Man and the Meaning of נֶפֶשׁ -- By: Ellis R. Brotzman

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 145:580 (Oct 1988)
Article: Man and the Meaning of נֶפֶשׁ
Author: Ellis R. Brotzman

Man and the Meaning of נֶפֶשׁ

Ellis R. Brotzman

Associate Professor of Old Testament
Tyndale Theological Seminary, Badhoevedorp, The Netherlands

What is man? This most basic of all human questions is asked in three places in the Old Testament.1 One answer is given in Genesis 2:7. As a result of God’s creative activity “man became a living נֶפֶשׁ.” However, this raises another question: What is a נֶפֶשׁ, often translated “soul”?

The answer to this second question is anything but an easy one. The word נֶפֶשׁ, like many key biblical words, may convey different meanings in different contexts. This article begins then by exploring in a summary fashion the semantic range of the Hebrew word נֶפֶשׁ. Then major meanings, or groups of meanings, are surveyed.2 The article concludes with a discussion of how the various meanings of נֶפֶשׁ affect three crucial theological issues: man’s place in creation, man’s essential nature, and the question of immortality.

The Semantic Range of נֶפֶשׁ

The slightly more than 750 uses of נֶפֶשׁ in the Old Testament can be grouped by common or shared basic meanings into 10 categories. Five of these categories are represented in a large number of texts, and five are represented in only a handful of texts. The more numerous categories are presented first.

Major Uses of נֶפֶשׁ

Appetitive use. נֶפֶשׁ is often used in the Old Testament to express the seat of desire for physical food or drink (e.g., meat, Deut 12:15; grapes, Deut 23:24 [Heb., v. 25 ]; and water, Isa 29:8). נֶפֶשׁ also refers at least once to an animal’s appetite for food (Prov 12:10). Proverbs 12:10 says a righteous man is one who knows (is concerned about and supplies) the נֶפֶשׁ of his beast. In other words the righteous man is a person who provides for his animal’s need for food and drink.

A related use of

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