“Soul” is a very special term. Due to lack of time, I shall not approach it here philosophically or scientifically, but exclusively in the context of biblical theology, narrowing it even further to a linguistic point of view.
First, the reader must be made aware of God’s method of communication in the Bible. The perfect word of God was transmitted through human words and concepts, which are imperfect by nature. There is no perfect language, nor a perfect biblical writer, that would satisfy the philosophical or scientific expectations of our culture. The authors’ language is laden with ancient Jewish cultural heritage. That is why, to understand what God wanted to communicate (in this case, concerning the identity and nature of the “soul”), one needs to take seriously the polysemantic and idiomatic reality of the terms used by biblical authors in Hebrew and Greek.
Simplifying them, we render below the relevant terms, with those meanings or definitions that are related to the proposed topic.
The term nǝšāmā means breath: not life itself, nor the energy sustaining it, nor the ‘ghost’ that lives in the body, but the mere natural breath (Daniel 10:17, 1 Kings 17:17). Today, Judaism uses this term with a mythological meaning of the “soul” of the dead person, an idea taken over by popular Christianity. In the Bible, however, nǝšāmā is the breath going in and out the nostrils, as a sign of life, and through metonymy it sometimes refers to any living being or person; that is, something or someone who “is still breathing.” How much does a breath of air weigh? We are still trying to figure this one out.
Rûaḫ is usually a synonym for nǝšāmā and often translated as “breath”. Therefore it is expected to weigh the same. Most of the time, however, it has been translated as “spirit,” a Slavic word with the initial meaning of air, smell, breath, soul (temperament, character), as the with Jewish term. Rûaḫ in Hebrew is both the air and the wind (Genesis 8:1, Jeremiah 14:6) because they too are a “breath.” From here we get the figurative meaning of rûaḫ: nothingness, uselessness, illusion. If the illusion is religious, it weighs a lot to the one who places their hopes in their own breath.
How much does a breath of air weigh?
The term rûaḫ was also used by ancient Jews to refer to any kind of mental state, mood, urge, tendency, moral virtue, or emotional quality, because these are invisible realities, like the wind. Often rûaḫ refers to the mind, or mental faculties (Isaiah 42:5). Rûaḫ also points to invisible intelligent beings (Job 4:15) as well as the nature of these beings (Isaiah 31:3, 1 Samuel 16:14, 1 Kings 22:21-22). This is why it has been translated as “spirit”. But rûaḫ does not necessarily refer to immateriality, but to an invisible reality. The air is still material. Rûaḫ also points to that state or divine invisible person—that transcends any matter—we call the Holy Spirit.
Rûaḫ never refers to the “soul” as a separate, conscious, and immortal entity. Even if biblical translations sometimes speak of “the spirit of a dead person” or the “spirits of the dead,” the original text does not use the term rûaḫ or an equivalent in this context, but terms that point to Canaanite magic: ᵓôḇ (alleged spirit of an ancestor) or yidᶜoní (necromancer). These occult practices were forbidden and sanctioned with punishment.
The expression in Ecclesiastes 12:7, “the spirit returns to God who gave it” is a figure of speech by which the wise king Solomon states that human life (“the breath”), given by God, can be restored only by Him. The author shows that both humans and animals have the same rûaḫ, undermining the thought that the human spirit might have a different destiny than that of the animals (Ecclesiastes 3:19-21). Even if we took the metaphor literally, the wise man assures us that the “spirit” that “returns to God” is the breath of life given to all living creatures, not the individual conscience (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6, 10).
The work, Teachings of Neagoe Basarab, which are general reflections on the orthodox dogma of the soul’s immortality, also include the following reflection, as an echo of Ecclesiastes:
“Our tears are only useful in this world while we’re alive. After we die we can no longer do any work for God. The dead do not believe, they do not testify, do not work. No mystery is revealed to the dead. The dead cannot give good and wise counsels, they cannot receive any payment.”
The metaphorical expression wattášoḇ rûḫô ᵓēlâw (1 Samuel 30:12, lit. “the spirit came back to him”) does not prove the existence of human spirits separated from their bodies. The spirit that came back is the breath, the proof of life. When I say, “I came back to my senses,” I do not mean that I left my body and then returned to it. A serious doctrine of the natural immortality of the conscious spirit would have been clearly stated in Scripture, not left to be deduced from idiomatic expressions.
The most common term in Jewish biblical psychology is néfeš, related to the verb n-p-š (to breathe). Though many believe this term reflects the theory of the soul’s immortality, in the Bible it actually points to psychological realities and nuances. Correspondents of the Hebrew term néfeš are also found in other ancient Semitic languages.
1. First and foremost, néfeš means “neck/throat ” (Numbers 11:6, Isaiah 5:14, Habakkuk 2:5). This is also why it’s also used with the meaning of “relish, appetite, desire, hunger or thirst”.
2. The term néfeš also acquired the meaning of “breath,” synonymous with the terms nəšāmā or rûaḫ (Job 41:13/21; Genesis 1:30). See the last breath (Genesis 35:18) with the derivate meaning “scent”, “perfume” (Isaiah 3:20).
3. Because the breath is a proof of life, néfeš is often used with the meaning of life that is present in the blood: “the blood is the soul,” “the soul…is in the blood”. (The animal no longer breathes when its blood is shed.) In idiomatic expressions, the soul (life, breath), “goes” and “returns” just like in the expression “his heart sank”, “his strength returned.” Of course, “heart” and “strength” are not ghosts leaving the body and then returning. When we refer to someone as being “out of sorts” we are not talking about a physical location.
4. Through metonymy, néfeš (“breath”) also acquired the meaning of “being” (animal or human) (“Lassie is a poor little soul”). The term is also used in the expression néfeš ḥayyā, which is translated as “living soul” (being) or “living breath” (human or animal life according to Genesis 1:30).
5. Like the expression “néfeš/living soul” of just néfeš means being, “néfeš dead” or just néfeš means dead being, breathless body, in biblical Hebrew. Those who touched a néfeš (animal or human) became unclean.
6. Extending it to the idea of life, néfeš also acquired the meaning of “person, individual, human, somebody”.
7. From the idea of person, néfeš also acquired the meaning of “self”, used instead of a pronoun (e.g. my soul/myself = me).
8. Another meaning of néfeš is that of “soul,” as sensitivity or affection, like in Romanian.
Perhaps in the New Testament?
The corresponding Greek terms from the New Testament have similar meanings. The term psyche, understood as “life”, “being”, “person”, “psychic” (translated “soul”), corresponds to the Hebrew néfeš. In the same way, pneuma (“air, spirit, mind, ghost, Spirit, emotional disposition”) corresponds to the Hebrew rûaḫ.
Historical Christian theology often planted an occult meaning in these terms, coming from philosophical pagan ideas, especially Neoplatonism, through some teachers and Church fathers.
This is why many see the theology of the soul separated from the body in the virtual scenes of visions (Revelation 6:9-11), metaphors and parables (Mark 9:43, 1 Peter 3:19, 2 Corinthians 5:2-10), meaningful stories (Luke 16:19-31), idiomatic expressions (2 Peter 1:15, Luke 23:46), the speculation about certain extraordinary events (1 Samuel 28:3-25, Luke 9:30-31), or even in faulty translations (Luke 23:43).
The human being, body and soul, is but a handful of dust, alive for a little while. Both the dust and the breath are symbols of transition and nothingness in the Scriptures (Psalms 39:5; 62:9; 78:39; 144:4; 1 Corinthians 15:47).
Florin Lăiu retired as professor of Bible at the Theological Seminary of Adventus University (Cernica) after 28 years. He specialized in biblical languages, biblical exegesis, biblical apocalyptic and biblical translation. He is a lover of Adventist apologetics, poetry and music, author of articles and books, husband, father of four children and grandfather of six grandchildren.