Excursus: Moses on the souls of animals

SDC11002Long before Plato ever said anything about the human soul, the Old Testament writers presented a consistent biblical anthropology. Augustine was biased toward platonic philosophy, even going so far as to claim that Plato brought him to God.[1] But there is no reason for us today to be biased toward Plato’s (or anyone else’s) philosophy. We should first seek to understand what God himself has revealed about humanity before inquiring of any human speculation.

The Hebrew word Moses used that our English bibles sometimes translate soul is nephesh, a word that suggests something that breathes. In fact, the Ugaritic and Akadian cognates also mean “throat.”[2] Moses’ use was consistent with an understanding that a soul is a living breathing being.

Consistent with this understanding, Moses had no problem using the term nephesh to refer to animals. In the creation account, Moses records “And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.”[3] The ESV uses the phrase “living creatures” to translate the Hebrew nephesh chayah (souls of life). It is obvious from the context that Moses refers to fish and sea mammals, and birds, not people. This first use of nephesh highlights a contrast with Plato’s teaching that only human beings have souls.

Moses continues to use the term to refer to animals in the next few verses. He says “So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind.”[4] Likewise, in verse 24, “And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds- livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so.”[5] And later he says, “And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.”[6] The phrase “breath of life” translates nephesh chayah again. So all four references to the soul in Genesis 1 refer to animals, not people.

Later in the account of Adam’s dominion in the garden of Eden, Moses again speaks of animals with souls when he describes Adam’s responsibility to name them: “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.”.[7]

When Moses recorded God’s covenant with Noah after the flood, he included the provision which allows for eating animals. The covenant stipulated that “you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.”[8] The word the ESV translates as life is the same term, nephesh. He probably meant that the blood of the animal is essential to its life – that is – if you take away its blood it will stop breathing. The rule forbade eating an animal while it was still alive – while it still had its soul. The account continues to use the term nephesh in reference to animals.[9]

It is poor theology to simply suggest that the same term means living being when referring to animals, but implies an immortal being when referring to people. It does not do justice to the fact that the term is used of both animals and people, nor to the fact that their meaning is consistent as long as the interpreter is not already biased with a presupposition that humans were created immortal.

What we learn from Moses is that humans were created — like the animals — as living, breathing beings, and that when they lose their breath, they die, and return to the dust from which they came.[10] Without the promise of resurrection, that would be the end of human existence.

Greek philosophy came along and subverted that simple theology by taking God and the resurrection out of the picture. Instead Plato and others exalted the nature of humanity. That magnified anthropology bolstered the concept of the dignity of man, at the expense of Moses’ teaching on human dependence upon God.

The gospel message does not require that humans be deified. It tells us that believers have the hope of eternal life – not because we were born different from the animals – but because Jesus has made a way for us to be resurrected to immortality. It is the cross of Jesus Christ – not our created human nature – that gives us hope of life beyond the grave. It is the second coming of Jesus Christ – not our own death – that is the biblical blessed hope.


[1] B. F. Cocker, Christianity and Greek Philosophy (New York: Carlton & Lanahan, 1870), 10.

[2] See The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 1935a Nephesh.

[3] Genesis 1:20.

[4] Genesis 1:21.

[5] Genesis 1:24.

[6] Genesis 1:30.

[7] Genesis 2:19.

[8] Genesis 9:4.

[9] Genesis 9:10, 12, 15, 16.

[10] Genesis 3:19.

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