In much contemporary discourse, the “soul” is distinct from the body and is the seat of one’s emotion, intellect, or integrity. Yet, this view of the soul comes from Greek philosophy rather than Hebrew theology. Plato states that the “soul” acquires “self-discipline and justice together with wisdom,” which shows that “the soul is more precious than the body” (Republic 9.591b). The authors of the Hebrew Bible, however, did not share this dichotomous view of “body” and “soul”; for them, the word that is often translated “soul” (nefesh; נפשׁ) should be understood as one’s physical “self” or “being.” Rather than a “soul” that animates the body, the Bible describes a God-given “spirit” (ruach; רוח) that enlivens humanity.
According to Genesis, God animates the first person by breathing into the human body: “The Lord God… breathed into his nostrils the breath (neshamah; נשׁמה) of life, and the human became a living being (nefesh; נפשׁ)” (Gen 2:7). The word for “being” in this verse is the same term that many English translations render as “soul.” However, here God breathes into the human to create a living “being” or “person” (nefesh; נפשׁ) rather than an abstract “soul.” The Lord imbues humanity with the “breath” (neshamah; נשׁמה) of God’s mouth, which the psalmist associates with the divine “spirit” (ruach; רוח): “By the word of the of the Lord the heavens were made; and all the host of them by the spirit of his mouth (ruach piv; רוח פיו)” (Ps 33:6). The deity imparts the divine breath that constitutes the human spirit.
While Genesis 2 refers to the “breath of life” (nishmat hayim; נשׁמת חיים), the “spirit of life” appears shortly thereafter. Before the flood, God resolves to “destroy all flesh, in which is the spirit of life (ruach hayim; רוח חיים)” (Gen 6:17; cf. 7:15, 22). These similar phrases highlight the connection between the divine “breath” that forms the human “spirit.” In fact, most English translations translate “spirit of life” as “breath of life,” since the concepts are so closely related. Whereas the Greeks posit a “soul,” the Hebrews speak of the “spirit” that God breathes into human beings.