Soul

The Hebrew and Greek words that are translated as ‘soul’ in our Bibles are also translated many times as ‘life’ or ‘person’ or ‘anyone’ or ‘creature’. The word that is used depends very much on the Bible translation. For example, in Leviticus 4:2, the KJV has ’If a soul sin through ignorance against any of the commandments of the LORD …’, while the ESV has ‘If anyone sins unintentionally in any of the LORD’s commandments …’.

In Heberw, the word is nephesh and means a living being. It can also apply to animals. See, for example, Genesis 1:24; 2:19; Lev 11:46.

Sometimes the word ‘soul’ might appear to refer to our inner feelings. For example, in Deuteronomy 6:5, ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.’ However, it is likely that we are reading the idea into the text because of our modern understanding of the English word “soul”. More likely, the Hebrew meant to love God with “mind, body and strength”. (In ancient Hebrew, the heart was the place of thinking.)

Interestingly, the term ‘immortal soul’ does not occur anywhere in the Bible. In fact it says in Ezekiel 18:4 that the soul is mortal — ‘The soul who sins shall die’. Nor does the Bible ever suggest that we have a soul that can exist apart from the body.

Spirit

The words that are translated as ‘spirit’ are also translated many times (in the Old Testament) as breath or wind. For example in Genesis 6:3, the LORD says, ‘My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh’, and in verse 17, ’I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life.’ The same Hebrew word is translated spirit in one case and breath in the other. Such verses are teaching that it is God’s Spirit or breath that keeps us alive. What happens at death is described in Ecclesiastes 12:7 — ‘The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it’.

However, Genesis 2:21-22 says that the animals that died in the flood had possessed the breath of life (or spirit). Similarly, Psalm 104:29-30 is describing God’s relationship with animals and says

When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground. (Ps 104:29-30)

So the same “breath of life” or spirit that keeps us alive, keeps animals alive.

The relationship between soul (or creature) and spirit (or breath of life) is clearly shown in Genesis 2:7

The LORD God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living creature.

Thus the soul is the whole living person or animal, and the spirit is the breath of life that keeps each person or animal alive.

Linguist Dr Joel Hoffman provides a good discussion of the meaning of “soul” and the underlying Greek and Hebrew words on his blog.

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