“Souls of the Living and the Dead”: Reflections on Two Hebrew Anthropological Expressions

The Hebrew concept of the “soul” (נֶ֫פֶשׁ) is of central importance in one’s understanding of biblical anthropology. At the same time, however, this term has generated much disagreement and confusion for biblical interpreters. Scholars have long appealed to cognate literature to argue that נֶ֫פֶשׁ originally meant “throat” or “gullet,” which developed in various ways to connote aspects of personhood and eventually the immaterial soul. I have made a similar argument for Ugaritic npš (Life and Mortality in Ugaritic: A Lexical and Literary Study, EANEC 7 [University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 2019], 71–86).

Two expressions particularly important for understanding Hebrew נֶ֫פֶשׁ warrant further philological examination: (1) נֶ֫פֶשׁ חַיָּה “soul of a living thing” (or “living soul”?) and (2) נֶ֫פֶשׁ מֵת “soul of a dead person.” As an expression for human life, נֶ֫פֶשׁ חַיָּה is usually translated attributively, “living soul.” Sometimes, however, this phrase occurs as נֶ֫פֶשׁ הַחַיָּה, indicating a construct phrase: “soul of a living thing/creature.” The construct phrase seems to indicate that the נֶ֫פֶשׁ is an aspect or component of the living thing. Furthermore, it is used of both humans and animals in contexts suggesting two kinds of נֶ֫פֶשׁ: one for humans and another for animals.

The expression נֶ֫פֶשׁ מֵת is the common proof text for נֶ֫פֶשׁ = body, often rendered “dead soul” (e.g., Lev 21:11; Num 6:6; 19:13; 23:10). This translation cannot be maintained, however, since נֶ֫פֶשׁ is a feminine noun while מֵת is a masculine adjective (i.e., “dead person”). The syntax requires translating נֶ֫פֶשׁ מֵת as “soul of a dead person.” Matthew Suriano’s recent treatment of death in the Hebrew Bible renders this phrase as “corpse of a defunct soul” (A History of Death in the Hebrew Bible [Oxford, 2018], 146 n. 39). Unfortunately, this proposal is not philologically justified and leaves מֵת untranslated.

In this presentation I will assess the meaning of Hebrew נֶ֫פֶשׁ in contexts where it appears with the roots מות “die” and חיה “live,” referencing comparative data where relevant. I will also consider the broader implications of these expressions for our understanding of Hebrew anthropology and how they contribute to a biblical anthropology.

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