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Genesis 35:18 and the Soul

By Written: July 29, 2018

Contents

Introduction

Recently, as I was leading a Bible study on what happens to people when they die, a member of the group challenged what I was teaching. I find such challenges to be valuable, because they often expose areas I hadn’t adequately considered, and this case is no exception. One part of the challenge was Genesis 35:18. The passage concerns Jacob’s wife Rachel, who died giving birth to Benjamin. The verse in question reads, “And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.”1 I’ve emphasized the relevant part of the verse.

I had been teaching that when a person dies, they cease to exist as a conscious entity until the resurrection. We studied verses such as Genesis 2:7: “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature [KJV: a living soul].”2 We noticed that at creation, dust plus the breath of life produced a living creature or a soul. We read in Ecclesiastes 12:7 that death is creation in reverse: The dust returns to the earth, and the spirit/breath returns to God.3 By clear implication, then, the soul ceases to exist at death, as death is creation in reverse. Furthermore, we read in Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6, 10 that there is no consciousness, knowledge, emotions, or work after death. If any of these concepts are new to you, I recommend this website for a more detailed explanation.

Clearly, there’s a difficulty here.

The difficulty

So, here’s the issue: On the one hand are many passages in the Bible which appear to teach that the dead sleep in their graves until the resurrection, being unaware of anything that is happening and not going to heaven or hell upon death. (Again, I haven’t presented all the evidence here, but you can read it if you like.) On the other hand, we have Genesis 35:18, which tells us that Rachel’s soul was departing as she was dying. This seems like a contradiction.

How should we resolve such apparent contradictions? There are different methods in common use. One is to simply reject the authority of the Bible, arguing that these contradictions prove that it is a purely human work. As a Christian, I find such an approach to be incompatible with the fundamental tenet of Christian doctrine, sola scriptura. Another common approach people use to resolve apparent contradictions is to continue to accept the view that they’ve long held to be correct and try to explain away any other view. This is frequently an unconscious approach that we all have taken at one time or another.

The best answer, I believe, is what some people call the “fencepost method.” Imagine being at a country estate and standing at the end of a fence line. As you look at the fence from your vantage point, you can see all the posts lined up. Imagine now that you notice that one of the posts is out of line with the others. There are two ways to fix it. The foolish way would be to move all the other posts to make them align with the out-of-line post. The other way would be to move the misaligned post to bring it into line with the others. It’s the same way with Bible study. If nearly all of the passages that deal with death say—or at least suggest—that it is an unconscious sleep until the resurrection, and Genesis 35:18 seems to suggest that the soul departs at death, then further study of this verse in Genesis would be wise.

Word study

My first step when considering this issue was to survey a number of Bible translations. A minority of translations read similarly to the ESV (quoted above), stating that Rachel’s soul was departing. Although this reading is in the minority, it is used by several well-respected translations, such as the KJV, NKJV, and NASB. It is also the most strictly literal translation. The NIV, on the other hand, reads, “As she breathed her last—for she was dying….” Several other translations (NLT, NET, HCSB, etc.) use similar wording to the NIV, referring to breathing rather than Rachel’s soul. Finally, some translations such as the CEV omit any reference to the soul or breath and simply express the meaning in everyday English. See the following table:

VersionRelevant portion of Gen. 35:18
ESVAnd as her soul was departing (for she was dying)
KJVAnd it came to pass, as her soul was in departing, (for she died)
NASBIt came about as her soul was departing (for she died)
NIVAs she breathed her last—for she was dying
NET BibleWith her dying breath
HCSBWith her last breath—for she was dying
CEVRachel was at the point of death, and right before dying

This diversity of translations indicates that the meaning isn’t perfectly straightforward. Instead, a variety of highly-qualified Hebrew scholars chose different ways to render the Hebrew into English. This means that one shouldn’t choose a particular translation and dogmatically assert that it’s far superior to the others. Instead, we need to find out why there’s a diversity of translation options.

The Hebrew word at the heart of this issue, which the ESV, KJV, NKJV, and NASB render “soul” is nephesh (נֶפֶשׁ). It is used 754 times in the Old Testament,4 making it one of the most common words. The NASB uses 49 different word families5 to translate nephesh. By far, the top three word families are: “soul” (251 times), “life” (181 times), and “person” (91 times).6

Hebrew words tend to have a broad lexical scope, and nephesh is no exception. Brown-Driver-Briggs (or BDB), the leading scholarly dictionary of Biblical Hebrew has an extensive definition for nephesh. When reading the lengthy definitions, we see that the meanings of nephesh all cluster around the idea of a living self.

Let’s examine some examples of how the word nephesh is used in the Bible.

Life

The first gloss for nephesh is “that which breathes, the breathing substance or being = ψυχή [Greek psyche], anima, the soul, the inner being of man.”7 In Genesis 1:20-24, we read of the creation of various animals, which the text calls “creatures.” The word for creature? Nephesh. A few verses later, Genesis 1:30 speaks of creatures having the “breath of life,”8 using nephesh in the expression, and referring to animals. This verse and Genesis 2:7 both use the expression “nephesh of life” (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה). The first refers to animal life, and the second refers to human life. See the below table, which shows that there’s no special soul for humans:

VersionRendering of נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה in Gen. 1:30 (regarding animals)Rendering of נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה in Gen. 2:7 (regarding people)
ESVeverything that has the breath of lifethe man became a living creature
NIVeverything that has the breath of life in itthe man became a living being
NASBwhich has lifeman became a living being
KJVwherein there is lifeman became a living soul

The Old Testament uses nephesh to indicate the essence of life. One example that BDB cites is Jeremiah 4:10. In this verse, the nephesh is in peril due to the sword, suggesting that when a person is killed, their nephesh is destroyed. In another example, Jonah 2:5, Jonah describes his mortal peril, again referencing his nephesh.

VersionRendering of nephesh in Jer. 4:10Rendering of nephesh in Jonah 2:5
ESVthe sword has reached their very lifeThe waters closed in over me to take my life
NIVthe sword is at our throatsThe engulfing waters threatened me9
NASBa sword touches the throatWater encompassed me to the point of death
KJVthe sword reacheth unto the soul10The waters compassed me about, even to the soul10

As one more example, consider 2 Samuel 1:9, where a messenger tells David of King Saul’s death. The messenger says, “And he [Saul] said to me, ‘Stand beside me and kill me, for anguish has seized me, and yet my life [nephesh] still lingers.’”

Thus, as these examples show, nephesh, the soul, refers not to some separate entity, but to the essence of a person’s (or animal’s) life. The result of the loss of nephesh is death. It’s also clear that the nephesh isn’t immortal; it’s merely the life essence.11

Self

Another use of nephesh is to refer to the self. This is especially common in poetry, where the poet uses a number of synonyms. Some examples follow:

VersionRendering of nephesh in Lamentations 3:24Rendering of nephesh in Isaiah 51:23
ESV“The Lord is my portion,” says my soulwho have said to you
NIVI say to myself, “The Lord is my portionwho said to you
HCSBI say: The Lord is my portionwho said to you
NASB“The Lord is my portion,” says my soulWho have said to you
KJVThe Lord is my portion, saith my soulwhich have said to thy soul10

Individual

The final main category of uses for nephesh is to refer to individual people and could alternatively be translated “person.” Here are some examples:

VersionRendering of nephesh in Proverbs 19:15Rendering of nephesh in Ezekiel 18:4
ESVan idle person will suffer hungerBehold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.
HCSBa lazy person will go hungryLook, every life belongs to Me. The life of the father is like the life of the son—both belong to Me. The person12 who sins is the one who will die.
NASBan idle man will suffer hungerBehold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine. The soul who sins will die.
KJVan idle soul shall suffer hungerBehold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.

It’s important to point out here that Ezekiel 18:4 explicitly states that souls (nephashoth13) are subject to death. Thus, the idea of an immortal soul, or a soul which goes back to God at death, is unbiblical.

The answer

Now that we’ve examined the Hebrew word translated “soul” in our main passage, let’s return to Genesis 35:18 and take another look at our “fenceposts.” You will recall that we read that Rachel’s soul was departing as she was dying. We now know enough to understand the meaning. What was Rachel’s nephesh which departed? From our word study, we can see that her life was leaving her. This is plain, since we’re told that she was dying. Where did her nephesh go? Nowhere. Let me explain with this example: If a murderer takes someone’s life, where do they take that life? This question doesn’t make sense, does it? When a criminal takes a life, they don’t gain more life! No one does. When a life is taken, it’s simply gone. It was the same with Rachel. When her nephesh left her, it wasn’t transferred anywhere; it simply vanished.

Remember that we read in Ezekiel 18:4 that “the soul who sins will die” (NASB). We read in 2 Samuel 1:9 that the mortally wounded king Saul wanted to be killed because he was in great pain and yet his soul—or life—was still there. Genesis 2:7 told us that dust plus the breath of life creates a nephesh of life—a living soul. Thus, humans and animals don’t have souls; instead, we are souls.

All this lends credence to the NET’s translation of Genesis 35:18: “With her dying breath, she named him Ben Oni. But his father called him Benjamin instead.”14 The translator’s note on “with her dying breath” gives the following literal translation of the Hebrew: “In the going out of her life, for she was dying.” Isn’t that much clearer? When a fire goes out, it doesn’t go anywhere; it ceases to exist.

As we conclude, we can see that all the posts in the fence line are, in fact, positioned correctly. There is no contradiction between Genesis 35:18 and the rest of the Bible’s teaching about death.

Endnotes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, Bible verses are quoted from the English Standard Version (ESV). 

  2. Throughout this article, I have ignored any italics in the Bible translations I quote and instead used italics to draw the reader’s attention to the relevant portions of the quotation. 

  3. The Hebrew word here and in Genesis 2:7 is ruach (רוּחַ), which can be translated as “spirit” or “breath,” depending on the context. 

  4. Bible Hub has a helpful list of every time nephesh is used in the Old Testament

  5. A word family is a group of related words. For example, the word family of “person” also includes “persons” and “people.” 

  6. See the information available on Bible Hub

  7. BDB entry for נֶפֶשׁ, definition 1. 

  8. KJV: “Wherein there is life” 

  9. Margin: “waters were at my throat.” 

  10. This is a strictly literal translation, showing how a literal translation doesn’t always paint the most accurate picture of what the author was trying to express.  2 3

  11. By the way, the Greek equivalent of nephesh, psyche (ψυχή), is the source of various words related to the mind, such as “psychology,” “psychosomatic,” and even “psyche.” This shows that, at the time when the Old Testament was translated into Greek, the translators understood that the soul isn’t some separable entity capable of flying off to heaven or hell at death. 

  12. The translators of the HCSB clearly understood two different senses of nephesh in this verse: life and person. 

  13. The plural form of nephesh (נֶפֶשׁ) is nephashoth (נֶפָשׁוֹת). 

  14. Available here