Does Genesis 2:7 prove that a "soul" is just a physical human life?

by Luke Wayne
4/29/2019

Genesis 2:7 is a verse that commonly comes up in discussions with Jehovah's Witnesses or a variety of other Annihilationist groups or individuals who deny that humans have any sort of "soul" that exists after physical death. The verse reads:

"Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being," (Genesis 2:7).

The Hebrew word translated here as "living being" is word "nephesh" which is elsewhere translated as "soul." Indeed, some translations (most popularly the KJV) translate this verse as "man became a living soul." Thus, this verse supposedly proves that man does not have a soul, rather a living human body is a soul. This argument, however, is rooted in the simple fallacy that if a word is used one way in one verse that it must always be used in that same way everywhere else. Thus, because "soul" doesn't refer to the part of a person's being that endures after death in Genesis 2:7, they argue that it cannot mean that anywhere else, which is just linguistically absurd! Words can mean different things in different contexts, and the word "soul" clearly does refer to our enduring spiritual self in some contexts even if it does not in others.

Range of Meaning

Let's say we wanted to know what the word "right" means in the Bible. We might first come across a verse like:

"Is not the whole land before you? Please separate from me; if to the left, then I will go to the right; or if to the right, then I will go to the left," (Genesis 13:9).

"Ah," we might say. "Right is the direction opposite left." We then notice that this holds true in many other verses as well, such as:

"So now if you are going to deal kindly and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, let me know, that I may turn to the right hand or the left.” (Genesis 24:49).

"Joseph took them both, Ephraim with his right hand toward Israel’s left, and Manasseh with his left hand toward Israel’s right, and brought them close to him," (Genesis 48:13).

Thus, we decide that it is a rule. That is what "right" means, and we can accept no other biblical definition. Indeed, we could produce hundreds of verses that show that "right" means the direction opposite left. Yet, we would be laughably wrong to suggest that this was the only thing that "right" means. Indeed, quite early on in the Bible, we would also find verses like:

"And I bowed low and worshiped the Lord, and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had guided me in the right way to take the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son," (Genesis 24:48).

We could, perhaps, impose our definition on this verse and insist that it meant that God guided him on the "right" way as opposed the "left" way which he could have gone, but that is obviously not what the verse means. Indeed, as we read on into Exodus, we certainly still find "right" meaning the direction opposite left (Exodus 14:29), but we also find it meaning things like factually correct (Exodus 10:29), morally approved (Exodus 15:26), and even "directly, " as in "the Egyptians were fleeing right into it," (Exodus 14:27). Thus, it is just silly to take a verse or even a large group of verses and insist that they prove that a certain word can mean only one specific thing. Most words have a range of meaning depending on the context, and sometimes the range can be rather broad!

The Soul in the Bible

The same rules apply regarding the word "soul" or the underlying words in the original Greek (i.e., psuche) and Hebrew (i.e., nephesh). These words have a wide range of meaning that included "self," "life," "person," and the aspect of a person's being which we call the "soul." Just as with the word "right," finding a bunch of verses that use the word "soul" in one of these ways does not prove that the word always carries only that one meaning. Genesis 2:7 is a good example where the word simply means "a living person." There are plenty of others that do so. But there are also verses that clearly do not.  Later in Genesis, for example, we read:

"It came about as her soul was departing (for she died), that she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin" (Genesis 35:18).

Here, the soul is not merely a word for what Rachel is, but rather something that Rachel has that departs when she dies. Jehovah's Witnesses will say that here the word "soul" just means her "life" (an admission that the word "soul" does indeed have multiple meanings, thus admitting the fallacy of their other argument from Genesis 2:7). But the Jehovah's Witness explanation doesn't quite fit. If the verse simply meant "her life was departing," the passage would not need to clarify afterward "for she died." What else could it mean for her life to depart from her? What's more, the verse falls within a context of other verses where the word "soul" is clearly being used to refer to an inner, conscious aspect of the self,  like:

"But Hamor spoke with them, saying, 'The soul of my son Shechem longs for your daughter; please give her to him in marriage'" (Genesis 34:8).

"Then they said to one another, 'Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us'" (Genesis 42:21).

These verses plainly refer to something other than merely the person's "life." Indeed, note how the soul is distinguished from the life of the person in the later words of Uriah to David:

"Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in temporary shelters, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? By your life and the life of your soul, I will not do this thing," (2 Samuel 11:11).

The soul is different from David's life, and indeed the soul itself has a life! Jesus further noted that this soul could not be killed by men even when they kill the body:

"Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell," (Matthew 10:28).

So, putting all this together, the word soul can refer to an aspect of a person that:

  1. Departs at death
  2. Is connected to our inner life of desires, thoughts, and emotions
  3. Is distinct from our life and itself has life
  4. Is not killed even when the body is killed

This is a pretty good summation of what Christians mean when they speak of the conscious human soul that endures after bodily death. Thus, even though there are plenty of verses that use the word "soul" in other ways, that does not diminish the fact that the Bible also affirms the existence of the "soul" in this traditional sense of a spiritual aspect of the human creature that continues to exist even after we die.  Contrary to Jehovah's Witness objections, the Bible affirms this concept.