In Deuteronomy 6:5, Moses admonishes the Israelites to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (ESV).
But how well does the English translation "soul" in this verse convey the meaning of the underlying Hebrew word? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers eight definitions for the word. Since we can be certain Moses did not have a copy of this dictionary in hand, we must delve into the Hebrew text in hope of gaining fresh insight into this ancient verse. We can do this in four easy steps.
STEP 1: Make the Switch to Hebrew and Establish a Preliminary Definition
Locating the Hebrew word behind the English word "soul" is made easy with The ESV English-Hebrew Reverse Deuteronomy 6:5Old Testament. In this resource, each word of the English translation is aligned with its corresponding Hebrew word. When we look directly below "soul" in Deut 6:5 we see that nephesh is the Hebrew word behind the translation.
Now that we have this Hebrew word in mind, we establish a preliminary definition, what scholars call a "gloss." If using print resources like Strongest Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, we look up the English word "soul" and locate the reference to Deut 6:5. We then note the Strong's number, 5315, to the right of the passage and look it up in the numerically-keyed Hebrew-Aramaic Dictionary appended to Strong's. With Logos Bible Software we just double-click the word in the reverse interlinear and our preferred lexicon opens, which for me is A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament by Holladay.¹
A survey of the entry for nephesh in Holladay shows us that the word has up to 10 potential meanings including: "breath," "living being," "man," "life," "soul" and even "corpse." Since words function in context, we need to investigate what our word means in various contexts, not just lump all the definitions together.
The Old Testament is written predominantly in Hebrew with sections of Aramaic appearing in Daniel and Ezra.
STEP 2: Briefly Explore the Word in Other Ancient Semitic Languages
It is often valuable to investigate the cultural contexts from which a word emerged. The most efficient way to detect the potential influence of other languages on our Hebrew word is to consult a resource such as the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT).² For Logos Bible software users this resource is a click away. For those using the print edition, a convenient index coded with Strong's Numbers allows readers to easily access the dictionary.
By looking up the Strong's number 5315 we are directed to the TWOT numerical entry 1395a on nephesh. This article informs us that similar words in Ugaritic and Akkadian were associated with breathing and by implication the throat. Further nuances are seen in equivalent Arabic words that can also mean soul, mind, life or appetite.
With this broader context of associated meanings in mind we can now move on to isolate the unique contours of nephesh in the Old Testament.
STEP 3: Survey the Usage of the Word in the Old Testament
There are two perspectives that must be considered when understanding the usage of a word: (1) frequency (how many times a word is used); and (2) distribution (where the word is used). Investigating usage along these two axes allows us to establish a spectrum of meaning for our word in the Old Testament context.