How did we get the word “soul” from “throat”? Tim and Jon discuss.
This is our first episode related to our new word studies video on the Hebrew word “nephesh,” which often gets translated as “soul” in English Bibles. In Hebrew, the most basic meaning of the word is “throat,” which may seem weird to us. How did we get “soul” from “throat”? Tim and Jon discuss.
In the first part of the episode (0-12:30), Tim and Jon outline where the word “soul” comes from (Old English), and why most people think that a core teaching of the Bible is people “having souls.” Jon asks how much you can really separate the ideas of a person’s mind, soul, and body.
In the second part of the episode (12:30-41:20), Tim explains that the Hebrew word “nephesh” is an extremely common word in the Hebrew Old Testament. It occurs over 700 times, but less than 10% of the time is it translated as “soul.” It also gets translated as “life”, “heart”, “you”, “people” and several other words. Tim outlines some famous verses in the Old Testament that use the word soul, like Psalm 42 “ As the deer pants...My soul thirsts for you” the original meaning is Hebrew is “my throat thirsts for you.”
Tim explains that the word nephesh is designed to show the essential physicality of a person. Whereas “soul” connotes the non-physicality of a person.
In the third part of the episode (41:20-end), Tim says “nephesh” isn’t just used to describe humans but also to describe animals and what the land produced in Genesis. “And God said ‘Let the waters teem with living nephesh.’”
The bottom line, biblically, is that people don’t have souls—they are souls. They don’t have nephesh they are nephesh. And the ultimate hope for Christians is not a disembodied existence living as souls but an embodied existence living in their nephesh.
You can check out our new word studies video on nephesh here! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_igCcWAMAM
Thank you to all our supporters! Check out more free resources on our website: www.thebibleproject.com
The Shema: Deuteronomy 6:4-5
Original uses of the word Nephesh meaning throat:
Psalm 23, Psalm 42:1-2, Isaiah 58:11
Defender Instrumental, Rosasharn Music; River Deep, Retro Soul (Danya Vodovoz, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8B1tVfm832w); Lotus Lane, The Loyalist; Herbal Tea, Artificial Music
Show Produced By: Jon Collins and Dan Gummel
Podcast Date: November 13, 2017
Speakers in the audio file:
Jon: You've heard the phrase "guard your soul" or "God loves your soul" or "Jesus
died to save your soul." We toss around this word soul a lot in religious
circles. We have a body. We have a mind. We have emotions. But what is our
Tim: People often assume the idea of eternal nonphysical existence that human's
living on after death, apart from their bodies as disembodied souls forever
and ever, that's a really important idea in the Bible, or a main teaching of the
Bible. I certainly thought that till I actually started to read the Bible.
Jon: I'm Jon Collins, and this is The Bible Project podcast. Today we're going to
talk about how you don't have a soul, but you are a soul. Tim and myself and
the rest of the Bible project crew have been making a series of videos on
biblical words. The word we're working on now is the Hebrew word
"nephesh" which in our English translations of the Bible gets translated as
Tim: It is actually hardly ever the meaning of the soul in the Bible.
Jon: How do biblical authors use this word "nephesh"? What are they imagining?
And what does it mean for us as humans to be a soul? Thanks for joining us.
Here we go.
We are going to talk about the soul - the human's soul.
Tim: Because this is what we like to do on an average day. Talk about biblical
Jon: I'm incredibly excited about these conversations.
Tim: The motivator is in the word study series we're doing a video on the fifth
keyword in the Shema. Deuteronomy Chapter 6: "Love the Lord your God
with all your heart, with all of your soul, and then with all your strength."
Right now, for us, real-time, "soul" is the next one to come out in the month
and a half, two. There you go.
We're having the conversation about the meaning of this highly
misunderstood word in the Bible. Why are you so interested in this? I feel like
you have been for a long time.
Tim: Where does that come from?
Jon: I'm really interested in the human experience. I've always been confused by
what we mean when we say soul, how that's different from spirit. I remember
talking to a guy I really admire as a thinker, as a Christian. He was talking
about, your body, your psyche, your soul, and your spirit. And it seemed like
he had these really clear categories in his mind. And I'm like, "I don't have
that clear of categories."
I mean, I understand "body." That's really clear. "Psyche" starts to get a little
less clear or "mind," but kind of have a handle on that. Then "soul," it gets
But I have this fairly typical understanding of your essence - this disembodied
essence that you have, that you will carry on with you forever. It seems like
that's typically what people are talking about when they mean soul.
Tim: Yeah. Then that gets complicated. I think, for many people, when they
encounter popular presentations of brain science or neuroscience, things that
are able to explain what often or historically has been understood as
nonphysical, something like mind or reason, and then there's a whole
movement that says, "No, actually, even what we can experience as not being
a part of our bodies like our thoughts are actually products of synapses firing
and chemicals mixing in our brain."
Jon: It's material.
Tim: It's material, I think for many people that creates maybe some sort of crisis, or
at least attention and their worldview. "Wait, I thought humans were both
material, but also something non material. How does that work then?"
Jon: I think most people would say, "Yeah, we're material and non material." But
then if you really try to drill down and get a handle on what that non material
part is, it's a complete mystery.
Tim: People often assume that the idea of eternal nonphysical existence that
human's living on after death apart from their bodies, as souls, disembodied
souls forever and ever, many people assume that that's a really important
idea in the Bible or a main teaching of the Bible. I certainly thought that till I
actually started to read the Bible.
I remember even before I knew anything about Greek or Hebrew, and I
became aware that the word "soul" was being used in the Bible not the way I
used it in English, then as I learned more, I realized what most people mean
by the word soul, that disembodied living on forever and ever part of you, is
actually hardly ever the meaning of soul in the Bible if all. I realized it was a
whole point of debate. You can count, on one hand, the key passages that
seemed to describe that.
I think both it leaves a misunderstanding about the human person and also
that idea has led us to miss understand much of what the Bible has said. I
start to sound like a broken record at some point. There's a cultural gap
between us and the Bible and its authors, and how they used words in their
language and culture.
So it goes both ways. We impose our concepts of whatever on to these texts
and make them say what they might mean in English. We're both distorting
what they say. That happens very often. Also, we miss out on what they were
trying to say in the first place. So it's a double whammy. We distort what
they're actually saying and we miss what they wanted to say.
I have found that have to do both a demolition job and a rebuilding job when
it comes to the word "soul" in the Bible.
Jon: Before we demo the word, I always like to try to understand how we got the
word in English.
Tim: I have a bit in the notes but I'm sure you have more.
Jon: There it is. Sáwol. 8th-century old English word.
Tim: It was actually first attested in Beowulf. This is from the Oxford English
Jon: This is the first time that word shows up is in Beowulf?
Tim: Yeah. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it's first literary usage in a
text that we can date to the 8th-century. What that means is that people were
using it long before that; it can be tracked here.
Jon: And then got into literature. That's very clearly referring to some nonphysical
essence of a living being?
Jon: So that was a category in the 8th-century English?
Jon: Now, in the etymology dictionary online, it says that it also might be a Proto-
Germanic word and it may even come potentially from a German word that
means see. Did you see that?
Tim: I did? There were other routes that people think are even older. This is just it's
the first appearance in English.
Tim: It seems like this word has existed in European languages, referring to a
concept of a nonphysical disembodied you, the essence of you that is not
physical, and therefore couldn't survive death.
Jon: Let's assume for the sake of argument because we haven't looked at the
relevant verses yet, that the Bible actually isn't talking about some
disembodied part of you when it talks about the soul. Where would that idea
Tim: Well, the main concept it comes to us from Greek culture and philosophy. It's
the classic idea in Plato and Aristotle of the immortal soul. They use the Greek
word psuche to describe that, but it's eternal, nonphysical, it exists after
In fact, in the philosophy of these great teachers, the material world that you
and I experience it's just a second-rate kind of shadow world, and the most
pure, beautiful form of existence is nonphysical. For them, souls were actually
all this language of "I'm a soul trapped in a body' or "your soul escaping the
body" or "imprisoned in your body," that's all part of this heritage of—
Jon: From Plato and Aristotle?
Tim: Yeah, of Platonic philosophy. That your physical existence is less than, and
what's true and real is what's not physical.
Tim: And they called it the psuche?
Tim: They use the Greek word "psuche."
Jon: Which is close to "psyche," which is more "mind."
Tim: Exactly. Isn't that interesting? you'd have to track the history of how
it's...because our word "psyche" in English is just that Greek word spelled with
Jon: But that refers more to our mind.
Tim: Now it refers more to our mind. Whereas in their philosophies, it was the
essence of the human - the non material essence of a person.
Jon: It's very fascinating how cultures develop this idea of what we are as humans
and what categories there are of our humanity. I think what we're interested
in is what are the categories that the Bible presents and what it means with
Tim: As we're going to see both in the Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament
Greek, there is a category that this word is going to be used for to describe
the enduring human person after death. It's very rare. These words occur
hundreds of times in the Bible and there's a small handful of times where it
seems to pretty clearly refer to a human, but using the word human because
human means body.
For us, the word human is also the body. But it's the endurance of a person, a
living being through death always in the hope of resurrection of reembodiment.
But all that to say is there's at least kind of a crack in the door
in the Bible for those Greek concepts to get imported in, creating the mess I
think that we have today, which is reading these Greek ideas back into the
biblical usage. But to get there, you have to kind of walk through the
storyline of how this word develops its meaning.
Tim: Here's some basics about these words in the Bible. The English word "soul," if
you do online Bible Gateway or Blue Letter Bible search, you can search the
NIV translation, you'll see the English word "soul" appears nearly 100 times.
That's a lot. The word soul appears a lot in your NIV translation.
Jon: Although for the Bible—
Tim: You think it would appear more?
Jon: Oh, yeah? Is that the whole Bible or is that the Old Testament?
Tim: Yeah. This search in the New International Version.
Jon: In the Old and New Testament?
Tim: In the Old Testament.
Jon: In the Old Testament?
Jon: So we're talking like 40 something books? How many books in the Old
Jon: 24 books?
Tim: I'm sorry. That's counting book of the 12 prophets. It's counting all the ones
and twos as one.
Jon: What does that get us to?
Tim: 39 in the Protestant Bible?
Jon: 46 in the Catholic.
Tim: But once you combine the books in Hebrew tradition, you get 24.
Jon: Okay. Let's say 24 for the Hebrew tradition. That means in every book the
word "soul" only appear an average of four times.
Tim: The English word soul.
Jon: The English word soul. For a book, that's about—
Tim: About what?
Jon: Where you're going to go when you die.
Tim: All right, I see where you are going here.
Tim: Like you think it would be more interested in your soul.
Tim: Interesting. If the Bible is primarily telling us information about what happens
after you die, so you can get ready for that...
Jon: And what to do now.
Tim: ...it's odd that the word soul doesn't appear [unintelligible 00:14:46].
Jon: If I was writing the Bible, the word soul would show up a lot, I think.
Tim: Famous last words.
Jon: If I had my version of the Bible, there would be a lot more talk about your
Tim: Because you got to put these numbers in perspective. The English word soul
appears just under 100 times in The New International Version. 72 of those
times it's translating the Hebrew word "nephesh." So let's talk about the
Hebrew word nephesh. The Hebrew word nephesh occurs 754 times in the
Jon: Now we're getting somewhere.
Tim: Just stop and think about that. This Hebrew word is one of the most common
words in biblical Hebrew other than God.
Jon: What does that compare to? What other type of words are used 750 times?
Tim: Oh, got it. It would be very common words like place or walk. Once you get
like the word of God or see or said, then you're up in the thousands.
Jon: The word nephesh, it appears 750 times in the Old Testament, but only 10%
of the time, one out of 10 times is that word translated to soul.
Tim: Remember, what translators are doing is they get a sense of the range of
meaning of a word. Then in different contexts, the same word can have
different nuances. It's true in every language. It's true in English. So
depending on context, they'll use a different English word to get it a different
nuance of meaning.
I have this little chart in front of you. It's the standard, most common
translations of the word nephesh. The most common English word actually
that translates is the word "life." Life. Then second comes "soul." Then after
that comes "me." Then comes "lives" or "living," the living, then the pronoun
"I" Then "Heart."
Jon: Heart? That's an interesting choice.
Tim: Then "themselves," "you," "people," "anyone." Then the chart shades off.
There are about 50 other different English words that are used to translate it
to really niche context words.
Here's the point. This word is really plastic and broad. What we want to get at
is examine that broad usage to get at the core ideas underneath, and then
see how these are all legitimate...
Jon: It's kind of like opa! in Greek. Opa! It means all these different things. I
remember I was in Greece and I was trying to figure what it meant, and I
asked this guy, like, "What does it mean?" He goes, "Just pay attention, and
you'll figure it out."
Tim: He didn't tell you?
Tim: He was like," Just watch how people use it?"
Jon: Sometimes it's oops, sometimes it's stop, sometimes it's like, "Hey, you." It's
all sorts of things.
Tim: Opa. That's great. That's a great example. That's a good example.
Jon: It's a very plastic word.
Tim: Here you go. It's a very broad word. All languages have broad words.
Actually, the English word "life" is fairly broad. I can talk about my physical life
or all my life, meaning years - all the years I've been alive. I can talk about get
a life - Just like have a social network.
Let's run with this a little bit. It's a good example. Think of the pie chart we
make. So life, it would be physical existence, the length of your existence, like
Jon: Quality of your existence.
Tim: The quality of your existence.
Jon: It could also just mean organic compounds.
Tim: Oh, yeah, like biological life. It can refer to your social network. Get a life
meaning get some friends. Not on your life. Not on your life. Like the worth
or the value of your life. Your life has a value.
Jon: The value of your being.
Tim: We use the word life in really different ways.
Jon: And that's similar to nephesh?
Jon: Because it actually is one of the translations of nephesh.
Tim: It's one of the translations. That's what made me think of it.
Jon: Got it. That's helpful.
Tim: Here are some famous Bible verses where nephesh occurs that to me raise
some of the interesting questions. One of the most famous Bible verses in
American popular culture, Psalm 23. "The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he
refreshes my nephesh."
Jon: My soul.
Tim: He refreshes my nephesh.
Jon: That verse is usually translated to soul.
Tim: Yeah, he refreshes my soul. He spreads a table before my enemies, that kind
of thing. Now it's interesting "the Lord's my shepherd. He makes me lie down
in green pastures, quiet waters" what's the governing metaphor obviously is
that the me of the poet is a sheep.
Then if I'm a sheep in this poem, what does it mean that I eat green grass and
drink water? My nephesh is refreshed. Or just it raises the issue like, "Oh,
soul." The normal meaning of the English word soul really helps us
understand the imagery of the poem.
Jon: It almost seems like he's turning corner here and you'd expect him to say like,
he takes care of my body but said he refreshes my soul. Which makes it feel
like he's getting really spiritual.
Tim: Totally. If we said he refreshes my body, it would feel less biblish.
Jon: I'm laying down in green pastures, that's cozy. I'm drink drinking these quiet
waters, it's refreshing. And so now my body's...it's like...But now my soul is
Tim: My soul. By saying soul in English—
Jon: But this is a metaphor. We're not sheep.
Jon: It's not too surprising that he would say, soul.
Tim: Psalm 42. "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my nephesh pants for
you, my God. My nephesh thirsts for God, for the living God." You have a
panting deer that is likened to my nephesh panting for God. If you have a
deer panting by a stream of water, it's likely going to be...
Jon: It's thirsty.
Tim: It's thirsty. Then the poet develops a metaphor. My nephesh thirsts. It both
pants and thirsts for God. So God is depicted as a source of life that can,
similar to Psalm 23, refresh. In the same way, the water can refresh the
physical something, so God can refresh and bring life to a nephesh.
We might be tempted to say, "Oh, sure, waters is physical, God is Spirit so he
refreshes the nonphysical part of me." That's what we think this might be
saying. It's what it is actually that saying?
If you look in all the standard Hebrew dictionaries, they'll all point out there's
a number of times where nephesh is used in its most basic meaning, which is
Jon: Its most basic meaning? By most basic you don't mean translated the most
because that's life?
Tim: That's right.
Jon: What do you mean by most basic?
Tim: This often happens. Do you remember when we talked about glory and—
Jon: And wait.
Tim: Its most basic meaning is heavy or weighty. What you're looking for is a
nuance of meaning that can explain conceptually to be like the conceptual
bedrock for all the other nuances of meaning. It's not like the word originally
met this and over time it developed. It's that, of all the ranges of meaning for
how this word get used, this one it's the one that connects them all together.
Jon: Throat doesn't seem to connect them at all?
Tim: That's why this is such a great conversation. I remember being so bewildered
when I learned Hebrew.
Jon: Who decided it meant throat?
Tim: People who looked at all the uses of nephesh in the Bible, and they found
instances like this. Numbers Chapter 11. The Israelites are in the wilderness
saying...This is great. This is one of their complaints in the wilderness. They
say, "Who will give us meat to eat. We remember the fish we used to eat for
free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, the garlic. But
now our nephesh has dried up and there's nothing to look at except this
What God goes on to do is to give them meat in this story, and then it's
paralleled with the story soon after about God providing water for them. This
becomes the complaint that governs God's response which is to give them
food and then water. But our nephesh has dried up.
Jon: Our soul has dried up.
Tim: Such an interesting metaphor. Our nephesh is dry.
Jon: Obviously, he's not talking about a disembodied entity because they're
talking about how hungry and thirsty they are?
Tim: Yeah. Whatever their nephesh is, their nephesh—
Jon: They're not using it as a metaphor.
Tim: Their nephesh being dry is a description of their hunger and thirst.
Interesting. English translations go different ways here. The New American
Standard translates that as "our appetite is gone." So they basically have
paraphrased it so you no longer even know the word nephesh is being used
What part of the body dries up when you're hungry or thirsty? I mean, it's
Jon: Your throat.
Tim: Yeah, your throat. I don't know why they didn't say, "Look, our throat is
parched or our throat is dry." Isaiah chapter 58. This is a promise on the other
side of exile what God is going to do when He restores His people.
In Isaiah 58:11, "The Lord will continually guide you and satisfy your nephesh
in scorched places, giving strength to your bones. You will be like a watered
garden, like a spring of water that never fails." This is like post-apocalyptic -
Babylon just burned your whole countryside and cities to the ground. Is there
anything to hope for? And God says, yes, He's going to satisfy your nephesh
in these scorched places. What does that mean? Strength to bones and lots
Jon: You'll be like a watered garden.
Tim: That's right. He's flipping the metaphor. Your nephesh itself will be restored
and then you will be a source of restoration for elsewhere in the land. He
goes on. "And you're going to rebuild the cities and rebuild the ancient ruins
and so on. So your nephesh will be restored and then you will become a
source of restoration for others.
But once again, it's this image of dry and nephesh, and then the opposite of
it is these very visceral physical images. Bones and water. Let's keep going.
Go down to these two alternate translates Psalm 69. These are the ones when
I read these and I was like, "Oh, I see what's going on here."
The opening sentence of Psalm 69. Actually, depending on what translation
you're reading, it will affect what you get out of here. In the New American
Standard, the poet says, "Save me, O God, for the waters have threatened my
Jon: Threatened my nephesh.
Tim: Threatened my nephesh. There you go. The NIV has a different translation.
Then what it shows us is that the New American Standard has once again
kind of paraphrased out of existence the original metaphor here.
NIV reads, "Save me, O God, the waters have come up to my nephesh. That's
literally, in Hebrew, the waters have gone up to the nephesh.
Jon: So if nephesh just meant life and it was a metaphor or soul, then you would
say, what does that mean that the waters have come up to your soul? I guess
you're just kind of threatened so we'll paraphrase it "they've threatened my
Jon: But NIV is saying, "Oh, nephesh actually, in a basic way, just refers to your
neck," and that's what he's using it as neck.
Tim: But it is a metaphor. He's describing inactive drowning as what his life feels
like. And he's going to go on to say, "Enemies are after me and they're
slandering me in public." Drowning is a metaphor for just a really, really bad
day in the life of the poet. But the metaphor he uses is a literal description of
drowning. Water is coming up to the nephesh.
So your nephesh can be dry when you're hungry and thirsty, or you can
drown - waters coming up to your nephesh. Or in that example, and Psalm
105 describing Joseph when he was sold into slavery by his brothers. It's,
again, different translations here.
In the New American Standard, "Joseph was sold as a slave. They, his brothers
afflicted his feet with fetters. He himself was laid up in irons. That's how the
New American Standard reads."
New International Version. "Joseph was sold as a slave. They bruised his feet
with shackles. His nephesh was put into irons. It's literally what it says in
Hebrew. So he has shackles on his feet and then he has a big neck shackle
around his nephesh.
Jon: So nephesh clearly can refer to your throat, your neck?
Jon: I still understand why that's the most basic.
Tim: These are the only times that nephesh is referring to a specific part of the
body. Clearly, it's referring to your neck, but not...your neck like Joseph. Your
neck is put in irons. Then what t you have is references to your nephesh being
dry and thirsty...
Jon: It's the same word for neck and throat, nephesh?
Tim: That's right. Those are other words for neck and for throat.
Jon: Oh, really?
Tim: Mm-hmm. Nephesh is somehow referring to it as a holistic whole.
Jon: There's a Hebrew word for neck and there's a Hebrew word for throat and
then there's nephesh, which refers to as a whole.
Tim: As a whole. As we're going to see, it can sometimes refer to just the physical
piece of flesh around what you could put a shackle, or what we would call the
esophagus is the nephesh. But your esophagus is really important, like really,
really important as your whole body.
This is where you can also refer to nephesh as a metaphor to describe what
goes in and out of your throat. This is interesting in light of some of the
conversations we've had about ruach before. This is number two on the
The example of Jeremiah 15:9, he describes how terrifying it's going to be to
live in Jerusalem when Babylon comes to town. He says, "It'll be like a woman
who gave birth to seven sons but she'll breathe out her nephesh. Her son will
go down while it's still day." To breath out is the verb form of the noun
naphach. It's the same thing that God does to the lump of clay in Genesis 2.
Jon: Those have similar roots then? Naphach and nephesh?
Tim: No, sorry. It's a different root word. He's using it for alliteration. Poetically.
Jon: Got it.
Tim: Naphach or nephesh, the first two letters are the same. Nephesh here refers
to what goes in and out of your throat, namely breath, which is how most
English translations go. "She breathes out her last."
Jon: Oh. So it's she's not breathing out of her neck, she's breathing out her life.
Tim: She's dying. She's describing a woman who's given life to others, but now her
life is going out of her. She breathes out her nephesh.
Jon: That makes it seem like some disembodied.
Tim: It makes it seem like spirit - ruach. Remember like Venn diagrams for words
here. Ruach refers to the invisible energy that can go out of you. Nephesh, in
all these uses that we've looked at, it's referring to the body part.
Your ruach goes in and out of your nephesh. But nephesh can refer to the
physical thing. It can also refer to the passageway in and out. The nephesh
goes in and out of your body, that's like your life. So your lifeline.
Jon: I think we're going to lose people with the ruach thing. Ruach, it means
breath or spirit or wind. But it can mean your life breathe. And God gives you
ruach and He can take it away. So breathing out your ruach is a very typical
Tim: For death. For dying. In the Bible, you give up your ruach.
Jon: Yeah, it's a phrase that's used. Here's the poetic metaphor of a woman
breathing out her...and what you would expect is breathe. But what she
breathes out is her nephesh.
Jon: It is a weird thing to say, like, I'm dying. I am breathing out my neck."
Tim: It doesn't work in English.
Jon: It doesn't work. It makes me feel like I don't have a head and I'm just
breathing out my neck.
Jon: It's like, "Is that what you're talking about?"
Tim: Something's developing here, where you nephesh is your throat and breathe
and food come in and out.
Jon: Yeah, it's very connected to breathe because that's where your breath comes
in, is your throat.
Tim: That's right. But now here's a sense in which we're connected still to the
throat - you breathe out. But now nephesh is being abstracted to refer to
your life. As we're going to see, that is actually the most common main usage
of this word is just to refer to physical life.
Jon: So this is basic meaning of the word. And by basic, meaning it's the most
plain, it's the most concrete meaning?
Tim: It's the most concrete, it refers to an actual physical body part.
Jon: Yeah, it refers to something physical.
Tim: And from that, we can abstract out and understand how all the other
meanings are linked together.
Jon: And that way, is it kind of like hearts, the way that we use in English? I was
thinking about this because we did the heart video.
The the fact that we use the organ heart to represent feelings, if you are an
alien from outer space looking at that, you'd just be like, what? "Why is that
organ that's pumping blood, how did that become the abstracted idea of the
embodiment of your feelings and emotions?" It makes no sense. I'm sitting
here going, "How does your throat become abstracted idea of life in your
personhood? That doesn't make any sense."
Tim: That's what's happening there.
Jon: But actually it makes more sense because you breathe in and out of your
throat and it connects your ruach to your body. It's a support and
passageway. So you have this essential passageway in your body?
Tim: Yes. One of the most essential parts of your existence.
Jon: A very delicate part of your body too.
Tim: Yeah, yeah.
Jon: It's very essential. If you were to choose a body part to abstract away just in
Tim: Just represent your physical life.
Jon: ...your physical life, that would be a good contender. It's not like this was
chosen by committee or anything, but I'm just imagining like a committee
sitting down and being like, "Guys, I think we're going with heart. We're
going to go with that organ. It makes the most sense. It's red. It beats. I feel
pain in there sometimes in anguish. I think this is the best one to go with."
Tim: Another great example is the word intestines in biblical Hebrew. There are a
couple of times. Once, where a guy gets stabbed in the stomach with the end
of the spear and his intestines spills out. Gross.
Jon: It's gross.
Tim: But the word occurs many other times, but it's almost never translated
intestines. It's translated my inward being. It's because it's almost always used
in metaphors of anger, anxiety, or fear or strong affection. It's another one of
these examples where talking about...We call that a queasy stomach. It's a
physiological response that our bodies have when we have extreme emotion.
Tim: Nausea or just queasiness or butterflies. Try and explain that to an alien. I
have butterflies in my stomach. In biblical Hebrew, that's just where you feel
strong, your most intense emotions - in your guts. So when you want to
describe your physical existence as a whole, as we're going to see, you use
the word [unintelligible 00:39:03].
Jon: But there's a word for body already.
Jon: Which is what?
Tim: They are few. There's bizarre, which means flesh. You can describe the meat
of an animal or you can describe your bodily existence. Then in Greek, there
are a few words too. Soma is the most common Greek word in the New
Jon: Why wouldn't they just use that word instead of using some new fancy word
and turning it into this idea of your body?
Tim: Well, body is talking about the meat on me that's different than my vital
sense organs. The throat's connected to my head and my torso, and so
there's the sense of it, the centrality of this part of my body to my whole
existence. If you talk to me, you don't look at my hand. You look at this thing
supported by my nephesh; my head and my face.
Jon: That's interesting. So like, you've got the sense of where you're looking from
and hearing from. It's all up here in your head, which is connected to your
body with your nephesh, which is then connected to this really central part of
you, your chest, where your breathing and your heart is. You get stabbed
anywhere in this region, head down to here, you're in trouble. It's over. It's
game over. So this is like the most central part of you in that way.
Tim: It wouldn't make any sense to have a word that means my physical existence.
You wouldn't develop a meaning out of bicep. But throat, there's something
essential about the throat. The essence.
Jon: So does it mean like the essence of me then?
Tim: We have to keep going. It does mean the essence of a person but it doesn't
mean nonphysical. Actually, nephesh primarily refers to me as a physical
organism, a living physical organism. It's one of the great ironies of Bible
translations is that the English word soul primarily means a nonphysical
essence. Whereas the biblical word nephesh primarily means your physical
essence. The opposite. Which is why when you start tracking with these
appearances of the word soul in the Old Testament, you'd be like, "Oh, that
doesn't mean a nonphysical part." My soul pants after you. Onward?
Tim: Because a body part then can come to symbolize your life essence as a
physical being, it seems this is how the nephesh can refer to then me as a
whole physical embodied being. For example, one of the most common
phrases for somebody trying to kill you is "they seek my nephesh.'
When David has been hunted by Saul in the wilderness, he gets reports, "Saul
is seeking your nephesh." In English, you'll know you're at this phrase
whenever anybody is seeking someone's life. This is why life is one of the
most common translations. "Seeking your life."
To murder somebody is to strike their nephesh. When Joseph gets kidnapped
by his brothers, and what they want to do is kill him, but they end up
throwing him in the pit instead because his brother Reuben said, "What?
Don't strike his nephesh." That's a good example.
To strike my nephesh doesn't mean...is very opposite of saying, don't strike
the nonphysical part of his body." It doesn't make any sense.
Jon: Sure. Yeah, it doesn't make any sense. You know how in planes, the flight
attendants will say, "There are 300 souls on board." Now, you could say
they're referring to the nonphysical part of you to be like, "Hey, these people
are really important," but what they're really referring to is that there are 300
Tim: That's right.
Jon: But they're using the essence of them to communicate that. Why couldn't
Joseph brother be doing the same thing? Like, "I'm going to use the word
that represents the most important part of him, the permanent part of him,
his nephesh, if it did mean soul in the sense that we understand it?
Tim: Part of it is actually that because of the King James translation, the King
James translation rendered many of these occurrences of nephesh as soul.
They clearly mean the physical embodied person.
Jon: In King James?
Tim: In King James.
Jon: Because that's what it meant back then? It had that double meaning in this
Tim: I actually think the King James influenced the history of the English language.
In other words, through the King James, the Hebrew meaning of nephesh
ended up entering the English usage for a time. And it survives in—
Jon: I see.
Tim: It survives—
Jon: Like in pilot talk.
Tim: In like, whenever a leader of some kind of vessel describes how many humans
are on board, they'll say, "There's 200 souls."
Jon: So the Hebrew meaning of soul—
Tim: Influenced the history of the English language.
Jon: Then in the English word soul typically meant more disembodied from that
Beowulf. Now, all of a sudden they realize, "Oh, this means actually more than
that." And then that usage slipped in when it became captains of ships.
Tim: Yeah. And that nuance of meaning has all but died out in common English
usage, except when we're describing how many people were on a boat or a
plane. That's interesting?
Jon: It's interesting.
Tim: Boats and planes.
Jon: So they're not just being spiritual up on planes and in boats?
Tim: No, no. It's a remnant of 500-year-old English influenced by the King James
Bible. There's lots of stuff like this.
Jon: That's the word nephesh in normal day English.
Tim: Yeah. Yeah. That's an example of a great biblical use of nephesh in normal
English. "There are 272 souls aboard." There you go. The embodied life.
Here's something that's interesting. This is point four. You can say you can
strike someone's nephesh. It's their embodied life. It's not just humans,
though. On Page 1 one of the Bible, the waters teem with living nephesh. "Let
the waters teem with living nephesh."
Then, later on, let the land produce living nephesh. First, it's sea creatures,
now its land animals. and then in Genesis 2, God breathed into the Adam -
the human's nostrils—
Jon: He nephashed.
Tim: Yeah, the breath of life, and the human became a living nephesh. So this is
something humans share in common with all of the creatures that we are a
Jon: That's interesting.
Tim: So humans don't have a nephesh. Humans along with animals are a nephesh.
I didn't make that up. That's a summary I read in dictionary somewhere. But
that was helpful for me.
Jon: We should have started there, Genesis 1 and 2. I feel like this whole term
like...I don't know. I feel like this could be a big misunderstanding. But here in
Genesis 1, the waters we're teaming with living nephesh, the land produced
living nephesh, and then God breathed into man's nostrils, man being Adam
there, and the man became a living nephesh. That's obviously not talking
about a soul.
Tim: Correct. The human becomes animated by God's ruach and God's breathe or
spirit and that whole conversation we had a long time ago. When you are
animated by the gift of divine like all living creatures are animated by God's
Spirit, then what are you and what is the bird and what is the [salmon?]? We
are living nephesh. That is what we are.
Jon: This is dismantling my concept of the human experience, the human person.
Tim: We're not done yet. We're hopefully starting to rebuild the point.
Jon: Well, I think the demo's almost complete. I mean, this picture of God takes
Adam dirt...Literally dirt. Is that what that word means, right? He takes dirt, he
breathes in it His ruach and then we become a living nephesh in the same
way that a fish or an animal's living nephesh. That is the biblical kind of
anatomy in a way or the biblical sense of who you are. And nowhere in there
is some sacred spirit or soul. I mean, you have the breath of life, God's breath
Tim: That's right. Well, that's not you. That's an animated energy. That keeps you
alive. That's right.
Jon: And what's already you have left? You have dirt that's now living soul. "Great.
I'm organic compound walking around animated by God's breath. That's a lot
less sexy than I'd like it to be.
Tim: I don't know. It's very earthy and it's intuitive, I think.
Jon: Yes. But it's just not the category I had in my mind.
Tim: Sure. Well, I'll give you that.
Jon: It's not as mysterious or something. It's very kind of like, "Oh." It feels...I don't
know. "I'm dirt animated by God's breath."
Tim: Then the estimation of pages 1 and 2...
Jon: I want to think of myself as more than that.
Tim: Well, you are. You're God's royal representative. You're a remarkable creature
that has the unique capacity enrolled.
Jon: But I could build a robot and tell him, "Now you're my image and go do my
job for me." But now it's just metal and circuits. I feel like what makes me feel
special and more than just a robot or an animal is this idea of having a soul.
Like the Pinocchio thing of like, you're a puppet, and now I'm going to endow
you into this—
Tim: This is interesting. Genesis 1 puts animals and humans on a spectrum. And
what makes humans different is not that they have a soul. They're all living
What sets the humans apart is their capacity and responsibility to represent
God in God's creative, gracious rule. So you feel like you're getting demoted
does to become more animal like?
Tim: And where it's funny, I think the intention of Genesis 1 is the opposite.
Tim: Is promote humans to a special role that they are both like the animals, they
come from and go back to the same place, but they have a different role and
responsibility. I'm trying to understand what is...it's just your categories are
Jon: If one of those categories is this nonphysical part of me that lives on forever,
that represents the real essence of who I am, the real me, and it's kind of
infused into this body, but can also be separated from the body, if I begin to
identify with that thing - and that's the thing that I feel like is the deepest,
most meaningful part of me - when I use the word soul, I mean the deepest
me. Now you're telling me, "No, you don't have that."
Tim: Or just the thing that is that is deeply connected to your physical embodied
existence. It's not separate from your embodied existence.
Jon: It's inseparable?
Tim: It's inseparable. That's right. This is why the ultimate hope for humans in the
Bible is not living a disembodied existence. It's resurrection. It's embodied
existence, which is having a nephesh.
The end of this biblical story is nepheshes - embodied humans inhabiting an
embodied physical world. Anyway, that's to get ahead of ourselves for the
moment. And the conversations on over.
For the moment, you're right. The reorientation that has to take place is that
humans do not have a soul. At least in the Old Testament, humans are a
nephesh. They are a soul. Soul is our English word translating Hebrew word
that describes me as a whole living, breathing physical organism.
Jon: Or your neck.
Tim: Or your neck.
Jon: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Bible Project podcast. Tim and I
will continue this conversation on the next episode. If you enjoyed this
podcast, you might also enjoy Tim's podcast called "Exploring my Strange
Bible." It's a collection of his sermons and teachings from over the last
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