a way of expressing their devotion to God. They’re called the Shema.
Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God the LORD is one, and as for you, you shall love the LORD your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your strength.1
We’re going to look at the word soul. The Hebrew word is nephesh. It occurs over 700 times in the Old Testament. The common English translation of this word is soul, and that's kind of unfortunate. Here’s why.
The English word soul comes with lots of baggage from ancient Greek philosophy. It’s the idea that the soul is a non-physical, immortal essence of a person that’s contained or trapped in their body to be released at death. It's a “ghost in the machine” kind of idea. This notion is totally foreign to the Bible. It's not at all what nephesh means in biblical Hebrew.
Nephesh in the Hebrew Bible [00:57-02:14]
The most basic meaning of nephesh is throat. Like when the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness, they're hungry and thirsty, and they say to God, “we miss the cucumbers and melons we had in Egypt, and now our nephesh has dried up!”2 Or when Joseph was hauled off into slavery in Egypt, his nephesh was put into iron shackles.3
But nephesh doesn’t only mean throat. Since your whole life and body depend on what comes in and out of your throat, nephesh could also be used to refer to the whole person.
Like in Genesis, there were thirty-three nephesh in Jacob’s family, that is, thirty-three people.4 In the Torah, a murderer is called a nephesh slayer,5 and a kidnapper is called a nephesh thief.6 On the first pages of the Bible, both humans and animals are called a living nephesh. And if the life-breath has left a human or animal, the nephesh remains. It’s just called a dead nephesh, that is, a corpse.
So in the Bible, people don’t have a nephesh; rather, they are a nephesh––a living, breathing, physical being. Now that might surprise you because most people assume the Bible says the soul is what survives apart from the body after death. And while the biblical authors do have a concept of people existing after death waiting for their resurrection, they rarely talk about it. And when they do, they don’t use the word nephesh.
Nephesh as the Whole Physical Being [02:15-03:55]
So even though nephesh is often translated as soul, the Hebrew word really refers to the whole human as a living, physical organism. In fact, this is why biblical people can often use this word to refer to themselves. And it gets translated “me” or “I.” Like in Psalm 119, most translations read, “let me live, that I may praise you.”7 In Hebrew, the poet literally says, “let my nephesh live, that it may praise you." By using nephesh, the poet emphasizes that their entire being, their life and their body, offer thanks to God.
In the Song of Songs, the young woman constantly refers to her lover as “the one my nephesh loves.”8 And of course, love isn’t just an intellectual experience. It’s an emotion that activates your whole body, your entire nephesh.
This helps us understand the brilliance of other biblical poets who could combine multiple meanings of nephesh in one place. Like in Psalm 42, we read, “as the deer pants for the water, so my nephesh pants after you, my nephesh thirsts for the living God.”9 So on a physical level, your throat can be thirsty like a deer’s, but then that physical thirst can become a metaphor for how your whole physical being longs to know and be known by your creator.
Which brings us all the way back to the Shema. To love God with all your nephesh means to devote your whole physical existence to your Creator, the one who granted us these amazing bodies in the first place. It’s about offering your entire being with all of its capabilities and limitations in the effort to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. And that’s the Hebrew word for soul.