“O Soulo Mio”: The Term נפש (Nephesh) and Its Significance for the Doctrine of Man

The Hebrew word נפש (nephesh) is important for the Old Testament (and biblical) doctrine of man. The term appears over 750 times in the OT and is translated in the Authorized Version most frequently as “soul,” “life,” “person,” “creature,” or “-self.” It is found in all OT genres (narrative, poetry, prophecy, etc.) and may have either a literal or metaphorical sense.

Old Testament Usage

A nephesh can be living or dead. It can be counted as an individual entity or distinguished from other individual entities. A human being or an animal may be distinguished as a nephesh. When predicated of humans, a nephesh can think, feel, desire, act, and sin. One commonly finds a plea for the deliverance of one’s nephesh from danger or death in the Psalms. Keeping these observations regarding the syntactic and semotactic environment of nephesh in view is essential for establishing a proper semantic value for nephesh and for developing a proper OT anthropology.

The word nephesh is predicated of human beings in primarily two ways. Less commonly, the term refers to the animating principle of a physical entity, that is, “breath” (Gen. 35:19; 1 Kings 17:21; Job 41:13) or the existential quality or state of “life” (Gen. 9:4; 19:17; Lev. 17:11; Deut. 9:23; 1 Sam. 20:1).

More commonly, the term refers to a human being as a unified entity. This includes both the immaterial and also the material dimensions of an entity. Most likely, when Moses describes both man (Gen. 2:7) and animal (Gen. 1:20; 2:19) as a “living nephesh,” he’s referring to the entire entity, not merely to some immaterial aspect. In the Psalms and Proverbs, a nephesh can “wait,” “be afflicted,” “desire,” “despair,” “long for,” “grow weary,” “fear,” “hunger,” “think,” etc., which involve both the physical as well as the spiritual aspects of man (Pss. 33:20; 35:13; 42:1, 6; 84:2; 107:5, 26; Prov. 2:10; 23:2, 7).

In Genesis 46:15-22 and Exodus 12:15, 19, the term nephesh is used for countable entities, that is, individual persons who may be constitute a group of persons or be distinguished from a group of persons. This accounts for passages that employ nephesh as synonymous or in parallel with a personal pronoun. For example, in Numbers 23:10 Balaam the prophet exclaims, “Let me[Hebrew: נפשׁי, “my nephesh“] die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!” (emphasis added) The Psalmist prays, “Oh, guard my soul, and deliver me!” (emphasis added; Ps. 25:20a). Isaiah 46:1-2 provides another interesting example in which the antecedents of nephesh (plural) are false gods:

Bel bows down, Nebo stoops low; their idols are borne by beasts of burden. The images that are carried about are burdensome, a burden for the weary. They stoop and bow down together; unable to rescue the burden, they themselves [literally, “the nepheshes of them”] go off into captivity (NIV; emphasis added).

Interestingly, a number of texts employ the term nephesh for dead corpses, which, in our English idiom, would be equivalent to a “dead person” (Lev. 19:28; 21:1, 11; Num. 5:2; 6:6, 11).

Old Testament Theology

A correct understanding of the meaning(s) of nephesh aids in the exegesis of certain theological passages. For example, when David writes, “For you will not abandon my soul [נפשׁי] to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption,” he’s not making a distinction between his (and Christ’s) immaterial and material aspects. Both the synonymous parallelism and also the common usage of nephesh constrain the reader to interpret the Psalmist as praying for the deliverance of the entire person from the grave. Thus, the believer’s hope is not the deliverance of the soul from the “prison house” of the body. Rather, he hopes ultimately for the deliverance of the whole person, body and soul.

Another important text is found in Isaiah’s prophecy of the Suffering Servant. In verse 10, the prophet informs his audience that Yahweh will appoint the Servant’s “soul” (נפשׁו) to be a guilt offering. Is Isaiah referring exclusively to Christ’s immaterial aspect? Neither the immediate context, nor the larger context of Scripture, nor the common usage of nephesh will allow such a restricted meaning. It was not a part of Christ that would be offered on Calvary. God offered Christ’s total person, body and soul, as a vicarious offering for our sin. Christ’s entire human nature died in order that the believer’s complete human nature might live.

Such an understanding of nephesh does not preclude the real and biblical distinction between material and immaterial aspects of man, that is, body and soul (Matt. 10:28),* or the reality of the intermediate state (Luke 23:43; 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:21; Heb. 12:23; Rev. 3:12, 21; 4:4; 6:9-10; 7:9-17; 19:14; 20:4). It does, however, remind the student of Scripture that man is a psychosomatic unity. And what God has joined together, neither death nor hell can ultimately sunder!

* Isaiah 10:18 may be one of the few instances where nephesh refers more narrowly to the immaterial aspect of man. That text reads, “The glory of his forest and of his fruitful land the LORD will destroy, both soul [מנפשׁ] and body [ועד בשׂר], and it will be as when a sick man wastes away.” But the reader should note two things: first, the passage is using the terms metaphorically. Second, the term nephesh in this context may be rendered “breath” and may serve to indicate total destruction, i.e., “from the animate to the inanimate.”

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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Bert Perry's picture

For the uninitiated, here's Luciano Pavarotti singing "O Sole Mio", a classic song of Naples.

I liked the article, too, but couldn't resist joy over the pun.  Agreed 100% that words for "soul" and "spirit" have a lot of range in the original languages that are not always adequately captured in translation.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

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I'm not sure when I started watching for it, but some time ago, something I read got me to thinking/got me sensitized. And I've since been surprised to see how pervasive the idea of "body = mere container for soul/consciousness/real person" idea is in the West. Maybe it's even more pervasive in the East -- wouldn't know about that.

But the idea comes up in common everyday speech as well as in pop culture in fantasy and sci fi, where a person's essence is often seen as this modular sort of thing that can be transferred to other bodies or sufficiently powerful computers with ease.

So culturally, we really are sort of in love with this kind of Gnostic (or maybe more Platonic) idea that flesh is inferior and real being/essence/soul has the misfortune of being trapped in it for a while.

There is a kernel of truth. We are cursed by the Fall and live in decaying bodies in a somewhat dysfunctional created order. But our being/essence/soul -- whatever you want to call it -- is just as fallen. It's only because of the Spirit that our "inner man is renewed day by day" as Paul put it.

We just tend to oversimplify these realities into "body bad; spirit good." But both await redemption and both are equally important, apparently, to our Creator in His plans. It's an amazing thing.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Aaron,  I agree.  You articulated this truth helpfully.  I now understand that "flesh" in the New Testament does not speak only of the physical body, but often means the "old man", both body and soul in its fallen condition.  When used in this way, it contrasts with "spirit" which is the new man created by regeneration.

G. N. Barkman

josh p's picture

For a helpful additional read in this subject I found Hoekema’s, “Created in God’s Image” to be a big help. 

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