Dead souls, dying souls

I know, you have been told that human souls are immortal: they can never die.  You have been told “you have an immortal soul and are capable of living in immortal glory.”[1]  But what if the Bible spoke of souls as dying, and referred to the dead as dead souls. Would that make a difference.? Would you have to re-examine your theology of the soul?  I hope you would.

But there’s nothing like that in the Bible, you say. Well, let’s look. For this article, I will limit my search to only one book of the Bible, the book of Numbers.  My concern is how the author of Numbers uses the Hebrew word נפש (nefesh), which is the word in the Old Testament translated as soul.

Six times in the book the word is translated corpse!

  • Numbers 5:2 “Command the Israelites to send away anyone from the camp who is afflicted with a skin disease, anyone who has a bodily discharge, or anyone who is defiled because of a corpse. (Num. 5:2 CSB)[2]
  • Numbers 6:11 The priest is to offer one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering to make atonement on behalf of the Nazirite, since he sinned because of the corpse. On that day he must consecrate his head again. (Num. 6:11 CSB)
  • Numbers 9:6 But there were some men who were unclean because of a human corpse, so they could not observe the Passover on that day. These men came before Moses and Aaron the same day
  • (Num. 9:6 CSB)
  • Numbers 9:7 and said to him, “We are unclean because of a human corpse. Why should we be excluded from presenting the LORD’s offering at its appointed time with the other Israelites?” (Num. 9:7 CSB)
  • Numbers 9:10 “Tell the Israelites: When any one of you or your descendants is unclean because of a corpse or is on a distant journey, he may still observe the Passover to the LORD. (Num. 9:10 CSB)
  • Numbers 19:11 “The person who touches any human corpse will be unclean for seven days (Num. 19:11 CSB)

That just does not fit with the popular theology.  A corpse is a dead body, and the soul is supposed to be something different.  In fact, the popular theology says that human beings are made up of a material element – the body, and an immaterial element: the soul.  But nobody told the author of Numbers that. Not only does he use the word נפש (nefesh) as a synonym for body, he uses it as a synonym for a dead body!

But, perhaps the author of Numbers is referring to a living soul inhabiting (for a while) a freshly dead body? No, that won’t work either. Twice the author of Numbers uses נפש (nefesh) to identify the body of a person who has died. The modern translators are even forced to translate the term נפש (nefesh) there with the English word body.

  • Numbers 6:6 He must not go near a dead body during the time he consecrates himself to the LORD. (Num. 6:6 CSB)
  • Numbers 19:13 Anyone who touches a body of a person who has died, and does not purify himself, defiles the tabernacle of the LORD. That person will be cut off from Israel. He remains unclean because the water for impurity has not been sprinkled on him, and his uncleanness is still on him. (Num. 19:13 CSB)

He says that the person’s soul נפש (nefesh) has died. To the author of Numbers, the soul is the body. The living soul is a living body. The dead body is a dead soul. I guess somebody needs to tell Moses that his theology is wrong.

Twice, Moses speaks of a person’s soul being cut off. That expression refers to being killed. To be cut off is to die.

  • Numbers 15:31 He will certainly be cut off, because he has despised the LORD’s word and broken His command; his guilt remains on him.” (Num. 15:31 CSB)
  • Numbers 19:20 But a person who is unclean and does not purify himself, that person will be cut off from the assembly because he has defiled the sanctuary of the LORD. The water for impurity has not been sprinkled on him; he is unclean. (Num. 19:20 CSB)

So, for Moses, the soul can be killed if he breaks God’s commandments, or defiles the tabernacle. It is not an immortal entity that God cannot put an end to. The soul is mortal, and can be killed.

Three times, Moses uses the word נפש (nefesh) as a synonym for a person’s mortal life.

  • Numbers 16:38 As for the firepans of those who sinned at the cost of their own lives, make them into hammered sheets as plating for the altar, for they presented them before the LORD, and the firepans are holy. They will be a sign to the Israelites.” (Num. 16:38 CSB)
  • Numbers 35:31 You are not to accept a ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of killing someone; he must be put to death. (Num. 35:31 CSB)
  • Numbers 23:10 Who has counted the dust of Jacob or numbered the dust clouds of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright; let the end of my life be like theirs. (Num. 23:10 CSB)

We are talking about life and death, here. The נפש (nefesh) is not an undying life, but a life that can die, a life that can be taken, resulting in death.

 Three times, Moses specifically refers to a soul נפש (nefesh) as having been killed.

  • Numbers 31:19 “You are to remain outside the camp for seven days. All of you and your prisoners who have killed a person or touched the dead are to purify yourselves on the third day and the seventh day. (Num. 31:19 CSB)
  • Numbers 35:15 These six cities will serve as a refuge for the Israelites and for the foreigner or temporary resident among them, so that anyone who kills a person unintentionally may flee there. (Num. 35:15 CSB)
  • Numbers 35:30 “If anyone kills a person, the murderer is to be put to death based on the word of witnesses. But no one is to be put to death based on the testimony of one witness. (Num. 35:30 CSB)

The same author, Moses, described the creation of human life by saying that “the LORD God formed the man out of the dust from the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being. (Gen. 2:7 CSB)” A soul is the being. It can be a living being, or it can be killed, and become a dead being. Having a soul does not make a person immortal. Only God can do that. Jesus says he’s the one who gives eternal life (John 10:28).  Stop trusting in your own nature. Surrender to Jesus, and he will raise you up (soul and body) when he returns.

[1]  Jeremiah Burroughs, The Saint’s Inheritance and the Worldling’s Portion. (Coconut Creek FL:Puritan Publications, 2012), 6.

[2] Christian Standard Bible, (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers), 2017.

Jeff

About Jefferson Vann

Jefferson Vann is a missionary with Advent Christian General Conference, and elder at Takanini Community Church in Auckland, New Zealand. He is a teacher, Bible translator, and avid blogger. "My hope is that everyone who reads this blog will have an opportunity to understand the gospel, and will know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior." He has written books on theology and Bible commentary. You can read more of Jeff's writing at Devotions  |  Jefferson Vann | Commands of Christ | Learning Koine Greek Together

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