As I’ve been thinking about the Christian life as an “embodied ethic” (more on that later), I came across this little article in a commentary by Mark Biddle on the book of Deuteronomy that I thought I would share. As we read the Bible, we are likely to miss the intended meaning of the Hebrew writers (especially in the “Old Testament”) in light of our own influences from Greek philosophy. It’s a little dense, but good. One note: references to the “Shema” refer to the Hebrew prayer that Jesus quoted as the greatest commandment: “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
The Concept of the “Soul” in Hebrew Thought
The typical modern reader of the Shema will understand the term “soul (nefesh)” to mean that interior, intangible, invisible essence of the person that exists to a degree independently of the body. Such a viewpoint owes much more to ancient Greek philosophy, however, than it does to the Hebrew Bible. In the Greek view, human beings consist of three independent parts: the body (sarx), which is inferior, corruptible, and perishable; the soul (psyche), something like the essence of the personality, pure and immortal; and the spirit (pneuma), something like the animal force.
Because of the deep and widespread influence of Greek philosophy on early Christianity, and because of the historical accident that early Christians, including the authors of the New Testament, spoke and wrote Greek, the terms used by philosophers such as Socrates and Plato found their way into use in the early church, often as translations of terms in the Hebrew Bible such as nefesh. A survey of the use of nefesh in the Hebrew Bible, however, reveals first that it has a very wide range of meaning, and second that it does not represent the Greek notion of the immortal, ineffable “soul” at all. Instead, the ancient Hebrew understood the nature of human existence in a much more concrete and holistic fashion.
The Hebrew noun nefesh has cognates in virtually all Semitic languages in the meanings “throat,” “appetite,” “breath,” and “self.” All these senses appear in the Hebrew Bible. The common underlying notion seems to involve the throat (Num 21:5; 1 Sam 2:33; Pss 69:2; 107:9; Prov 3:22; 6:30; Eccl 6:7; Isa 58:11; Jer 4:10; Jonah 2:6; etc.) as the part of the body that experiences hunger (real or metaphorical; Exod 15:9; 16:22; Deut 23:25) and through which one breathes (1 Kgs 17:21-22); hunger and breath represent life itself. This close association with life and vitality results in the coupling of the nefesh with the blood (Lev 17:14; cf. Gen 9:4). Rather than depicting an abstract feature of human existence distinct from bodily existence the Hebrew term nefesh describes aspects of that bodily existence.
The Hebrew understanding of human nature emphasizes a holistic viewpoint. God breathes into Adam the breath of life and Adam becomes a living being, a nefesh haya (Gen 2:7), just as God commanded the sea and the earth to bring forth living beings (Gen 1:20, 24). Humans do not have souls, in the Hebrew understanding, any more than sea and land animals do. Instead, human beings are “nefeshes.” The emphasis lies upon the whole of bodily life. In fact, the Hebrew apparently could not conceive of life outside a body (“nefeshes” die: see Lev 19:28; 21:1; 22:4; Num 5:2; 6:11; etc.). Incidentally, this understanding of human nature underlies the fundamental distinction between the Greek notion of the immortality of the soul and the Judeo-Christian concept of resurrection.
The Shema calls for concrete, specific, real-world obedience to God with one’s whole nefesh, one’s whole self. It does not call for an abstract devotion with one’s interior, ineffable, intangible “soul.”