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Bloody Souls

March 7, 2011

There are all sorts of common Christian phrases that involve souls. Christians win souls, save souls, and are often primarily concerned with the state of their own souls because they believe that it will be these souls that will go to heaven. Oddly, though, I’ve never heard another Christian warn me against eating bloody souls. I say “oddly” because this is a Biblical usage of the Hebrew word for soul, נפש (nephesh)*. An investigation is in order: what are souls, and how do they bleed?

There is actually one short piece of business to take care of first: the modern English idea of a soul. In modern English souls and spirits are basically identical non-corporeal parts of one that contain one’s person. Depending on how deeply influenced the speaker is by Cartesian dualism (the normal level is “too deeply”) the soul is more or less connected to the body. For the serious dualist the soul is barely in communication with the body. In fact, every once in awhile souls (in folk mythology, at least) become entirely unmoored from their bodies and wander about. While “ghost” is no longer synonymous with soul and spirit the connection still runs one way – ghosts can be called by both names. This, at least, lies outside of Hebrew usage. In Hebrew ghosts are אוב (‘owb) and are normally mentioned in the context of necromancy. In Greek things are a little more complicated. There is a specific word for ghosts, φαντασμα (phantasma), but in Luke 24:39 “spirit” is used to refer to what seems to be a ghost.

But what about those bloody souls? In Hebrew one of the things a soul does is make you live. A number of passages use “living souls” to mean “animals” (see Genesis 1:20). Others use it to refer to the life of a person, such as Genesis 37:21 where Reuben argues against killing Joseph by saying, “Let us not take his soul.”

This usage is extended in a fairly natural way: a soul can also mean a person. In 2 Kings 10:24 Jehu threatens his soldiers by saying that any man that allows one of Jehu’s enemies to escape will be killed – literally that the soldier’s soul will be taken in exchange for the enemy’s soul. If we thought soul only meant life we would translate this into something like “a life for a life”. However, it could also mean “a life for a person” or “a person for a person”. This helps make sense of texts like Deuteronomy 10:22 where “seventy souls” clearly means “seventy people”. These are not people in any abstract sense, either. Souls can have blood (Jeremiah 2:34), get hungry (Psalm 107:9), be torn apart (Psalm 7:2), bow to the ground (Psalm 44:25), and be put in irons (Psalm 105:18). These are all characteristics of physical people. In fact, despite the fact that soul can mean life one can speak of a dead soul (Leviticus 21:11, Haggai 2:13) to indicate a corpse!

The final use of “soul” is the one closest to our English one: a soul can be the abstract person, the self. In Genesis 23:8 Abraham begins negotiations about a burial plot by saying, “If it is with your souls to bury my dead….” The action he asks for isn’t help with the burial but the sale of a plot of land. “If it is with your souls” seems to mean “if you are willing”. A soul here is one’s decision-making center, the mind or self. However, it is not only what we (in another form of dualism unfamiliar to the Bible) would call rational decisions: desires are also ascribed to the soul. In Genesis 34:8 Hamor attempts to smooth over his son’s rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah with a statement that begins, “My son Shechem’s soul desires your daughter.” In Deuteronomy 14:26 a command to hold a feast to the Lord includes the statement that one should buy whatever one’s soul desires. The list of possible items includes cattle, sheep, wine, and liquor.

The soul also experiences emotions. In Genesis 42:21 Joseph’s brothers explain that they have seen the distress in their father’s soul. In the famous Deuteronomy 6:5 the soul is said to love. The soul also engages in actions and attitudes: in Deuteronomy 4:29 it searches, in Deuteronomy 11:13 it serves, and in 1 Samuel 2:35 the faithful priest will do what is in God’s heart and soul. Like the heart the soul can also be guarded (Deuteronomy 4:9), poured out (1 Samuel 1:15), and (in a phrase Biblical Hebrew uses of the heart) one can talk to or listen to one’s soul as a way to say one has pondered something (Psalm 13:2). This last usage, a form of self-reference, is found in other cases as well. Jeremiah 4:19 says “my soul hears” to mean “I hear”. While this is a complicated category it is a unitary whole: “soul” overlaps with the English words “heart”, “mind”, and “self”. Here is the storage container for the person, the thing that makes a person a person and not just a member of the human species.

Not surprisingly these same categories carry over into Greek. After all, the Greek in the New Testament is written by people who have had their use of language shaped by Hebrew. In Revelation 8:9 we see the usage of soul as “life” or “living” – a third of the souls (living creatures) in the sea are destroyed. Acts 7:14 uses “seventy-five souls” to indicate seventy-five people. And, of course, souls function in the mind/heart/self manner. In Matthew 26:38 Jesus’ soul is grieved. In the ESV translation one can even find ψυχη (psuche, soul) translated as mind (Philippians 1:27) and heart (Ephesians 6:6).

It’s in the Greek that we see the first use that suggests anything like the modern Christian concept of an invisible self that lives on after death. In Matthew 10:28 Jesus speaks of those who can kill the body but also of the one who can destroy both body and soul. This, obviously, requires some extra beliefs about the soul beyond those already covered. However, these are beliefs about the soul and not part of its definition. One could insist in Greek that one’s soul did not live on after death. This would not be a denial of the existence of souls, though.

There are three things I think are helpful outcomes from understanding the concept of souls better. The first of these will become its own article and you’ll have to wait. The second of these is fairly simple: some people say crazy things about souls. I got started on this project when the Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door and handed me a very large tract which asserted (citing Scripture) that soul and spirit both meant something like “life-force”. This was then used as part of the Jehovah’s Witnesses denial of a life after death.

Ironically, the third thing is very much tied to what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe happens instead of life after death: recreation. While I think the idea that we disappear entirely only to be fully reconstituted and restored in the age to come is out of line with the Bible I also think the common idea that humans shed their bodies permanently is out of line with the Bible. The resurrection of the faithful and not just their ascent into heaven as bodiless beings is a critical part of the Bible’s picture of life after death. The more we think of a soul as something that lives adjacent to our body in a different plane and not as something deeply intertwined with our physical bodies the easier it becomes to accept what’s really a Greek idea of the afterlife. We are all fairly well-trained by now to regard our mind as something tied into the physical organ that is the brain. We do still separate them – you can cut up someone’s brain but not their mind – but we don’t expect that separation to be complete. The Biblical idea of the soul seems to be similarly intertwined with our physical selves. Once we understand that it becomes hard to think of an existence that would be forever bodiless.

*Genesis 9:4 reads, in stilted literal translation, “However, a flesh in his soul his blood do not eat.” Most translations take “soul” to mean “life” (which is, as other parts of this article argue, perhaps quite valid) and give us an English sentence with “lifeblood” or something similar in it.

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