Neshama Reveals Humankind’s Relationship with God
Neshama is translated the breath of life in Genesis 2:7; this is far short of the real significance of what God breathed into the first man’s nostrils. Learn its magnitude.
Neshama confers on humankind all the singularities that make humans human. It does give us breath, but it gives us the mental and cognitive abilities that make humankind a unique species, certainly on Earth and probably in the entire Universe.
Here’s a summary of what we’ve covered in Genesis 2:7 so far. Yahveh formed man out of dust, the most sterile part of the ground. Yahveh, the Potter, the future Jesus, then breathed into his nostrils. That man is called a living soul composed of a material body and an immaterial singularity, akin to the mind, that only humans possess.
Please remember that we are only at the beginning of this study of what the first man was and what human beings are. We cannot draw conclusions based on partial knowledge or only a few pieces of the puzzle. Today we’re going to turn another piece right-side up. The neshama part of neshama chayim. In English, the breath of life in Genesis 2:7.
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath (H5397) of life, and man became a living soul.
We have to take the time, and step by step, look at the meaning of neshama. The KJV translators used the same English word for two different concepts in this same verse. God breathed (וַיִּפַּ֥ח — yifach, H5301) and the breath (נְשָׁמָה — neshama, H5397) of life. In Hebrew, these two words are different and grammatically unrelated. Here’s Strong’s entry for neshama.
נְשָׁמָה nᵉshâmâh from H5395 (נָשַׁם); a puff, i.e. wind, angry or vital breath, divine inspiration, intellect. or (concretely) an animal:
KJV — blast, (that) breath(-eth), inspiration, soul, spirit.
נָשַׁם nâsham naw-sham’; a primitive root; properly, to blow away, i.e. destroy:
KJV — destroy.
The first point to notice is we find the second Key of Mastering Biblical Hebrew present. The opposition of the neshama giving life and causing destruction. This principle is identical to God breathed into his nostrils. H5301 causes to give and lose life. I shall explain why this dichotomy exists. It is not just a grammatical issue. For instance, many people believe that God gives life, but many of those same people have a difficult time with the idea that a loving God can also take and snuff out life. Yet, the words yifach (H5301 — snuff) and neshama carry both of these same seemingly opposing actions-God gives, and God takes life. We’ll see why, but not now.
For neshama, the KJV translators used breath, soul (which we saw for nefesh as well), and spirit for their translations. These same translations are used for other Biblical Hebrew words, which we will see below; this adds to the confusion of comprehension of what this first man, representing all humans, is. Furthermore, I believe Strong made a serious error in his entry for H5397 by referring to the neshama as (concretely) an animal. We’ll see why I think he made this error; I made it too until Genesis 7:21–22 became clear. Maybe you’ve also made it. Here’s that error-prone context, it’s the very next time, after Gen. 2:7, where the word neshama is used.
20 Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.
21 And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man:
22 All in whose nostrils was the breath (H5397) of life, of all that was in the dry land, died.
23 And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.
I’ve reproduced verses 20 and 23 to show you we’re talking about the beginning of Noah’s flood. Verse 22 includes neshama. Does this verse include animals and every man? Or, put another way, do animals possess neshama? In Genesis 2:7, God gave the breath of life (neshama) to the first man, but had He given it to animals as well? After all, we’ve seen that the word nefesh applies to animals as well as humans.
Here’s an image of verse 22 from the Interlinear Bible. I’m doing this so you can see the Biblical Hebrew because there’s a huge problem that the KJV translators missed and didn’t know what to do. You can NOT see this in English.
I checked the KJV, NIV, Modern English Version, Douay-Rheims, Living Bible. They all say breath or breathed. Not one has translations for both neshama AND ruach. My French Louis Segond is better, respiration, souffle de vie. At least it attempts to translate both words.
Interestingly the New KJV has the breath (a) of the spirit of life, and there’s a footnote (a): Genesis 7:22 LXX, Vg. omit of the spirit. The New KJV has two words here, breath and spirit, as in the interlinear image above. Whereas the footnote indicates the Septuagint (LXX the first Greek translation) and the Vulgate (Vg the official Latin translation) omit of the spirit. It would appear the KJV translators followed the LXX and Vg rather than the Biblical Hebrew in Genesis 2:7.
You have to ask yourself why the KJV translators left out one of these two words. I will explain this, but not now, back to our subject. We’re reading this verse to see if ANIMALS have NESHAMA. If you skim it, as it is written, the answer appears to be yes; animals do have neshama. But let’s take another look, especially at the end of verse 21. and every man: Notice the colon. The thought about man CONTINUES into verse 22.
A better reading of Genesis 7:22 in the KJV would be, and every man, all in whose nostrils was the breath (H5397) of life. If we follow the Biblical Hebrew, it would be and every man, all in whose nostrils was the breath (H5397 — neshama) of the spirit (H7307 — ruach) of life. Quite a difference. Humans have neshama, not animals. Verse 22 continues and ends with: of all that was in the dry land, died. The of all is a summary that includes all animals and all humans.
Maybe you think I’m twisting scripture or whatever. Let’s looks at Joshua.
Joshua 10:40, 11.11,14
10:40 So Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel commanded.
11:11 And they smote all the souls (H5315 nefesh) that were therein with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them: there was not any left to breathe (H5397 neshama): and he burnt Hazor with fire.
14 And all the spoil of these cities, and the cattle, the children of Israel took for a prey unto themselves; but every man they smote with the edge of the sword, until they had destroyed them, neither left they any to breathe (H5397).
In this episode as the children of Israel entered the Promised Land they utterly destroyed all the nefesh (souls) with neshama (breathe, as it’s translated here). BUT they took the cattle for prey. If they destroyed ALL those with neshama and kept the cattle alive then, by deduction, cattle do NOT have neshama.
Furthermore, cattle BREATH. Therefore the meaning of neshama cannot be limited to breathe. There is something humans possess, given by Yahveh, breathed into them, that animals do not possess. It is neshama, and it behooves us to know what this is. Neshama differentiates humans from animals.
Nature of Neshama
From what we’ve seen, neshama inhabits every single human being. What does this attribute accomplish? What characterizes its actions.
Here are some verses with the action of neshama associated with man representing all humans.
Job 32:8 But there is a spirit in man: and the inspiration (H5397) of the Almighty gives them understanding.
This verse is of vital importance. Neshama is called the inspiration of God and it literally confers comprehension and logic on humans. This is the program that runs in the human brain. This is the human mind that alone allows scientists to be scientists, philosophers to be philosophers and all of us to learn and accomplish what we do. It bestows on us all the singularities that make us human: human nature, space-time management, creativity, imagination, learning, making choices, growth, challenges, and rulership. This is the immaterial part of the nephesh.
Notice that both God and humans have this. More evidence that God created humans in His image.
Proverbs 20:27 The spirit (H5397) of man is the candle of the LORD, searching all the inward parts of the belly.
The neshama has to do with a human being’s character. It reveals all the actions and thoughts of each individual. Our character is an open book to God, and it should be to ourselves. It allows us to peer into our behavior and meditate on our doings. It is plastic so we can change; it helps us see when we’re impatient, too boisterous, not striving enough.
Isaiah 57:16 For I [God] will not contend for ever, neither will I be always wroth: for the spirit should fail before me, and the souls (H5397) which I have made. 17 For the iniquity of his covetousness was I wroth, and smote him: I hid me, and was wroth, and he went on frowardly in the way of his heart.
This covetousness represents our human nature being pulled downwards towards negative conduct. We have a choice, and sometimes, frequently, we make poor decisions that lead to going astray. Only humans (or souls as the KJV translators put it), whom God made, as this verse, says, possess this neshama. In fact, in this context, God personifies neshama. The neshama is the person. It’s this breath (of life) which God infused into the first man, and all humans, that represents, even IS the crucial part of being human.
Can you see how the English word breath is far, far short of expressing what neshama really is? The Job 32:8 translation inspiration is closer. As it says in that same verse, of the Almighty, I’m thinking a better translation of neshama would be divine essence. I’m still keeping a better translation open. What do you think?
Here’s a very important key. The breath (of life), the neshama in Genesis 2.7, that God gave to man IS A PART OF GOD HIMSELF. This is the comprehension of being made in God’s image. This is what it means to be Godkind.
Job 4:9 By the blast H5397 of God they perish, and by the breath of his nostrils are they consumed.
Remember that the neshama contains the notion of destruction. Here is a vivid example.
Job 37:10 By the breath (H5397) of God frost is given: and the breadth of the waters is straitened.
This neshama represents God’s active power to intervene in Earthly affairs as He sees fit.
The last verse in the final Psalm is a reference to the end of God’s plan for all humans. It opens up to a new era. It reveals a state of peace, prosperity, and unity between all beings concerning their Creator, Savior, and God. All beings in that position will possess well-oriented neshama, and as a result, will know God and be able to praise Him. Instead of breath, translate it divine essence. Isn’t it clearer?
Psa 150:6 Let every thing that has breath (H5397) praise the LORD. Praise you the LORD.
This article is an introduction to the breath of life. There remain many other exhilarating and revealing aspects related to the breath of life and neshama. We have much more in common with God, being in His image than you’ve realized. Next week we’ll discuss of life. In Biblical Hebrew, this is plural. You can’t see that in English! Why plural? How many lives do we have?
This explanation of neshama in Genesis 2:7 is possibly the longest article I’ve ever written. It is by far one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. To be direct, if you don’t get the understanding of this piece correct, all the other pieces will be out of whack. This identifies WHO humans ARE. And, what the HUMAN RELATIONSHIP to GOD, YAHVEH, is. You cannot have peace and prosperity without this piece. Why? Because peace and prosperity involve loving God and loving neighbor. Those are relationships. Neshama shows us our relationship to God and our relationship of equality with ALL other humans because we ALL possess neshama.
I suggest you re-read this article and study it. Coherent completeness, full understanding, stands on God’s meaning of neshama, not our interpretation. It helps us understand both WHO GOD IS, WHO WE ARE, and our RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD. It is a critical piece in the puzzle and foundational in the Story of Humankind, which is what the Bible is.
Go over to UnlockBibleMeaning.com. Find Genesis 2:7. Switch to Strong’s and click on H5397. Read all the verses with neshama. Realize that its attributes apply to both God and humans. But not animals. There are about 24 verses, so this is not a huge task but a necessary study.
As a suggestion, for the time being, focus only on H5397 and nothing else. We’ll get to other related words shortly. Keep your study and meditation simple because what you’re learning about neshama is brand new for all of you. Yet, it is one of the most fundamental points in understanding both God and humans and particularly the relationship between God and humans.
The article is an excerpt from chapter 3.5 of the book Origin of Humankind.