Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Biblical Anthropology: Part II

In part one of this series I asked the question: are human beings made up of different parts that can be separated.  Along the lines of popular evangelical theology, these parts are usually thought to be the body, the soul, and the spirit.  The "true self" is usually identified as either the soul or spirit, while the body merely acts as a shell.  In death, the spirit and soul are separated, or indeed "freed" from the body in order to join in some heavenly bliss.

Yet, is this a biblical view?  In this post I will look at the evidence from the Old Testament.  How does the OT view the human?  I will argue that the separation of the body, soul, and spirit is foreign to the writers of the OT.  In order to demonstrate this, I will look at two different words that are used to describe the nature of the human in the OT.

One of the most common terms for the human in the OT is the Hebrew word  nefesh (Sorry, my hebrew font is not working with blogger's composition tool).  This word, when translated into the Greek, was usually represented by the word ψυχή (psyche). ψυχή is usually translated into English as "soul."  Yet, this sense of soul, as the inner or true core of a person that lives on after death is foreign to the ancient Hebrews.  Rather,  nefesh usually carries the meaning of a "living being" in the OT.  The term just represents the self.  See how nefesh is translated in the following verses as merely "life" or "me." 
Gen. 12:13 Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life (nefesh) may be spared on your account.”   
Job 19:2 “How long will you torment me (nefesh), and break me in pieces with words?   
Nefesh in the OT is merely the self, the person, the living being.  Perhaps most illustrative is the use of the term in Genesis 2:7.
Genesis 2:7 then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being (nefesh hayya).
Thus, when Adam receives the breath of life, he becomes a "living being."

This leads us to a secondary term used of humans, and that is ruach.  When translated into Greek, ruach  was rendered as πνεῦμα (pneuma).  πνεῦμα is usually translated into English as "spirit." Yet again, the sense of a spirit that exists as a separate part of the person is again foreign to the OT authors.  Instead, the ruach in the OT is usually the breath of God that animates humans.  It can even be synonymous with the "breath of life" that God breathed into Adam in Genesis.  See the following verses:
Is. 42:5 Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath (neshama) to the people upon it and spirit (ruach) to those who walk in it.
Here ruach is seen in parallel with the word neshama, which is the word used for breath in Genesis 2:7.  Thus, God is the animating spirit, the breath of God that gives life to a person.  So what happens when that spirit or breath is separated from the person?  They die.  The spirit does not go on and live some spiritual existence, rather, the person ceases to be.  
Psa. 104:29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath (ruach), they die and return to their dust.
Psa. 146:4 When their breath (ruach) departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.
 These two Hebrew terms, nefesh and ruach are often done a disservice by their common translations as "soul" and "spirit."  The context of these terms, soul and spirit, are usually viewed through their Greek contexts, which we will see in part III, are very different from the Hebrew usage.

In conclusion, in the Old Testament, the human is a living being (nefesh), given life or animated by breath or spirit (neshema, ruach), but that breath is given by God.  When that breath leaves, the human dies.  The human, whether one speaks about him as a nefesh or a ruach, is essentially a unity, a living being dependent on God for life.  There is no conception of an immortal soul that lives on after the breath of life has departed.


  1. If the sense of a spirit existing apart from the body is so foreign to OT authors, how do you explain 1 Samuel 28?

  2. Ahh, Saul consults the witch of Endor to summon Samuel for him. That passage always struck me as strange when I would read it as a kid, but is a good question and one challenge to the view that I represented that I have thought of before, but never really looked into in any depth.

    First let me say that in studying scripture, there is the "normal" and the "strange." That is, in the OT, the norm for speaking about humans is, imho, as I have represented in my post. Yet, that is not to say that there might not be passages that are more or less outside the norm. This passage might be one. If I concede that what is really happening in this passage is that Samuel, whose soul has been living an afterlife somehwere, is now summoned by Saul, appears and gives Saul a message, then I would have to say that this passage is outside of the norm of how the OT speaks of humans. Yet, I still think that this passage is far from a "slam dunk" in debunking my assertions in the post.

    In looking more carefully at the passage, I think it is very ambiguous. There are three descriptions of what appears to the witch. In the NIV (28:8), Saul asks for the witch to summon a spirit. The word "spirit" is not in the Hebrew. The Hebrew is a verb and means "to practice divination." So, Saul asks the witch to "practice divination" and summon the one for whom he calls.

    The witch then does her thing, and what does she describe in 28:13? Again, the NIV says "spirit," but it is the word "Elohim." Interesting. Not "ruach" spirit, or "nefesh" soul, but God? The NRSV says "divine being."

    Then, the physical description is of an old man with a robe, which Saul takes to be Samuel. Finally, this being gives the message of the Lord that Saul is to be defeated by the Philistines.

    I find it interesting that the passage does not refer to this being as either the soul "nefesh" or the spirit "ruach" of Samuel. I think this passage is sufficiently ambiguous, but a fascinating one at that.

    Even if this passage is referring to some part of Samuel that is living after death, it is certainly out of the norm of ancient Hebrew thought, and especially so because of how looked down upon the practice of divination was for the Israelites.

    Hope that helps.

  3. While I agree that it's ambiguous exactly what happened, it's definitely interesting. I'd also point out that while Saul takes the figure to be Samuel, the author seems to accept and/or agree with Saul's determination, because the figure is described as Samuel for the rest of the encounter.

    My purpose isn't to debunk your supposition, just to raise something you didn't address.