Linguistic data

    Most books on Biblical studies of N begin with linguistic considerations which link N with the throat, neck or the breath. Johnson wrote, "...there is reason to believe that N ... was used to denote the throat or neck, i.e. as the organ through which one breathed." (p. 4-5) He translated Jonah 2:6 to read, "water encompassed me up to the neck (N)" (p. 6) and Is. 5:14 to suggest enlarging of the throat. "Therefore sheol has enlarged its N." He concluded, "All in all, therefore, if the original meaning of N was throat or neck ... it appears to have been so denoting that part of the body through which one breathes, i.e. the organ of expansion." (p. 7, n. 4) He obtained support from Accadian and Ugaritic cognates, napistu and nps respectively. He also called attention to the expression 'breathing out of N' and added, "a corresponding use of the term N to denote 'breath' may be readily understood even though there is no certain example of its use in this way." (P. 6)

    Johnson is not the only one who has expressed the view that N was related to throat and breath; however, the others do not integrate the throat and breath relation as well as he. W. Eichrodt in volume two of his Theology of the Old Testament wrote, "It is possible in the case of this word, too, to establish the basic physical connotation, namely first of all the 'neck', 'throat' or 'gullet', and then by extension that which comes out of the throat, the 'breath' or 'breath of life'." (p. 134) Consistent with his preliminary remarks, Wolff expressed a rather 'organ-oriented' approach to N. He viewed N as "a term for the organ that takes in food!'. (p. 11) In addition, he noted, "But the N does not only count as the organ for taking in nourishment, it is also the organ of breathing." (p. 13) "The rarer use of N for the external neck could be secondary." (p. 14) Like other authors, Wolff noted a lingual connection with the Hebrew verb nph. "...the action of N is nph meaning to blow, breathe, or pant." (p. 13) Similarly, "It is only N as the organ of breathing that makes the verbal use of the root nps (niph.) comprehensible." (p. 13) He also cited cognates from other Semitic languages.

In Accadian too napasu means to blow, to snort, to take breath, and napistu means in the first instance the throat, both of men and animals, and then life, the basis of life, and the living being; in Ugaritic nps also repeatedly means the jaws, the throat or the gullet, and then appetite, desire, the feelings and the living being. Arabic nafsun can mean both breath and appetite, and can then be the term for life, the feelings and the person. The semasiology of the Hebrew N shows over and above these indications side parallels in the related Semitic languages. (p. 13-14)


    Though scholars hold that, etymologically, N resided in throat, neck, and breath, there are disagreements as to which was most basic. Wolff commented, "Becker (1942) has contested the basic meaning of throat, and took breath to be the earlier basic meaning. This controversy is probably to no purpose, since for Semitic peoples eating, drinking and breathing all took place in the throat; so it was the seat of the elemental vital needs in general." (p. 14)

    A. Murtonen in Living Soul expressed a different opinion on the subject of N and its relation to throat and breath. After summarizing a variety of opinions that scholars of Semitic languages have exhibited on the issue of throat and breath in relation to N (p. 63-68), he concluded that the OT passages that Johnson believed were examples of the 'blowing (breathing) out of N' "in fact have no influence on the question and give no proof that N is equal to breath". (p. 67) He was also wary of the way scholars use general Semitic meanings to verify the meaning of a specific Hebrew word. (see p. 8)

    Seemingly quite separate from N denoting throat, neck, or breath is the connection N had with the blood. Lev. 17:11 clearly reads, "For the N of the flesh is in the blood." Deut. 12:23b reads, "for the blood is the N." Eichrodt noted, "It is easily understandable that the blood should be preeminently the vehicle of the N, so that it can be stated quite categorically that the blood is the N." (p. 136) Wolff, however, considered it a secondary assignment. (see p. 19) The connection N had with blood linked it to the whole sacrificial system of the ancient Israelites. Lev. 17:11 continues, "For the N of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement by means of the N."

    It is now established that during the OT period N was associated with not only throat, neck and breath, but also blood. Thus, N was somehow associated with many body parts. As mentioned earlier, there is disagreement among scholars surrounding the relation of these body parts to N. Did they relate to N in the same manner? Were some secondary while other primary as Wolff suggested? Was N equated with one or all of these 'body organs' which are today recognized from an anatomical perspective? If they were not each parts which were synonymous with N, then what was the actual nature of the association?

    These questions cannot be answered in a way which does justice to the ancient Hebrew perspective unless there is first a documentation of the theme which unified and held in proper arrangement the various ways N was employed, including its use as body parts such as throat, neck, breath, and blood.