Soul of Fire: A Theory of Biblical Man

By Ethan Dor-Shav

Our common fate as water, earth, wind, and fire.

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Though it is acknowledged as a primary source of Western ideas on social morals and monotheism, when it comes to the afterlife, the Hebrew Bible is deemed mute. This dismissal stems from a striking fact: Nowhere in the Bible are souls witnessed in any post-life habitat. Like many ancient mythologies, the New Testament takes us frequently into a soul-world in the footsteps of Jesus,1 and the Koran, too, peeks into the garden of eternal reward.2 Biblical figures, however, are never seen in the world of the dead. We never view their souls in heaven or in hell.3 Even when a heavenly assembly is portrayed, as in the opening of Job, or in the visions of Ezekiel and Isaiah, human souls are invariably absent. Likewise, when people die, the narrative does not follow them into the beyond. Just think of Elijah ascending from this earthly existence, leaving the reader at the threshold of heaven, “and he saw him no more.”4 From the fact that we do not see souls in the Hebrew Bible many have deduced that it fails to articulate a soul-afterlife at all.
The text, however, does not lend itself to an interpretation that fully negates an afterlife either. While souls are not seen there, references are made to its existence. In particular, a netherworld called Sheol is mentioned repeatedly; we know of its dwellers, refaim, and biblical figures convey a fear of going there.5 The Bible also upholds the idea of postmortem judgment, suggesting the possibility of further reward. Additional hints include Samuel speaking to Saul from the grave,6 Elijah and Hanoch being taken to God,7 and a letter arriving from Elijah after his demise.8 Most famously, Daniel tells of the virtuous rising to their destiny in the End of Days.9
Due to its importance, we would expect that if, in fact, the Bible intended to advance the doctrine of an afterlife, the least it could do is picture the glory of life eternal. But this is not the case. While the epic of Gilgamesh, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Canaanite lore, and Greek mythology all include stories of people visiting the world of the dead and returning to report of souls they have seen, the Hebrew canon has none.
On the basis of these considerations, scholars concluded that the Hebrew Bible maintained a primitive or immature idea of the soul, which in turn prevented the text’s development of a clear notion of an afterlife. They assumed that the Hebrew Bible must have conceived of man as a being that is cohesive only in connection to the physical body. Something of man may continue to exist after death, but without its body it loses its meaning. In this view, the treatments of the soul in Greek philosophy and the New Testament are dramatically progressive improvements on the Hebrew Bible, which, it is said, cobbled together primitive soul concepts familiar from Vedic India10 to pagan Rome.11
This view has become academic commonplace. As the scholar H.W. Robinson writes:
[In the Old Testament] there is no contrast between the body and the soul, such as the terms instinctively suggest to us. The shades of the dead in Sheol… are not called “souls”… nor does the Old Testament contain any distinct word for “body,” as it surely would have done, had this idea been sharply differentiated from that of “soul.” Man’s nature is a product of the two factors—the breath-soul [nefesh] which is his principle of life, and a complex of physical organs which this animates. Separate them, and the man ceases to be, in any real sense of personality.12
Another scholar, Lynn de Silva, puts it this way:
The notion of the soul as an immortal entity which enters the body at birth and leaves it at death is quite foreign to the biblical view of man.13
This approach pervades theological discourse as well. Here, for instance, is the official position of the Evangelical Lutheran Church:
In the Old Testament, soul is essentially the life principle. It always appears in some form or manifestation without which it could not exist. Hebrews could not conceive of a disembodied soul.14
The Encyclopedia Britannica follows suit, including the Bible under the following pejorative rubric:
The more primitive of these interpretations [of the soul] has been based on an integralistic evaluation of the human nature. Thus the individual person has been conceived as a psychophysical organism, of which both the material and the non-material constituents are essential in order to maintain a properly integrated personal existence. From such an evaluation it has followed that death is the fatal shattering of personal existence. Although some constituent element of the living person has been deemed to survive this disintegration, it has not been regarded as conserving the essential self or personality.15
Such a “primitive” idea of man can hardly serve as inspiration.
Aside from the issue of the afterlife, there is a strong linguistic component in the way many scholars dismiss the Hebrew Bible’s idea of man. As a general rule they were completely baffled by the Bible’s terminology regarding the essence of man, and the human metaphysical makeup. They despaired of finding a consistent use of the Bible’s terminology. This linguistic despair is connected to a general prejudice against the Hebrew Bible’s philosophical rigor, but also stands on its own as one of the main reasons for misunderstanding the Bible’s metaphysical teachings, and for dismissing it so summarily.
What is the semantic issue at hand? Contrary to the Christological tradition (dominating biblical lexicography through the nineteenh century and beyond), the Hebrew canon does not uphold the dualist body-soul doctrine, submitting instead three soul terms: Nefesh, ruah, and neshama. In general, Western thinkers struggled to fit the three Hebrew souls into the later single-soul dogma. In the Gospels, the human core is called psuche (“soul”) while pneuma (“spirit”) is primarily reserved for God’s emanation (as in “the Holy Spirit”).16 The Greek translations and their English offshoots attempted to equate nefesh with “soul” and ruah with “spirit.” Neshama, having no Greek counterpart, was translated as “breath.”
But even a superficial reading of the Bible inevitably reveals that these easy correlations falter, and the inevitable result was a diffusion of the Hebrew terms. In the King James Version (KJV), for example, ruah is variously translated as “wind,” “spirit,” and “breath,” but also occasionally as “mind,” “anger,” “courage,” etc. Nefesh, though predominantly rendered as “soul,” is also translated as “breath,” “self,” “mind,” “heart,” “will,” “desire,” and “appetite.” Even the infrequent neshama is variously rendered as “breath,” “spirit,” and “soul.” From the opposite perspective, when encountering the word “soul” in the KJV, the reader has no way of knowing if it refers to nefesh, neshama, or nidvati; “spirit” can be a translation of ruah, neshama, or ov; and behind “breath” can lie any one of the three soul terms. In this mélange, the original, precise biblical meanings are all but lost.
In what follows, I intend to show that the original Hebrew terminology was both distinct and consistent, and that the very absence of visible souls in the Hebrew Bible points to a more commanding alternative conception of man’s inner being. I also intend to show that while the Bible does not uphold the soul-body dichotomy—which most critics have considered prerequisite to a belief in the persistence of the soul after death—it does demonstrate the presence of a four-element structure of both matter and spirit that supports a belief in life eternal. This structure has been either overlooked or confused with Aristotle’s schema to the point that the spiritual implications of the biblical usage have gone undiscovered.
Thus, scholars searching the Hebrew Bible for signs of an interest in the afterlife have been looking through the wrong intellectual lenses, and have therefore missed the Hebrew Bible’s profound teaching concerning man’s constitution and destiny. To gain access to this metaphysical worldview of the ancient Israelite Sages we must stop looking for a landscape of Heaven under the light of our preconceived expectations. In ancient Israelite philosophy, the netherworld is to be understood, not imagined; the divine soul is to be realized, not seen.

 Ethan Dor-Shav is an Associate Fellow at the Shalem Center. His last essay in AZURE was “Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and Timeless” (AZURE 18, Autumn 2004). The author dedicates the essay to the memory of his grandfather, Rabbi Elisha Kohn.

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