Author Andrew B. Perrin
In Deut 6:5, Moses admonishes the Israelites to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (ESV).
But how well does the English translation “soul” in this verse convey the meaning of the underlying Hebrew word? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers eight definitions for the word. Since we can be certain Moses did not have a copy of this dictionary in hand, we must delve into the Hebrew text in hope of gaining fresh insight into this ancient verse. We can do this in four easy steps.
STEP 1: Make the Switch to Hebrew and Establish a Preliminary Definition
Locating the Hebrew word behind the English word “soul” is made easy with The ESV English-Hebrew Reverse Interlinear Old Testament. In this resource, each word of the English translation is aligned with its corresponding Hebrew word. When we look directly below “soul” in Deut 6:5 we see that nephesh is the Hebrew word behind the translation.
Now that we have this Hebrew word in mind, we establish a preliminary definition, what scholars call a “gloss.” If using print resources like Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, we look up the English word “soul” and locate the reference to Deut 6:5. We then note the Strong’s number, 5315, to the right of the passage and look it up in the numerically-keyed Hebrew-Aramaic Dictionary appended to Strong’s. With Logos Bible Software we just double-click the word in the reverse interlinear and our preferred lexicon opens, which for me is A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament by Holladay.¹
A survey of the entry for nephesh in Holladay shows us that the word has up to 10 potential meanings including: “breath,” “living being,” “man,” “life,” “soul” and even “corpse.” Since words function in context, we need to investigate what our word means in various contexts, not just lump all the definitions together.
STEP 2: Briefly Explore the Word in Other Ancient Semitic Languages
It is often valuable to investigate the cultural contexts from which a word emerged. The most efficient way to detect the potential influence of other languages on our Hebrew word is to consult a resource such as the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT).² For Logos Bible software users this resource is a click away. For those using the print edition, a convenient index coded with Strong’s Numbers allows readers to easily access the dictionary.
By looking up the Strong’s number 5315 we are directed to the TWOT numerical entry 1395a on nephesh. This article informs us that similar words in Ugaritic and Akkadian were associated with breathing and by implication the throat. Further nuances are seen in equivalent Arabic words that can also mean soul, mind, life or appetite.
With this broader context of associated meanings in mind we can now move on to isolate the unique contours of nephesh in the Old Testament.
STEP 3: Survey the Usage of the Word in the Old Testament
There are two perspectives that must be considered when understanding the usage of a word: (1) frequency (how many times a word is used); and (2) distribution (where the word is used). Investigating usage along these two axes allows us to establish a spectrum of meaning for our word in the Old Testament context.
To determine the frequency and distribution of a word we can use Logos’ concordance function or Strong’s. If using Strong’s we must look up the English word “soul” and tabulate only the number of occurrences with the Strong’s number 5315. In total there are 757 occurrences of the noun nephesh in the Old Testament. We can consult a selection of these passages to ascertain the spectrum of potential meanings.
At this stage we already see that nephesh in the Old Testament is a diverse term touching the many facets of life and living.
By narrowing the scope of our study and focusing on the distinct features of the occurrences of nephesh in Deuteronomy, we see that the term has special significance in light of Israel’s conduct and relationship with God. While Deuteronomy often uses nephesh to simply denote existence (Deut 12:23) or desire (Deut 14:26), the word is afforded a unique nuance that extends the spectrum of meanings provided above. Of the 35 occurrences in Deuteronomy, nephesh appears in close proximity with the word “heart” 11 times. This consistent pairing is seen most often in the phrase “with all your heart and all your soul” referring to the diligence and commitment the Israelites were to exhibit towards God’s laws (compare Deut 10:12).
With the broader palette of Old Testament usage, as well as the unique coloring of nephesh (שׁפנ) in Deuteronomy in mind, we can now return to the beginning of our investigation and examine Deut 6:5 once again.
Nephesh is often used to denote:
The very essence of existence (Gen 2:7) which departs at death (Gen 35:18; 1 Kgs 19:10).
The seat of human emotion and/or desire (Psa 35:25; Song 1:7; Ezek 24:25).
The organs, or physical actions, associated with breathing (Ps 105:18; Job 41:21; Isa 5:14).
STEP 4: Revisit the Passage to Find the Meaning of the Word in Context.
Our study has shown us that the English translation “soul,” especially when paired with “heart,” is ambiguous and lacks the precision required for an accurate interpretation of Deut 6:5. In this context nephesh is primarily a synonym for life and is distinct from other words such as “heart” (lev) that is closely associated with the mind rather than emotion. Instead of understanding “soul” as the immaterial spiritual component of a person, this concise understanding better conveys the passage’s call for an all-encompassing and lived-out devotion to God.
¹A lexicon is an in-depth dictionary about a specific corpus of writings. Because of this, lexicons contain more lengthy and detailed entries than dictionaries.
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