In my last biblical anthropology post, I posed these three questions. Here they are again with some proposed answers:

1. When nephesh is described as being in sheol, does the term refer to only the inner part, the body, or the totality? It seems that if Sheol refers to the grave, the answer would be “totality.”  See Psa 16:10; 30:3; Psa 56:13.

Psa 16:10 isn’t hard to parse in my view.

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,

or let your holy one see corruption.

I think it’s pretty clear that this verse sees the total person (body and soul). But there are two interpretive options here.

A. The word translated “corruption” here is shachat, a word that often means “pit” elsewhere (cf. Ezek. 19:4; Job 9:31; Psa 7:15). As such, there is parallelism between “Sheol” and “pit”. They obviously both mean grave (hole in the ground). The verse therefore could be a statement of physical deliverance from death. This seems the most coherent view. Since death involved the cessation of life in terms of both body and its animation, we’d have a “whole person” reference here if the psalmist is talking about physical deliverance from lethal danger.

B. The statement could also be a statement of afterlife deliverance from Sheol, in which case, the immaterial part of a person goes to Sheol and the body does not. That idea may be expressed more clearly in other verses (see below), but it has problems here. Here’s how the verse would break down:

For you will not abandon my soul (inner immaterial part) to Sheol (the Underworld),

or let your holy one (the body?) see the pit (the grave).

“Holy one” would have to stand in place of the body. This is a bit of a stretch. We’d also have to separate Sheol from the pit and have one refer to the Underworld while the other doesn’t – it refers only to the dirt grave. Do we have any reason to do that other than what we “see” in the verse (in other words, is exegesis producing interpretation, or vice versa)?

Option A is just easier and free of problems. Occam’s razor.1

How about Psalm 30:3?

O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;

you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.

Here we have the same Sheol/pit parallel, but “pit” is a different (very common) Hebrew word (bor). It’s a hole in the ground (see Gen 37:20 for where the word is used – familiar story).

The verb “restored me to life” is the common verb chayah (“to make or keep alive”; “revive”). It’s easy to see how this text also refers to physical deliverance from fatal harm, and is not commenting on the afterlife. The same problems in Psalm 16 are present here.

Here’s Psa 56:13

For you have delivered my soul from death,

yes, my feet from falling,

that I may walk before God

in the light of life.

This is also pretty easy to identify as physical deliverance (the psalmist wants to continue in the “light of life” — and one can walk before God in this life (cf. Gen 17:1-2 for the same phrase).

2. But then what about passages that have the ruach apparently disembodied?  See Eccl 3:21; Eccl 12:7 (it appears the ruach “goes” somewhere after death; it leaves the body).

Here are the two verses:

Eccl. 3:21 – Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?

Eccl 12:7 – and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

The first one perhaps targets some cultural or religious belief that there is a difference between humans and animals when it comes to death and the afterlife (“who knows”), but whatever that is isn’t made clear. I think both verses taken in tandem do point to the idea that, upon death, the spirit — the immaterial part of a human being, the thing which animates the body, the “life spark” if you will, returns to God who is perceived as dwelling above the firmament / heavens. Does this refer to afterlife, or is it more general?  Here’s what I mean.

Let’s start with the general idea. This could speak universally in the sense that the ancient writer conceived of the “life spark”, which was originally imparted to humanity by God (Gen 2:7) returns to God at death. The body would go to the grave. The problem, then, would be matching this up with the idea of Sheol. It is clear there is some sort of consciousness associated with the afterlife, even in Sheol. How is this possible without the “thing” (spirit/soul) in which the inner life is associated in the rest of the Hebrew Bible? If that’s “outta here” then how can there be ANY afterlife in Sheol?

Now for the second option: this language speaks of the “dust” (a euphemism for the body, since it was created from “the dust of the ground”; cf. Genesis 2:7) returning to the ground –but here conceived of as the Underworld–and the spirit (the immaterial part) returning to God in a salvation-afterlife sense. In other words, it’s poetic language for a positive afterlife with the body staying behind. This is possible in Israelite thinking, since the subject of a physical resurrection is asserted only in texts that are demonstrably late (Ezekiel and Daniel 12).2 To be consistent with the rest of the canon, one would have to argue that such salvation is only for the righteous, not all.

My inclination here is to go with the first view with a slight adjustment. “Sheol” is simply a cosmic-geographical conception that refers to TWO “places” in Israelite thinking: (1) “where everyone goes when they die” and (2) “where the unrighteous remain after going there when they die.” This double-duty of the word is important.

It seems to me that these verses in Ecclesiastes do *not* contradict the ideas I’ve blogged before related to the negative and positive view of the afterlife in the OT: everyone dies and goes “to the great beyond” (a general description even we use today to refer to the “spiritual realm”; Sheol referent #1); the righteous among them go to be with the Lord (there’s the spirit departing to God idea from Ecclesiastes) and the unrighteous do not (they remain in Sheol, which is anything but pleasant – Sheol referent #2). Those in Sheol have a conscious afterlife because their spirit — which, having left the body now belongs to the “spiritual realm”–hasn’t left Sheol to go anywhere else. The righteous also have a conscious afterlife because their spirit is just at a different address in the “spiritual realm.” As I’ve noted before, this isn’t as developed as the NT thinking, but it’s one the same page for sure.

3. What about passages where ruach and nephesh both occur?  Are they distinguished or are they “parallel” to each other?  Here’s the list of the ones that matter (i.e., ruling out clear references to wind or God’s spirit):

Job 7:11

“Therefore I will not restrain my mouth;

I will speak in the anguish of my spirit;

I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.

1 Sam 1:15

But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.

It would be silly to think that one set of emotions come from the spirit and another set comes from the soul. We’ve already seen that the terms overlap with each other in a whole range of emotions. They are clearly parallel and synonyms here in both passages.

Job 12:10

In his hand is the life of every living thing

and the breath of all mankind.

The terms are also synonyms here, by virtue of the abundant references for each term as referring to life itself and breath (a “vital sign”).

Isa 26:9

My soul yearns for you in the night;

my spirit within me earnestly seeks you.

For when your judgments are in the earth,

the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.

The terms are also synonyms here since, as we saw in past posts, both refer to inner yearning when used separately.

Now for some additional questions to tackle:

1. What about Old Testament thinking about the “heart”? Does this point to a third part of a human being, or does it overlap with nephesh and ruach?

2. What about the OT shema statements (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might”)?  How should these be understood? Do they contribute anything to the discussion?

3. What about New Testament statements that apparently distinguish between soul and spirit?  (For example, Hebrews 4:12).

  1. You may be wondering if this passage teaches physical resurrection since it is used by the NT writer of Jesus. If you’ve spent any time looking at how the NT uses OT quotations, you know that NT usage doesn’t drive OT meaning since the NT author at times doesn’t care about original OT meaning (and vice versa) – the OT gets repurposed in many cases.
  2. Even if one dates Daniel to the 6th century BC instead of the 2nd century BC, it’s still a late idea relative to the rest of the Hebrew Bible.