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The Breath of Life—Naphash

June 19, 2011

by: Rev. Cheryl Hauer, International Development Director

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In 1 Samuel 16, we read of King Saul and the ”distressing spirit” (vv. 14–23, NKJV) that beset him. He was unable to relax or to sleep, and a sort of manic depression comes upon him. But we are told that David, the young shepherd boy from the line of Jesse, picked up his harp and made music for the king. As the notes from David’s instrument filled the air, Scripture says, King Saul was “refreshed and well, and the distressing spirit would depart” (v. 23).

One of the Hebrew words that is translated “to refresh” or “to be refreshed” is naphash. It means to breathe or to be breathed upon. It is as though David’s song creates a wind that blows the evil spirits away and fills King Saul’s lungs with clean, life-giving breath. Is it any wonder that today’s self-help experts tell us the best way to fight stress is to take a few long, relaxing deep breaths!

And it seems that man is not the only one that needs refreshing. Exodus 31:17 tells us that on the seventh day of creation, God rested…and was refreshed! The word for rested is shabbat and simply means that God ceased from His labors; He was finished. Naphash here implies a gentle breeze or perhaps the breath of God Himself, cooling and invigorating after a job well done.

Soul—The Essence of Life

Naphash is from the same root as another Hebrew word that appears over 700 times in the Scriptures. That word is nephesh, and it is a highly significant biblical term. It is often translated “soul”as well as heart, person, life, and mind. Although these terms make sense in many instances, the word is problematic in others simply because there is really no English equivalent to its real Hebrew meaning. To the Western thinker, the word “soul” usually relates to the inner person or the spirit of a man and is often contrasted with the outer man or the body. However, according to Vine’s Expository Dictionary, these oppositional concepts are Greek and Latin in origin and have no counterpart in Hebraic thought.

The basic meaning of the word nephesh, like naphash, has to do with taking a breath, and it refers to the very essence of life. It describes the whole person as a complete unit. When God created Adam, it was His breath that gave the man life, animated him, and empowered him to think and to speak and to love: “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 being [naphesh]” (Gen. 2:7). It wasn’t that Adam was a body until God added a soul, the rabbis say. Adam was nothing but mud until God’s breath enlivened him, and he became the image of his Creator.

Although Hebrew thought does not make provision for the separation of body and soul as is common in Greek thought, it does contrast the inner and outer person in a very interesting manner. What we might call the “inner man” was, to the Hebrew, the total person as he viewed himself, while the “outer man” was how he appeared to others or was simply his reputation.

Nephesh meant he may have been a father, a husband, a son, a brother, a cousin; he was tall or short, thin or fat, healthy or ill, weak or strong; he was a member of a family, a clan, a community, a nation; his relationship with his God governed every aspect of his life; his every thought and action were geared toward obedient service to the Lord he loved. In all these different aspects, he viewed himself as one integrated, vibrant unit—nephesh. To those around him, however, he may have been known as a skilled craftsman, a generous giver, or a fearless fighter. Their understanding of him, or his reputation, was the only sense of an outer man the Hebrew would have recognized, and it was referred to as shem, or name.

Rightly Dividing Words

A correct, contextual definition of a word like nephesh can have a profound effect on our overall theology and understanding of God’s Word. For instance, David’s cry in Psalm 16:10 has often been misunderstood, leading to faulty theology regarding the body and soul. When the Psalmist cries, “For you will not abandon my soul [nephesh]to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption,” many have believed he was making a distinction between the physical and spiritual aspects of his being. However, with a correct understanding of the word nephesh, it is clear that David was praying for the deliverance of his entire person from the grave. He was encouraging God’s people, not in the deliverance of the soul from the prison house of the body, but in the ultimate deliverance of the whole person.

Just as God’s breath gave life (nephesh) to His creation, that same breath will continue to sustain and refresh (naphash) until that day when all those that He calls His own will be delivered into His eternal presence—body, soul, and spirit!

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