Barry Newman's Blog

December 5, 2009

The Soul (part II)

Filed under: nephesh,The Soul — barrynewman @ 3:54 am

Nephesh in the Massoretic text of the Old Testament

Of the 754 instances of nephesh in the Massoretic text, categorization involved 69 occupying two categories and two occupying three categories.  That is, it was decided that in a number of instances, the one occurrence belonged to two or even three categories. On ten occasions nephesh appeared related to a physical organ such as the neck, throat or breath.  Examples include: women having a nephesh container (hanging around the neck?); Sheol enlarging its nephesh to receive the dead; Leviathan’s nephesh kindling coals; a woman breathing out her nephesh as she dies.  Wolff believes that nephesh has its roots in the physical neck or throat (through which we receive food and drink and through which we breathe)and as such is associated with the idea of life. (See Wolff, HW, 1996, ‘nephesh – Needy Man’ in Anthropology of the Old Testament, Sigler Press: Mifflintown, PA, pp. 10 – 25)

There are 21 instances where reference is made to the nephesh of God.  Most commonly his nephesh is ill-disposed or well-disposed towards another.  In 27 instances, the nephesh of animals is mentioned, often in terms of their life or death. There is one occasion where the nephesh of idols is mentioned.  The association of nephesh with an idol may be an example of irony.  That nephesh is associated with animals should make one wary of the idea that “the soul” is something associated with human beings alone and its association with God not only reinforces this point but should make one wary of the idea that “a soul’ resides within a being. 

 The Human Being Nephesh

There are 694 occurrences of N (nephesh) that relate to human beings.  That is, human beings are the predominant beings associated with the idea of nephesh. In categorization, 56 were duplicated and two triplicated giving a total of 754 entries.  Table 1 indicates major categories, sub-categories, number of occurrences and percentages. The first and second percentages are based on 754 and 694 respectively.  The figures within parenthesis take account of nine duplications that occurred within major categories. Although nephesh in the singular is sometimes used holistically, as in the nephesh of Israel, its predominant usage is individualistic.  The categorization utilized made no distinction.  The holistic usage is not suggestive of something akin to individual souls uniting to form a “greater” soul, as though the individual souls then ceased to exist.

Major Category Sub-category Number ofOccurrences Percentages
The N in association with death    281  37; 40
  The dead N   11  
  The N that has died   35  
  The N to be excommunicated   18  
  The N whose life will be removed   22  
  The N under threat of death 102  
  The N delivered from death   39  
  A request for the N to be delivered from death   21  
  A request for the N to die     6  
  The N for whom death will not occur   25  
  The N that returns to give life     2  
The N in association with life     17  2; 2
The N in association with food     66  9; 9
  Actual   45  
  Metaphorical or use of simile   21  
The N as the person     61 8; 9
  An explicit number of N   27  
  An indefinite number of N   32  
The N as the self     63 8; 9
The improper N     47 6; 7
  Wicked   36  
  Defiled   11  
The upright N     50 7;7
  The righteous/noble     7  
  Obeying/seeking God with the N   25  
  Obeying/seeking God with all the N   18  
The N that loves other than God     15  2; 2
The emotional N     59 (57) 8; 8
  Pain/distress/despondency   31  
  Grief   12  
  Delight     8  
  Fright     6  
  Anger     2  
The N that desires     37 5; 5
  The N desires/wills/craves   25  
  The desire expressed as the N   12  
The vocal N     31 (24) 3; 3
  The N that blesses/praises   14  
  The N that speaks     3  
  The N that addresses itself   12  
  The N that is silent     2  
The N and its mental state or activity     37  5; 5
  The N that hates/scorns     9  
  The N that muses/thinks     4  
  The N that is watched over by oneself     4  
  The N that knows     3  
  The N that is spoken to     3  
  The N that is pleased     3  
  The N that remembers     2  
  The N that can deceive itself     2  
  Other     7  

                                                                                           Table 1



  1. I read your blogs on the word “Nephesh” with much interest. Brown Driver and Briggs seem to take the view of Nephesh as soul, life, desire living being , blood etc with a wide range of meanings. The interesting idea that it harks back to an early meaning of “throat” or “gullet” seems to be a modern one.

    I am attracted to it for the way it orders the many meanings & usages of the word. The problem with this theory seems to be that there is no evidence of it meaning that in cognate roots in other semitic languages, is there? I am only going by what BDB quote.

    Your statistics do seem to demonstrate a rather physical side to nephesh than that of ruach or perhaps of neshamah.

    Comment by Jonathan S — February 13, 2011 @ 11:54 pm | Reply

    • Hi Jonathan,

      Thanks for the comment. I was alerted to the idea that nephesh could be used as way of referring to “throat” by reading “Anthropology of the Old Testament” by H.W. Wolff, Sigler Press Edition, 1996.He wrote, (p. 11) We must … remember that the Hebrew uses one and the same word where we need widely different ones. In each case the textual context of the instances decides.” He then had 7 sections the first six with headings: Throat, Neck, Desire, Soul, Life and Person. For throat he cited Is 5: 14 and Hab 2: 5 to claim that nephesh is the term for the organ that takes in food and satisfies hunger. He went on to cite Ps 107: 5, 9 and argues that “the context of n. mentions its hunger and thirst, its fainting and its being satisfied, its dryness and its being filled, thus showing unequivocally that what is being talked about is not the ‘soul’ but the ‘throat’. He continues with references to Ecc 6: 7, 9 suggesting that here the mouth is in mind. He continues his argument throughout pages 11-14. It maybe that this is a “modern” understanding (Wolff first published in German in 1973 or thereabouts). It did appeal to me however as reasonable and still does in spite of apparently there being no supporting evidence from other semitic languages. Hope that Wolff’s work is of some interest. All the best.


      Comment by barrynewman — February 14, 2011 @ 1:08 am | Reply

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