It is written:
And she said, “O my lord! As your soul lives, my lord, I am the woman who stood by you here, praying to the LORD. (1 Samuel 1:26)
What exactly is the “soul?”
The Hebrew word translated as “soul” is the word nephesh. This word has several connotations.
Nephesh Could Mean “Living Being”
Quite often, the word “soul” means simply that which is “alive.” In this sense, we are reminded that humans and animals have “souls.”
Genesis 1:20-Then God said, “Let the waters abound with an abundance of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the face of the firmament of the heavens.”
Genesis 1:30-Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food”; and it was so.
Genesis 2:7-And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
Genesis 6:17-17 And behold, I Myself am bringing floodwaters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die.
Genesis 7:15-And they went into the ark to Noah, two by two, of all flesh in which is the breath of life.
Genesis 7:21-23-21 And all flesh died that moved on the earth: birds and cattle and beasts and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every man. 22 All in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, all that was on the dry land, died. 23 So He destroyed all living things which were on the face of the ground: both man and cattle, creeping thing and bird of the air. They were destroyed from the earth. Only Noah and those who were with him in the ark remained alive.
Now, it is important to understand that there is a difference between human “souls” and animal “souls.”
“Am I suggesting animals have souls? Certainly they do not have human souls. Animals aren’t created in God’s image, and they aren’t equal to humans in any sense. Nonetheless, there’s a strong biblical case for animals having non- human souls. I didn’t take this seriously until I studied the usage of the Hebrew and Greek words nephesh and psyche, often translated “soul” when referring to humans. (Nephesh is translated psyche in the Septuagint.). The fact that these words are often used of animals is compelling evidence that they have non-human souls. That’s what most Christians in the past believed. In their book Beyond Death, Gary Habermas and J. P. Moreland point out, “It wasn’t until the advent of seventeenth-century Enlightenment . . . that the existence of animal souls was even questioned in Western civilization. Throughout the history of the church, the classic understanding of living things has included the doctrine that animals, as well as humans, have souls.”” (Randy Alcorn, Heaven, 7114-7223 (Kindle Edition); Carol Stream, Illinois; Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.)
Frankly, this is not surprising: it has only been in the last couple of centuries that people have begun to teach that animals do not have souls.
“It is sometimes a surprise to people to learn that the Bible teaches that animals, no less than humans, have souls. In the Old Testament, nephesh (soul) and ruach (spirit) are used of animals in Genesis 1: 30 and Ecclesiastes 3: 21, respectively. In the New Testament, psuche (soul) is used of animals in Revelation 8: 9. Moreover, it is a matter of common sense that animals are not merely unconscious machines. Rather, they are conscious living beings with sensations, emotions (like fear), desires, and, at least for some animals, thoughts and beliefs. The history of Christian teaching is widely united in affirming the existence of the “souls of men and beasts” as it has sometimes been put. But what is the animal soul like? Let us consider this question. How do we decide what an animal’s soul is like? Obviously, we cannot inspect it directly. We cannot get inside an animal’s conscious life and just look at its internal states. The best approach seems to be this: Based on our direct awareness of our own inner lives, we should attribute to animals by analogy those states that are necessary to account for the animal’s behavior, nothing more and nothing less. 16 For example, if a dog steps on a thorn and then howls and holds up its paw, we are justified in attributing to the dog the same sort of state that happens in us just after we experience such a stick. The dog feels pain. Now the dog may also be having thoughts about his unfortunate luck in stepping on the thorn, but there is no adequate evidence for this if we stick to what we observe about the dog’s behavior. Such an attribution would be unjustified. An interesting implication of this approach is that as we move down the animal chain to creatures that are increasingly unlike humans—from primates to earthworms—we are increasingly unjustified in ascribing a mental life to those animals. Now an organism either does or does not have a conscious life; for example, a worm either does or does not feel pain. But we have more grounds for ascribing painful sensations to primates than to worms according to the methodology above. All living animals have souls if they have organic life, regardless of the degree to which they are conscious, but we are justified in attributing less and less to the animal soul as the animal in question bears a weaker analogy to us. In light of this methodology, what can we say about animal souls? Obviously, our answer will vary depending on the animal in question. But it seems reasonable to say that virtually all animals have certain sorts of sensations, for example, experiences of taste and pain. Many if not most animals seem to have desires as well, such as a desire for food. Many animals appear to engage in thinking and have certain sorts of beliefs. For example, a dog seems to be able to engage in means-to-ends reasoning. If he wants to go through a specific door to get food, and if the door is closed, he can select an alternative means to achieve the desired end. Many animals also engage in willings: that is, they will to do certain things, though there is no adequate evidence to suggest that they have libertarian freedom. It is more likely that an animal’s will is determined by its beliefs, desires, sensations, and bodily states. There are several capacities that animals do not seem to have. We have already mentioned libertarian freedom of the will. Animals also do not seem to have moral awareness. Animals do not seem to grasp key notions central to morality such as the notion of a virtue, of a duty, of another thing having intrinsic value and rights, of universalizing a moral judgment, and so on. They cannot distinguish between what they desire most and what is most desirable intrinsically. Alleged altruistic behavior can be explained on the basis of animal desire without attributing a sense of awareness of intrinsic duty to the animal. Animals, therefore, do not seem to be capable of having a conflict between desire and duty, though they can experience a conflict between desires (e.g., to scratch the chair and to avoid being spanked). Animals do not seem to be able to entertain various sorts of abstract thoughts, for example, thoughts about matter in general or about love in general or even about food in general. Moreover, animals do not seem to be able to distinguish between true universal judgments (all alligators are dangerous) and mere statistical generalizations (most alligators are dangerous) nor do they have a concept of truth itself. While this is controversial and I may be wrong in this judgment, animals do not seem to possess language. 17 One problem that keeps people from getting clear about this is the presence of certain ambiguities about what language is. More specifically, the question of animal language cannot be adequately discussed without drawing a distinction between a sign and a symbol. A sign is a sense-perceptible object, usually a shaped thing like the characters “BANANA” or a sound (the utterance of “BANANA”). Now if an animal (or a human infant for that matter) comes to experience repeatedly the simultaneous presence of a sign (the visual presentation of BANANA) and the presence of a real banana, a habitual association will be set up such that the animal will anticipate the sense perception of a real banana shortly after seeing this shape: BANANA. In the case of the animal, BANANA does not represent or mean a banana, so it is not a symbol. Rather, BANANA is merely a certain geometrically perceived shape that comes to be associated with a banana in such a way that the latter is anticipated when the former is observed. By contrast, real language requires symbols and not mere signs. When language users use the word banana, it is used to represent, mean, and refer to actual bananas. Now the evidence suggests that animals have certain abilities to manipulate and behaviorally respond to signs, but it is far from clear that they have a concept of symbols. One reason for this claim is the lack in animals of grammatical creativity and logical thought about language itself that is present in real language users. Finally, St. Augustine once noted that animals have desires, but they do not have desires to have desires. They may have beliefs, volitions, thoughts, and sensations, but they do not seem to have beliefs about their beliefs, they do not choose to work on their choices, they don’t think about their thinking, and they are not aware of their awarenesses. Nor do they seem to be aware of themselves as selves. In short, they do not seem to be able to transcend their own states and engage in reflection about their own selves and the states within them. Animals are precious creatures of God and ought to be respected as such. But the animal soul is not as richly structured as the human soul, it does not bear the image of God, and it is far more dependent on the animal’s body and its sense organs than is the human soul.” (J.P. Moreland, The Soul: How We Know It’s Real And Why It Matters, 140-144 (Kindle Edition); Chicago; Moody Publishers)
“Nephesh” Sometimes Meant “Body”
There are times in the Old Testament where the word “nephesh” could mean the physical body.
Leviticus 21:11-nor shall he go near any dead body, nor defile himself for his father or his mother;
Numbers 6:6-All the days that he separates himself to the LORD he shall not go near a dead body.
Numbers 19:13-Whoever touches the body of anyone who has died, and does not purify himself, defiles the tabernacle of the LORD. That person shall be cut off from Israel. He shall be unclean, because the water of purification was not sprinkled on him; his uncleanness is still on him.
Haggai 2:13-And Haggai said, “If one who is unclean because of a dead body touches any of these, will it be unclean?” So the priests answered and said, “It shall be unclean.”
“Nephesh” Is Often The Soul As Separate From The “Body”
Sometimes, the word nephesh could mean the spiritual part of man in contrast with the physical body.
Isaiah 10:18-And it will consume the glory of his forest and of his fruitful field, Both soul and body; And they will be as when a sick man wastes away.
Deuteronomy 12:23-Only be sure that you do not eat the blood, for the blood is the life; you may not eat the life with the meat.
Job 14:22-But his flesh will be in pain over it, And his soul will mourn over it.”
Psalm 63:1-O God, You are my God; Early will I seek You; My soul thirsts for You; My flesh longs for You In a dry and thirsty land Where there is no water.
Notice how sometimes the soul of man is identified as being within the body:
Psalm 42:5-Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him For the help of His countenance.
Psalm 42:11-Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; For I shall yet praise Him, The help of my countenance and my God.
Psalm 43:5-Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; For I shall yet praise Him, The help of my countenance and my God.
All of this reminds us that the “soul” in the Old Testament sometimes had definite reference to the spiritual aspect of mankind.
Genesis 23:8-And he spoke with them, saying, “If it is your wish that I bury my dead out of my sight, hear me, and meet with Ephron the son of Zohar for me,
Genesis 42:21-Then they said to one another, “We are truly guilty concerning our brother, for we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us, and we would not hear; therefore this distress has come upon us.”
Leviticus 26:16-I also will do this to you: I will even appoint terror over you, wasting disease and fever which shall consume the eyes and cause sorrow of heart. And you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it.
Leviticus 26;43-The land also shall be left empty by them, and will enjoy its sabbaths while it lies desolate without them; they will accept their guilt, because they despised My judgments and because their soul abhorred My statutes.
Numbers 21:5-And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.”
Deuteronomy 21:14-And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall set her free, but you certainly shall not sell her for money; you shall not treat her brutally, because you have humbled her.
1 Samuel 2:33-But any of your men whom I do not cut off from My altar shall consume your eyes and grieve your heart. And all the descendants of your house shall die in the flower of their age.
1 Kings 17:21-22-21 And he stretched himself out on the child three times, and cried out to the LORD and said, “O LORD my God, I pray, let this child’s soul come back to him.” 22 Then the LORD heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came back to him, and he revived.
Speaking of this use of the word “nephesh,” scholar Ron Rhodes has summed up:
“It is true that in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for soul (nephesh) can be used in reference to a living being.20 Genesis 2:7 is clearly an example of this. But because the word can be used in this sense does not mean that it is limited to this sense, or that man does not have an immaterial nature….Besides referring to “living beings,” the word nephesh is also used in the Old Testament to speak of the seat of the emotions and experiences. Man’s nephesh can be sad (Deuteronomy 28:65), grieved (Job 30:25), in pain (Psalm 13:2), distressed (Genesis 42:21), bitter (Job 3:20), troubled (Psalm 6:3), and cheered (Psalm 86:4). Clearly, man’s soul can experience a wide range of emotional ups and downs. In this sense, nephesh seems to refer to the “inner man” within the human being. This is consistent with verses like 2 Kings 4:27, where we read, “The man of God said, ‘Let her alone, for her soul is troubled within her’” (NASB). Likewise, Psalm 42:6 says, “My soul is cast down within me,” and Psalm 43:5 says, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Ron Rhodes, Reasoning From The Scriptures With The Jehovah’s Witnesses, 308-309 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Harvest House publishers)
In our next study, we will examine the New Testament equivalent of nephesh.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.