Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The important feminine noun נפש (nepesh) is complicated because English doesn't have a word for it. It occurs about 750 times in the Old Testament and the NIV translates it about 170 times with "life," "lives" or "alive," 105 times with "soul," and the remaining eleven dozen occurrences with variations of "self" or certain personal behaviors.
The Hebrew soul
Our word נפש (nepesh) appears to be part of a cluster of similar words in cognate languages, which mostly have to do with breath or breathing. Some cognates of our noun also mean throat (HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament counts Ugaritic and Akkadian and excludes Arabic. Alfred Jones includes Chaldee and Arabic), which appears to stem from a second usage of this Semitic root, namely that of growing more spacious. Note that a similar connection between breath and becoming more spacious exists in the form רוח (ruah).
The close connection between our noun and the act of breathing is also evident in the Bible. Job 41:21, YHWH speaks of Leviathan, and says, "His breath (נפש, nepesh) kindles coals and a flame goes out of his mouth". In Genesis 2:7, YHWH creates Adam by forming him from earth and breathing (נפח, napah) the breath (נשמה, neshama) of life into his nostrils (אף, 'ap), so that he became a נפש חיה (nepesh haya); a living soul.
Unfortunately, by the time the Septuagint and the New Testament were written, the word ψυχη (psuche) had attracted the attention of thinkers who had assigned all kinds of lofty qualities to it, and that still confuses exegetes today — a phenomenon comparable to the adorable Chuck Norris "facts" meme. The modern concept of soul is presently so much divorced from the Hebrew nepesh that translators should steer clear from it as much as possible. The Hebrew nepesh is really not the same as the Greek psuche or the modern "soul".
Or as Sidnie Ann White writes in the Oxford Companion to the Bible: "The idea of the human person, so important in modern times thanks especially to the study of psychology, was not a focus of ancient Israelite thought. Because of the corporate identity of the people of Israel, the individual person did not receive much attention in the literature of Israel. However, as Israel moved into a later period, and particularly after its encounter with Hellenism, the nature of the individual and his or her fate became much more prominent in both Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity" (under Human person).
Our Hebrew noun נפש (nepesh) does not denote a ghostly, insubstantial element of a human individual, but rather the condition of being alive. Something that is alive does not have a nepesh, but is a nepesh. And because a nepesh is something living, it covers humans (Genesis 2:7), animals (Genesis 1:21, 1:24) and even the Lord himself (Isaiah 42:1, Jeremiah 6:8). In fact, the Hebrews appear to have realized that all life is intertwined and no organism can exist without the others (beautifully illustrated in statements such as 1 Samuel 18:1).
Coupled with the word חי (hay), meaning life, our word nepesh also covers the entire economy of the biosphere: נפש חיה (nepesh haya), "the nepesh of life". Genesis 1:20 literally states, "Let the waters swarm with the swarmers of the nepesh of life," and Genesis 1:24 states, "Let the earth brings forth the nepesh of life according to form". All this indicates that to the Hebrews, our word נפש (nepesh) was much more a collective thing than a personal one. It may apply to an individual the way, say, our word 'air' does (my air) but our nepesh is essentially a personalized gulp of a much larger and always wholly unified atmosphere.
And as such, our word נפש (nepesh) is frequently used with the meaning of 'a person', or rather more literally: 'a breather', as pseudo-pseudonym for אדם ('adam, see the name Adam), which literally means 'dustling', or 'one-with-a-material-body'. The actual body, which the nepesh animates, is known as בשר (basar), or flesh, and these two occur on rare occasions juxtaposed (Isaiah 10:18).
Because a man's breath carries his words, his growls of anger, his sighs of passion, his gasps from fear, his snorts from indignation and his pantings from desire, our word נפש (nepesh) often serves as the collective phrase for all a living being's doings and feelings and even one's potential for future doings and feelings. When someone speaks of "my nepesh," he doesn't refer to a part of him, but to all of him as a living and acting being (Genesis 12:13, Judges 5:21, 2 Samuel 18:13). Strikingly, our noun nepesh doesn't seem to cover plants; if a nepesh has blood, the blood is where the nepesh resides (Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 17:11, Deuteronomy 12:23), which is obviously precisely how respiration works: conveying oxygen from the air into one's blood.
A nepesh doesn't die, only the body dies, but that doesn't mean that the nepesh goes on a journey through the afterlife, as many worldviews contemporary with the Hebrews' dictated. A 'dead breather' (Numbers 6:6, 9:6-10, Numbers 19:11) is simply an ex-breather. In Sheol the life of a person dissipates like a cloud in the sky (Job 7:9) and there is no mention of YHWH in Sheol (Psalm 6:5, see Exodus 20:7). Where the Greek word αδης (hades) and the modern word hell denote a location distinct from earth, the Hebrew word Sheol simply denotes a function of the earth: to disintegrate bodies that have stopped being alive (Numbers 16:1, Job 7:9, Psalm 6:5).
The Hebrew word שאול (sheol), or Sheol comes from the verb שאל (sha'al), which indicates desire (see Isaiah 5:14: "Sheol enlarges her desire", also Habakkuk 2:5), and desire appears to be such an essential quality of the nepesh, that our word can often be translated with wish (Genesis 23:8), will (Psalm 27:12, 41:2, 105:22), want (Psalm 78:18), craving (Exodus 23:9), enthusiasm (Numbers 11:6), disposition (Numbers 21:4, 2 Kings 19:15), desire (Deuteronomy 23:24, Psalm 35:25), appetite (Hosea 9:4, Proverbs 16:26), zeal (Psalm 17:9), ambition (Psalm 24:4), greed (Isaiah 56:11), or even plain lust (Genesis 34:3, Exodus 15:9). Isaiah 3:20 speaks of בתי הנפש, or 'wish-houses', a term that probably describes a box filled with delectables.
In Leviticus appears the difficult commandment to not cut flesh for the nepesh. It's not clear which pagan practice this refers to but for some curious reason, most modern translations interpret this instance of our word nepesh with 'the dead', which is obviously precisely not what it means. Here at Abarim Publications we are pretty sure that in this instance our word nepesh refers to the kind of supplicatory self-mutilation that also prompted the Baal priests to cut themselves on Mount Carmel, when they desired Baal to do something (1 Kings 18:28). Similarly, in Leviticus 21:1 and Numbers 5:2, our word does not mean 'the dead' but 'desire' or 'lust'.
Because of desire, a living being moves around, eats and reproduces. When the person stops being alive, his desires can no longer be satisfied and remain, so to speak, unanswered in Sheol. When a person is alive, his nepesh can be hungry and thirsty (Psalm 107:9), weary (Proverbs 25:25), craving in general (Ecclesiastes 2:24), and ultimately satisfied (Psalm 58:10). A nepesh may feel bitter (Judges 18:25) or rejoice (Isaiah 61:10). It may love (Song of Solomon 1:7, Jeremiah 12:7) but most of all the nepesh desires (Deuteronomy 12:20, 1 Samuel 2:16, Job 23:13, Isaiah 26:8).
Desire is important. It is the reason why living beings undertake action. Desire to live drives us to eat, to seek shelter and to reproduce. Desire also drives us to think and ponder, to better ourselves and to grow. Read our article on the word דם (dom), meaning blood, for more reflections on this.
Our noun נפש (nepesh) gave rise to a verb, namely the denominative verb נפש (napash), literally meaning "to nepesh". It's used only three times in the Bible. In Exodus 23:12, the Lord reveals what the Sabbath is for: so that everybody can napash. This is usually translated with "refresh themselves" but more correct would be "do what they want / get what they need". In 2 Samuel 16:14 David napashes after his ordeal with Shimei the cursing stone slinger. But most spectacularly, in Exodus 31:17, the Lord reveals how he did all his work in six days and on the seventh he napashed.