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Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How to Love the Lord Your God – Part 2, “Soul”

A while ago I explained why I don’t think “heart” is an accurate translation in “Love the Lord your God with all your heart [and] all your soul,” from Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5. The reason was that the original referred to both emotion and intellect, while “heart” in English is generally only the former.

I think that “soul” is an even worse translation. Here’s why.

“Soul” in English

there are two parts to being human, our internal processes and our physical stuff”

Most people don’t agree on what exactly a “soul” is in English. For some, it’s what lives on after death. For others, it has more to do with lifeforce. Nonetheless, most people do agree on certain aspects: the soul is intangible, for example, and there’s something mystical or unworldly about it. And in this regard, it’s worthwhile to point out that even those who don’t think people have souls know what “soul” means. (I’m reminded of J.-E. Renan: O Seigneur, s’il y a un Seigneur ; sauvez mon ame, si j’ai une ame – “O Lord, if there is a Lord, save my soul, if I have a soul.”) So in spite of disagreement about some things, “soul” does have a core meaning common to most English speakers.

We do have a few expressions in English that veer off in other directions, most notably the metonymic use of “soul” for “person,” as in, “17 souls were lost at sea.” (Also, it’s been widely observed that “bless her soul” in certain dialects really just means, “I’m about to say something nasty about her.”) But these are exceptions. The “soul” in English is intangible, amorphous, and perhaps eternal.

“Soul” in the Bible


The English “soul” is supposed to translate the Hebrew word nefesh (also commonly spelled nephesh) but the Hebrew nefesh isn’t at all what we would call a “soul.”

The first sign that things have gone wrong comes from Leviticus. In 7:18, for example, we see that the nefesh does the eating. We see the same thing in 7:27, which warns about any nefesh that eats blood. Certainly it’s the body, not the soul, in English that does the eating and drinking. But in Hebrew it’s the nefesh.

Additionally, we read in Leviticus 17:11 that “the nefesh of flesh is in the blood … it is blood that atones for the nefesh.” Though opinions differ about where the soul in English might be located, it’s pretty clearly not in the blood. Yet that’s exactly where the nefesh lies in Hebrew. Furthermore, we actually see a close connection here between nefesh and blood.

Leviticus 24:17-18 gives us more information. There, we read that anyone who wounds the nefesh of a person will be put to death, and anyone who wounds the nefesh of an animal will pay for it, “a nefesh for a nefesh.” These passages are clearly not about what we would call “souls” in English. They are about the physical body.

The parallelism in Psalm 63:1 (“my nefesh thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you,” NRSV) helps us further. There nefesh is in parallel with basar, “flesh.” So in addition to having something to do with the blood, we learn specifially that nefesh is related to the flesh.

Finally, in I Kings 17:19-22, we learn that the nefesh is related to the “breath.” Elijah revives a dead boy by laying him down (17:19), stretching himself over the boy (17:21) and then the nefesh “of the child came into him again, and he revived” (NRSV). The passage is almost certainly about mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. (Elijah’s disciple, Elisha, also knew how to perform mouth-to-mouth, as we read in II Kings 4:8, where Elisha puts his mouth on the mouth of a dead child to revive him.)

So the nefesh is related to the blood, to the flesh, and — we now see — to the breath.

In short, nefesh was the tangible aspects of life, that is, everything that could be touched: the blood, the flesh, and the physical breath. This is why “soul” is such a disasterous translation for nefesh. “Soul” in English is precisely that which is intangible, while nefesh is the opposite.


The situation in Greek — where we find psuche (also commonly transliterated psyche) for the Hebrew nefesh — is more complicated.

Like its Hebrew counterpart, the Greek psuche can refer to the physical aspects of life. In Matthew 6:25, for example, the psuche does the eating and drinking. But in Matthew 10:28, we see psuche used in contrast to the phsycial body.

So the Greek word is used both in the Hebrew sense of nefesh and in the English sense of “soul.” (Actually, the English word is probably used in the Greek sense, but it works out the same.) Still, we can be fairly certain that in the context of kardia (“heart,” but not really), psuche in Greek matches what nefesh means in Hebrew, both because the quote is from Hebrew, and for a more fundamental reason:

“Love with All Your Heart and Soul”

We’ve already seen that the word translated as “heart” really refers to emotions and intellect together. Now we see that the word translated as “soul” refers to the physical aspects of life.

Taken together, they form a nice pair: the first word refers to the intangible aspects of being human, and the second word to the tangible aspects. The concepts are just like software (“heart”) and hardware (“soul”) for computers, but applied to people. We don’t have words like these in English, but I think it’s fascinating that they did in antiquity, as if to say that there are two parts to being human, our internal processes and our physical stuff.

The commandment is to love God with both.

[Update: The third part in this series is here.]


January 11, 2012 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. […] is also a major mistranslation), as I hope to address soon. [Update: the explanation of "soul" is here: "How to Love the Lord Your God — Part 2, Soul."] Advertisement GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); […]

    Pingback by How to Love the Lord Your God – Part 1, “Heart” « God Didn't Say That | January 11, 2012

  2. Nice post, and your analogy to “computers” is very helpful. The thing about “heart” is that it is still the English word for an internal (and therefore rather invisible) body part — so the metaphorical extensions are easy. “Soul,” however, has no physical or human bodypart counterpart — and remains relatively abstract. I would go for changing “soul” (for nefesh or for psyche) to something more like “personality,” which also in English has no physical bodypart counterpart.

    One more thing: I do believe our modern English is just as dimensional as ancient Hebrew and now-dead Greek (of the scriptures of Judaism and of Christianity). In other words, the English translation of Matthew 6:25 still makes sense when “the psuche does the eating and drinking” as the “soul” doing eating and drinking. Here’s similar English language — comprehensible, if metaphorical — from science journalist Jennifer Ackerman, who published this in 2008:

    “Until lately, there was plenty of anecdotal evidence that eating that brownie or chocolate bar might temporarily soothe the nervous soul but little in the way of scientific confirmation.”

    I’m not sure that using a different English word for “soul” (i.e., “nervous lifeforce that lives on after death” or “nervous personality”) would be better for Ackerman. I am quite confident in saying that her use of “soul” here is similar to uses of “nefesh” in the Hebrew Bible and of “psyche” in the Septuagint and the New Testament.

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | January 11, 2012

    • “Until lately, there was plenty of anecdotal evidence that eating that brownie or chocolate bar might temporarily soothe the nervous soul…”

      …I am quite confident in saying that her use of “soul” here is similar to uses of “nefesh” in the Hebrew Bible and of “psyche” in the Septuagint and the New Testament.

      I don’t think so. When I read “nervous soul” here, I think of something beyond simply the body, while I think that nefesh referred exclusively to the body and other tangible aspects of life. I think that the English “soul” and perhaps even the Greek psuche point us in the wrong direction for nefesh.

      Another example I didn’t give in the post comes from Deuteronomy 24:7, which demands death for anyone who “steals a nefesh.” This is quite clearly kidnapping, and nothing more.

      And for that matter, there’s Numbers 6:6, which refers to the “nefesh of the dead.”

      Comment by Joel H. | January 12, 2012

      • First of all, it is not necessarily the case that all of the authors of the scriptures used any word with an identical referent.

        Secondly, there are certainly places where “person” is the more obvious referent; for example:

        Gen 14:20 And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all.
        Gen 14:21 And the king of Sodom said unto Abram, Give me the **persons**, and take the goods to thyself.

        Comment by bibleshockers | January 12, 2012

  3. Sorry to comment again so soon, but I did mean to give the link to Ackerman’s book, where she writes of the nervous soul eating a brownie or chocolate bar.

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | January 11, 2012

    • Not to worry. Anything involving brownies and chocolate bars deserves to be posted at least twice.

      Comment by Joel H. | January 12, 2012

  4. Thanks for a great summary. Nephesh is one of my highlighted words that resists translation. (My other two are the Tetragrammeton and chesed/chasid/chasidim)

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | January 11, 2012

  5. ISTM that nephesh suggest neither the hardware nor the software but rather the computer itself – the “living being.” (By the way, ship manifestos speak of how many “souls” are on board a ship, since they might also have dead bodies!)

    Gen_2:7 And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
    1Co_15:45 And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit [lifegiving breath].
    Rev_16:3 And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead man: and every living soul died in the sea.

    Comment by bibleshockers | January 11, 2012

  6. This is a great post. I’ve always thought that the English translation of the verse in question sounded a little.. redundant, perhaps? I understand “heart” and “soul” can have different applications and contexts, but in THIS context I completely agree they are both referring to intangibles when they should refer to the two different and complementary parts every person is comprised of. I suppose I’ve always inwardly thought of this verse as reading, “Love the Lord your God with all your being.” Perhaps a little over-simplified, but for me it serves as a better reminder that our love for God should permeate all aspects of our lives, not merely the intangible part of ourselves. Also, thank you for explaining the Hebrew word “nefesh” and Greek word “psuche” so well! ~Mary Beth

    Comment by Mary Beth Phelps | January 12, 2012

  7. […] Joel Hoffman’s latest post is on translation of the Hebrew word nefesh. As usual, it’s another good post from a scholar who demonstrates that a good background in linguistics as well as the biblical languages can combine to produce better Bibles (in translation) […]

    Pingback by Translating Hebrew nefesh « Better Bibles Blog | January 17, 2012

  8. “Of the forty-two hundred souls on board the ship went it went over, six are dead, twenty-nine are missing including two Americans.”

    This is a statement from reporter Brian Williams on the US television news program, Rock Center, that aired last evening, 1/16/2012, Williams and co-reporter Harry Smith are looking into the tragic incident of the ship wreck of the cruise liner Costa Concordia. (The statement is 30 seconds in on the video, which can be found online here:

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/46019036#46019036 )

    4200 souls on board the ship, 6 are dead, 29 are missing. The question is whether the cruise ship captain and crew should be held responsible for these souls.

    This use of “soul” in English sounds an awful lot like “nefesh” in the Bible as you describe it in your additional example:

    “Another example I didn’t give in the post comes from Deuteronomy 24:7, which demands death for anyone who ‘steals a nefesh.’ This is quite clearly kidnapping, and nothing more.”


    Comment by J. K. Gayle | January 17, 2012

    • I think “4,200 souls on board” is an exceptional use of “soul” in English, as I mention in the main post. (For reasons that aren’t clear, this exceptional use is more common in the context of boating, but we also see it in phrases like, “not a soul was left in the room.”)

      But I don’t think that we learn much about how English speakers understand “soul” in “love the Lord … with all your soul” by looking at the few cases where “soul” just means “person.”

      On the other hand, we never find any evidence in Hebrew that nefesh refers to anything but the physicality of life.

      Comment by Joel H. | January 17, 2012

      • Biblical Hebrew may be narrower, but the Hebrew wikipedia does seem to separate nefesh from the physicality of life. The opening sentence of the first paragraph goes like this:

        הפילוסופיה עוסקת בשאלת יחסי גוף ונפש.

        Does this mean that modern Hebrew makes the distinction between גוף and נפש, between something soulish and something fleshish – but biblical Hebrew never made this distinction?

        By the way, the Oxford English Dictionary claims that the English word, soul, first showed up in the year 825 CE, in the gloss of the Latin of the Vespasian Psalter. The OED example is at Psalm 78:50 – “He ne spearede from deaðe sawlum heara.” The Latin term glossed (if you go to page 299 here http://www.archive.org/stream/oldestenglishte00churgoog#page/n309/mode/2up ) is animabus, which is, of course, a term meaning more than just body (i.e., as in Augustine’s “De Duabus Animabus Contra Manichaeos”). The OED speculate which languages the new English would have come from but concludes with, “The ultimate etymology is uncertain.” English Bible translators from there on, it seems, started using variant spellings of “sawlum” and “soul” for the Latin translation of nefesh, namely animabus.

        And the “exceptional” use of soul with “boating” does not seem to come into English (according to the OED) until as late as 1903 CE. Since English has had soul for so long in biblical language, for nefesh, and since modern Hebrew still seems to maintain the idea that נפש means more “person” than it does גוף just “body” – then the speculation is what old biblical Hebrew really meant.

        Robert Alter with Frank Kermode do say (in The Literary Guide to the Bible, page 653) –
        “With common words there is great consistency of translation: lekhem is, more likely than not, rendered as ‘bread,’ nefesh as ‘soul,’ leb as ‘heart.’ How we feel about this practice must partly be governed by our attitude toward canonicity.”

        But Alter, in his translation of Torah, says this (in a footnote at Leviticus 17:10) –
        “In similar contexts elsewhere, the polyvalent Hebrew nefesh is rendered in this translation simply as “person,”but here it is important to add the notion it implies of life because the use of the term puns on nefesh in the sense of ‘life’ as it appears in the next verse.”

        So I think good English Bible translators, like Alter, are concerned with more than just canonicity (i.e., the principle that would allow one to smooth out differences between the Hebrew and the Greek, Latin, and English words for the Hebrew). There is wordplay to consider, and the dimensionality of the Hebrew words in their contexts that would stretch their meanings beyond just a single dimension or a flat and cut-and-dried well-contained meaning. For better or for worse, language changes not only diachronically but also synchronically. And it’s not just nefesh in modern Hebrew that seems to suggest something more than and even other than the body.

        Comment by J. K. Gayle | January 17, 2012

      • Yes, Modern Hebrew differs in this regard. The Modern Hebrew word nefesh — unlike its older counterpart — is close to our English “soul.”

        Comment by Joel H. | January 17, 2012

      • Uh… so what does “soul” mean in English! http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/soul The primary meaning they give is RUACH in scripture (“breath”)!

        Comment by bibleshockers | January 17, 2012

      • My question is whether the Modern Hebrew word nefesh is ever used to refer to the physical aspects of life? Just out of interest.

        Comment by Robert Kan | January 17, 2012

      • Only the same way “soul” is in English, as a metonymic extension.

        Comment by Joel H. | January 17, 2012

      • Why would you not insist in this case that the same principle of extension can be applied to biblical Hebrew?

        Comment by Robert Kan | January 17, 2012

      • I think the Hebrew nefesh can also be used metonymically, and, in this case, they metonymic meanings of nefesh and “soul” overlap: they both mean “person.” But that doesn’t mean that their core meanings are the same. I still insist that “soul” refers primarily to intangible aspects of life, while nefesh refers to the tangible ones.

        Comment by Joel H. | January 18, 2012

  9. […] two previous postings (here and here) I show how “Love the Lord your God with all your heart [and] all your soul” — […]

    Pingback by How to Love the Lord Your God – Part 3, “Heart and Soul” « God Didn't Say That | January 18, 2012

  10. Looking at how it is used, especially where “the nefesh of the boy came back into his body”…. brings to mind more the idea of what was once called “vital force”. It would not be what we call “soul” nowadays, as it would indeed be linked with blood, breath and flesh. It might be more analogous to electricity in the hardware-software analogy. While we don’t think of vital force as a concept nowadays, I believe that variants of it were pretty common at the time that Tanakh was written.

    If it is related to the idea of “vital force”, It would put an interesting spin on the idea of “wounding the nefesh”, as it would mean not just a trauma wound (e.g. cut/fracture/etc.) but anything that somehow diminished the person’s physical vitality.

    Comment by GrayForest | January 20, 2012

    • Looking at how it is used, especially where “the nefesh of the boy came back into his body”… brings to mind more the idea of what was once called “vital force”.

      I can see why you might think so, but I wonder how much of that comes from you preconceptions that push you in that direction. I don’t see anything about the text “the nefesh of the boy came back into his body” that points toward anything beyond “breath.” The boy couldn’t breathe. Elijah breathed out of his own mouth into the boy’s mouth, and the nefesh entered the boy.

      And taken in combination with the other uses, especially the close connection to “flesh,” I don’t really see any evidence for “vital force.”

      I think it’s again like “hardware and software.” One interesting aspect of that word combination is that it’s used almost exclusively of computers, but it still doesn’t mean the same thing as “the computer” or “the whole computer” etc.

      Comment by Joel H. | January 22, 2012

  11. >>>I don’t really see any evidence for “vital force.”

    Does the Hebrew read well if you understand it as “consciousness”?

    Comment by bibleshockers | January 22, 2012

    • This particular line reads well with lots of possible translations for nefesh, including “consciousness,” but also including, say, “oxygen.”

      I think the goal is to see how all of the pieces of this translation puzzle best fit together. As I write in And God Said:

      It’s like a complicated riddle: What do living animals and people
      have? And it has something to do with the blood and the flesh. And
      it’s in the blood. And it sometimes means “person.” And it
      sometimes means “animal.” And it has something to do with eating.
      And it means “corpse.” (And let us not forget the part that raised
      the issue in the first place: you use it to love God.)

      (The meaning of “corpse” comes from Numbers 6:6, which forbids Nazirites from approaching the “nefesh of the dead.” I didn’t include that reference in this on-line discussion of nefesh.)

      Comment by Joel H. | January 23, 2012

      • So it means “corpse” when it refers to a dead “person”.
        And it means “person” when it is used metonymically, as in eating and drinking.
        And it means “animal” when referring to it’s life?
        So, wouldn’t the basic meaning be “physical life”, because life is associated with the elements of breath and blood within the bodily system? Take either away, and physical life is no more – you are left with a dead “nefesh”. You can take life by either extracting its blood or depriving it of oxygen (apart from beating it to death).

        Comment by Robert Kan | January 23, 2012

  12. So, wouldn’t the basic meaning be “physical life”,

    Pretty much. I would phrase it as the “physicality of life,” which combines with levav, the “non-physicality of life.”

    Comment by Joel H. | January 24, 2012

    • According to Deut 14:26, “nephesh” also had something to do with desiring, as a precursor to eating. So I can appreciate the translation “soul” in this context. Here, it seems to mean something like “inner self”, as referring to the individual with its motives, ambitions and desires.

      Comment by Robert Kan | January 25, 2012

  13. I don’t think so. I think the point here is pretty straightforward: get the food you want to eat.

    I think craving jelly beans, for example, is a different sort of thing than craving success or inner peace or what not.

    Comment by Joel H. | January 25, 2012

    • I still can’t seem to walk away from this idea that there may be more that is going on with ‘nefesh’ than what initially meets the eye. When I read that it’s in the blood and the blood makes atonement for it, this comes across as a pretty heavy statement. I mean, what did they know and understand about blood in order to make such a claim? We wouldn’t find this kind of knowledge in a modern medical textbook.

      I understand the overwhelming evidence points to what you are saying. But, when considered in the overall context of scripture, would you not entertain the possibility that there are exceptions to the rule as to when ‘nephesh’ is not merely tangible?

      Comment by Robert Kan | January 25, 2012

      • what did they know and understand about blood

        I’m sure they knew the two facts that are important here: you can touch it, and if it leaves your body you die.

        I think the blood/nefesh connection according to which blood atones for the nefefsh is technical magic, in other words, “X fixes X.”

        But, when considered in the overall context of scripture, would you not entertain the possibility that there are exceptions to the rule as to when ‘nephesh’ is not merely tangible?

        I don’t see any evidence for it in the OT. I wonder about psuche in the NT, which I think is sometimes the same as the OT nefesh, and sometimes completely different.

        Comment by Joel H. | January 25, 2012

      • My own view is that the evidence is that the ancient/Mosaic viewpoint is completely “materialistic” – ie: they had no abstractions, no concept of an immaterial “spirit” deity, deputies (“angels”), and other Greek vagueries. Nor was this unique to Jews. The Egyptians, when they embalmed, preserved the body, with special attention given to the organs that they associated with what we now know are just different functions of the brain, such as “heart” (mind), “kidneys” (for secret motives), etc. These were carefully placed under the special protection of the appropriate deities.

        So when Adam “became a living NEPHESH”, as Joel points out, he was “an animated statue” or “claymation”. There was no discreet “soul”… his heart was his thought, his kidneys his motives… To say he was a living “being” or “person” was as accurate a translation as he was a living “construct”… because their whole world view was so physical.

        But this is not *OUR* world view. We’re more comfortable with abstractions and with scientific accuracy. In *our* world[view], an animated body has no intelligence. Our intelligence, we think, resides in our mind – not our heart!

        So, there is no way to phrase an ancient Hebrew text to both accurately reflect the text and our experience of that text. But my best try would be that he became a “living being”. Greek-influenced, I know, but the best I can do… For Joel, it is “living body”… just as true to his criteria as is mine to mine. You’ll have to work out your own for yours!

        Comment by bibleshockers | January 25, 2012

  14. Guys, I think I have to beg to differ.

    “Blood” shedding also pollutes/defiles the land. This is another heavy and profound idea. Hence, a ‘nefesh’ for a ‘nefesh’.

    How does something that is merely physical “defile” the land?

    Furthermore, when innocent “blood” is shed, it cries out from the ground.

    Would anyone claim that there was absolutely no intentional connection between all of this “stuff”? Please…..

    Comment by Robert Kan | January 25, 2012

    • Numbers 35:33 is among my absolute favorite passages, because of its emphasis on the inherent loss whenever anyone is killed. But I don’t think the point there is that just any blood pollutes the land, but rather more specifically the blood of the slain. So while it’s a very powerful idea, I don’t see the connection to nefesh.

      Equally, I also don’t agree that the OT view of human life is that we are simply physical beings. Though I don’t see evidence of a soul as we think of it now, the OT view seems to be that humans are exalted above everything else on this earth.

      Comment by Joel H. | January 26, 2012

      • For me, the idea that it is only blood that atones for the “nefesh” sticks out like a sore thumb.
        This is truly profound: the “nefesh” needs “fixing”, as you have acknowledged.
        How could we possibly appreciate that it needs fixing if we don’t look beyond the physical realm?

        There are some places, like in Numbers 35, where “blood” is used in an intangible sense.
        I believe we need give “nefesh” the same kind of consideration, especially with respect to atonement.

        I would entertain that a “nefesh” is a “moral agent”, and is therefore personally responsible and absolutely accountable for what it does. It answers to the one who has authority over it.

        Comment by RobertKan | January 26, 2012

  15. Thank you so very much. Adin Steinsaltz interpretation of the two creation stories align very nicely with you. Adam 1 {tangible) has dominion over the earth and Adam 2 (intangible) tends the garden. 1 asks how, 2 asks why. Ultimately though, they are the same being of levav and nefesh. As a related aside, The modern translation of Adonai is Lord. The archaic translation was “To Be.” Thus the Shema becomes: “Hear, Israel, [To Be] is God, [To Be] is One. Pure Nefesh.

    Comment by scott schear | June 23, 2012

  16. It’s not just humans who have a soul (nefesh). The Lord does too as these passages show.

    Isa 42:1 Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles.

    Jer 32:41 Yea, I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will plant them in this land assuredly with my whole heart and with my whole soul.

    “Soul” seems to be more than just a one-dimensional word. It can engage in a physical activity like eating, but it can also engage in an abstract one like delighting. Surely, nefesh in these contexts is intangible, abstract. And Jer 42:1 seems to prove that the heart/soul pairing is not a mind/body one.

    Comment by Robert Kan | November 23, 2012

  17. Thank You so much for this in depth look at these words. Many a Christians have for long been looking for answers like these. The internet has come to it’s purpose.

    Comment by Kevin Williams | September 1, 2013

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