What is the breath of life (Genesis 2:7)? 

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By BibleAsk Team


Life Begins With Receiving the Breath of Life 

The breath of life “neshamah” is first mentioned in the story of Creation. “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). From God, the life-giving principle, the breath of life entered the lifeless body of Adam. Thus, the agency by which the spark of life was transferred to his body was the “breath” of God. When the lifeless form of man was infused with this divine “breath,” “neshamah”, of life, man became a living “soul.”

The same idea is mentioned in Job 33:4, “The breath [neshamah] of the almighty hath given me life.” Given to man, the “breath” is equal to his life; it is life itself. Isaiah presents the same truth, “Sever yourselves from such a man, whose breath is in his nostrils; For of what account is he?” (Isaiah 2:22).  

body (dust) + breath (or spirit) = life (soul)

Life Ends with Giving Up the Breath of Life 

Solomon wrote, “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). At death, there is “no breath [neshamah, life] left in him” (1 Kings 17:17). That which here returns to God is simply the life principle given by Him. The body turns to dust again, and the spirit goes back to God, who gave it. The spirit of every person who dies—whether saved or unsaved—returns to God at death. It cannot therefore be the mind or intelligence. It is simply breath and nothing more.

body (dust) – breath (or spirit) = death (not a soul)

Notice that the words “breath” and “spirit” are used interchangeably (Job 27:3; Psalm 104:29, 30; James 2:26). Therefore, when Solomon described the spirit returning to God, he was referring to the breath, because that was what God gave in the beginning, and therefore, it was the only thing that could now “return” to the One who gave it. The spirit that returns to God at death is the breath of life or the divine spark of life. Nowhere in the Scriptures does the “spirit” have any life, wisdom, or feeling after a person dies. It is the “breath of life” and nothing more.

All Creatures Have the Same Breath of Life 

This “breath of life” doesn’t differ from the “breath of life” in animals, for all receive their life from God (Genesis 7:21, 22). “For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 3:19). 

The Living Soul

When the lifeless form of man was infused with this divine “breath,” neshamah, of life, man became a living “soul,” nephesh. The word nephesh has a variety of meanings: 

  1. Breath (Job 41:21)
  2. Life (1 Kings 17:21; 2 Samuel 18:13; etc.).
  3. Heart as the center of affections (Genesis 34:3; Song of Solomon 1:7; etc.)
  4. Living being (Genesis 12:5; 36:6; Leviticus 4:2; etc.)
  5. For emphasizing the personal pronouns (Psalms 3:2; 1 Samuel 18:1; etc.)

Please notice that the “nephesh” is made by God (Jeremiah 38:16), and can die (Judges 16:30), be killed (Numbers 31:19), be eaten (metaphorically, Ezekiel 22:25), be redeemed (Psalms 34:22), and be refreshed (Psalms 19:7). None of this applies to the spirit, “ruach,” indicating clearly the big difference between the two words.  

It is clear from the above examination that the translation “soul” given by the KJV to the “nephesh” in Genesis 2:7 is incorrect, if the commonly used expression “immortal soul” be implied. Although popular, the idea of the immortality of the soul is not taught in the Scriptures. Therefore, Genesis 2:7 may correctly be translated: “Man became a living being” (RSV). When “soul” is considered synonymous with “being,” we get the Scriptural meaning of “nephesh” in Genesis 2:7. 

For a study on the state of the dead, check the following link: The Intermediate State

In His service,
BibleAsk Team 

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