Nephesh in Genesis 12:5

Gary Simmons asked a question on the Share page:

Alright, let’s get the ball rolling. Genesis 12:5 says that Abram left with his wife and all the nefesh they acquired in Haran. I can think of no particular reason as to why the author did not use anashim here. Why does it say nefesh?

My suspicion is that in this case a nefesh is not a person. It refers to a body or a life. What say ye?

I don’t think I can give a definitive answer, but I will make an attempt.

I think the issue here is really what nephesh means. Like many Hebrew words, indeed many words in any natural language, it has a range of meanings. The original sense in various Semitic languages seems to have been something like “breath”, although this sense is not clearly attested in biblical Hebrew. But a sense which is attested is “that which breathes”. The word is clearly used of animals, excluding humans, in Genesis 1:20 etc, and of the first human in Genesis 2:7; in Genesis 9:12 etc it would seem to include humans as well as animals.

So my suggestion for Genesis 12:5 is that nephesh there refers to both humans and animals acquired by Abraham. How that is translated into English is a separate issue.

In a separate comment Gary suggested that the use of this word implied slavery. Well, maybe some of these people were slaves. But I don’t think the word necessarily meant that. The men and women involved could also have been free servants who chose to go to Canaan with Abraham. In the cultural context that is perhaps unlikely. But I don’t think we can understand the word itself as “slaves”. On the other hand, it might have been a bit demeaning to those involved to put them on the same level as animals.

53 Comments

  1. Posted November 27, 2010 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    Jewish tradition is that this verse means “souls that they had made in Haran” and refers to converts to Judaism.

  2. Posted November 27, 2010 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Bill, thanks for that. The verb is indeed literally “made”, which is odd. I can see how it could refer to their literal children – except that we know they didn’t have any. But a reference to spiritual children in this way seems unlikely. And the idea of “converts to Judaism” is of course entirely anachronistic: Judaism as a religion can hardly be recognised before the time of Ezra.

  3. Posted November 27, 2010 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    Peter, the tradition is that the use of “make” is in reference to the idea that one who teaches a boy the Torah is said to have “made” him. I am not enough of a scholar of Hebrew to know whether it is reasonable to project that usage backward in this way. As for conversion to Judaism, of course, as you say, there was no such thing as “Judaism” at that time, but it could still refer to conversion to the beliefs of Abraham and Sarah, proto-Judaism as it were. Anyhow, I don’t mean to push the rabbinic interpretation, which is sometimes anachronistic.

  4. Posted November 27, 2010 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t consider the possibility that nefesh included acquired animals. My suggested gloss here was “lives,” which most certainly would be putting them on the same level as animals. I would not have suggested that it be glossed here as “slaves,” however. Especially if it refers to animals, also.

    So, then, my preferred gloss would still be “lives,” and it refers to the chattel (in all senses) they acquired. That makes more sense. “People” just doesn’t have the right connotation. One does not acquire people.

  5. Yancy Smith
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    The treatment of this passage is a prime example of the way a general cultural construct in one culture and language can get in the way of understanding a construct in another language and culture. I would say that it is fairly clear that the reference is to persons that they had gotten in Haran: persons is literally nefesh “souls.” However, it is to Abram’s “slaves,” as it also does in Gen 36.6, which speaks of the numbers of Esau’s household. The NEB calls them “dependents.” Other versions have “people,” but TEV, FRCL, and GECL are more precise in this context, for good reason, translating with “slaves.” Another reason besides the use of nefesh in 36:6 and the fact that Abraham is specifically said to have a slave in his household by the name of Eliezar who was from Damacus, i.e. one of the “persons” “aquired” is specifically referred to in the Gen 15:2-4 as from Syria and a “son of my house,” that is a domestic slave. Another reason I would argue for this translation is the use of the verb “acquire” in 12:5. They had gotten in Haran: the verb is different from the one sometimes translated “gathered” in the previous verse, but the general sense of “acquire, obtain” is the same. In some translations this is rendered more generally as “those who had stayed with them in Haran”; however, the sense of “acquire property” for the verb “‘asah” (BDB, 795; HALOT, s.v. “‘asah” def. 6) seems the best way to take this verb.

  6. Posted November 27, 2010 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    The sense of the Hebrew is not in dispute. At least I don’t think so.

    It says that Abram took wife and nephew and everything animate and inanimate he had come to possess in Haran, made his exit, and traveled to the land of Canaan.

    But it says those things by means of constructions and expressions that are specific to Hebrew.

    Traditional translation technique of sacred texts follows the rule of “as literal as possible, as free as necessary.”

    In this instance, consciously or unconsciously, most translations have accomplished this by redistributing the content of the source text’s denotative sense from an inanimate (rekush) – animate (nefesh) dichotomy, with inert things in one basket and living things in another, the kind of dichotomy that is connatural to people who live in symbiosis with animals – to a non-human – human dichotomy.

    I would want to preserve the inanimate – animate dichotomy in translation if possible. I don’t think it is an accident that “man and beast” are in solidarity in scripture. Even the heathen get this according to prophecy (Jonah 3:7). Why can’t we?

  7. Posted November 28, 2010 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    John, thank you for supporting the interpretation I had of this. This is indeed a translation challenge – and shows why formal equivalence translation does not work between languages that are not very close.

    Yancy, thank you for clarifying that Abraham did have slaves. I suppose Hagar was also his slave (or Sarah’s, which amounts to the same thing), but probably at a later time. But I think it would be poor translation to use the word “slaves” here when the word doesn’t mean this – even if John and I are wrong and this refers only to humans.

  8. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted November 28, 2010 at 1:35 am | Permalink

    I can’t help but feel that the LXX and the rabbinical tradition as found in Rashi’s notes, have been shunted aside without adequate consideration. Although the LXX itself could be ambiguous, as is the Hebrew, the NETS translation specifically has “every person.” So there must be some support for the notion that this verse does classify what Abraham took with him as “possessions” and “people.”

    Although I have no certainty about the meaning, for discussion sake, I am going to suggest that Gary and Bill are right, that the word nephesh is used because it refers to the humans, both free and slaves, that is, all persons, whom Abraham took. I don’t think that anashim could include the slaves.

    Perhaps, on the other hand, it does mean “inanimate” and “animate,” but the weight of tradition says that it means “possessions” and “people”

  9. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted November 28, 2010 at 1:55 am | Permalink

    נֶפֶשׁ הַחַיָּה
    נֶפֶשׁ אָדָם

    Clearly the first means animals and the second means humans, but only as a head count, the lowliest of all, booty, little girls, taken as slaves no doubt in Numbers 31.

    The question is what does נֶפֶשׁ mean when it occurs by itself. Gesenius says that it means “slaves” in Gen. 12. I would hazard a guess that by itself, it came to mean “people” in the collective, human beings with unspecified status.

  10. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted November 28, 2010 at 2:11 am | Permalink

    A good comparison is in Gen 14:21, where the king of Sodom asks for the people back, but tells Abraham to keep the possessions.

  11. Yancy Smith
    Posted November 28, 2010 at 2:16 am | Permalink

    The problem is not in the meaning of word “nephesh” but the referent and action of the phrase “nephesh ‘asah,” literally, according to purely lexical semantics, or words as they might be explained in a dictionary, “souls he made” or “souls he produced” or the supposition that the phrase means “souls he acquired.” In translation, however, the background of assumptions for both original text and audience/readers must be taken into account. And faithfulness in translation has to be measured by audience understanding, not simply resemblance in form to the original. So if we were to translate “people he took with him” or “people he picked up” the relationship would be too ambiguous to be faithful, since, in terms of probability, it would be highly unlikely that the phrase would not include slaves in its original context. Gary and Bill are right in saying the word nephesh is used because it refers to the humans, free or slaves, that is, all persons, that Abraham took charge of or acquired. The phrase implies, at least, that Abraham had a relationship of authority over these persons, which would include everyone from his wife, Sarai, Lot, their families, slaves, and Abraham’s own slaves and perhaps some of the 318 “trained men” he is said to have in his household. Thus it would be too little meaning to use a phrase that does not, at least, imply that some of the included humans were slaves and that all of them were in a relationship of dependence upon Abraham.

  12. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted November 28, 2010 at 2:27 am | Permalink

    Yancy,

    I think you are right, but I also note that the rekush-nefesh dichotomy as it occurs in Gen. 14:21 is explicitly a split between things and humans. So this linguistic evidence also seems to support the notion that nephesh are humans, and not animals.

  13. Posted November 28, 2010 at 2:51 am | Permalink

    Sue, I don’t see why Gen 14:21 couldn’t be instead a dichotomy of things and lives – what in the context indicates that nephesh must refer only to humans?

    What about rekush in Gen 13:6? That verse makes most sense to me if rekush refers to Abram and Lot’s livestock.

  14. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted November 28, 2010 at 3:18 am | Permalink

    Dannii,

    That is exactly my point. Rekush means possessions, both inanimate possessions and animals, and therefore nephesh means “humans.”

    You and I are in agreement that the dichotomy is between –

    1) rekush – possessions, which includes things and animals,

    2) nephesh – humans, relatives, retainers and slaves

    Perhaps I wasn’t clear.

  15. Posted November 28, 2010 at 3:40 am | Permalink

    Sorry, in general I agree with John H that animals belong to nephesh rather than rekush. This seems consistent with most verses – the exception being Gen 13:6 (so that question is directed towards John and those who agree with him.)

    However, isn’t it also possible that animals might be both nephesh and rekush? There are just too many passages that use nephesh for animals that I think it must refer to souls/living beings. But that does not preclude that sometimes living beings might also be possessions, making dichotomies possible. I don’t know. This is really the first discussion which has made me look at rekush.

    (Saw you on the Sola Panel btw! Now that was a huge discussion, I got completely lost in it. Every time I thought I had figured out someone’s position they’d say something that showed I’d read them wrong!)

  16. Posted November 28, 2010 at 4:49 am | Permalink

    Dannii,

    I agree with you that rekush in Gen 13:6 and often includes livestock. But often does not mean always. See below for clear examples where it does not. Contextual cues must always be allowed to trump arguments from statistical frequency.

    Gen 14:21, as you note, is unclear. It could be that the king of Sodom wanted his population back – man and beast – but figured he could write off as a loss gear and weapons.

    There is a trichotomy in Gen 31:17: children and wives (domestic servants are left unmentioned; but see 32:6); livestock (miqneh); and inanimate property (rekush).

    Were this to be reduced to a nefesh-rikush dichotomy, would livestock go with the former or the latter? That is the question.

    Thanks to Suzanne’s comments, I see now how it could go either way.

    Another passage of interest: Gen 36:6. It too has a trichotomy: all the human members (nefashot) of a household; livestock (miqneh); and inanimate property (rekush). If this were reduced to a nefesh-rikush dichotomy, would livestock go with the former or the latter? Once again, that is the question.

    On the basis of passages like Job 12 and Gen 9:5 in which man and beast are described not only in terms of nefesh but as knowing the same essential things, depending on God in the same way, and being culpable before God in the same way; on the basis of Gen 46:33 anshe miqneh “cattlemen,” self-referential language of Jacob and his sons, I would say that a dichotomy nefesh = man and beast and rekush = inanimate property makes sense in the pastoral world of the patriarchal narratives.

    One thing we all seem to agree on is that Rashi was too restrictive when, at the level of peshat, he equated nefesh in Gen 12:5 with domestic servants male and female. But after reviewing more passages, I see better now how Rashi might have arrived at that conclusion.

  17. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted November 28, 2010 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    John,

    I was careful to emphasize that both are possibilities. I do think that it is tempting to view the dichotomy as inanimate and animate, and it seems linguistically possible.

    However, my reading of the LXX suggests to me that the translators viewed nephesh as humans when it was not modified in a specific way. I also maintain that the king of Sodom would be recorded as saying something more specific if he wished to have his cattle returned. I am not aware of a single commentary or translation which thinks that the king was asking for his animals back. I may be wrong on this, but I think this is a good guess, unless someone can demonstrate otherwise.

    But my main point in commenting is that I believe that “people” is the majority tradition, and has an honourable history. I wish to affirm the comments made by some of the earlier commenters. I also have an earnest desire to see people accept a variety of translations as equally possible, and not simply rule one out.

    I know where I think the weight of the evidence falls, but I resist the notion “inanimate versus animate” is either more accurate or more literal than “possessions” (things and animals) versus “people.”

    Dannii,

    I am a little confused by your comments, and I somehbow misunderstood one of them completely. In any case, I do not have any interest in “siding” with anyone. As I made quite clear in my initial comment, I think both possibilities deserve consideration. I think John’s observations are interesting, but not to the exclusion of the contributions made by earlier commenters, who reflect the history of translation for this verse throughout history.

  18. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted November 28, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    What one can say about rekush is that it does not clearly mean “inanimate.” Traditionally this word has been considered to include livestock. So we can’t say that “inanimate” and “animate” is a literal translation. This is an interpretive choice, every bit as much as “possessions” and “people” is an interpretive choice.

  19. iverlarsen
    Posted November 28, 2010 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Having looked at all the places where “rekush” occurs and thinking from the perspective of cattle people, I would agree with Yancy and Sue. For nomadic people, their primary possession IS their livestock without excluding inanimate things.

    The “nephesh” here would therefore refer to people, but in this context “slaves”. I do not think it is wrong to translate “slaves/workers”, rather this seems to be the most accurate rendering in context. What word to use depends on the concept of “slaves” in the receptor language and culture.

    Let me back translate how my cattle-people colleagues in Africa rendered this verse: He went with his wife Sarah and Lot, the son of his brother.
    He went with all his cows which he had gotten long ago and slaves whom he came to get in Haran…” (These people also have sheep and goats, but those are implicit with the cows.)

    The idea is that when he first came to Haran, he came with livestock from home. They obviously reproduced, but the new ones are still covered by “his livestock”. In the Hebrew, he “gathered” more livestock. But while in Haran he acquired a number of slaves to look after his growing herds. (He did not have enough relatives in Haran to look after the livestock.)

  20. Posted November 28, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just returned from a short Thanksgiving break.

    I happen to have looked very carefully at nephesh for my most recent book, And God Said, devoting much of a chapter to it. (The word is particularly important because it appears in Deuteronomy 6:5 — “Love the Lord your God with all your levav and all your nephesh and all your m’od — which is considered central by Christians and Jews alike. In Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27, Jesus calls this the most important commandment. And Jews traditionally include this line in the text affixed to doorways in the m’zuzah, as well as featuring it in the daily liturgy.)

    My conclusion in And God Said is that nephesh refers primarily to the tangible aspects of life: breath, blood, and flesh. (This is why “soul” is a terribly misleading translation.) From the primary meaning, the word came through metonymy to refer to people in general. We see this clearly in Genesis 46:18, where Zilpah gives birth to 16 nepheshes, that is, 16 people (presumably baby people).

    So in Genesis 12:5, I think the word just means “people,” even though later commentators have read more into it.

    Regarding:

    I can think of no particular reason as to why the author did not use anashim here

    Both ish (plural: anashim) and nephesh mean “person,” and Genesis 12:5 is not the only place we find nephesh with this meaning. For instance, Deuteronomy 24:7, which prohibits kidnapping, uses the phrase, ish gonev nephesh, that is, an ish (“person”) who steals a nephesh (another “person”).

    -Joel

  21. Yancy Smith
    Posted November 28, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Joel H—
    The difficulty in attempting to rest the case on lexical semantics in which a one word substitution, e.g. “nephesh” means x, and simply x is not in what it explicates, but what it does not implicate. For most modern readers the real rub in meaning will emerge with the next word “make, produce, acquire.” which implies typical domestic relationships of dependency—master, slave, freedman, former master, father, mother, son, daughter, relatives, their slaves and the livestock and families of the dependent relatives.
    In other words, ANE “nephesh” is not equal to our modern “people” just as “there spaces are not our space” between Japan and the USA. In Tokyo streets are unnamed spaces between numbered blocks. In the US, blocks are the unnamed spaces between named or numbered streets. There was a post on this topi earlier.

  22. Posted November 28, 2010 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Yancy:

    I’m the first to agree that a one-for-one substitution of words is imprecise. My point is that nephesh is not “literally souls.”

    -Joel

  23. Posted November 28, 2010 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    I seem to have sparked off quite a discussion here! I think on balance I am coming back to the idea that nephesh meant all the humans, male and female, slave and free, but excluded the animals. But I agree with Joel that the word did not mean “slave” and so should not be translated as such, except perhaps in a rather dynamic translation.

    I wonder if one reason “why the author did not use anashim here” is that this word has at least primarily a male reference. Thus nephesh is used to avoid any misunderstanding that Abraham only took males, apart from Sarah. Or is there any other clearly gender generic Hebrew word for all human beings?

  24. Posted November 28, 2010 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    Iver,

    It makes sense to me that cattle-breeders would be keen to make explicit that cows were among the (animate) possessions of Abram’s household.

    Although I would prefer a translation that renders a dichotomy by a dichotomy, if a suitable one is not available in the target language, it may be appropriate to offer a dichotomy in which one node is a dichotomy, which captures the sense.

    For example:

    Abram took his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot and all the possessions they had amassed and the livestock and people they had acquired in Haran and they made their exit. The destination of their travel: the land of Canaan.

  25. Posted November 28, 2010 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    BTW, among English translations, NLT offers a trichotomy in this locus very much like the one I offer above. But don’t tell David Ker that I noticed this. He will think I have gone over to the dark side.

  26. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted November 28, 2010 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    I feel that the word “souls” has been misunderstood, however. In the Oxford dictionary meaning #4 is “an individual” as in “not a soul in sight.” This was the meaning of the word “soul” for much of the time, when it appeared in the KJV. However, in the ESV we usually see this updated to “person” or “people.”

    I would suspect that the reason that anashim is not used, is not primarily a gender reason, in fact, I don’t think that gender was a primary category. The primary category is “members of the group” and “non-members of the group” so I think that nephesh here means that Abraham took all of his family as well as those he had acquired, foreign servants and slaves. Anashim would refer only to members of the group or tribe, members with status, who might be only male, or not. Sometimes the women were listed as anashim or ish, when they contributed their weaving to the tabernacle for example. Ish/anashim is not totally a gendered term.

    On another note, rekush does seem to refer to possessions, that is equipment as well as livestock, so I find it hard to justify creating a dichotomy by saying “liveshck and people.” That requires abandoning some sense of the original word. It seems very hard to create a dichotomy in English. I would go back to the king of Sodom for a clue. He said ‘I want the people back but you can keep everything else.’

    IMO “possessions and people” are about as good as it gets. I know that one always wants to improve on the existing translations and somehow add to them, but for myself I am content with the way this is rendered in the NIV, ESv und so weiter.

  27. Mike Sangrey
    Posted November 28, 2010 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    But don’t tell David Ker that I noticed this. He will think I have gone over to the dark side.

    Ahhhhh, my, oooohhhhh, my. You’ve got your deictic center wrong again.

    LOL

    I’ve always admired objectivity, though my subjectivity sometimes misinterprets it. :-)

  28. Posted November 28, 2010 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    John, I’m even more out of depth than usual on this post but I am reading and enjoying the comments. Rick Mansfield, the NLT fanboy, and I, the CEV advocate, tangled over which was the better translation. I won, of course. But NLT is fine. http://lingamish.com/2007/04/bible-version-cage-match-round-3/

  29. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted November 28, 2010 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    I hadn’t looked at the NLT or the CEV, but “slaves” seems a little restrictive in comparison to the expanded form of the NLT, “all the people he had taken into his household.” The NLT simply seems superior given the Hebrew. But “livestock” in the NLT may or may not be accurate. I am still leaning towards “possessions he had acquired and all the people he had taken into his household.” We just have to realize that possessions includes livestock.

    I do not see the NLT as having a trichotomy. What have I missed? Surely “wealth” is in appposition to both “livestock” and “people,” and is a translation of “acquired.”

  30. Posted November 29, 2010 at 12:36 am | Permalink

    Joel H, what evidence is there that this metonymic shift had already occurred by the time of Genesis’ writing? 46:18 isn’t necessarily evidence, as the species of life was quite unambiguous!

  31. JKG
    Posted November 29, 2010 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    It’s interesting to look at what Everett Fox, Robert Alter, and the LXX do with the word under consideration.

    Both Fox and Alter for nephesh have “being” in Deuteronomy 6:5 and, respectively, “a person” and “a living person” in Deuteronomy 24:7.

    In Genesis 12:5, Fox has “and the persons whom they had made-their-own in Harran” (as a contrast with the previous clause, “all their property that they had gained”).

    Alter, likewise, has “and the folk they had bought in Haran” (preceded by a differentiation with the earlier clause, “and all the goods they had gotten”). Alter’s footnote, nonetheless, explains the “personhood” of the “folk” who’d been “bought”:

    5. the folk they had bought in Haran. Slavery was a common institution throughout the ancient Near East. As subsequent stories in Genesis make clear, this was not the sort of chattel slavery later practiced in North America. These slaves had certain limited rights, could be given great responsibility, and were not thought to lose their personhood.

    The LXX translators consistently use ψυχή [psyche] for nephesh in all three verses Joel mentions. Notice that both nephesh and psyche are used for animals in Genesis 1:20, 1:21, 1:24, and 1:30. It’s not until Genesis 2:7 that the two terms are used for humans. The LXX translators follow the Greeks, even Aristotle, in believing that animals possessed psyche (see, for example, Aristotle’s Politics 1227a line 6 and his treatise ΠΕΡΙ ΨΥΧΗΣ On the Soul, 402a lines 4 and 9, where the writer is describing the Nature of animals with Soul.) This shouldn’t muddy the animate / inanimate distinctions that we might make with English and our word “soul.” Nor should it be a problem reading nephesh (or LXX pysche) in Genesis 12:5 as “the people” or “the folk.” I can agree with Suzanne, who says, “my reading of the LXX suggests to me that the translators viewed nephesh as humans when it was not modified in a specific way.”

    At Numbers 31:35, for נפש אדם, the LXX has ψυχαὶ ἀνθρώπων while both Fox and Alter have “human persons.” Clearly, the phrase and the additional context makes this mean the virgin women numbered among the animals and inanimate stuff (or “prey” or “booty” or “spoils”). The language here is metaphorical, with ranges of meanings. “Why does it [Genesis 12:5] say nefesh?”

  32. JKG
    Posted November 29, 2010 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    The other interesting connection between Genesis 12:5 and Numbers 31:35 is the Hebrew and Hebraic Hellene pair of words, אשה and γυναῖκ(α/ῶν). In Genesis, Abram takes his “woman” (Sarai) and all the stuff and folk. In Numbers, Moses and Eleazar the priest do as the LORD commands, and divvy up the stuff and folk, who are “women” that no man has yet “known”. In both cases, the אשה and γυναῖκ(α/ῶν) seem to be נפש and ψυχ(ή/αί). In other words, the wife or the potential wives seem to be people or souls collected and possessed somehow.

  33. EricW
    Posted November 30, 2010 at 2:01 am | Permalink

    It’s interesting to look at what Everett Fox, Robert Alter, and the LXX do with the word under consideration.

    Both Fox and Alter for nephesh have “being” in Deuteronomy 6:5 and, respectively, “a person” and “a living person” in Deuteronomy 24:7.

    In Genesis 12:5, Fox has “and the persons whom they had made-their-own in Harran” (as a contrast with the previous clause, “all their property that they had gained”).

    In his Commentary on the Torah, Richard Elliott Friedman has:

    Deuteronomy 6:5 – soul
    Deuteronomy 24:7 – a person
    Genesis 12:5 – And Abram took Sarai, his wife, and Lot, his brother’s son, and all their property that they had accumulated and the persons whom they had gotten in Haran; and they went out to go to the land of Canaan. And they came to the land of Canaan.

    Interestingly to me, in Genesis 12:5 where it says “…r’chusham asher rachashu…” neither Fox nor Friedmann attempt to mimic the wordplay with perhaps “the acquisitions they had acquired” but Alter kind of does with “the goods they had gotten.”

  34. Posted November 30, 2010 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    JKG, you said, “The LXX translators follow the Greeks, even Aristotle, in believing that animals possessed psyche (see, for example, Aristotle’s Politics 1227a line 6 and his treatise ΠΕΡΙ ΨΥΧΗΣ On the Soul, 402a lines 4 and 9, where the writer is describing the Nature of animals with Soul.)” My impression is that animals were not seen as “having” a soul, but rather as “being” a soul (nephesh/psyche). You can check out what Aristotle wrote better than I can, but my understanding is that he considered the psyche to be the essence of life, and not just one component of a living thing. And whether or not Aristotle considered animals to “possess” a psyche (which I doubt), of course the Jewish people of that time and the translators of the LXX were not bound to Aristotle’s understanding of the nature of the soul. Does the LXX ever refer to animals as “having” a psyche, or rather, does it use the word psyche sometimes to refer to animals? I see an important difference.

  35. Posted November 30, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Joel H, what evidence is there that this metonymic shift had already occurred by the time of Genesis’ writing? 46:18 isn’t necessarily evidence, as the species of life was quite unambiguous!

    Dannii: I’m not sure what you’re asking. Are you raising the possibility that nephesh meant any life form, not just humans? I think it’s possible. My point is that the word refers primarily to the physical aspects of life, making “soul” an especially misleading English translation.

  36. Posted November 30, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Suzanne: I don’t think that “soul” in English is primarily understood as what you cite as the 4th meaning in the Oxford dictionary. I think most people think of “soul” as something ethereal.

    But the example is still instructive.

    If I write that “not a soul was left in the room,” English speakers know that I don’t mean that the room was full of corpses. This is one demonstration of many that a word’s primary meaning need not influence every usage of the word.

  37. Posted November 30, 2010 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    The LXX translators consistently use ψυχή [psyche] for nephesh in all three verses Joel mentions.

    But the LXX is also notoriously literal. I’m not convinced that figuring out what psyche meant in Greek will help us understand what nephesh meant in Hebrew.

  38. Sue
    Posted November 30, 2010 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    My point is that the word refers primarily to the physical aspects of life, making “soul” an especially misleading English translation.

    I agree with you, and did not defend “soul” as a translation. But within the KJV it was probably understandable, and as standing in for “an individual,” rather than a metaphysical term.

  39. JKG
    Posted November 30, 2010 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Interestingly to me, in Genesis 12:5 where it says “…r’chusham asher rachashu…” … attempt to mimic the wordplay with perhaps “the acquisitions they had acquired” but Alter kind of does with “the goods they had gotten.”EricW, that’s good stuff!

    animals were not seen as “having” a soul, but rather as “being” a soul (nephesh/psyche)…. I see an important difference.David Frank, I agree with you it’s surprising that Aristotle does not, in typical fashion, tightly restrict the meaning of psyche (although in Nicomachean Ethics 1139a he does say it must be parsed into the rational and the irrational parts). On “having” a soul rather than just being one, Hippolytus (in Euripides’ play by the same name ) says “παρθένον ψυχὴν ἔχων” or something like, “I have a virgin soul.” I agree with you that the difference here is important.

    the LXX is also notoriously literal. I’m not convinced that figuring out what psyche meant in Greek will help us understand what nephesh meant in Hebrew.Joel H., Agreed. Since Suzanne mentioned the LXX, I agree with her that it’s interesting to see the translation choice. Whether we must brand the Septuagint as “literal” or see it as less consistent than that, the fascinating thing is how much of a semantic overlap there is between the Hebrew word and the Hebrewized Hellene for it. Everett Fox and Robert Alter, who know Hebrew very well and English too for that matter, do what they can in their renderings but footnote the semantic differences between old Hebrew and our Englishes.

  40. Sue
    Posted November 30, 2010 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    The lovely thing about discussing words like psyche and nephesh is that we could go on forever. It is quite fascinating.

  41. JKG
    Posted November 30, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    The lovely thing…. It is quite fascinating.

    In LXX Genesis 41:8, ψυχὴ psyche is used for רוח rúach. But as a break from what might be seen as some always-literal translating, in LXX Job 12:10, there’s ψυχὴ psyche for נפש nephesh and πνεῦμα pneuma for רוח rúach; and, in the same verse, there’s also χειρ cher for יד yad [or for "hand"]. I’m bringing up “hand” here because to call LXX notoriously literal is to neglect how both the Hebrew and the Hebraic Hellene are being metaphorical. Job 12:10, of course, is a question about whose hand, and the rhetorical answer is obviously, “God’s hand” as if God literally has hands. Similarly, Genesis 9:5 has humans with ψυχὴ psyche or נפש nephesh that have “blood” and has animals with “hands” or χειρ cher or יד yad. So it seems to me, if we’re going to accuse the Greek translation of being literal, then we have to see, rather, how it follows the Hebrew. There’s an argument to be made that living parts whether visible hands or blood or invisible souls or breath are used in both Hebrew and in Hellene as metaphorical. Does God have hands? Do animals have souls, or are they souls? Is there a one-to-one correspondence in any case always?

  42. Dannii
    Posted December 1, 2010 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Dannii: I’m not sure what you’re asking. Are you raising the possibility that nephesh meant any life form, not just humans? I think it’s possible. My point is that the word refers primarily to the physical aspects of life, making “soul” an especially misleading English translation.

    When you said “nephesh refers primarily to the tangible aspects of life: breath, blood, and flesh” did you mean “the tangible aspects of human life”? I had thought you meant the meaning shifted from life in general to people, but if you meant the shift was from human life in general to people then my question is a bit less sensical. But only a bit! I’d still be interested to know what evidence there is to know when that meaning shift occurred.

  43. JKG
    Posted December 1, 2010 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    the translators of the LXX were not bound to Aristotle’s understanding of the nature of the soul. Does the LXX ever refer to animals as “having” a psyche, or rather, does it use the word psyche sometimes to refer to animals?

    David Frank,
    I believe I neglected an answer to this question you asked me. The MT Psalm 74:19 does speak of the nephesh of a dove, as if such birds “have” this sort of life and are not essentially souls or lives. The way you put it is: “animals were not seen as ‘having’ a soul, but rather as ‘being’ a soul (nephesh/psyche).” Curiously, the LXX rendering of this Psalm has ψυχή (psyche) but elides any reference to the dove.

    For the Greeks and the Hellenistic Jews, there is some other important distinction for animals/ humans and “having/ being.”  It is this:  What is apparent is that the LXX translators never explicitly attribute to any animal a “mind” or rationality. That is, whereas words such as νοῦς (nous) and ψυχκή (pysche) and σωμα (soma) are attributed to humans in the LXX, the former in this set is exclusively attributed to humans (and not to animals). Are humans, then, in the LXX seen as “minds” and “souls” and “bodies”?  Or are people seen as “having” these living components?  And are LXX animals only “souls” and “bodies” without minds?

    In 4 Maccabees 1:32,35 we have some evidence of how human parts are viewed by the LXX writer/translators:

    Of the desires, some pertain to the soul [ψυχικαί], others to the body [σωματικαί], and it is apparent that reason [λογισμὸς] prevails over both of these.

    For the passions of the appetites are restrained, checked by the temperate mind [νοὸς], and all the emotions of the body [σώματος] are bridled by reason [λογισμοῦ].

    This bit of LXX looks in some ways similar to Aristotle and to the NT (to Hellenes and to Hellenistic Jews in the Roman empire).  So what about Aristotle and the New Testament?  What do they say?

    Well, Aristotle’s treatise “On the Soul” (or “De Anima” or ΠΕΡΙ ΨΥΧΗΣ) gets right to the animal / human /god question first thing. Aristotle early on stresses:

    We must be careful not to ignore the question whether soul can be defined in a single unambiguous formula, as is the case with animal, or whether we must not give a separate formula for each of it, as we do for horse, dog, [hu]man, god (in the latter case the ‘universal’ animal-and so too every other ‘common predicate’-being treated either as nothing at all or as a later product).

    Later, Aristotle begins saying what others say about the “psyche” and notes the following:

    Anaxagoras (and whoever agrees with him in saying that mind [νοῦς] set the whole in movement) declares the moving cause of things to be soul [ψυχη]…. in many places he tells us that the cause of beauty and order is mind [νοῦς], elsewhere that it is soul [ψυχη]; it is found, he says, in [ἐν] all animals, great and small, high and low, but mind [νοῦς] (in the sense of intelligence [φρόνησιν]) appears not to belong [ὑπάρχειν] alike to all animals, and indeed not even to all human beings.

    Aristotle is recognizing that some Greek observers contend that animals “have” soul but not mind. These distinctions of soul and mind (and body) of living beings do appear in the LXX (for humans anyway).

    As for the NT, Joel H. has already pointed us to Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27, where the writers add the human “mind [διά-νοια]” to what the LXX translators rendered for living components in Deuteronomy 6:5 (i.e., “heart [καρδία],” “soul [ψυχη],” dynamic power [δύναμις]).

  44. Posted December 1, 2010 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    JKG, thank you for your reply. The issues we have been discussing are of great interest to me, and I have done some research over the years, but I am not an expert; just a very interested amateur when it comes to ANE and ancient Greek science and philosophy and worldview. If Aristotle did not claim to have it all of this stuff about the soul figured out, he was just being honest.
    Regarding Psalm 74:19 (I believe it is marked as 73:19 in the LXX), and whether or not that passage can be considered to support the idea that doves were seen as “having” a soul, it is significant to note that in this passage “dove” is a symbol of God’s people. If is very interesting to see the variety of ways that that verse is translated into English. Some–but not all–of that variation is due to the fact that there is some manuscript variation. But if “dove” here is a symbol of Israel, then you can’t draw any conclusion as to whether or not in that language and worldview animals were seen as “having” a nephesh. But I believe that if you could talk about an animal as “having” [a] nephesh, that would be in effect saying that the animal has life, i.e., it is alive. Again, I’m probably out of my depth here. Still, in conclusion, I don’t think there is any basis for saying that in the ancient world as reflected in the Hebrew scriptures or the LXX translation of them, animals were understood to have souls, if by “soul” we are thinking in terms of our modern concept of a soul.
    Regarding the three parts of a person as reflected in Deut. 6:5, and its rendering as four parts in the Greek attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, I appreciate what Joel H says. I have studied a very good article on this topic by Robert Bascom entitled “Adaptable for Translation: Deuteronomy 6.5 in the Synoptic Gospels and Beyond.” Bascom’s paper has probably been published by now, but I only have it in manuscript form that he gave me about seven years ago. But I believe it is quite true what Joel H. and others have said, that it would be fallacious to read our contemporary concept of the soul (though that varies from one person to another) back into the ancient Hebrew nephesh or Greek psyche.

  45. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted December 2, 2010 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    it would be fallacious to read our contemporary concept of the soul (though that varies from one person to another) back into the ancient Hebrew nephesh or Greek psyche.

    I didn’t think anyone here was doing that, but of course, it would be fallacious. I did suggest that the word “soul” in English also has the meaning of “individual” probably derived from the KJV, and from psyche and nephesh. Ofter all, a “lonely soul”, or a “funny little soul”, is really just a person. These expressions actually are found in google. I did not just make them up, in case anyone wants to dissect them as “not English.” :)

  46. Posted December 2, 2010 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Suzanne, I didn’t mean to be correcting you. I agree with your point, that “soul” can sometimes mean “person” in English, even if that usage is somewhat marginal or dated. In fact, I remember making that same point myself once at an academic conference, in response to a paper on Hebrew nephesh in connection with English “soul” in connection with Bible translation given by someone who was not a native speaker of English and was not a Bible translator himself. So the comments I have been making on nephesh here are more in response to some ignorant things I have heard elsewhere. Besides the conference presentation I just mentioned, I also remember a conversation I had with a seminary graduate who said that the Hebrew scriptures sometimes talked about animals as having souls. I think I was able to convince him that in the Hebrew scriptures, animals were not said to “have” souls, but rather are referred to as souls, with a different meaning of that word than we normally use in English today. I also remember a theological discussion with a colleague who was a trichotomist, who believed that, besides having a body, a person had a soul which was not immortal and a spirit which is immortal. This person used Ezekial 18:20 as a proof text: “The soul that sins will die.”

  47. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted December 2, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Thanks David.

    I have to admit that once we get to the metaphysical, I am agnostic. With my dog’s big brown eyes watching me, I find it hard to agree that dogs do not have souls. ;)

  48. Posted December 2, 2010 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    I believe Martin Luther suggested that dogs have souls, or that dogs would be with us in heaven, or something like that. How serious he was about that, I don’t know.

  49. JKG
    Posted December 2, 2010 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    In a very sarcastic and unflattering way, Iago (in Shakespeare’s Othello) exclaims,

    “Those fellowes haue some soule.”

    And (in Merchant of Venice), Gratiano agrees with Pythagoras, whom Aristotle reviews,

    “that soules of Animalls infuse themselues into the trunks of men”

  50. JKG
    Posted December 2, 2010 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    (I meant to say, for all who didn’t realize it, that Gratiano by his comments in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semite, that he’s calling Jewish people dogs, and that he’s referring to the Pythagorean conception of psyche which, according to Aristotle, is that “any soul could be clothed upon with any body”. It’s not a Jewish or Christian biblical view, by the way, whether you read the MT or the LXX or the NT.)

  51. Posted December 3, 2010 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    Re: Martin Luther and All Dogs Go to Heaven: I think his view was that *his* dog would be in Heaven, and that he was agnostic about all other dogs. As a cat fancier myself, I feel marginalized.

    Re: παρθένον ψυχὴν ἔχων: Kurk, could this be one of those “stative” uses of ἔχω, such as oi kakos echontes for “the sick,” or its opposite kompsoteron eschen [working from memory here] for “he got better?” παρθένον ψυχὴν ἔχων sounds like a state-of-being description. So, is it possible that rendering ἔχω as “to have” is ignoring an idiomatic “non-have” use of ἔχω?

    In short: to have, or not to have? Ecce quaestionem habeo.

  52. JKG
    Posted December 3, 2010 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    So, is it possible that rendering ἔχω as “to have” is ignoring an idiomatic “non-have” use of ἔχω?

    Gary, What a great question. Well, you may know me, that I’d like to concede, It’s always “possible.” By analogy to your examples, we can see some things Euripides does with ἔχω in contrast with his very funny, παρθένον ψυχὴν ἔχων.

    There really is the sort of idiomatic “non-have” (as you put it) in Supplices (240): οἳ δ’ οὐκ ἔχοντες, which Eugene O’Neil gets away with translating as “the poor.” But in Hippolytus, the construct seems to beg an emphasis on the kind of soul that a chaste young woman “has.” To be clear, females were virgins; and that was very very important in some contexts for men. In this context, young Hippolytus complains to his father that his accusations of him are unfair. The limited context (as David Kovacs translates) is as follows:

    “One thing has not touched me, that wherein you think you have convicted me: to this very moment my body is pure of the bed of love. I do not know this act save by report or seeing it in painting. I am not eager to look at it either, since I have a virgin soul.”

    It’s “possible” to say that Hippolytus is not saying he “has” such a soul but that he’s saying he “is” a virgin (soul). I other words, “I’m an untouched maiden, Daddy.” However, I’m not sure the Greek audience would snicker as loudly at that. I think Euripides is taking advantage of the well-known, popular Pythagorean conception of any soul being able to have any body (or vice versa); and for a son to defend himself to his father (man to man, male to male) and to say he “has” a female on the inside, well, that, in the Greek tragedy would definitely “have” the rather ironic sense to it.

  53. Posted March 11, 2011 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    Strong’s Hebrew #5315 = SPN – translated, “soul” 466 times.
    In Genesis 12.5: SPNH = “the soul” — but this is a general word sometimes used to represent “all souls” — of a group.
    MSRK – #7408 – is gathering.

    “Who knowing spirit of son of the man [Adam] the coming, [saving] she* to from coming, and spirit of the beast, the [one] going down to down to earth” – Eccl. 3.21.

    Some have written that “soul” is body, breath, and spirit. The “soul” is described as, “My darling” and represented as a feminine lover of man. Enoch was recorded,
    “he/she walked (KLHTY) with the Gods” (MYHLAH; Father & Son. This meant “man and soul [bride].”


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