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Nephesh chayyāh

A matter of life … and non-life

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Published: 8 April 2014 (GMT+10)
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What does the Bible means when it talks about ‘life’?

The Bible tells us that death, suffering, and disease were not part of the original creation. Rather, they came as a result of Adam’s sin, which affected the entire creation (Romans 8:19–23a). The grief that we experience when someone close to us dies bears witness to the fact that this was not how it was originally intended.

Although naturalists try to say otherwise, death is most certainly not a natural thing.

Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthian church describes death as the “last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26).1 Jesus wept at the death of His friend Lazarus, even though He was about to revivify him (John 11:35).

The Bible promises that all trace of this awful state of affairs will be removed with the final restoration of all things. The last chapters of Revelation foretell, with clear Edenic allusions, a restored new creation with no more death because there will be no more curse, and the Tree of Life will exist.

This whole sin-death causality is a key reason we can’t logically mix the Bible with millions of years.2

The doctrine of the Restoration/New Creation is also banefully undermined—restored to what exactly—billions more years of death and suffering?3

Many questions

It’s natural for people to ask questions about what the Bible means when it talks about ‘life’, since this has to inform our understanding of what ‘death’ is in the Bible. While most can at least understand the concept of life and death in terms of cats, collies and canaries (creatures that we naturally have a certain degree of empathy for), fewer people are as certain when it comes to creepy crawlies, corals and carrots—creatures that are certainly biologically alive, but which are different from ‘higher animals’.

Common questions may include: What do you mean by ‘no death’? What if Adam had stepped on an ant? What about skin cells dying? Don’t plants die? What about the bacteria in Adam’s digestive system? Weren’t these organisms already dying before the Fall?

What is really alive? Where do we draw the line between life and non-life? This is important, since in order to adequately explain what is meant by the doctrine of ‘no death before sin’, we must have a correct definition of what constitutes ‘life’ in the first place (since logically, only something that is alive can die).

Under the modern western biological definition, any organism that can display at least most of the following characteristics is considered to be living: movement, respiration, sensation, growth, reproduction, excretion and nutrition (feeding). Viruses are excluded under this classification system since they are really only capable of reproduction (and even that completely depends on a host cell).

However, this approach may not tally with the biblical definition of life. And if the Bible defines ‘life’ differently from modern biology, then arguments against the notion of ‘no death before the Fall’ that presuppose the modern biological definition of ‘life’ are invalid because they are anachronistic. Thus, as with all matters; in our quest to define what ‘life’ is, we must ground our thinking in God’s Word.

The life principle

The biblical answer to the question of life and non-life can be found in that foundational document: the book of Genesis. There, it is tied intrinsically to the Hebrew word nephesh (נפש), meaning ‘living being’ or ‘soul’. We can therefore understand that if nephesh defines life, then only the nephesh creatures are subject to death as a result of the Fall.4

The word conveys a sense of a ‘breathing creature’. It is used throughout the Old Testament to also convey a sense of ‘emotions’, ‘feelings’ and ‘consciousness’.5,6

This is similar yet subtly different from the Hebrew ruach (רוח, e.g. Genesis 1:2) meaning ‘spirit’—which also carries a sense of ‘wind’ or ‘breath [of life]’ and is also used on occasion in reference to animals.7

Animals (in the everyday sense of the word) and humans both possess this life quality.8

Most often, the word nephesh is combined with another in the form nephesh chayyāh (נפש חיה), from chay meaning life (modern Israelis toast lechayyim, meaning ‘to life’). This is normally translated as ‘living creatures’ when referring to animals (e.g. Genesis 1:20), and ‘living soul’ when referring to man (e.g. Genesis 2:7).9

The two main areas in Genesis where the word nephesh appears with particular frequency are the creation of the animals and man (Genesis 1 and 2), and the description of the animals taken aboard the ark (Genesis 6 and 7). In both places the term is used in conjunction with defining specific groups of organisms: one deals with the impartation or inclusion of this life principle as the organisms are created; the other addresses the preservation of certain organisms and the watery destruction of others.

These will help us determine which creatures are included (as nephesh life) and which are not.

Table 1. Usage of nephesh chayyāh in Genesis.3

Reference Translated as Refers to:
Gen 1:20 ‘living creatures’ Moving creatures of the water.
Gen 1:21 ‘[every] living creature’ or ‘every living soul’ Creatures that swarm in the water (primarily fish).
Gen 1:24 ‘living creatures’ Creatures of the earth (of which livestock, creeping things and beasts of the earth would appear to be subsets).
Gen 1:30 ‘life’ All creatures that possessed this ‘life’ were to eat plants.
Gen 2:7 ‘living soul’ Adam after God breathed into him.
Gen 2:19 ‘[every] living creature’ The creatures brought before Adam in order that they might be named.
Gen 9:4 ‘the life’ Life that is linked to the blood.
Gen 9:10 ‘[every] living creature’ The creatures preserved on the ark with Noah.
Gen 9:12 ‘creature’ The creatures with Noah.
Gen 9:15, 16 ‘[every] living creature’ All creatures, including those with Noah.

Note: The list is not exhaustive, but merely intended to illustrate the main occurrences.

The Flood account is relevant because it was God’s intent to destroy ‘all flesh, wherein is the breath of life …’ (Genesis 6:17); while preserving representatives of all living land creatures upon the Ark (along with Noah and his family). The creatures that went on the Ark are described as nephesh chayyāh (although it is only dealing with the land-living, air-breathing ones, since the sea-living nephesh creatures were able to survive the Flood). These were: birds, cattle (likely domestic animals), creeping things (likely reptiles and small vertebrates—see later), and beasts. Thus any land-dwelling creatures not included in this description are probably not regarded as nephesh life.

Life in the blood

Other passages also shed valuable light on how we define life. Leviticus 17:11 states: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood” (also mentioned in Deuteronomy 12:23 and Genesis 9:4—see table). The word translated ‘life’ here is nephesh. This links life (or spirit) with the presence of blood. By ‘blood’, it is likely that the common understanding of the term is intended.

That is, the red liquid that is actively circulated in the bodies of vertebrates (specifically with hemoglobin-containing red blood cells).

Blood is an indicator of life (in the nephesh sense), and this logically connects with the way in which blood had to be shed for the forgiveness of sins. Sacrifices for this nature involved animals (specifically certain mammals and birds). While the flesh of the sacrificial animal was given for food (post Flood at least), the animal’s life—its blood—was given for sacrifice.10

Death was the penalty for sin, so something had to die in order to atone for people’s sin.

Thus blood had to be shed—albeit this merely covered sin only on a limited and temporary basis (Hebrew kaphar כפר (cover) hence Yôm Kippur (‘Day of Atonement’). Only the blood of the Messiah shed on the Cross could take away sin (Hebrews 9–10). Something without blood was not alive in the nephesh sense, and so could not die as a substitute.

‘Living creatures’

Armed with this information, we can now draw up some boundaries for what is considered nephesh life.

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Fish, while they don’t ‘breathe’ in the same sense as we do, are among the swarming living creatures of Genesis 1:20–21.

Humans are clearly referred to as nephesh chayyāh right from the start—we even get our own flavour of translation ‘living soul’ as compared to ‘living creature’ although the Hebrew phrase is identical.

Other vertebrates, including fish,11 are regarded as nephesh creatures. Fish, while they don’t ‘breathe’ in the same sense as we do, are among the swarming living creatures of Genesis 1:20–21. Whales and large sea-going reptiles are also included under the grouping of the ‘great sea creatures’.

Land vertebrates (including those now extinct, such as dinosaurs) are covered under the classifications of ‘cattle’, ‘beasts’, and ‘creeping things’.

Birds are also included. If not referenced directly as nephesh chayyāh in Genesis 1, they are certainly included among those ‘living creatures’ brought before Adam (Genesis 2:19) and also in the Flood account among those brought on the Ark.

‘Non living life’

Insects and other invertebrates are likely not regarded as nephesh creatures. While the group translated as ‘creeping things’ in Genesis 1:24 (remes) are regarded as nephesh, this is referring to small vertebrates such as lizards, frogs, mice, etc. This term is not used to refer to insects or other invertebrates.12

The account of Noah further backs this assertion. The creatures taken on board the Ark did not include invertebrates.6 Although the creeping things are included in the description of ‘all flesh’ that perished in the flood, this is then further qualified as being ‘all those in whose nostrils was the breath of life’ (Genesis 7:21–22).

Insects do not have nostrils, but rather breathe through small openings in their sides (spiracles).13

Also, invertebrates do not have blood in the true sense (as vertebrates do), so they are ruled out as per Leviticus 17:11. Sessile creatures such as coral, sea anemones and tube worms are not included. Apart from being invertebrates as per above, they can be excluded on the basis that all the sea-dwelling nephesh creatures mentioned in Genesis 1:20 are moving (swarming), and of course they do not have blood in the true sense either.

Single-celled organisms such as bacteria, and individual cells within an organism are not regarded as nephesh life. Indeed programmed ‘cell-death’ (apoptosis) is a necessary part of multicellular life,14 particularly in fetal development,15 and would have been occurring even in the perfect pre-Fall world.

The descriptions of created things in Genesis are not all-inclusive. They focus primarily on those creatures that are regarded as nephesh chayyāh (perhaps because these are the very creatures that were affected directly by the curse of death, and so their inclusion had the greatest relevance to the overall narrative). Thus, the specific mention of the nephesh creatures in the creation account should not be taken to mean that only nephesh creatures were created at that time.

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At the end of day 6 God pronounced his finished creation as ‘very good’. If evolution were true, would Adam and Eve have been standing on a fossil graveyard of death and struggle over millions of years that God called ‘very good’. The Bible describes death as the last enemy to be destroyed.

What about plants?

Right from the outset, plants are excluded from being classified as living things.

The term nephesh chayyāh is never used to describe plants.6 While plants do experience tissue damage (wherein individual cells may ‘die’ in a biological sense—to cease functioning), a plant has no brain to interpret that damage as pain. Furthermore, plants do not have blood, which is intrinsically linked to nephesh life. This is evident in the account of Cain and Abel, where Cain’s sacrifice of plants was not acceptable to God—for there was no blood—unlike Abel’s sacrifice of animals from his flock.16

Plants were the original food source for all creatures in God’s creation (Genesis 1:29–30), while animal carnivory began at the Fall17 (not the Flood,18 Genesis 9 was the beginning of divinely allowed human meat eating).

Plant consumption clearly could not have involved suffering or death or else it would contradict God’s declaration of the finished creation as ‘very good’.19

Conclusion

A clear understanding of the Bible’s definition of what life is—and what is considered to be truly alive—helps us tackle the skeptical questions levelled at us regarding Scripture’s reliability in the areas of life, death and the Fall. As with any subject, we should start with what the Bible has to say, and build our understanding from there.

However, whenever we look at what the Bible teaches on a subject, we need to come to the text on its own terms.

This includes understanding the Bible’s definition of words like ‘life’. As we can see, the biblical view of life differs from the usual biology textbook definition and if we don’t recognise this difference at the outset, our reasoning will become confused later in the process. In general terms, the biblical classification of ‘living creature’ best seems to fit those that we would recognise today as vertebrates.

Any other organism could arguably be considered not truly alive as defined by Scripture, and therefore need not be covered by the ‘no death before the Fall’ ruling.

References and notes

  1. Cosner, L., Christ as the last Adam: Paul’s use of the Creation narrative in 1 Corinthians 15, J. Creation 23(3):70–75, 2009; creation.com/1-corinthians-15. Return to text.
  2. Bates, G. and Cosner, L., Did God create over billions of years? And why is it important? creation.com/billions, 6 October 2011. Return to text.
  3. Grigg, R., Some issues for ‘long-age’ Christians, Creation 25(4):50–51, 2003; creation.com/future. Return to text.
  4. Sarfati, J., The Fall: a cosmic catastrophe, J. Creation 19(3):60–64, 2005; creation.com/plant_death. Return to text.
  5. Batten, D., Catchpoole, D., Sarfati, J., Wieland, C., The Creation Answers Book, 3rd edition, p.100, Creation Book Publishers, Georgia, 2009. Return to text.
  6. Bullinger, E., Appendix 13 to The Companion Bible, Kregel Publications, 1995, as sourced from eclesia.org. Return to text.
  7. Morris, H., The Genesis Record, Baker Book House, Michigan, p. 73, 86, first published 1976, reprinted 2006. Return to text.
  8. Ref. 7, p. 69. Return to text.
  9. Sarfati, J., Refuting Compromise, 2nd edition, p. 201, Creation Book Publishers, Georgia, 2011. Return to text.
  10. Ref. 7, p. 223. Return to text.
  11. Sarfati, J., Did fish die before the Fall?, creation.com/fall-fish-death, 21 April 2012. Return to text.
  12. Woodmorappe, J., Noah’s Ark: A Feasibility Study, p. 3, Institute For Creation Research, California, 1996. Return to text.
  13. Yes, insects really do breathe—see Catchpoole, D., Insect inspiration solves giant bug mystery, Creation 27(4):44–47, 2005; creation.com/giant-bug-mystery. Return to text.
  14. Cosner, L., ‘No death before the Fall’? The importance of the distinction of nephesh chayyāh life, creation.com/death-fall, 3 June 2012. Return to text.
  15. Bell, P., Apoptosis: cell ‘death’ reveals Creation, J. Creation 16(1):90–102, 2002; creation.com/apoptosis. Return to text.
  16. May, K., Is Genesis myth or reality?, Creation 17(3):22–23, 1995; creation.com/gen-myth. Return to text.
  17. Gurney, R.J.M., The carnivorous nature and suffering of animals, J. Creation 18(3):70–75, 2004; creation.com/carniv. Return to text.
  18. Sarfati, J. and Cosner, L., ‘Carnivorous’ dinosaurs had plant diet, creation.com/veg-dinos, 27 January 2011. Return to text.
  19. Bell, P., The problem of evil: pre-fall animal death?, creation.com/animal-death, 29 March 2011. Return to text.