What is the Nephesh?

An academic short study : the life (nephesh) is in the blood

The nephesh is probably our life-breath


Leviticus 17:11 and the nephesh of the flesh is in the blood.

Here the Type 2 symbolic resonance is specifically found in the way that the blood transports oxygen via the haemoglobin in the red blood cells. This could relate symbolically to the ‘soul’ in the sense of ‘breath’. Genesis 2:7 describes the nephesh as ‘living breath’ being breathed into man, almost like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, except mouth-to-nose, and man becomes a ‘living soul’, as opposed to an inanimate soul. The Genesis 2:7 use of נֶפֶשׂשׁ nephesh illustrates this root meaning of breath. [1] Breathing is the most obvious aspect of man which departs at his death and returns during resurrection from the dead (1 Kings 21:22). There has been a long-standing historical connection between the nephesh and the blood which was known as vitalism. In its simplest form, vitalism holds that living entities contain some fluid, or a distinctive ‘spirit’. The now discredited theory of the vitalism (see Bechtel and Richardson 1998) in its more sophisticated forms holds that the origin and phenomena of life are dependent on a force or principle distinct from purely chemical or physical forces often referred to as the ‘vital spark’ or élan vital. Some equate this with the soul.


The second major tenet of vitalism was that organic compounds could only be produced by living things (Berzelius 1836). [2] The distinguished English physician William Harvey (1578-1657) famous for his elucidation of the human circulatory system, was a vitalist who believed in the above ‘vital spark’. Harvey wrote a whole book chapter based on Leviticus 17:11 with the title ‘Blood as the seat of the soul’ (see Curtis 1915:108-116). Harvey’s view of the blood as the ‘seat of soul’ was widely held by physicians up to and including Louis Pasteur (Bechtel, and Richardson 1998).


The fact that ‘nephesh’ has a broad semantic range is problematic to our study.[3] The concept of ‘nephesh’ (Strong’s Concordance 5315) will now be further investigated in terms of its Hebraic meanings to assess how well the broad Hebraic meanings including ‘a soul’, ‘living being’, ‘life’, ‘self’ or ‘person’ fit with its use in Leviticus 17:11. We will now look at some of these alternative meanings. It may be that this resonance may help us explore the best fit of nephesh for our context.


In his book Israel: Its Life and Culture, Semitic philologist Johannes Pedersen (1883-1977) asserts that in Genesis, a soul (nephesh) is always a person, not some invisible component inside a person. Pederson (1926:99) claims that in Genesis, this is consistently shown to be the case (see also McKim 2007:805). Pedersen summarizes as follows: ‘the soul [is] not part of man, but man as a totality with a peculiar stamp. A man [soul] is stamped by the special conditions under which he lives. Pedersen concludes, ‘the soul is thus an entirety with a definite stamp, and this stamp is transmuted into a definite will’ and a person’s ‘will is the whole tendency of the soul [the person]’.[4]


Pedersen understands the Hebrew concept of the ‘soul’ namely nephesh to refer to ‘man as a totality’ and this idea has become highly influential in modern theology/philosophy. Philosopher Anthony Phillips (2015:244) believes that the Hebrew concept of nephesh offers the best model for what it means to be human namely, nephesh can be translated as ‘personality’. In this way, the nephesh controls both thoughts and actions and is unique to each individual person. However, our lives are lived in continual interaction with our families and communities thus integrating our single nephesh into a corporate or communal personality or society.


Phillips (2015:244) also points out that for the Hebrews another life force, that of blood, is required for the expression of the nephesh and further that the Hebrews understood losses of either breath or blood could end in death. Breath and blood are thus both essential to being. Furthermore for Phillips, Leviticus 17:11 the phrase ‘the nephesh of the flesh is in the blood’ is saying the blood makes us what we are namely our being or personality or put in another way our identity. If we lose our blood, then we lose our whole being. For Phillips it would, therefore, be misleading to translate Leviticus 17:11 as ‘the soul of the flesh is in the blood’.[5] In this way in Genesis 4:8-11 where Cain slays Abel, he does not capture his ‘soul’, but he gets possession of Abel himself namely his being and his personality. For, Phillips the nephesh is the personality. This, of course, makes Cain’s defence to God even more trenchant-- ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ He was indeed, as he ‘possessed his blood’ (Phillips 2016:1). Only God as the Creator can be considered to have the ownership of the blood as judged by God demanding an account of Abel’s blood from Cain (Genesis 4:10). The nature of the relationship of the nephesh and the blood (Leviticus 17:11) will now be further discussed in the hope that the relationship may help us with our developing definition of nephesh.


Numerous scholars have attempted to determine the relationship between the blood and the life to which Leviticus 17:11 alludes. Hartley (1983:244-245) suggests the power to purify comes not from the blood per se, but from the life within the blood. In this way, the blood simply ‘serves as the tangible centre of an animal’s life force.’ Similarly, Budd (1996:249) also recognizes that blood serves as an effective ‘purifying or ransoming agent’ because of its ‘life-embodying power’. The concept of atonement being achieved through the presence of the nephesh (life-force) supports the view that atonement might be visualised as a process in which the nephesh of God is reconciled to the human nephesh through an intermediary nephesh. Old Testament scholar John H. Hayes (1998:6) has helpfully suggested the atonement rituals of Leviticus can be viewed as ‘rituals of restoration and reintegration which participate in and mirror the return to established order and normalcy’.


Coming from a different angle, Needham (2000:38) notes that the semantics of atonement have changed from a meaning of ‘at one-ment’ to that of ‘reconciliation, meaning the making of unity and harmony’. It seems feasible that atonement can be viewed as a process and the case made that atonement can be described as ‘reconciliation both in the human/God relationship and in human/human relationships’ Bair (2007:68).


It should also be remembered, that in Leviticus 5:11 atonement could also be made through an offering of fine flour, and so such atonement may not require blood and its nephesh. Bair (p.62) believes that this would mean a more intimate role for God in the atonement process since it would be necessary that he directly provide the necessary nephesh. This is in accord with Genesis 2:7 where the Lord God breathes the breath of life into the man who becomes a nephesh-filled being. In this way, in the case of the poor person making an offering of flour, the Lord would provide the divine nephesh needed to make the atonement successful. Here the divine nephesh is most likely understood as something imparted by God. In this way, the reconciliation between the human nephesh and the divine nephesh is initiated by the author of all nephesh.


According to Levine (1989:99-100) in the context of the Day of Atonement, atonement also encompasses reconciliation between human and human. Levine puts it this way ‘we observe a dynamic interaction between the priesthood/community, on the one hand, and the omnipresence of God, on the other’. In the same way, that a victim/offender relationship can exist between God and humans, it can also exist within human relationships, and thus, it requires the same act of atonement through reconciliation (and the restoration of shalom) that is required in the relationship between the human and the divine. Rooke (2005:353) wisely sums up the importance of atonement in the context of human relationships as follows ‘the continuing well-being of the community is dependent on the successful performance of the [atonement] ceremony’.


If the power of the atonement is present in the nephesh rather than blood itself, then this has implications for a post-resurrection theory of atonement. McHugh (1991:164) writes ‘the slaughtering of an animal was not of the essence of sacrifice even in the Old Testament (such as the bird in Leviticus 14:52-3 and the scapegoat in 16:6-10, 20-22) only the offering of the sacrifice to God’. In this way, blood was only necessary for containing the nephesh, the true requirement for the atonement. [6] Bair (p.70) rightly concludes that the focus of atonement is on the ‘God-breathed nephesh’ and not in the creature’s death’. Bair (p.70) further suggests that we should view the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus ‘to serve the purpose of the intermediary nephesh that is able to create reconciliation between the human nephesh and the divine nephesh’.

Support for this idea comes from Hartley (1992:244-245) who explains that since Jesus fulfils the role of ‘the boundary between the holy and the sinful, here humans may find forgiveness of all their sins and reconciliation with God’. Further support comes from Gunton (1989:138) who recognises that the nephesh is the vehicle of atonement and comes from God: ‘The life that is given is the life of God himself, the incarnate Son dying for the life of the world’. Jesus himself says as much in Matthew 20:28 ‘the Son of Man came…to give his life a ransom for many’ confirming that his atoning ability is in his life-force, his nephesh. The nephesh, best understood in this study as life or life-breath, accords well with the concept of the blood being the nephesh-carrier. This concept may give some light into the processes of blood atonement by moving the focus from the sacrificial blood itself onto the nephesh (life-breath)

being carried by it. This is insufficient per se to refute the claims of God being bloodthirsty but helps us refocus our theodicy.


[1] Available at: https://www.studylight.org/language-studies/hebrew-thoughts/?a=601 [Accessed 30th May 2016]. [2]Chemical vitalism was refuted by Friedrich Wöhler (1800-1882) when in 1828 he accidentally synthesized the organic compound urea (found in blood and urine) from mainly though not exclusively inorganic reactants. [3]It could be argued that this is due to the linguistic problem between the Greek/Latin and the Hebrew with the latter being so metaphorical and polyvalent and the former tending towards a more limited semantic range. [4] Pedersen, J. (1926) Israel vol. 1:100, 103, and 111 as quoted in Phillips (2015:244). [5]Phillips (2016:1) does concede however, it is not always easy to translate Hebrew words/concepts into English and gives hesed as another example.

[6]The slaughter of the animal however was still necessary as a means of releasing the blood, which carries the nephesh.


This short extract is from Charles Green- dissertation for the Master's degree , School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh (2016).


Full references can be obtained on request

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