What’s the Story with the “Soul”?
In our modern religious rhetoric, it is not uncommon to hear about a person’s “soul” – an immaterial entity that animates the body and lives on after death.
What about the ancient Israelites? Did they share the common contemporary notion of a “soul”?
Certain English Bible translations, like the King James rendering of Psalm 42:4, seem to support this idea of a soul inside the body: “When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me.” However, before concluding that the ancient Israelites believed in a non-physical, internal “soul,” we must ascertain (1) what the KJV means by “soul” and (2) what the underlying Hebrew means in its own linguistic context. Answering these two questions will show that the ancient Israelites did not share the common contemporary notion of a “soul.”
Most often, the King James uses “soul” to signify a physical “person,” not an ethereal, internal force. For instance, Exodus recalls the Hebrews who migrated to Egypt: “And all the souls that came out of the loins of Jacob were seventy souls: for Joseph was already in Egypt” (Exod 1:5 KJV). In this case, “soul” refers to an “individual person” or “human being.” Like Joseph, who is “already in Egypt,” the descendants of Israel who “came out of Jacob’s loins” (יצאי ירך יעקב; yotsey yerek ya’aqov) are embodied people, not intangible “souls.” This use of “soul” is equivalent to its use in “not a soul in sight,” which tells us that there is not a single person around, not that we can’t see any invisible entities!
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The Hebrew word translated “soul” is נפשׁ (nefesh), which means one’s “self,” “life,” or “person.” Genesis 12:5 clarifies this usage: “Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance [or “goods” (רכושׁם; rekhusham)] that they had gathered, and the souls (נפשׁ; nefesh) they had gotten in in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan” (KJV). Since every other entity listed in this verse is either a physical person (Abram, Sarai, Lot) or physical objects (“substance” or “goods”), it follows that the “souls” are physical “persons” or “lives”—Abram isn’t herding abstract souls into the land of Canaan.
The most fundamental meaning of נפשׁ is “neck” or “throat,” as reflected in Psalm 69:1: “Save me, God; for the waters have come up to [my] neck (נפשׁ; nefesh).” The term came to mean one’s entire “life” because, the Hebrew logic goes: cut the throat, and lose the life. This is why the psalmist asks God to “guard my life” (שׁמרה נפשׁי; shamrah nafshi) from physical enemies who seek to kill him (cf. Ps 25:20; 86:2). The ancient Israelites did not think in terms of a “soul” separate from the body; rather, the Hebrew נפשׁdescribes a person’s selfhood—that is, one’s very being.
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