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". (Ez. 18:4)

    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 'soul'.

    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. 10)

    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 effective.