Spirit and Soul, part 1

by William J. Stewart

The Bible uses both the word “spirit” and “soul” when speaking about man. What do these words refer to? Are they synonyms, or does each refer to something distinct?

To answer our questions, there are four words we must concern ourselves with, two which are Hebrew and two which are Greek. They are nephesh and ruach (Hebrew), psuche and pneuma(Greek). This week we will look at the two Hebrew words; next week we will examine the Greek.

Nephesh is primarily translated as “soul”, though certainly not exclusively so. In his booklet Jehvaoh’s Witnesses: Volume 2, Maurice Barnett states of the word nephesh:

It is a general term, meaning several things. It is translated SOUL some 428 times, LIFE 119 times. Besides these it is translated the fllowing in the King James Version; and there are a few others that are not listed here: creature, persons, mind, him, himself, man, lust, heart, any, selves, yourselves, dead body, dead, heart, slay him, mortally, discontented, me, thyself, themselves, ghost, he, will, desire

With such a wide range of possibilities, we must be careful not to settle upon one to the exclusion of the rest. It is essential that we allow context to determine the meaning. Consider a few examples of the usage of nephesh in the Old Testament:

Of Animal Life. “…Let the waters abound with an abundance of living {nephesh} creatures… Let the earth bring forth the living {nephesh} creatures…” (Genesis 1:20, 24).
Of Persons. “…Give me the persons {nephesh}, and take the goods for yourself.” (Genesis 14:21).
Of A Dead Body.
(whenever translated “body”, it is a dead body)
“…he shall not go near a dead body {nephesh}.” (Numbers 6:6).
Distinct From The Body. “…the blood is the life {nephesh}; you may not eat the life {nephesh} with the meat {basar, flesh, body – Strong’s).” (Deuteronomy 12:23).
Distinct From Life. “…would I not know my soul {nephesh}; I would despise my life.” (Job 9:21).
Of The Inner Man. “If it is your wish {nephesh} that I bury my dead…” (Genesis 23:8)
“…for we saw the anguish of his soul {nephesh} when he pleaded with us, and we would not hear…” (Genesis 42:21)
“…their soul (nephesh} abhorred My statutes.” (Leviticus 26:43)
“…the soul {nephesh} of all the people was grieved…” (1 Samuel 30:6).
“…Let her alone; for her soul (nephesh} is in deep distress. (2 Kings 4:27).
“We need to allow the context to determine the meaning of the word.”
Though nephesh is used at times of life and of the body, it would be inappropriate to conclude that it is synonymous with either. In fact, the most common use of the word addresses the inner man, the spirit being whom we are, distinct from our body or the breath of life given by God.

Ruach, like nephesh has a variety of usages in the Hebrew. The most common English words which translate ruach are spirit and breath. Consider how ruach is used:

Of A Wind. “And God made a wind {ruach} to pass over the earth…” (Genesis 8:1).
Of Breath. “…to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath {ruach} of life; everything that is on the earth shall die.” (Genesis 6:17).
Of Life. “Into Your hand I commit my spirit {ruach}…” (Psalm 31:5
“As long as my breath is in me, and the breath {ruach} of God in my nostrils…” (Job 27:3).
Of Non-Fleshly Persons. “…a spirit {ruach} came forward and stood before the LORD… I will go out and be a lying spirit {ruach} in the mouth of his prophets.” (1 Kings 22:21-22).
Distinct From The Flesh. “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit {ruach} will return to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
“…the LORD …forms the spirit {ruach} of man within him…” (Zechariah 12:1).
Interchangeable With Nephesh At Times. “With my soul {nephesh} I have desired You in the night, yes, by my spirit {ruach} within me I will see You early…” (Isaiah 26:9).
Used Of The Inner Man. “…there is a spirit {ruach} in man…” (Job 32:8).
“…the LORD …forms the spirit {ruach} of man within him…” (Zechariah 12:1).

As much as it would be inappropriate to make a blanket usage of nephesh, it would be equally wrong to do so with ruach. We need to allow the context to determine the meaning of the word.

What is the importance of knowing about nephesh and ruach? Aside from a study of these things helping us in our understanding of Scripture, and how God has made us, it is helpful in answering those who may teach falsely about the nature of man. We can learn through the use of words such as nephesh and ruach about the eternal nature of the human being, not the flesh, but the spirit housed in the flesh.

Next week, we shall look at the Greek words psuche and pneuma.

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