I was reading Genesis 2 last week and I was struck by a single word. In verse 7, God forms man out of the ground and breathes into his nostrils. At that point, Adam became a living “soul.”
The word “soul” conjures up pictures of a celestial spirit trapped in the prison of the body until death springs it. That is an ancient Greek view of the soul that many accept to this day, but it is not a biblical concept.
The Hebrew word for soul, “nephesh,” is actually related to the word “throat.” When the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, they complained that their throat had dried up (Num. 11:5-6). The word used here is actually “nephesh” and was associated with breath – what went in and out of the throat. A nephesh eventually referred to any living creature that breathed, whether human or animal.
But it doesn’t stop there. “Nephesh” actually represents humanness in all its totality, including body, emotions, spiritual inclinations, will, desire and intellect. You and I do not have souls; we are souls.
All of this got me thinking about the Christmas message of Incarnation. Jesus was born a nephesh. He grew up, taught, and performed miracles as a nephesh. When He agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane, His nephesh was crushed to the point of death. Luke records that Jesus was under such stress that drops of sweat and blood fell from His face. His “nephesh” – body, spirit and mind – were all engaged as He contemplated the cross that awaited Him.
It is a difficult thing for us to believe that God would become flesh in this way. In fact, it was such a scandal in the early years of Christianity that some, called Docetists (from a Greek word meaning “to seem”), denied that Jesus was actually human. He only appeared to be a man; His flesh was like a Hollywood movie set that hid pure divine spirit. The Bible condemns this view in strong terms: “By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses Jesus as the Christ who has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that refuses to confess Jesus, that spirit is not from God, and this is the spirit of the antichrist…” (I John 4:2).
The Christmas news is nothing less than this: God became nephesh, a living soul, a person who experienced what we experience, from temptation to tiredness. In all His dealings, Jesus loved and served God with all His nephesh (Matt. 22:37). So can we. For what Christ was on earth, we, too, can become.