Immortality or Resurrection
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Four of the ten chapters can be accessed by clicking their titles:

The Debate over Human Nature and Destiny

The Old Testament View of Human Nature

The Biblical View of Death

Hell: Eternal Torment or Annihilation?

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Chapter II


Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University

The question posed by the Psalmist,"What is man that thou art mindful of him?" (Ps 8:4), is one of the most fundamental questions that anyone could consider. It is fundamental because its answer determines the way we view ourselves, this world, redemption, and our ultimate destiny.

No age knows so much and so many things about human nature as does ours, yet no age knows less about what man really is. Having lost their awareness of God, many people today are concerned primarily with their present existence. The loss of awareness of God makes many people uncertain about the meaning of life, because it is only in reference to God and His revelation that the nature and destiny of human life can be truly understood.

The question of human nature has been a consistent concern in the history of Western thought. In chapter 1 we noted that, historically, most Christians have defined human nature dualistically, that it consists of a material, mortal body and an immaterial, immortal soul which survives the body at death. Beginning with the Enlightenment (a philosophic movement of the 18th century), attempts have been made to define man as a machine that is part of a giant cosmic machine. Human beings hopelessly are trapped within a deterministic universe and their behavior is determined by such impersonal and involuntary forces as genetic factors, chemical secretions, education, upbringing, and societal conditioning. People do not have an immaterial, immortal soul, only a mortal, material body that is conditioned by the determinism of the cosmic machine.

This depressing materialistic view that reduces human beings to the status of a machine or an animal negates the Biblical view of man created in the image of God. Instead of being "like God," human beings are reduced to being "like an animal." Perhaps as a response to this pessimistic view, various modern pseudo-pagan cults and ideologies (like the New Age) deify human beings. Man is neither "like an animal" or "like God," he is god. He has inner divine power and resources that await to be unleashed. This new humanistic gospel is popular today because it challenges people to seek salvation within themselves by tapping into and releasing the powers and resources that slumber within.

What we are experiencing today is a violent swing of the pendulum from an extreme materialistic view of human nature to an extreme mystic, deification view. In this context, people are confronted with two choices: Either human beings are nothing but preprogrammed machines, or they are divine with unlimited potential. The Christian response to this challenge is to be sought in the Holy Scriptures which provide the basis for defining our beliefs and practices. Our study shows that Scripture teaches we are neither preprogrammed machines nor divine beings with unlimited potential. We are creatures created in the image of God, and dependent upon Him for our existence in this world and in the world to come.

Objectives of the Chapter. This chapter seeks to understand the Old Testament view of human nature by examining four prominent anthropological terms, namely, soul, body, heart, and spirit. The various meanings and usages of these terms are analyzed to determine if any of them is ever used to denote an immaterial substance which functions independently of the body.

Our study indicates that the Old Testament does not distinguish between physical and spiritual organs, because the entire range of higher human functions such as feeling, thinking, knowing, loving, keeping God’s commandments, praising, and praying is attributed not only to the "spiritual" organs of the soul and spirit but also to the physical organs of the heart and, occasionally, to the kidneys and viscera. The soul (nephesh) and the spirit (ruach) are used in the Old Testament to denote, not immaterial entities capable of surviving the body at death, but a whole spectrum of physical and psychological functions.

In undertaking this investigation we must keep in mind that Bible writers were not familiar with modern physiology or psychology. They did not necessarily know, for example, that the sensation we experience when our hand touches an object is caused by nerves that transmit the information to the brain. The word "brain" does not occur in the English Bible. Bible writers knew nothing of the nervous system or respiratory system. For the most part, they defined human nature in terms of what they saw and felt.

This chapter is divided into five major parts. The first part examines what the creation story tells us about the original make-up of human nature. The subsequent four parts analyze the four fundamental terms of human nature that we find in the Old Testament, namely, soul, body, heart, and the spirit. Our investigation indicates that all these terms describe not wholly different substances each with its own distinct functions, but the interrelated and integrated capacities and functions of the same person. The fact that a person consists of various parts which are integrated, interrelated, and functionally united, leaves no room for the notion of the soul being distinct from the body and thus removing the basis for the belief in the survival of the soul at the death of the body.


Creation, Fall, and Redemption. In seeking to understand the Biblical view of human nature, we must recognize first that the meaning of human life is defined in Scripture in terms of creation, the fall into sin, and God’s plan of redemption. These three basic truths are fundamental for understanding the Biblical view of human nature and destiny. Chronologically, these are the first three truths we encounter in Genesis 1 through 3, where we find the first account of creation, the Fall, and redemption. Thematically, everything else in Scripture is a development of these three concepts. They provide the prism through which human existence, with all its problems, is viewed and defined.

When Jesus addressed the question of marriage and divorce, He approached it first in terms of what marriage was meant to be at creation. Then He looked at it from the perspective of the Fall, because sin explains why allowance was made for divorce (Matt 19:1-8). Similarly, Paul appeals to creation, the Fall, and redemption to explain the role distinctions between men and women (1 Cor 11:3-12; 1 Tim 2:12-14) as well as their equality in Christ (Gal 3:28).

When we view human nature from the Biblical perspective of creation, the Fall, and redemption, we immediately see that creation tells us about the original make up of human nature, the Fall about its present condition, and redemption about the restoration being accomplished in the present and consummated in the future. Thus a comprehensive Biblical definition of human nature must take into consideration what human nature was at creation, what it became after the Fall, and what it is now and will become in the future as a result of redemption.

The Creation of Man. The logical starting point for the study of the Biblical view of human nature is the account of the creation of man. We use here the term "man" as used in Scripture, namely, including both man and woman. The first important Biblical statement is found in Genesis 1:26-27: "Then God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."

This first account of man’s creation tells us that human life began not as a result of fortuitous natural forces or of a chance mutation in the animal world, but as a result of a personal creative act of God. It was after the Lord had called into existence the earth with all its vegetation and animals that He announced the making of man. It is as if people were the specific focus of God’s creation. The impression conveyed by the narrative is that when God came to the creation of man, He entered into something different and distinctive.

At the end of each stage of the world’s creation, God stopped to contemplate what He had wrought and to pronounce it "good" (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). Then God set out to create a being that could have lordship over His creation; a being with whom he could walk and talk. The adverb "then" at the beginning of verse 26 (RSV) suggests that the creation of man was something special. All the previous creative acts of God are presented as a continuous series linked together by the conjunction "and" (Gen 1:3, 6, 9, 14, 20, 24). But when the cosmic order of creation was finished and the earth was ready to sustain human life, then the Lord uttered His intention of making man. "Then God said, ‘Let us make man" (Gen 1:26). After creating man, God pronounced His whole creation "very good" (Gen 1:31).

A Special Creation of God. This original, divine declaration suggests two fundamental truths: First, man is a special creation of God whose life depends upon Him. His life derives from God and continues only because of God’s mercy. This sense of continual human dependence on the Most High is basic to the Biblical understanding of human nature. God is the Creator and human beings are creatures dependent upon Him for the origin and continuance of their existence.

Second, man is distinct from God. Human beings have a temporal beginning, but God is eternal. The Lord is not man that He should die. Scripture emphasizes the contrast between the infinite attributes of God as Creator and the finite limitation of man as creature. This is an important consideration to keep in mind when defining the Biblical view of human nature. The whole divine revelation presents human beings as creatures dependent upon, but distinct from God (Is 45:11; 57:15; Job 10:8-10). Yet, despite the emphasis of man’s creaturely dependence upon God, he remains in a position of special relationship with the Creator. "The distinctive character of his humanness sets him apart not only from God’s other creatures but also to and for the loving and thankful service of his Creator."1

In the Image of God. The distinctive characteristic of man’s relation to God is expressed in the declaration of his creation in the image of God. "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Gen 1:26; cf. 5:1-3; 9:6). Elaborate attempts have been made to define what the "image of God" is in which man was created.2 Some contend that it is a physical resemblance between God and man.3 The problem with this view is that it presupposes that God has a corporeal nature similar to that of human beings. This idea is discredited by Christ’s statement that "God is Spirit" (John 4:24), which suggests that He is not bound by space or matter as we are. Moreover, the Biblical terms for the physical aspect of human nature (bashar, sarx—flesh, body) are never applied to God.

Others think the image of God is the non-material aspect of human nature, namely his spiritual soul. Thus R. Laird-Harris declares: "Man alone in the world is a spiritual, moral, and rational being. He has a God-given soul and the inference is that this soul, being made in the image of God, is not subject to the limits of time and space."4 In a similar vein, Calvin affirms: "It cannot be doubted that the proper seat of the image is the soul," though he adds that there is "no part of man, not even his body, which is not adorned with some rays of its glory." 5 This view presupposes a dualism between body and soul which is not warranted by the Genesis account of creation. Man did not receive a soul from God; he was made a living soul. Moreover, in the creation story the animals also are spoken of as having within them a living soul, yet, they were not created in the image of God.

Some interpret the image of God in man as being the combination of human maleness and femaleness.6 The basis for this interpretation is primarily the proximity of the expression "male and female he created them" to the phrase "in the image of God he created him" (Gen 1:27). Undoubtedly, there is some theological truth in the notion that the image of God is reflected in the male-female fellowship as equals. But the problem with this interpretation is that it makes too much of too little by reducing the image of God exclusively to the male-female fellowship as equals.

The interpretation of the image of God as being the combination of human maleness and femaleness has led some to make God into an androgynous Being, half male and half female. This view is foreign to the Bible since God does not need a female counterpart to complete his identity. An action of God is sometimes compared to that of a compassionate mother (Is 49:15), but the person of God is revealed, especially through Jesus Christ, as that of our Father.

Image as Capacity to Reflect God. In our view, the image of God is associated not with man as male and female, or with an immortal soul given to our species, but rather with humankind’s capacity to be and to do on a finite level what God is and does on an infinite level. The creation account seems to be saying that while the sun rules the day, the moon the night, and the fishes the sea, mankind images God by having dominion over all theese realms (Gen 1:28-30).

In the New Testament, the image of God in humanity is never associated with male-female fellowship, or physical resemblance, or a nonmaterial, spiritual soul, but rather with moral and rational capacities: "Put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator" (Col 3:10; cf. Eph 4:24). Similarly, conformity to the image of Christ (Rom 8:29; 1 Cor 15:49) is generally understood in terms of righteousness and holiness. None of these qualities is possessed by animals. What distinguishes people from animals is the fact that human nature inherently has godlike possibilities. By virtue of being created in the image of God, human beings are capable of reflecting His character in their own life.

Being created in the image of God means that we must view ourselves as intrinsically valuable and richly invested with meaning, potential, and responsibilities. It means that we have been created to reflect God in our thinking and actions. We are to be and to do on a finite scale what God is and does on an infinite scale.

The Bible never mentions immortality in connection with the image of God in man. The tree of life represented immortality in fellowship with the Creator, but as a result of sin, Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden, thus being deprived of access to the source of continuous life in His presence of God.

Why should the image be found in immortality any more than in omniscience, omnipotence, or omnipresence? None of these other divine attributes have been ascribed to man as part of the image of God, even before the Fall. Nothing in Scripture suggests that man images God by possessing divine attributes, like immortality. No valid reasons exist for singling out immortality as the one divine attribute intended by the phrase "image of God." On the contrary, much in Scripture denies it, as we shall see.

Genesis 2:7: "A Living Soul." The second important Biblical statement for understanding human nature is found in Genesis 2:7. It is not surprising that this text forms the basis of much of the discussion regarding human nature, since it provides the only Biblical account of how God created man. The text reads: "Then God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."

Historically, this text has been read through the lenses of classical dualism. It has been assumed that the breath of life God breathed into man’s nostrils was simply an immaterial, immortal soul that God implanted into the material body. And just as earthly life began with the implantation of an immortal soul into a physical body, so it ends when the soul departs from the body. Thus Genesis 2:27 has been historically interpreted on the basis of the traditional body-soul dualism.

What has led to this mistaken and misleading interpretation is the fact that the Hebrew word nephesh, translated "soul" in Genesis 2:7, has been understood according to the standard Webster’s definition for soul: "The immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life." Or "The spiritual principle embodied in human beings."7 This standard definition reflects the Platonic view of the soul–psyche as being an immaterial, immortal essence that abides in the body, though it is not part of it.

This prevailing view causes people to read the Old Testament references to the soul–nephesh in the light of Platonic dualism rather than of Biblical wholism. As Claude Tresmontant puts it, "By applying to the Hebrew nephesh [soul] the characteristics of the Platonic psyche [soul], . . . we let the real meaning of nephesh [soul] escape us and furthermore, we are left with innumerable pseudo-problems."8

People who read the Old Testament references to nephesh (which in the King James version are translated 472 times as "soul") with a dualistic mind-set, will have great difficulty in understanding the Biblical wholistic view of human nature. According to this, the body and the soul are the same person seen from different perspectives. They will experience problems with accepting the Biblical meaning of the "soul" as the animating principle of both human and animal life. Furthermore, they will be at a loss to explain those passages that speak of a dead person as a dead soulnephesh (Lev 19:28; 21:1, 11; 22:4; Num 5:2; 6:6,11; 9:6, 7, 10; 19:11, 13; Hag 2:13). For them it is inconceivable that an immortal soul could die with the body.

The Meaning of "Living Soul." The prevailing assumption that the human soul is immortal has led many to interpret the phrase "man became a living soul" (Gen 2:7 KJV) to mean that "man obtained a living soul." This interpretation has been challenged by numerous scholars who are sensitive to the confusion regarding the difference between the Greek-dualistic and the Biblical-wholistic conception of human nature.

Audrey Johnson, for example, explains that nephesh–soul in Genesis 2:7 denotes the whole man, with an emphasis on his consciousness and vitality.9 Similarly, Johannes Pedersen speaking of the creation of man in his classic study Israel, writes: "The basis of his essence was the fragile corporeal substance, but by the breath of God it was transformed and became a nephesh, a soul. It is not said that man was supplied with a nephesh, and so the relation between body and soul is quite different from what it is to us. Such as he is, man in his total essence is a soul."10

Pedersen continues by noting that "in the Old Testament we are constantly confronted with the fact that man, as such, is a soul. Abraham started for Canaan with his property and all the souls he had gotten (Gen 12:5), and when Abraham had taken booty on his warlike expedition against the great kings, the King of Sodom exhorted him to yield the souls and keep the goods (Gen 14:21). Seventy souls of the house of Jacob came to Egypt (Gen 46:27; Ex 1:5). Whenever a census is taken, the question always is: How many souls are there? In these and in numerous other places we may substitute persons for souls."11

Commenting on Genesis 2:7, Hans Walter Wolff asks: "What does nephesh [soul] mean here? Certainly not soul [in the traditional dualistic sense]. Nephesh was designed to be seen together with the whole form of man, and especially with his breath; moreover man does not have nephesh [soul], he is nephesh [soul], he lives as nephesh [soul]."12 The fact that the soul in the Bible stands for the whole living person is recognized even by Catholic scholar Dom Wulstan Mork who expresses himself in similar terms: "It is nephesh [soul] that gives life to the bashar [body], but not as a distinct substance. Adam doesn’t have nephesh [soul]; he is nephesh [soul], just as he is bashar [body]. The body, far from being divided from its animating principle, is the visible nephesh [soul]."13

From a Biblical perspective, the body and the soul are not two different substances (one mortal and the other immortal) abiding together within one human being, but two characteristics of the same person. Johannes Pedersen admirably sums up this point by a statement that has become proverbial: "The body is the soul in its outward form."14 The same view is expressed by H. Wheeler Robinson in an equally famous statement: "The Hebrew idea of personality is that of an animated body, not (like the Greek) that of an incarnate soul."15

Summing up, we can say that the expression "man became a living soul–nephesh hayyah" does not mean that at creation his body was endowed with an immortal soul, a separate entity, distinct from the body. Rather, it means that as a result of the divine inbreathing of the "breath of life" into the lifeless body, man became a living, breathing being, no more, no less. The heart began to beat, the blood to circulate, the brain to think, and all the vital signs of life were activated. Simply stated, "a living soul" means "a living being."

The practical implications of this definition are brought out in a suggestive way by Dom Wulstan Mork: "Man as nephesh [soul] means that it is his nephesh [soul] that goes to dinner, that tackles a steak and eats it. When I see another person, what I see is not merely his body, but his visible nephesh [soul], because, in the terms of Genesis 2:7, that is what man is—a living nephesh. The eyes have been called ‘the window of the soul.’ This is actually dichotomy. The eyes, as long as they belong to the living person, are in themselves the revelation of the soul."16

Animals as "Living Souls." The meaning of "living soul" as simply "living being" is supported by the use of the same phrase "living soul–nephesh hayyah" for animals. In our KJV Bible, this phrase appears for the first time in Genesis 2:7 when the creation of Adam is described. But we should note that this is not the first time that phrase occurs in the Hebrew Bible. We also find it in Genesis 1:20, 21, 24, and 30. In all four of these verses "living soul–nephesh hayyah" refers to animals, but translators of most English versions have chosen to translate it "living creature" rather than "living soul." The same is true in several other passages after Genesis 2:7, where animals are referred to as "living creatures" rather than "living souls" (Gen 2:19; 9:10, 12, 15, 16; Lev 11:46).

Why do the translators of most English versions render the same Hebrew phrase nephesh hayyah as "living soul" when it refers to man and "living creatures" when it refers to animals? The reason is simple. They are conditioned by the belief that human beings have an immaterial, immortal soul which animals do not have. Consequently, they use the word "soul" for man and "creature" for animal to translate the same Hebrew nephesh. Norman Snaith finds this "most reprehensible" and says . . . "it is a grave reflection on the Revisers [translators of the Authorized version] that they retained this misleading difference in translation. . . . The Hebrew phrase should be translated exactly the same way in both cases. To do otherwise is to mislead all those who do not read Hebrew. There is no excuse and no proper defense. The tendency to read ‘immortal soul’ into Hebrew nephesh and to translate accordingly is very ancient, and can be seen in the Septuagint . . ."17

Basil Atkinson, a former Librarian at Cambridge University, offers the same explanation. "Our translators [of the Authorized Version] have concealed this fact from us, presumably because they were so bound by current theological notions of the meaning of the word ‘soul,’ that they dared not translate by it a Hebrew word that referred to animals, although they have used it in the margin [of the Authorized Version] at verses 20 and 30. In these verses we find ‘the moving creature, even living soul’ (Heb.) (ver. 20); ‘every living soul (Heb. nephesh) that moveth’ (ver. 21); ‘Let the earth bring forth the living soul (Heb. nephesh) after his kind’ (ver. 24); ‘and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is living soul’ (Heb. nephesh) (ver. 30)."18

The use of nephesh-soul in these verses to refer to all sorts of animals clearly shows that nephesh is not an immortal soul given to man, but the animating principle of life or "the life-breath" which is present in both man and animals. Both are characterized as souls in contradistinction to the plants. The reason plants are not souls is presumably because they do not have organs that allow them to breathe, to feel pain and joy, or to move about in search of food. What distinguishes the human soul from that of animals is the fact that humans were created in God’s image, that is, with godlike possibilities unavailable to animals.

The important point to note at this juncture is that both man and animal are souls. As Atkinson puts it, "They [man and animals] are not bipartite creatures consisting of a soul and a body which can separate and go on subsisting. Their soul is the whole of them and comprises their body as well as their mental powers. They are spoken of as having soul, that is, conscious being, to distinguish them from inanimate objects that have no life. In the same way we can say in English that a man or an animal is a conscious being and has conscious being."19 The term soul–nephesh is used for both people and animals because both are conscious beings. They both share the same animating life-principle or "life-breath."

Soul and Blood. In addition to the four passages we have considered in Genesis 1, there are 19 others in the Old Testament where the word nephesh is applied to animals. We want to look at two of them because they help to clarify further the meaning of "living soul" in Genesis 2:7. These passages are of special interest because they associate nephesh with blood. In Leviticus 17:11, we read: "For the life of the flesh is in the blood." "Life" is a translation of the Hebrew nephesh, so the passage reads: "The soul of the flesh is in the blood."

In verse 14 of the same chapter, we read: "For the life of every creature is the blood of it; therefore I have said to the people of Israel, You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood." Here the word "life" is used in each instance to translate the Hebrew nephesh, so the passage should actually read, "For the soul of every creature is the blood of it; . . . for the soul of every creature is its blood" (See also Deut 12:23). The phrase "every creature" suggests that the references to blood apply to both man and animals. Thus, as Atkinson points out, "We have here a most important insight revealed into the essence of human nature. Soul and blood are identical."20

The reason the soul-nephesh is equated with blood is presumably because the vitality of life–nephesh resides in the blood. In the sacrificial system, blood atoned for sin because of its association with nephesh–life. The sacrificial killing of an animal meant that a nephesh–life was sacrificed to atone for the sins of another nephesh–life.

Tory Hoff aptly observes that "The Hebrews relation between nephesh [life] and blood reveals that nephesh [life] conveyed a ‘sacred’ aspect to human living. Nephesh [life] was a work of God (Gen 2:7), was in God’s care (Prov 24:12), was in His hands (Job 12:10), and belonged to Him (Ez 18:4, 20). The Hebrews believed that they were forbidden to meddle or interfere with existence as nephesh [life] since it was a received existence beyond man. . . . The Hebrews were forbidden to eat meat still containing blood because the act meddled with nephesh [life] and therefore became offensive to God. The equation between blood and nephesh [life] meant consuming blood was a form of murder. One was sustaining one’s own nephesh [life] with the sacred nephesh [life] of another."21

The preceding discussion of the association of nephesh–soul with animals and blood has served to clarify further the meaning of "living soul" (Gen 2:7) as applied to Adam. We have found that this phrase does not mean that at creation God endowed the human body with an immortal soul, but simply that man became a living being as a result of God’s breathing His breath of life into the lifeless body. This conclusion is supported by the fact that nephesh is also used to describe animals and blood. The latter was equated with nephesh–soul because it was seen as the tangible manifestation of the vitality of life. Before exploring further the meaning of nephesh–soul in the Old Testament, we need to look at the meaning of the "breath of life" in Genesis 2:7.

The Breath of Life. What is the "breath [neshamah] of life" that God breathed into Adam’s nostrils? Some assume that the "breath of life" is the immortal soul that God implanted into Adam’s material body. This interpretation cannot legitimately be supported by the Biblical meaning and usage of the "breath of life," because nowhere in the Bible is "the breath of life" identified with an immortal soul.

In Scripture, the "breath [neshamah] of life" is the life-giving power that is associated with the breath of God. Thus we read in Job 33:4: "The spirit [ruach] of God has made me, and the breath [neshamah] of the Almighty gives me life." The parallelism between the "spirit of God" and "the breath of the Almighty" suggests that the two are used interchangeably because they both refer to the gift of life imparted by God to His creatures. Another clear example is found in Isaiah 42:5: "Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, . . . who gives breath [neshamah] to the people upon it, and spirit [ruach] to those who walk in it." Here, again, the parallelism shows that breath and spirit denote the same animating principle of life that God gives to His creatures.

The imagery of the "breath of life" describes in a suggestive way God’s gift of life to His creatures, because breathing is a vital sign of life. A person who no longer breathes is dead. Thus, it is not surprising that in Scripture the life-giving Spirit of God is characterized as the "breath of life." After all, breathing is a tangible manifestation of life. Job says: "As long as my breath [neshamah] is in me, and the spirit [ruach] of God is in my nostrils; my lips will not speak falsehood" (Job 27:3). Here the human "breath" and the divine "spirit" are equated, because breathing is seen as a manifestation of the sustaining power of God’s spirit.

Possession of the "breath of life" does not in itself confer immortality, because the Bible tells us that at death "the breath of life" returns to God. Life derives from God, is sustained by God, and returns to God. In describing death, Job says: "If he [God] should take back his spirit [ruach] to himself, and gather to himself his breath [neshamah], all flesh would perish together, and man would return to the dust" (Job 34:14-15). The same truth is expressed in Ecclesiastes 12:7: "The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it." Of the Flood we read: "And all flesh died that moved upon the earth . . . everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath [neshamah] of life died" (Gen 7:21-22).

The fact that death is characterized as the withdrawal of the breath of life shows that the "breath of life" is not an immortal spirit or soul that God confers on His creatures, but rather the gift of life which human beings possess for the duration of their earthly existence. As long as the "breath of life" or spirit remains, human beings are "living souls." But when the breath departs, they become dead souls.

The connection between the "breath of life" and "the living soul" becomes clear when we remember that, as Atkinsons points out, "man’s soul is in his blood and indeed his blood is his soul. Thus he is kept in being [alive] as a living soul by the inhalation of oxygen out of the air, and medical science today knows, of course, a great deal about the connection between this intake of oxygen and the blood."22 The cessation of breathing results in the death of the soul, because the blood, which is equated with the soul, no longer receives the oxygen that is so vital for life. This explains why the Bible refers about 13 times to human death as the death of the soul (Lev 19:28; 21:1, 11; 22:4; Num 5:2; 6:6,11; 9:6, 7, 10; 19:11, 13; Hag 2:13).

In the light of the preceding discussion, we conclude that "man became a living soul" (KJV) at creation, not through the implantation of an immaterial, immortal soul into his material, mortal body, but through the animating principle of life ("breath of life") conferred on him by God Himself. In the creation account, the "living soul" denotes the life principle or power that animates the human body and reveals itself in the form of conscious life.


So far, we have examined the Old Testament view of human nature in the light of man’s creation in the image of God as a living soul. We have found that the two fundamental texts of mankind’s creation, Genesis 1:26-27 and 2:7, do not allow for a dualistic interpretation of human nature with a mortal body and an immortal soul. On the contrary, the body, the breath of life, and the soul are present in man’s creation, not as separate entities, but as characteristics of the same person. Body is man as a concrete being; soul is man as a living individual; the breath of life or spirit is man as having his source in God. To test the validity of this initial conclusion, we now take a closer look at the broader Old Testament use of four key aspects of the human nature: soul, body, heart, and spirit.

Our initial study of the meaning of nephesh–soul in the context of creation has shown that the word is used to designate the animating principle of life as present in both human beings and animals. At this point, we wish to explore the broader use of nephesh in the Old Testament. Since nephesh occurs in the Old Testament 754 times and is rendered in 45 different ways,23 our focus is on three main usages of the word that relate directly to the object of our investigation.

Soul as a Needy Person. In his state-of-the-art book Anthropology of the Old Testament, which is virtually undisputed among scholars of various theological persuasions, Hans Walter Wolff entitles the chapter on the soul as "Nephesh–Needy Man."24 The reason for this characterization of nephesh as "needy man" becomes evident when one reads the many texts which picture nephesh–soul in dangerous situations of life and death proportions.

Since it is God who made man "a living soul" and who sustains the human soul, the Hebrews when in danger appealed to God to deliver their soul, that is, their life. David prayed: "Deliver my soul [nephesh] from the wicked" (Ps 17:13, KJV); "For thy righteousness sake, O Lord, bring my soul [nephesh] out of trouble" (Ps. 143:11, KJV). The Lord deserves to be praised, "for he has delivered the soul [nephesh] of the poor from the hand of the evildoers" (Jer 20:13).

People greatly feared for their souls [nephesh] (Jos 9:24) when others were seeking their souls [nephesh] (Ex 4:19; 1 Sam 23:15). They had to flee for their souls [nephesh] (2 Kings 7:7) or defend their souls [nephesh] (Es 8:9); if they did not, their souls [nephesh] would be utterly destroyed (Jos 10:28, 30, 32, 35, 37, 39). "The soul that sinneth, it shall die" (Ez 18:4, 20). Rahab asked the two Israelite spies to save her family and "deliver our souls [nephesh] from death" (Jos 2:13). In these instances, it is evident that the soul was in danger and needed to be delivered was the life of the individual.

The soul experienced danger not only from enemies but also from lack of food. In lamenting the state of Jerusalem, Jeremiah says: "All her people sigh, they seek bread; they have given their pleasant things for meat to relieve the soul [nephesh]" (Lam 1:11). The Israelites grumbled in the wilderness because they no longer had meat as they had had in Egypt. "But now our soul [nephesh] is dried away: there is nothing at all, besides this manna, before our eyes" (Num 11:6).

Fasting had implications for the soul because it cut off nourishment that the soul needed. On the Day of Atonement, the Israelites were commanded to "afflict your souls" (Lev 16:29) by fasting. They abstained from food to demonstrate that their soul was dependent upon God for both physical nourishment and spiritual salvation. "Quite appropriately," writes Tory Hoff, "they [the Israelites] were asked to fast on the Day of Atonement because it was their soul that was atoned for through the shedding of blood [of an innocent soul] and it was the providential God who sustained the soul despite the sin of the soul"25

The theme of danger and deliverance associated with the soul [nephesh] allows us to see that the soul in the Old Testament was viewed, not as an immortal component of human nature, but as the uncertain, insecure condition of life which sometimes was threatened unto death. Those situations which involved intense danger and deliverance reminded the Israelites that they were needy souls [nephesh], living persons whose life depended constantly upon God for protection and deliverance.

Soul as Seat of Emotions. Being the animating principle of human life, the soul functioned also as the center of emotional activities. In speaking of the Shunammite, 2 Kings 4:27 says: "Her soul [nephesh] is vexed within her" (KJV). David cried to the Lord, seeking deliverance from his enemies, saying: "My soul [nephesh] is also sore vexed. . . . Return, O Lord, deliver my soul [nephesh]" (Ps 6:3-4).

While the people were waiting for God’s deliverance, their soul was losing vitality. Tory Hoff notes that "because the Psalmist often wrote from within this experience [of danger], the Psalms include phrases such as ‘their soul fainted in them’ (Ps 107:5), ‘my soul melts for sorrow’ (Ps 119:28), ‘my soul languishes for salvation’ (Ps 119:81), ‘my soul longs, yea, faints for thy courts’ (Ps 84:2), and ‘their soul melted away in their evil plight’ (Ps 107:26). Job asked, ‘How long will you torment my soul’ (Job 19:2). It was also the soul that would wait for deliverance. ‘For God does my soul wait in silence’ (Ps 62:1). ‘I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and in his word I hope’ (Ps 130:5). Since the Hebrew knew all deliverance came from God, his soul would ‘take refuge’ in God (Ps 57:1) and ‘thirst for him’ (Ps 42:2; 63:1). Once the danger had passed and the intense, precarious nature of the situation was over, the soul would praise God for deliverance received. ‘My soul makes its boast in the Lord, let the afflicted hear and be glad’ (Ps 34:2). ‘Then my soul shall rejoice in the Lord, exalting in his deliverance’ (Ps 35:9).’"26

These passages which speak of the soul as the seat of emotion are interpreted by some dualists as supporting the notion of the soul being an immaterial entity attached to the body and responsible for the emotional and intellectual life of the individual. The problem with this interpretation is, as Tory Hoff explains, that "the soul is the ‘seat of emotion’ no more than any other Hebrew anthropological term."27 We shall see that the soul is only one center of emotions because the body, the heart, the bowels, and other parts of the body also function as emotional centers. From the Biblical wholistic view of human nature, one part of the body can often represent the whole.

Wolff rightly observes that the emotional content of the soul is equated with the self or the person and is not an independent entity. He cites, as an example, Psalms 42:5, 11, and 43:5 in which the same song of lament and of self-exhortation is found: "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise him." "Here," Wolff writes, "nephesh [soul] is the self of the needy life, thirsting with desire."28 There is nothing in these passages to suggest that the soul is an immaterial part of human nature that is equipped with personality and consciousness and is able to survive death. We shall note that the soul dies when the body dies.

The Soul as the Seat of Personality. The soul [nephesh] is seen in the Old Testament not only as the seat of emotions but also as the seat of personality. The soul is the person as a responsible individual. In Micah 6:7 we read: "Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, and the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul [nephesh]?" The Hebrew word translated here as "body" is beten, which means belly or womb. The contrast here is not between body and soul. In commenting on this text, Dom Wulstan Mork writes: "The meaning is not that the soul is the human cause of sin, with the body as the soul’s instrument. Rather, the nephesh, the whole living person, is the cause of sin. Therefore, in this verse, responsibility for sin is attributed to the nephesh as the person."29

We find the same idea in several texts that discuss sin and guilt. "If a soul [nephesh] shall sin through ignorance . . ."(Lev 4:2, KJV); "And if a soul [nephesh] sins . . . he shall bear his iniquity" (Lev 5:1, KJV); "But the soul [nephesh] that doeth ought presumptuously . . . that soul [nephesh] shall be cut off from among his people" (Num 15:30, KJV). "Behold all souls [nephesh] are mine; . . . the soul [nephesh] that sinneth, it shall die" (Ez 18:4). It is evident that in texts such as these, the soul is the responsible person who thinks, wills, and is answerable for his conduct.

Any physical or psychical activity was performed by the soul because such activity presumed a living, thinking, and acting person. "The Hebrew did not divide and assign human activities. Any act was the whole nephesh in action, hence, the whole person."30 As aptly expressed by W. D. Stacey, "Nephesh sorrowed, hungered, and thought because each of these functions required the whole personality to perform it, and the distinction between emotional, physical, and mental was not made."31

In the Old Testament the soul and the body are two manifestations of the same person. The soul includes and presumes the body. "In fact," writes Mork, "the ancient Hebrews could not conceive of one without the other. Here was no Greek dichotomy of soul and body, of two opposing substances, but a unity, man, who is bashar [body] from one aspect and nephesh [soul] from another. Bashar, then, is the concrete reality of human existence, nephesh is the personality of human existence."32

The Soul and Death. The survival of the soul in the Old Testament is linked to the survival of the body, since the body is an outward manifestation of the soul. This explains why the death of a person is often described as the death of the soul. "When death occurs," writes Johannes Pedersen, "then it is the soul that is deprived of life. Death cannot strike the body or any other parts of the soul without striking the entirety of the soul. Therefore it is also said to ‘kill a soul’ or ‘smite a soul’ (Num 31:19; 35:15,30; Jos 20:3, 9); it may also be called to ‘smite one as regards the soul,’ i. e. to smite one so that the soul is killed (Gen 37:21; Deut 19:6, 11; Jer 40:14, 15). There can be no doubt that it is the soul which dies, and all theories attempting to deny this fact are false. It is deliberately said both that the soul dies (Judg 16:30; Num 23:10 et al.), that it is destroyed or consumed (Ez 22:25, 27), and that it is extinguished (Job 11:20)."33

Readers of the English Bible may question the validity of Pedersen’s statement that the soul dies, because the word "soul" does not occur in the texts which he cites. For example, speaking of the cities of refuge, Numbers 35:15 says: "Anyone who kills any person [nephesh] without intent may flee there." Since the word "soul–nephesh" does not occur in most English translations, some may argue that the text is speaking of the killing of the body and not of the soul. The truth of the matter is that nephesh is found in the Hebrew, but translators usually chose to render it with "person," presumably because of their belief that the soul is immortal and cannot be killed.

In some instances, translators render nephesh–soul with personal pronouns. Readers of English versions have no way of knowing that the pronoun stands for the soul–nephesh. For example, one of the texts quoted by Pedersen is Deuteronomy 19:11, which in the RSV reads: "But if any man hates his neighbor, and lies in wait for him, and attacks him and wounds him [nephesh] mortally so that he dies. . . ." The phrase "wounds him mortally" in Hebrew reads "wounds the soul–nephesh mortally." Pedersen quotes the texts from the Hebrew Bible and not from English translations. Thus, his statement that "the soul dies" accurately reflects what the Hebrew text says. Furthermore, there are texts even in the English version, that clearly speak of the death of the soul. For example, Ezekiel 18:20 reads: "The soul that sins shall die" (See also Ex 18:4).

Death is seen in the Old Testament as the emptying out of the soul of all its vitality and strength. "He poured out his soul unto death" (Is 53:12). "He poured out" translates the Hebrew arah which means "to empty, to bare, or make naked." This means that the Suffering Servant emptied himself of all the vitality and strength of the soul. In death, the soul no longer functions as the animating principle of life, but is at rest in the grave.

"The dead," writes Pedersen, "is a soul bereft of strength. Therefore the dead are called ‘the weak’ (rephaim). ‘Now thou art become weak’ is the greeting with which the fallen king of the Babylonians is received in the realm of the dead (Is 14:10)."34 The dead body is still a soul, but a soul without life. The Nazarites were not allowed to defile themselves by coming near "a dead body" (Num 6:6), or as the Hebrew text says: "the soul of one dead." In the same manner, the priests were not to defile themselves by coming near the dead souls of their relatives (Lev 21:1, 11; Num 5:2; 9:6, 7, 10).

The fate of the soul is linked to the fate of the body. As Joshua conquered the various cities beyond the Jordan, we are told repeatedly "he utterly destroyed every soul [nephesh]" (Jos 10:28, 30, 31, 34, 36, 38). The destruction of the body is seen as the destruction of the soul. "In the Bible," writes Edmund Jacobs, "nephesh refers only to the corpse prior to its final dissolution and while it has distinguishable features."35 When the body is destroyed and consumed so that its features are no longer recognizable, then the soul no longer exits, because "the body is the soul in its outward form."36 On the other hand, when the body is laid to rest in the grave with the fathers, the soul is also at rest and lies undisturbed (Gen 15:15; 25:8; Jud 8:32; 1 Chron 29:28).

The Old Testament view of the soul as ceasing to function at death as the animating life-principle of the body raises some interesting questions regarding Jesus’ statement: "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul" (Mat 10:28). This text seems to suggest that the death of the body does not necessarily entail the death of the soul. This text is examined in the next chapter dealing with the New Testament view of human nature.

The Departure of the Soul. In addition to those passages we have just considered in which the soul–nephesh is associated with death, at least two texts deserve special consideration because they speak of the departure and return of the soul. The first is Genesis 35:8, which says that Rachel’s soul was "departing" as she was dying, and the second is 1 Kings 17:21-22, which tells of the soul of the widow’s son returning to him. These two texts are used to support the view that at death the soul leaves the body and returns to the body at the resurrection.

In his book Death and the Afterlife, Robert A. Morey appeals to these two texts to support his belief in the survival of the soul upon the death of the body. He writes: "If the authors of Scripture did not believe that the soul left the body at death and would return to the body at the resurrection, they would not have used such a phraseology [departing and returning of the soul]. Their manner of speaking reveals that they believed that man ultimately survived the death of the body."37

Can this conclusion be derived legitimately from these two texts? Let us take a closer look at each of them. In describing Rachel’s hard labor, Genesis 35:18 says: "And as her soul was departing (for she died), she called his name Benoni; but his father called his name Benjamin." To interpret the phrase "her soul was departing" as meaning that Rachel’s immortal soul was leaving her body while she was dying, runs contrary to the consistent teaching of the Old Testament that the soul dies with the body. As Hans Walter Wolff rightly points out, "We must not fail to observe that the nephesh [soul] is never given the meaning of an indestructible core of being, in contradistinction to the physical life, and even capable of living when cut off from that life. When there is a mention of the ‘departing’ (Gen 35:18) of the nephesh from a man, or of its ‘return’ (Lam 1:11), the basic idea is the concrete notion of the ceasing and restoration of breathing."38

The phrase "her soul was departing" most likely means that "her breathing was stopping," or we might say, she was taking her last sigh. It is important to note that the noun "soul–nephesh" derives from the verb by the same root which means "to breathe," "to respire," "to draw breath." The inbreathing of the breath of life resulted in man becoming a living soul, a breathing organism. The departing of the breath of life results in a person becoming a dead soul ("for she died"). Thus, as Edmund Jacob explains, "The departure of nephesh is a metaphor for death; a dead man is one who has ceased to breathe."39

Tory Hoff offers a similar comment: "Through the concrete image of the departure of breath, the text communicates that Rachel was in the process of dying while she named her newborn son. She was not yet dead in the modern sense of the word, but was ebbing closer to death by the moment. She was loosing the nephesh vitality that ruah [breath] sustained to the degree that she would soon depart from nephesh existence."40 We conclude that the departure of the soul is a metaphor for death, most likely associated with the interruption of the breathing process. This conclusion is supported by the second text, 1 Kings 17:21-22, which we now examine.

The Return of the Soul. In relating the story of the raising to life of the widow’s son at Zarephath by Elijah the prophet, 1 Kings 17:20-22 says: "Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, let this child’s soul come into him again.’ And the Lord hearkened to the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived." It must be granted that, taken in isolation, this text could be taken to mean that the soul leaves the body at death and in this instance was recalled by Elijah’s prayer. This conclusion obviously would support the belief that the soul is immortal and survives the death of the body.

Three major reasons cause us to reject this interpretation. First, neither in this passage nor anywhere else in the Bible is there any indication that the human soul is immortal. On the contrary, we have found that the soul is the animating principle of life manifested in the body as long as the body is alive.

Second, in verse 17, the death of the boy is described as the cessation of breathing: "There was no breath left in him." This suggests that as the cessation of breathing caused the departure of the soul–nephesh, so the revival of breathing caused the return of the soul. As Edmund Jacob puts it: "In 1 Kings 17:17 lack of neshamah [breath] causes the departure of nephesh, which returns when the prophet gives the child breath again, for nephesh alone is what makes a living creature into a living organism."41 Since breathing is the outward manifestation of the soul, the cessation or restoration of breathing causes the departure or return of the soul.

Third, in Hebrew, verse 21 literally reads: "Let this child’s soul come into his inward parts again." This reading, which is found in the margin of the AV, puts a different construction on the passage. What returns to the inward parts is breathing. The soul as such is never connected with some "inward" organs of the body. The return of breathing in the inner parts results in the revival of the body, or, we might say, in the body becoming again a living soul.

Basil Atkinson perceptively observes that "the writer did not think of the soul as being the real child or carrying his personality. The child was lying dead on the bed and the soul came back to the child. Elijah did not think or say such words as are sometimes heard at modern funerals, ‘I can’t think of him as here any longer.’"42

In the light of the above considerations, we would conclude that the statement "the soul of the child came into him again" simply means that the child came to life again or the child began breathing again. This is the way the translators of the NIV understood the phrase by rendering it as "the boy’s life returned to him." This is a perfectly intelligible way of understanding the text and is consistent with the rest of the Old Testament teaching.

Conclusion. Our study of the meaning of nephesh–soul in the Old Testament has shown that never once is the word used to convey the idea of an immaterial, immortal entity capable of existing apart from the body. On the contrary, we have found that the soul–nephesh is the animating principle of life, the life-breath, which is present in both human beings and animals. The soul is identified with blood because the latter is seen as the tangible manifestation of the vitality of life. At death, the soul ceases to function as the animating life-principle of the body. The fate of the soul is connected inextricably with the fate of the body because the body is the outward manifestation of the soul.


Our study of the Old Testament view of the soul has already established that body and soul are an indivisible unity, namely, man as seen from two different perspectives. The body is the physical reality of human existence, the soul is the vitality and personality of human existence.

It is unfortunate that during much of Christian history the physical aspect of human nature has been depreciated and even vilified as undesirable and evil. The word "flesh" has been associated with immorality. The "sins of the flesh" invariably means sinful indulgences. The reason for this negative view is that "flesh" is a synonym for the body, and the body, according to classical dualism, which has enormously influenced Christian life and thought throughout the centuries, is bad, or at least suspect.

It is true that in the Bible "the flesh" does not represent the highest and noblest aspect of human nature. Paul especially speaks of the enmity that exists between the flesh and the spirit. But this does not mean that Paul or the rest of the Bible condemns the flesh or the body as ethically evil per se. Rather, the flesh is used metaphorically to represent the whole unregenerated person acting according to his natural sinful desires and propensities.

Historically, much of Christian spirituality and piety has been influenced by a negative view of the body as the seat of sin. The mortification of the flesh by depriving the body of food, warm clothing, or even the physical pleasure of a warm bath has been seen as indispensable for cultivating the spiritual life.43 Thus, to straighten our Christian spirituality, it is imperative to recover the Biblical wholistic view of human nature, especially the positive view of the physical aspect of our existence.

Body Created by God. The creation story provides the logical starting point for the study of the Biblical attitude toward the physical aspect of human nature. The story tells us that matter, including the human body, was created by God. Matter is not an eternal principle of evil antagonistic to God, as in Plato’s Timaeus, but part of God’s good creation to accomplish His eternal purpose. The whole physical order, including the human body, has been created by God according to His eternal purpose.

Repeatedly, throughout the creation story we are told that God looked at what He had created and "saw that it was good" (Gen 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25). After He created man in His own image God, admired everything He had created and declared it "very good" (Gen 1:31). On the basis of the Biblical account of creation, we can assert that this material world is God’s good creation and it has a fitting place in His eternal purpose.

It is important to note also that God created man not of some divine spiritual substance, but "of dust from the ground" (Gen 2:7) and "in the image of God" (Gen 1:27). "There is no part of man that is of divine origin and that comes down to take up temporary residence in the alien ‘body.’ Man in no way participates in the divine nature. He is made of the dust of the ground, and his relationship to God is not that of a spark to the fire or a drop of water to the ocean but rather that of an image to the original. Thus there is nothing in man that establishes an identity or even a continuity between him and God, as the rational ‘soul’ does in the ‘religious [dualistic]’ view. Instead of identity, there is merely likeness; instead of continuity, there is radical discontinuity, as between creature and Creator."44

Physical Body Is Not Evil. The fact that the human body was created out of the material substance of the earth does not mean that matter is the source of evil in human life. In Platonic dualism, matter is the source and origin of evil. Evil is identified with matter, which is an eternal principle independent of and antagonistic to the good God. The identification of evil with matter has led to a pessimistic view of the body and of physical existence. It is unfortunate that this pessimistic view of the body has greatly influenced Christian thought and practice.

In the creation account of Adam and Eve, there is not the slightest hint that the physical body is to be blamed for their disobedience and fall. One popular Christian tradition interprets the original sin as consisting of an illicit act of sexual intercourse. Such an interpretation is totally devoid of Biblical support. The temptation to which Adam and Eve yielded was not the desire to have sex but to act as though they were God. Sex is God’s good creation in the same way as all the other physiological functions of the human body.

The temptation was, "You will be like God" (Gen 3:5). The origin of sin in human life has nothing to do with sexual intercourse or any other physical act of the body. Rather, it is to be found in the fact that man succumbed to the temptation to be like God, instead of being a reflector of God’s image. This has been the fundamental manifestation of sin, namely, to place oneself, rather than God, at the center of everything.

In the Bible, the origin of sin is found not in some defect in the physical constitution of the human body, but in the wrong, self-centered choice made by free human beings. Humanity today is in a sinful condition because people live self-centered lives rather than a God-centered existence. Because of this self-centeredness, the tremendous possibilities inherent in our human nature created in the image of God have been realized in a disastrously wrong way. "What are godlike possibilities become demonic actualities."45

The Biblical account of the creation and Fall of mankind locates the origin of sin not in the body, but in the mind, namely, in the desire to act and to think of oneself as being God. Sin is volitional, an act of the will, and not a biological condition of the body. The Bible has a healthy view of the body as the object of God’s creation and redemption. This point becomes clearer as we examine the Old Testament meaning and usage of "flesh–bashar."

The Flesh as the Substance of the Body. The precise Hebrew term for the whole body is geviyyah, which is rare. It is used a dozen times to refer to a living or dead body (Gen 47:18; 1 King 31:10,12, Ez 1:11, 23; 1 Sam 31:10, 12; Dan 10:6). The common term used in the Hebrew Bible to designate the body is bashar, which technically means "flesh." Bashar occurs 266 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Its most common meaning is the "flesh" that constitutes the body. An example of this usage is Genesis 2:21-24: "So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon man, and while he slept he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh [bashar]; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh [bashar].’"

Another example is found in Psalm 79:2 where the Psalmist laments: "They have given the bodies of thy servants to the birds of the air for food, the flesh [bashar] of the saints to the beasts of the earth." The parallelism indicates that flesh [bashar] is used as a synonym for the body. Bashar denotes the fleshly substance that human beings have in common with animals. Both man and animals are flesh. The account of the flood bears this out: "For behold, I will bring a flood of water upon the earth, to destroy all flesh [bashar] in which is the breath of life from under heaven" (Gen 6:17; cf. 6:19; ; 9:17). "Bring forth with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh [bashar]—birds and animals, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth" (Gen 8:17).

The above examples indicate that "flesh–bashar" stood for the substance of the body which man has in common with the lower orders of animals. The flesh is created by God who can destroy as well as heal and restore it.

The Flesh as the Whole Man. There are texts in which the flesh–bashar stands for the whole person, not only as a fleshly substance, but as a rational and emotional being. "O God, thou art my God, I seek thee; my soul thirsts for thee; my flesh [bashar] faints for thee" (Ps 63:1). "My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh [bashar] sing for joy to the living God" (Ps 84:2). Job says of him who lies on his sickbed: " His flesh [bashar] upon him shall have pain, and his soul within him shall mourn" (Job 14:22, KJV).

The parallelism in these texts between soul and flesh indicates that the flesh, like the soul, can function as the seat of emotions. Flesh and soul are not two different forms of existence, but two manifestations of the same person. The Biblical wholistic view makes it possible to use flesh and soul interchangeably because they are part of the same organism.

Flesh is also used to denote the kinship that binds people together as blood relatives or as members of the human family. Thus Judah counsels his brothers not to kill Joseph, "for he is our brother, our own flesh [bashar]" (Gen 37:27). A frequent formula to express blood relationship is "my bone and my flesh" (Gen 29:14; Jud 9:2; 2 Sam 5:1; 19:12). In the Flood story, "all flesh" (Gen 6:17, 19) denotes the larger bond of the human family.

The Flesh as Human Nature in his Weakness. Flesh–bashar is also used in the Bible to characterize the weakness and frailty of human nature. Hans Walter Wolff entitled the chapter on "Flesh–Bashar" as "Man in His Infirmity."46 The title reflects the frequent use of "flesh" in the Old Testament to denote human "nothingness" in the eyes of God. We read in Job 34:14-15: "If he [God] should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, all flesh [bashar] would perish together, and man would return to dust." Because human beings are flesh (weak and frail), God remembers them: "He [God], being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, . . . He remembered that they were but flesh [bashar], a wind that passes and comes not again" (Ps 78:38-39).

In relationship to God, man is flesh, a creature dependent upon Him for continued existence. "All flesh [bashar] is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field" (Is 40:6). Because human beings are flesh, they are powerless before God. "In God I trust without fear. What can flesh [bashar] do to me?" (Ps 56:4; cf. Is 31:3). Consequently, it is imperative for human beings to trust in God and not in their "flesh" (human resources). "Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh [bashar] his arm" (Jer 17:5). In this text, "flesh–bashar" denotes human opposition to God. The flesh is not intrinsically ethically evil. It may be weak, but not inherently sinful per se. When a "heart of stone" is turned into a "heart of flesh," it becomes a heart that obeys God (Ez 11:19). Because of its natural endowments, the flesh can become proud, self-deceptive, and, consequently antagonistic to God. The latter meaning carries over in the New Testament where Paul develops it more than the others.

Conclusion. Our study of the meaning and use of "flesh-bashar" in the Old Testament shows that the word generally is used to describe the concrete reality of human existence from the perspective of its frailty and feebleness. Contrary to classical dualism, the flesh and the soul never are seen as two different forms of existence. Rather, they are manifestations of the same person and, consequently, they often are used interchangeably. A good example is Psalm 84:2, where the soul, the heart, and flesh all express the same longing for God: "My soul longs, yea, faints for the court of the Lord; my heart and flesh [bashar] sing for joy to the living God." In the Old Testament view of human nature there is nothing that is merely physical. Any physical part of the human body can express psychical functions as well.

The wholistic view of human nature made it possible for the Bible writers to see the body and the soul as expressions of the same organism. Pedersen rightly notes that "the proposition that the soul is flesh, is indissolubly connected with the converse, i. e., that the flesh is soul."47 The two are indissolubly connected because the body is the outward form of the soul and the soul the inward life of the body.


In the Biblical view of human nature, the heart is the central and unifying organ of personal life. The Hebrew words translated "heart" are leb and lebab, which are found together 858 times.48 This makes the heart the most common of all the terms used to describe human nature. Walther Eichrodt notes that "there is hardly a spiritual process which could not be brought into some connection with the heart. It is made the organ equally of feeling, intellectual activities, and the working of the will."49

The heart in Biblical thought is the spring of individual life, the ultimate source of the physical, intellectual, emotional, and volitional energies, and, consequently, the part of the person that normally has contact with God. In the recesses of the heart are the thoughts, the attitudes, the fears, and the hopes which determine the personality or character of the individual. Many of the functions of the heart correspond to the functions of the soul. This is because in the Biblical view of human nature, no radical distinction exists among the various aspects of the individual.

The Heart as the Seat of Emotions. All the emotions of which a person is capable are attributed to the heart. "The heart can be glad (Prov 27:11; Acts 14:17), sad (Neh 2:2), troubled (2 Kings 6:11, KJV), courageous (2 Sam 17:10), discouraged (Num 32:7), fearful (Is 35:4), envious (Prov 23:17), trustful (Prov 31:11), generous (2 Chron 29:31), moved by hatred (Lev 19:17) or love (Deut 13:3)."50

The emotions of the heart are portrayed vividly and concretely. The heart is said to fail (Gen 42:28), to faint (Gen 45:26), to throb (Ps 38:10), to tremble (1 Sam 28:5), to be stirred up (Prov 23:17; Deut 19:6), to be sick (Prov 13:12). The state of the heart dominates every manifestation of life. "A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken" (Prov 15:13). Even health is affected by the condition of the heart. "A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones" (Prov 17:22).

The Inner Parts as the Seat of Emotions. For the sake of clarity, we must add that the seat of emotions is found not only in the heart but also in the inner parts of the human body, referred to in Hebrew by the term qereb, "bowels." What is striking is that the Old Testament views some of the inner parts of the body as the location or source of the higher human capacities. As Hans Walter Wolff observes, "The inner parts of the body and its organs are at the same time the bearer of man’s spiritual and ethical impulses."51

A few examples will serve to illustrate this point. Jeremiah asks the people of Jerusalem: "How long shall your evil thoughts lodge within you [qereb–bowels]?" (Jer 4:14). Here the "bowels" are the location of evil thoughts. Proverbs 23:16 pledges: "My reins [kelayot–kidneys] shall rejoice, when thy lips speak right things." The Psalmist thanks God for counseling him and because "my reins [kelayot–kidneys] also instruct me in the night seasons" (Ps 15:7).

Elsewhere, the Psalmist associates the kidneys with the heart as the most sensitive organs: "Then my heart was grieved, and I was pricked in my reins [kelayot–kidneys]" (Ps 73:21). Here the kidneys function as the conscience of the individual. The liver, too, can serve to express deep grief. Jeremiah laments: "My eyes do fail with tears, my bowels are troubled, my liver [kabed] is poured upon the earth, for the destruction of the daughter of my people" (Lam 2:11). This brief digression into the inner parts of the body was intended to show that these can sometimes function as the seat of emotions, in the same way as the heart. This is possible because in Biblical wholistic thought a part of the person can sometimes represent the whole organism.

The Heart as the Seat of the Intellect. In the greatest number of cases, the heart in the Bible denotes the center of intellectual life, precisely what we ascribe to the head or the brain. Contrary to our Western culture where the heart is associated primarily with emotions and feelings, in the Bible the heart is the reasoning center of the person that determines what the person is: "For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he" (Prov 23:7, KJV).

Proverbs 15:14 describes the essential function of the heart in the Biblical sense: "The heart of him that hath understanding seeketh knowledge" (KJV). The heart seeks knowledge not merely for the sake of knowledge but to enable the individual to make moral, responsible decisions. It is highly significant that the term "heart–leb" occurs by far the most frequently in the wisdom literature (99 times in Proverbs alone, 42 times in Ecclesiastes, and 51 times in the strongly didactic book of Deuteronomy).52

Solomon’s great wisdom consisted in the fact that he asked not for long life or riches, but for an understanding heart: "Give thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people?" (1 King 3:9). The understanding heart Solomon asked for is what we would call a discerning mind. Because of its concrete character, the Hebrew language can hardly express the idea "to think," except by the phrase "to say in the heart" (Gen 27:41; Ps 10:6). It is with the heart that a person plans (Prov 16:9, KJV), seeks knowledge, understands (Eccl 8:16), and meditates on the deep things of life (Ps 4:4).

Being the center of reason, the heart is also the center of the will and hence of the moral life. The heart can plan wicked things (Prov 6:18) and become perverted (Prov 11:20). It may be lifted up with pride (Deut 8:14),become hardened (Zech 7:12), be stubborn (Jer 3:17), or turned away from God (1 Kings 11:2). On the other hand, the good heart is perfect (1 Kings 8:61), or blameless (Ps 119:80), clean (Ps 51:10), and upright (Ps 32:11). The heart can be cleansed (Ps 73:13) or renewed (Ez 18:31). A new heart makes it possible to internalize the will of God as revealed in His law (Ez 11:19; 36:26).

The Heart Communicates with God. As the reasoning center of the human personality, the heart is capable of communicating with God. The heart speaks to God (Ps 27:8), receives His word (Deut 30:14), and trusts in Him (Ps 28:7). God can give man an understanding heart (1 Kings 3:9) or take all understanding away (Job 12:24). For His mysterious purposes, God can harden the heart (Ex 4:21) or can soften it (Ezra 6:22).

Since as a result of the Fall, the heart is inclined to evil, the transformation of the heart occurs by divine grace. God promises to write His law in human hearts (Jer 31:33) and to create a new heart in human beings (Ps 51:10). He will take away the hardened heart and replace it with a receptive heart (Ez 36:26). In the New Testament we are told that God has poured out His love in human hearts (Rom 5:5). Christ dwells in the human heart (Eph 3:17) and His peace reigns there (Col 3:15).

Conclusion. This brief survey of the functions of the heart in the Old Testament shows that the heart is the center and source of all religious, intellectual, and moral activities. More than any other Old Testament term, the heart stands for the deepest center of human existence, for what a person really is in the depth of his being. As stated in 1 Samuel 16:7: "Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."

In many ways, the heart is the unifying center of the whole person, body and soul. Some of the functions of the heart overlap with those of the soul, but this is not surprising because from the Biblical wholistic perspective, there is no radical distinction between the soul and the heart. Jesus said: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Mat 22:37).

"The heart," writes Pedersen, "is the totality of the soul as a character and operating power . . . nephesh is the soul in the sum of its totality, such as it appears; the heart is the soul in its inner value."53 What is said about the soul often can be applied to the heart. The functional unity we have found among body, soul, and heart negates the dualistic view of human nature, which detaches the soul from the body. The fact that the spiritual and moral functions of human nature, which dualists view as a prerogative of the soul, are most often attributed to the heart, shows that in the Bible the soul does not exist and function as a distinct, immaterial essence apart from the body.


So far, we have seen that the Old Testament defines human nature as a unity, man, who is soul (living being) from one aspect, flesh (physical being) from another aspect, and heart (rational being) from yet another aspect. There is one more important aspect to be considered, namely, man as spirit. The term "spirit" translates the Hebrew ruach and its New Testament equivalent pneuma. We study the latter in chapter 3 where we examine the New Testament view of human nature.

The study of the presence of God’s Spirit in human beings is important because dualists often identify God’s Spirit in a person with the soul given by God to each individual and returning to Him at death. Thus, our concern is to establish, first, the nature of God’s Spirit in a person. Second, whether the spirit in human beings is a distinct and separate component of human nature or an indivisible aspect of it.

A mere glance at the statistical use of the term "spirit–ruach" in the Old Testament shows that there are at least two unique things about this term that occurs a total of 389 times. First, no less than 113 times ruach–spirit denotes the natural power of the wind. Thus, it is a term associated with the manifestation of power. Second, 35 per cent of the times (136 times) ruach–Spirit refers to God. Only 33 per cent of the times (129) does it refer to men, animals, and false gods. This is surprising in view of the fact that "flesh–bashar" is never applied to God, and "soul–nephesh" only is applied to God in 3 per cent of the cases (21 times).54

On the basis of this statistical data, Hans Walter Wolff rightly concludes that "ruach [spirit] must from the very beginning properly be called a theo-anthropological term,"55 that is to say, a term with divine-human connotations. The Bible applies ruach–spirit to both God and man. It speaks of the Spirit of God and the spirit of man. To understand the Biblical concept of man’s spirit, it is important to understand the Biblical meaning of God’s Spirit. We shall endeavor to do this by examining especially how God’s Spirit works within human nature.

The Meaning of "Spirit–Ruach." The Hebrew term generally translated "spirit" is ruach, which literally means "air in motion, wind." Thus in Genesis 1:2, the Spirit–ruach of God moves over the waters and in Isaiah 7:2, "the trees of the forest shake before the wind [ruach]." Wolff points out that ruach does not mean static air but "moving air"56 that generates considerable power. It is not surprising that the formidable power of the wind [ruach] is often seen as a manifestation of the power of God. The east wind [ruach] brings locusts (Ex 10:13). A powerful wind [ruach] dries up the Red Sea (Ex 14:21). A strong wind [ruach] blows over the earth and causes the flood waters to subside (Gen 8:1).

The power manifested by the wind is associated in Scripture with the breath of God, which is His creative and sustaining power. We encounter this usage for the first time in Genesis 2:7: "Then the Lord formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath [neshamah] of life, and man became a living soul."

Earlier we examined this great text to ascertain the connection between "breath of life" and "living soul." Now we seek to understand more fully what "the breath of life" is that caused man to become a living soul. The Hebrew word used for breath here is not ruach–spirit but the rarely used neshamah–breath. The meaning of the two terms is similar, as indicated by the fact that they appear in parallell in five passages (Is 42:5; Job 27:3; 32:8; 33:4; 34:14,15). Job 33:4 says: "The spirit [ruach] of God has made me, and the breath [neshamah] of the Almighty gives me life." Again, "If he should take back his spirit [ruach] to himself, and gather to himself his breath [neshamah], all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust" (Job 34:14-15).

In these verses, neshamah and ruach are used as synonyms, yet there appears to be a slight difference between the two terms. Neshamah denotes calm, peaceful, physical breathing, while ruach describes a more active and dynamic form of breathing. Ruach appears also to be the agent that makes breathing possible. "As long as my breath [neshamah] is in me, and the spirit [ruach] of God is in my nostrils . . ." (Job 27:3). Here the breath–neshamah is in the person, while the spirit–ruach is in the breathing through the nostrils. "Thus says God, the Lord, . . . who gives breath [neshamah] to the people upon it, and spirit [ruach] to those who walk in it." (Is 42:5). Here spirit–ruach means more than breathing because it is given only to "those who walk in it." It would seem that the breath–neshamah is one of the manifestations of God’s Spirit–ruach. The latter has broader meanings and functions. One of the functions of God’s Spirit is to give and sustain life through the breathing process. "Man’s vital breath is God’s gift; he breathes by courtesy of God’s Spirit."57

It is interesting to note that the marginal reading of Genesis 7:22 in the Authorized Version translates "the breath of life" as "the breath of the spirit of life." This literal translation of the Hebrew conveys the idea that the breath of life [neshamah] derives from the Spirit [ruach] which gives life. Commenting on this text, Basil Atkinson writes: "The neshamah [breath] seems to be a property or portion of the ruach [Spirit] and to be concerned with what we today would call the physical life. The ruach which is also a principle of life is much wider. It produces and sustains the inner as well as the outer life of man, his intellect, abstract thoughts, emotions and desires as well as covering the whole action of the neshamah on the physical life."58

The Spirit as Life Principle. The parallel use of neshamah–breath of life and ruach-Spirit in the cited texts shows that the "breath of life" is the life-giving Spirit of God manifested in the creation of human life and of the universe as a whole. "O Lord how manifold are thy works! . . . the earth is full of thy creatures. . . . When thou hidest thy face, they are dismayed; when thou takest away their breath [ruach], they die and return to their dust. When thou sendest forth thy Spirit [ruach], they are created, and thou renewest the face of the ground" (Ps 104:24, 29-30). "Breath" and "Spirit" here translate ruach, thus indicating that the "breath of life" is equated with the life-giving Spirit of God who creates and renews "the face of the ground."

There are numerous texts in the Old Testament in which the spirit–ruach refers to the life principle present in human beings. In Isaiah 38:16, we find Hezekiah saying, "In all these things [that is, in the mercies of God] is the life of my spirit [ruach]." The phrase "the life of my spirit" most likely refers to Hezekiah’s recovery of his health, since the text continues, saying: "Oh, restore me to health and make me live!" (Is 38:16). Here the spirit–ruach is clearly identified with life. There is no suggestion that the spirit in man is an independent and immortal component of human nature. Rather, it is the animating principle of life visible through the breathing.

Idols which have no life are described as without "breath-ruach." "Every goldsmith is put to shame by his idols; for his images are false, and there is no breath [ruach] in them" (Jer 10:14). "Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath [ruach] at all in it" (Hab 2:19). In both texts, ruach is translated "breath" because breathing is a manifestation of God’s Spirit in human nature. It is evident that idols are lifeless because they are without ruach, the animating principle of life that enables a person to breathe.

In describing the fate of King Zedekiah at the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, Jeremiah uses an interesting and intelligible figure of speech: "The breath [ruach] of our nostrils, the Lord’s anointed, was taken in their [Babylonian] pits" (Lam 4:20). Here Zedekiah is thought of as the very life–ruach of the nation that was taken away when the king was led into captivity. We have here a clear example of ruach denoting the principle of life.

Speaking of Samson, Judges 15:19 says: "When he had drunk, his spirit [ruach] returned, and he revived" (Jud 15:19). This revival is not from death but from exhaustion. We find exactly the same use in 1 Samuel 30:12 and Daniel 10:17. In all these instances, the spirit-ruach denotes the physical renewal of life. Being the life-giving agent, the spirit-ruach fittingly can represent also the physical renewal of life. The connection between spirit–ruach and life is evident.

In his famous vision of the valley of dry bones, Ezekiel provides a most vivid example of the vivifying power of God’s Spirit–ruach: "Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath [ruach] to enter you, and you shall live . . . and you shall know that I am the Lord . . . ‘Come from the four winds, O breath [ruach], and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath [ruach] came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet" (Ezek 37:5, 6, 9-10). Here the breath of God is His life-giving Spirit, as in the creation of man. The life-giving Spirit is identified with God’s breath because its manifestation caused dead bodies to come alive and breathe again. Breathing is a tangible manifestation of life and thus it provides a fitting metaphor for the animating life principle of the spirit.

The Spirit as God’s Word. In Psalm 33:6 we find an interesting parallelism between God’s breath and His Word: "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath [ruach] of his mouth." Here God’s breath–ruach acts as a synonym for God’s Word, because both proceed from His mouth. The parallelism suggests that God’s breath is more than moving air. It is the creative power of life manifested through the spoken word of God.

Another example in which God’s word is associated with ruach–spirit is found in Psalm 147:18: "He sends forth his word, and melts them [the frozen waters]; he makes his wind [ruach] blow, and the waters flow." Here God’s word is associated with ruach–breath or wind, presumably because speech is produced by breathing and proceeds from the mouth. God is described analogically in accordance with the human process of speaking through breathing.

We must never forget that the Hebrews described things as they saw them, concretely and not abstractly. They saw that speech was caused by breathing, so it was natural for them to associate God’s breath with His word. Thus, God’s breath should be understood not as moving air, but as the life-giving power manifested through His spoken word. When God speaks, things happen, because His word is not empty speech, but life-giving power.

The Spirit as Moral Renewal. The renewal or re-creation accomplished by God’s Spirit is not only physical but also moral. David prayed: "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit [ruach] within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit [ruach] from me" (Ps 51:10-11). The "new and right spirit [ruach]" is a person’s right disposition toward God which is made possible by God’s "holy Spirit–[ruach]." Thus the spirit–ruach is both God’s Spirit and man’s spirit. God gives the Spirit to create and sustain life. Man receives the Spirit to live in accordance with God’s will. Friedrich Baumgartel writes: "The Spirit of God is a creative, transforming power, and its purpose is to create a sphere of religion and morals."59

In Ezekiel we find the spirit–ruach used three times for the new regenerate principle of life that God places within the believer when he is converted (Ez 11:19; 18:31; 36:26). "A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit [ruach] I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh" (Ez 36:26). Here the "new spirit–ruach" is associated with "a new heart," because we have found that the heart is the mind, or reasoning center of the individual. The "new spirit–ruach" is an attitude of willing obedience to God’s commandments that comes from a renewal of the mind (Rom 12:2). This meaning is clarified by the very next verse: "And I will put my spirit [ruach] within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances" (Ez 36:27). It is through the enabling power of God’s Spirit that our mind is renewed, so that we can live in accordance with the moral principles God has revealed for our well-being.

The Spirit as God’s Enabling Power. The Spirit of God is manifested not only in creating and sustaining life, but also in equipping individuals for specific tasks. When God commissioned Gideon to deliver the Israelites from the tyranny of Midian, "The Spirit [ruach] of the Lord took possession of Gideon. . . ." (Jud 6:34) and enabled him to lead the Israelites to victory. It was the Spirit of the Lord that equipped Gideon for the task, because he questioned his own qualifications: "Pray, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family" (Jud 6:15).

The same thing happened to Jephthah: "The Spirit [ruach] of the Lord came upon Jephthah. . . . Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight them, and the Lord gave them into his hand" (Jud 11:29, 32). In such instances God’s Spirit enabled certain Israelite leaders to perform superhuman deeds at critical moments.

God’s Spirit was also given to national leaders to carry out God’s plan for Israel. When the "Spirit of the Lord" came upon Saul, he was "turned into another man" (1 Sam 10:6). Similarly, when Samuel anointed David to succeed Saul as king, "the Spirit [ruach] of the Lord came upon David from that day forward" (1 Sam 16:13). Note that when David was anointed king, "the Spirit [ruach] of the Lord departed from Saul" (1 Sam 16:14). The Spirit that departed from Saul could hardly have been his soul that went up to God, since he was still alive. The withdrawal of the Spirit disqualified Saul as king of Israel, while the giving of God’s Spirit to David qualified him to rule over the people.

It is evident that the Spirit God gave to Gideon and Jephthah to judge and to David to rule, is not the same the same "breath of life" that is present in every human being. The latter is the principle of life that animates every human being, while the former is God’s Spirit given to chosen individuals to equip them for a special mission. In the case of Bezazel, for example, God’s Spirit equipped him with special skills for the building of the sanctuary. "I have filled him with the Spirit [ruach] of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for the work of every craft" (Ex 31:3-4).

God’s Spirit commissioned prophets to communicate special messages to the people. Ezekiel says: "When he spoke to me, the Spirit [ruach] entered into me and set me upon my feet; and I heard him speaking to me" (Ez 2:2). Repeatedly, the prophets say that the Spirit of the Lord came upon them. Zechariah speaks of "the law and the words which the Lord of hosts had sent by his Spirit [ruach] through the former prophets" (Zech 7:12).

The giving of God’s Spirit is seen as an official divine commissioning. In Isaiah 61, the Servant of the Lord, the Messiah, is anointed by the Spirit for His mission: "The Spirit [ruach] of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound" (Is 61:1). Joel prophesied of the messianic time when God’s Spirit would be poured out on every believer: "And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit [ruach] on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions" (Joel 2:28). In these instances, God’s Spirit functions not as the animating principle of physical life, but as the Agent that equips believers for service.

The Spirit as the Disposition of an Individual. The idea of power manifested by the spirit–ruach is carried over into what we would call the disposition or dominant impulse of an individual. A living person has drives or impulses that dominate him, or at least try to, and which he must overcome. This is often expressed in the Old Testament by the term spirit–ruach, and characterizes the human spirit often antagonistic to God. Hosea complains that "a spirit [ruach] of harlotry" has led the priests astray (Hos 4:12). Ezekiel denounced "the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit [ruach] and have seen nothing" (Ez 13:3). Psalm 78:8 speaks of the wilderness generation "whose spirit [ruach] was not faithful to God." Proverbs 25:28 compares a man who cannot "rule over his own spirit [ruach]" to a city without walls. Ecclesiastes says that "the patient in spirit [ruach] is better than the proud in spirit [ruach]." In all these instances, the spirit denotes an attitude of obedience or disobedience to God. Thus, it is not to be confused with the life-giving function of God’s Spirit.

Sometimes the spirit-ruach is the seat of grief, generally referred to in Hebrew as "bitterness of spirit." We are told that the people of Israel "did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit [ruach] and their cruel bondage" (Ex 6:9). Hannah told the priest, "I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit [ruach]: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have poured out my soul before God" (1 Sam 1:15, KJV). Here the sorrowful spirit is compared to the emptying of the soul before God.

The spirit and the soul are mentioned together because both represent the vitality of life affected by sorrow. In Proverbs 15:13, we read that "by sorrow of the heart the spirit [ruach] is broken." Here we find that the heart is the seat of sorrow, but the sorrow breaks the spirit or the inner life of a person. The interaction between spirit and soul, or heart and spirit, reminds us of the Biblical wholistic view of human nature, its various aspects all being part of the one, indivisible human being.

There are instances in which spirit–ruach is the seat of emotions. Proverbs 16:32 says: "He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit [ruach] than he who takes a city." To rule one’s spirit means to control one’s temper or anger. In several instances, ruach is translated as "anger" (Jud 8:3; Ez 3:14; Prov 14:29; 16:32; Ecc 7:9; 10:4). In other texts, ruach denotes courage: "And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage [ruach] left in any man, because of you [the people of Israel]" (Jos 2:11).

There are also passages in which spirit–ruach is used with the meaning of sadness: "For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit [ruach]" (Is 54:6). "The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit [ruach]" (Ps 34:18).60 Spirit–ruach can also denote contrition and humility. Thus, we have the beautiful passage in Isaiah 57:15: "I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit [ruach], to revive the spirit [ruach] of the humble." Again in Isaiah 66:2: "But this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit [ruach]."

This brief survey of the various usages of spirit–ruach in the Old Testament has shown that the spirit is a life principle deriving from God and maintaining human life. In a figurative way, the spirit–ruach is used to refer to the inner moral renewal, good and evil dispositions, dominant impulses, grief, courage, sadness, contrition, and humility. None of the usages we have studied suggests that the spirit retains consciousness or personality when it leaves a person at death. The function of the spirit as a life-giving and sustaining principle ceases when the person dies.

The Departure of the Spirit at Death. Eleven passages in the Old Testament speak of the departure or removal of the spirit at death.61 Of these, four deserve special attention because they are often used to support the belief that at death the spirit goes to God, bearing with it the personality and consciousness of the individual who passed away.

In foreshadowing the Lord’s death on the Cross, Psalm 31:5 says: "Into thy hand I commit my spirit [ruach]." The "spirit" that Christ committed into the hands of His Father was nothing else than His human life which He was leaving in the hands of His Father to await its resurrection. As the animating principle of His life left Him, the Lord died and sank into unconsciousness.

Speaking of marine creatures, the Psalmist says: "When thou takest away their breath [ruach] they die and return to their dust" (Ps 104:29). No one will argue that the spirit–ruach that God takes away from the fish at death carries consciousness and personality. We have reason to believe that the same is true for human beings, because the same expression is used for both. In fact, in the following verse, the creation of animals is described by means of God’s life-giving Spirit, as is the creation of man: "When thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created" (Ps 104:30).

As the creation of life is metaphorically represented by the sending forth of God’s Spirit, so the termination of life, death, is described as the withdrawal or removal of God’s breath. The latter is clearly expressed in Job 34:14-15: "If he should take back his spirit [ruach] to himself, and gather to himself his breath [neshamah], all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust." Again, the same thought is expressed in the well-known passage of Ecclesiastes 12:7: "The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit [ruach] returns to God who gave it."

These last two texts are very important, because they are commonly quoted to support the belief that the "spirit–ruach" that returns to God is the soul that leaves the body at death carrying consciousness and personality. This interpretation lacks Biblical support for four major reasons. First, nowhere in the Bible is God’s breath or Spirit identified with the human soul. The existence of the soul depends upon the presence of God’s life-giving breath [neshamah] or spirit [ruach]. And when the life-giving spirit is withdrawn, a person ceases to be a living soul and becomes a dead soul. Thus the Psalmist says, "His breath [ruach] goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that day his thoughts perish" (Ps 146:4, KJV).

Second, nowhere does the Bible suggest that the life-giving spirit that returns to God continues to exist as the immaterial soul of the body that has died. On the contrary, the Bible teaches that when God withdraws his breath of life or spirit of life, the outcome is not the survival of the soul, but the death of the total person. "His thoughts perish" (Ps 146:4), because there is no more consciousness. Death applies to both the body and the soul, because, as we have seen, the two are inseparable. The body is the outward form of the soul and the soul is the inner form of the body.

Third, the spirit that returns to God refers to all men ("all flesh"), not only to the godly. Those who argue that the spirit of all people, saved and unsaved, go to God for judgment ignore that Scriptures clearly teache that the judgment takes place not at death, but at the coming of the Lord at the end of the world.

Fourth, the Bible never suggests that the breath of life makes its possessor deathless or immortal. In not one of the 389 instances of the use of ruach–spirit in the Old Testament is there any suggestion that ruach–spirit is the intelligent entity of human nature capable of existence apart from a physical body. On the contrary, the Bible speaks of the death of those who possess the breath of life: "For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath [ruach] of life; everything that is on the earth shall die [gava–cease to breathe]" (Gen 6:17). "And all flesh died that moved upon the earth . . . everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath [ruach] of life died [gava–cease to breathe]" (Gen 7:21-22).

It is evident from texts such as these that to possess the breath or the spirit of life does not mean to have an immortal soul. The breath of life is simply the gift of life given to human beings and animals for the duration of their earthly existence. The spirit or the breath of life that returns to God at death is simply the life principle imparted by God to both human beings and animals. This point is clearly made in Ecclesiastes 3:19: "For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath [ruach], and man has no advantage over the beasts." Those who argue that the animals do not have the spirit (ruach) of life but only the breath (neshamah) of life, ignore the point that both Ecclesiastes 3:21 and Genesis 7:15, 22 plainly state that animals possess the same spirit–ruach of life given to human beings.

There is no indication in the Bible that the spirit of life given to man at creation was a conscious entity before it was given. This gives us reason to believe that the spirit of life has no conscious personality when it returns to God. The spirit that returns to God is simply the animating life principle imparted by God to both human beings and animals for the duration of their earthly existence.

Conclusion. We have come to the end of our survey of four prominent terms used in the Old Testament to describe human nature, namely, soul, body, heart, and spirit. We have found that these terms represent not different entities, each with its own set of functions, but rather different functions that are interrelated and integrated within the same organism. The Old Testament views human nature as a unity, not a dichotomy. There is no contrast between the body and the soul, such as these terms may suggest to us.

The soul is not an immaterial, immortal part of human nature standing over against the body, but designates the vitality or life principle in human nature. The latter is composed of a form consisting of dust and a vital principle, called occasionally breath (neshamah) and usually spirit (ruach), breathed into him by God. The body and the divine breath together make the vital, active soul–nephesh. The seat of the soul is the blood, because it is seen as the tangible manifestation of the vitality of life.

From the principle of life the term "soul–nephesh" is extended to include the feeling, passions, will, and the personality of an individual. It then came to be used as a synonym for man himself. People are numbered as souls (Gen 12:5; 46:27). Death affects the soul–nephesh (Num 23:10) as well as the body.

The spirit–ruach, which literally means "air in motion, wind," is often used of God. God’s spirit–ruach is His breath, that is, His power manifested in creating and sustaining life (Ps 33:6; 104:29-30). The human breath–ruach comes from God’s breath–ruach (Is 42:5; Job 27:3). In a figurative sense, the spirit–ruach is expanded to refer to the inner moral renewal, good and evil dispositions, emotional and volitional life, thus overlapping somewhat with the soul–nephesh. The difference between the soul–nephesh and spirit–ruach is that the former designates mostly a living person in relationship to other human beings, while the latter refers to a person in relationship to God. However, we have found that neither the soul nor the spirit is considered as a part of human nature capable of surviving the death of the body.

The Old Testament references to the flesh or the body never suggest that bodily funtions are purely biological and independent of the psychological functions of the soul. There is no distinction in the Old Testament between physical and spiritual organs, because the entire roster of higher human functions such as feeling, thinking, knowing, loving, keeping God’s commandments, praising, and praying are equally attributed to the "spiritual" organs of the soul (or spirit) and to the "physical" organ of the heart and, occasionally, to the kidneys and viscera.

Bodily organs perform psychical functions. Thus the heart thinks, the kidneys rejoice, the liver grieves, and the bowels feel sympathy. This is possible because of the wholistic view of human nature where a part of the person can sometimes represent the whole organism.

The references to the departure (Gen 35:18) and return (1 King 17:21-22) of the soul cannot be legitimately used to support the view that at death the soul leaves the body and returns to it at the resurrection. We have found that the departure of soul is a metaphor for death, indicating that the person has ceased to breathe. Similarly, the return of the soul is a metaphor for the restoration of life, indicating that the person has started breathing again. What is true of the soul is also true of the breath of life or spirit that returns to God at death. What returns to God is not an immortal soul, but simply the animating principle of life imparted by God to both human beings and animals for the duration of this earthly existence.

Ralph Walter Doermann essentially comes to the same conclusion in his doctoral dissertation "Sheol in the Old Testament," presented in 1961 at Duke University. He wrote: "It is evident from the Hebrew view of the psychosomatic unity of man that there is little room for a belief in the ‘immortality of the soul.’ Either the whole person lived or the whole person went down to death, the weakest form of life. There was no independent existence for the ruach [spirit] or the nephesh [soul] apart from the body. With the death of the body, the impersonal ruach [spirit] ‘returned to God who gave it’ (Eccl 12:7) and the nephest was destroyed, though it was present in a very weak sense in the bones and the blood. When these were buried or covered over, the little vitality that remained was nullified."63

Summing up our conclusion, we can say that the Old Testament wholistic view of human nature rules out the distinction between body and soul as two completely different realms of reality. Furthermore, it removes the basis for the belief in the survival of the soul at the death of the body. Our next step is to establish whether the New Testament supports or modifies the Old Testament wholistic view of human nature. This question is addressed in the following chapter.


1. P. E. Hughes, Hope for a Despairing World (Grand Rapids, 1997), p. 50.

2. For a survey of the various interpretations of the image of God in man, see H. D. McDonald, The Christian View of Man (Westchester, Illinois, 1981), pp. 33-41.

3. For example, C. Ryder Smith asserts that both the Hebrew words and their Greek equivalents suggest a physical resemblance between God and man (The Bible Doctrine of Man [London, 1951], pp. 29-30). Similarly, H. Gunkel appeals to the stark anthropomorphic way in which God is described in the Old Testament (The Legend of Genesis [Chicago, 1901], pp. 8-10).

4. R. Laird-Harris, Man—God’s Eternal Creation: A Study of Old Testament Culture (Chicago, 1971), p. 24.

5. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion I, XV, 3 (London, 1949), Vol. 1, pp. 162, 165.

6. This view is expressed by Paul Jewett, who follows Karl Barth in regarding the image of God in man as precisely that of male and female. He declares: "Genesis 1:27b (‘male and female created he them’) is an exposition of 1:27a (‘in the image of God created he him’)" (Man: Male and Female [Grand Rapids, 1975], p. 33).

7. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1974 ed., s.v. "Soul."

8. Claude Tresmontant, A Study in Hebrew Thought (New York, 1960), p. 94. This is a highly recommended book on the difference between Greek and Hebrew thought.

9. Aubrey Johnson, The Vitality of the Individual in the Thought of Ancient Israel (Cardiff, Wales, 1964), p. 19.

10. Johannes Pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture (London, 1926), Vol. 1, p. 99.

11. Ibid., pp. 99-100.

12. Hans Walter Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament (Philadelphia, 1974), p. 10.

13. Dom Wulstan Mork, The Biblical Meaning of Man (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1967), p. 34.

14. Johannes Pedersen (note 10), p. 171.

15. H. Wheeler Robinson, The Christian Doctrine of Man (Edinburg, 1952), p. 27.

16. Dom Wulstan Mork (note 13), p. 34.

17. Norman Snaith, "Justice and Immortality," Scottish Journal of Theology 17, 3, (September 1964), pp. 312-313.

18. Basil F. C. Atkinson, Life and Immortality (London, n. d.), pp.1-2.

19. Ibid., p. 2.

20. Ibid.

21. Tory Hoff, "Nephesh and the Fulfillment It Receives as Psyche," in Toward a Biblical View of Man: Some Readings, eds. Arnold H. De Graaff and James H. Olthuis (Toronto, 1978), p. 103.

22. Basil F. C. Atkinson (note 18), p. 17.

23. The tabulation is from Basil F. C. Atkinson (note 18), p. 3.

24. Hans Walter Wolff (note 12), p. 10.

25. Tory Hoff (note 21), p. 98.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid.

28. Hans Walter Wolff (note 12), p. 25.

29. Dom Wulstan Mork (note 13), p. 40.

30. Ibid.

31. W. David Stacey, The Pauline View of Man (London, 1956), p. 87.

32. Dom Wulstan Mork (note 13), p. 41.

33. Johannes Pedersen (note 10), p. 179.

34. Ibid., p. 180.

35. Edmund Jacob, "Nephesh," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, 1974), Vol. 9, p. 621.

36. Johannes Pedersen (note 10), p. 171.

37. Robert A. Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Minneapolis, 1984), p. 49.

38. Hans Walter Wolff (note 12), p. 20.

39. Edmund Jacob (note 35), p. 619.

40. Tory Hoff (note 21), p. 101.

41. Edmund Jacob (note 35), p. 618.

42. Basil F. C. Atkinson (note 18), p. 10.

43. The monastic rules clearly reveal how important it was to mortify the flesh by providing the body only with what was indispensable for survival, in order to cultivate the well-being of the soul. The Benedictine rule, for example, makes allowance for the use of baths to the sick, but restricts them to the healthy: "The use of baths shall be offered to the sick as often as necessary: to the healthy, and especially to youths, more rarely" (Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church [Oxford, 1967], p. 121).

44. D. R. G. Owen, Body and Soul (Philadelphia, 1956), p. 167.

45. Ibid., p. 169.

46. Hans Walter Wolff (note 12), pp. 26-31.

47. Johannes Pedersen (note 10), p. 178.

48. The tabulation is from Hans Walter Wolff (note 24), p. 40.

49. Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament (Philadelphia, 1967), Vol. 2, p. 143.

50. R. C. Dentan, "Heart," The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, 1962), Vol. 2, p. 549.

51. Hans Walter Wolff (note 24), p. 66.

52. The tabulation is from Hans Walter Wolff (note 24), p. 40.

53. Johannes Pedersen (note 10), p. 104.

54. The tabulation is from Hans Walter Wolff (note 24), p. 32.

55. Ibid.

56. Ibid.

57. Dom Wulstan Mork (note 13), p. 73.

58. Basil F. C. Atkinson (note 18), p. 18.

59. Friedrich Baumgartel, "Spirit of God," Bible Key Words (New York, 1961), p. 1.

60. See also Ez 21:12; Ex 6:9; Is 61:3; 65:14; Dan 7:15.

61. The Old Testament references to the departure or removal of the spirit at death are: Ps 31:5; 76:12; 104:29-30; 146:4; Job 34:14-15; Ecc 3:19-21; 8:8; 12:7.

63. Ralph Walter Doermann, "Sheol in the Old Testament" (Ph. D. dissertation, Duke University, 1961), p. 205.


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