Nephesh in the Old Testament
A number of phrases frequently used by the writers
of the OT pictured N in a dangerous situation of life and death proportions.
The Hebrew found that others were "seeking his N" (Ex. 4:19,
1 Sam. 23:15) and thus "feared greatly for his N". (Jos. 9:24)
People either had to "flee for their N" (II Kings 7:7) or "defend
their N". (Es. 8:9) If they did not, then their N would be "utterly
destroyed". (Jos. 10:28,30,32,35,37,39) The N that sinned could be
"cut off from his people". (Num. 15:31) This was akin to death
because his identity was so bound to his people. Indeed, a "N that
sins dies". (Ez. 18:4,20) Other passages describe N needing or receiving
deliverance from this danger. In the face of peril one wanted to "save
his N". (Jer. 51:6) Rahab asked the two Israelite spies to save her
family and "deliver their N from death". (Jos. 2:13) Lot and
his family were told to "flee for their N". (Gen. 19:17) He
then escaped to Zoar where "his N will be saved". (v. 20)
Since it was God who made man a 'N creature' (Gen.
2:7, Jer. 38:16), it was before God that N faced danger and needed deliverance
from it. David once prayed, "Keep me...from the wicked who despoil
me, my deadly enemies [of my NI who surround me." (Ps. 17:9) He then
asked, "Deliver my N from the wicked by the sword." (v. 13)
"For thy name's sake, 0 Lord, preserve my N." (Ps. 143:11) When
presented with the head of Ishbosheth, David proclaimed, "As the
Lord lives who has redeemed my N out of every adversity..." (II Sam.
4:9) The Lord deserved praise "For he has delivered the N of the
needy from the hand of evil doers". (Jer. 20:13) From the viewpoint
expressed in the OT, the N that does not sin but obeys the commandments
"keeps his own N" (Prov. 24:12) since "all N are His".
The text presents N in the precarious position of
being subject to harm and danger. Thus, N carried for the Hebrews a theme
of danger and deliverance. The danger it faced and the deliverance it
needed were not of ordinary dimensions; they were an intense life and
death concern. A recognition of this theme of danger and deliverance allows
one to see bow N carried for the Hebrews a message about man, his nature
and his life situation. What is here referred to as a theme captures how
N opened into a belief about man's nature on earth. Through their synthetic
outlook, the Hebrews gave to the term N that aspect of human living which
is uncertain, insecure, threatened to the point of even death. Because
this was the kind of status N had in this world, N of course sought deliverance.
Certain life experiences -- precisely those situations
involvingintense danger and deliverance -- reminded the Hebrews that they
were N. Here the Hebrews spoke from within the intensity of the 'N experience'
of facing danger and needing safety, or else! David cried to his Lord
asking for deliverance
from enemies. (Ps. 6:8-10) His N was sorely troubled (v.
3) and he asked his Lord to save his N. (v. 4) 14hile Joseph's brothers
were in Egypt to obtain grain, they thought back to the time when they
put Joseph in the pit. "In truth we are guilty concerning our brother
in distress of his N..." (Gen. 42:21) Jeremiah lamented that
his N was "bereft of peace". (Lam. 3:17) Since N was brought
into the picture, this verse communicates an extraordinary lack of peace
of life and death proportions.
While the Hebrew was waiting for his God to deliver,
his N was losing vitality. Because the psalmists often wrote from within
this experience, the Psalms include phrases such as "their N fainted
in them" (Ps. 107:5), "my N melts for sorrow" (Ps. 119:28),
"my N languishes for thy salvation" (Ps. 119:81), "my N
longs, yea, faints for thy courts" (Ps. 84:2), and "their N
melted away in their evil plight" (Ps. 107:26). Job asked, "How
long will you torment my N!" (Job 19:2) It was also N that would
wait for deliverance. "For God does my N wait in silence." (Ps.
62:11) "1 wait for the Lord, my N waits and in his word I hope."
(Ps. 130:5) Since the Hebrew knew all deliverance came from God, his N
would "take refuge" in God (Ps. 57:1) and "thirst for him".
(Ps. 42:32, 63:1) Once danger had passed and the intense, precarious nature
of the situation was over, N would praise God for deliverance received.
'My N makes its boast in the Lord, let the afflicted hear and be glad."
(Ps. 34:2) "Then my N shall rejoice in the Lord, exalting in his
deliverance." (Ps. 35:9)
Traditionally the theme of danger and deliverance
has not been emphasized. Wolff is the one author who has made reference
to it. The title for his section on N, "Needy Man", suggests
some recognition on his part. He developed this in a few statements. "...N
points pre-eminently to needy man, who aspires to life and is therefore
living..." (p. 25) "When, therefore, the throat or neck are
mentioned, there is frequently an echo of the view of man as needy and
in danger, who therefore yearns with his N for food and the preservation
of his life." (p. 15)
Phrases such as 'seeking his N' are usually seen
to be referring to one's self, life, or person. H.W. Robinson would have
put them in his category termed 'Personal'. The Hebrew perspective, however,
was far too colourful in its 'concrete imagery' to refer to the self,
life, or person without intentionally indicating something about that
whole man. Likewise, the usual way to interpret phrases that portrayed
the Hebrew within a N experience is to term N the 'seat of emotions'.
As a correlate to the notion of soul as immaterial entity, the term 'seat
of emotions' is associated with a metaphysical tradition that views the
emotional as a non-physical entity attached to a physical body. N is the
'seat of emotions' no more than any other Hebrew anthropological term!
All such terms carried an emotional side, though usually
not with the degree of intensity that typified N. From the Hebrew perspective,
the feelings that N experienced occurred within the context of the danger
faced and the deliverance needed. Designating N as the 'seat of emotions'
misses this connection altogether. The tradition behind 'seat of emotions'
leaves the emotions unrelated to the theme of man as a creature that faced
danger and, therefore, needed deliverance. Then N denoting 'seat of emotions'
becomes one definition isolated from all
the rest. This tradition contributes to the disunity and lack of fluidity
that is typical of the popular understanding of N.
Wolff is also the author that best developed
the relation between N as it explicitly revealed emotional content and
N as it referred to the life, self, or person. With respect to Ps. 42:5,11,
43:5, Wolff commented, "Here N is the self of the needy man, thirsting
with desire." (p. 25)
Why are you cast down 0 my N,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him.
Wolff was able to draw together the whole man who is in need and the
emotions he experiences because he is needy. The self and the emotional
were not viewed as two separate categories in to which various uses for
N can fit. Like Wolff, Johnson was able to unite the self and the emotional
through the 'grasping of a totality'; however, his understanding of this
'totality' did not reflect the theme of needy man seeking deliverance.
J. Pedersen in volume I of his classic Israel
touched on the theme of danger and deleverance when he noted the soul
of a stranger in Ex. 23:9 suggests a soul stamped by special conditions
under which he lives. (see p. 100) "You shall not oppress a stranger,
you know the N of a stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
He continued, "...the word expresses his whole manner of being, his
pursuit of security, his fear of arbitrariness, and the pain he
feels under oppression." (p. 101) Pedersen sensed this trademark
of N, but he did not see it in terms of a theme which was intrinsic to
the meaning of N as expressed throughout the OT.
Each scholar made reference to Gen. 2:7 because
the verse uses N to describe the creation of man. "And then the Lord
God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils
the breath of life and man became a living N." In the past one may
have read this verse to mean 'man obtained a living soul'. The King James'
translation "and man became a living soul" remains ambiguous
to the modern reader. Scholars sensitive to the confusion regarding differences
between ancient Greek and Hebrew thought have been quick to stress that
this verse is not to be read dualistically despite the fact that it has
often been the classic proof text for dualistic interpretations using
Johnson wrote that N in Gen. 2:7 "...denotes
one's 'self' or 'person' as a centre of consciousness and unit of vital
power." (p. 19) He expressed the view that N here refers to the whole
man -- with an emphasis on man's consciousness and vitality. But he made
no mention of the fact that this use for N is closely linked with other ways that N is
used in the OT. On the creation of man, Pedersen stated, "The basis
of its essence was the fragile corporeal substance, but by the breath
of God it was transformed and became a N, a soul. It is not said that
man was supplied with a N, 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." (p. 99) As already noted H.W. Robinson stated
that man was an animated body, and not an incarnated soul. Wolff wrote,
"What does N mean here? Certainly not soul. N was designed to be
seen together with the whole form of man, and especially with his breath;
moreover man does not have N, he is N, he lives as N." (p.
Wolff's question might best be answered in light
of the theme of danger and deliverance. The man of Gen. 2:7 became a creature
of flesh formed from dust, i.e., a being capable of perishing, and vivified
and inspired through the breath of life. Breath animated flesh formed
from dust. Due to this perishable nature and the perils the Hebrew indeed
faced, he desired safety. The word N communicated, then, a certain status
that man has in creation. It signified a precarious position in creation
brought about by the possibility of harm. Any N thus needed help and was
dependent upon others for safe keeping. This theme that overarched the
OT use for N pointed to a status typifying man rather than a structural
component. The people of the OT period had a less differentiated view
of structure and function than is typical of modern Western society. Whereas
'soul' first denotes a structural entity and then certain moral and emotional
functions, N emphasized the dynamic aspects of a functioning structure.
Therefore, N did not refer to merely the 'whole man'; to the synthetic
mind of the Hebrew, it communicated something about how man functioned
in the world in light of his perishable status.
Johnson translated "N of a stranger"
of Ex. 23:9 with "feelings of a stranger". (p. 10) "The
grasping of a totality reveals itself in the fact that the term N may
be used with more obvious reference to what is a comprehensive and unified
manifestation of sentient life." (p. 9-10) It should be pointed
out that these 'feelings' of the stranger could be termed N only because
they were certain feelings that had their origin in the status of a stranger.
The stranger had feelings of course, but more importantly his feelings
came from the experience of being in a dependent, needy status that was
peculiar to N. N did not ever denote isolated feelings and emotions; the
only feelings of the stranger that could appropriately be termed N were
those in association with the stranger's need for good will and hospitality
from the Hebrews that paralleled the good will which the Hebrews needed
from their God.
Johnson noted that N "as a substitute forthe
personal pronoun, often betrays a certain intensity of feeling...Thus,
when it is used for the subject of the action in bestowing a blessing,
it appears to spring from and certainly serves to accentuate the view
that the speaker needs to put all his being into what he says if it is
to make his words effec-