Connected upward, yet pulled downward.
That is the battle within your soul.
But it’s for a purpose. And it’s good.
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[Combat Zone is the foundational post for soul basics. The original article was created/posted in 2009, but for easier reading divided into four posts in 2020. Judaic scripture number references used.]
SUGGEST READING THIS FIRST. COMBAT ZONE SERIES: PART 1—YOUR SOUL
READING TIME: 7-10 MINUTES.
Ancient Israelites as well as those in the Second Temple period—including the first century with Jesus (Yeshua, his Hebrew name)—have long embraced a soul-body perspective. Same with rabbinic teaching today.
Even philosophers from Homer to Plato and Socrates and onto the Hellenistic period and beyond have peered into this mysterious soul-body relationship.
This series focuses on God’s Word, exploring that soul-body interplay in daily life, and pulls from Hebrew wording as a gateway to deeper understanding of biblical text.
And because film/literature can help visualize the human-soul story, I later on (in a linked post) lightly explore a character in a Fellini film, Nights of Cabiria, via this soul lens. An unconventional approach? Maybe.
So let’s roll up our sleeves and get to it. The first stop along our Judaic-Messianic bridge: three revealing Hebrew words used interchangeably for soul.
DISSECTING YOUR SOUL
The three Hebrew words I’ll be sharing in a moment magnify things for us . . . spilling light from Heaven so we understand more and can do better. They reveal that the soul . . .
(1) is breathed from God
(2) is unseen like a breath or wind
(3) can rise (to the things of God) and descend (away from His goodness)
(4) houses understanding and thought
(5) has emotions
(6) has a desire to cleave (negatively or positively)
(7) has an awareness of self
(8) shares responsibility with the body for its actions/decisions (thus one of the needs for a bodily resurrection—more on that in another post)
Now let’s unpack it.
Soul Nuance #1: Breath of life, soul, attached to God
Neshama [neh-shah-mah ]—soul, God’s breath of life [in Hebrew, nishmat chayim נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים] that He breathed into Adam per Genesis 2:7. That divine breath animated, enlivened, the body and sparked the soul’s dimensions. It gave Adam’s body—as it does yours and mine—life.
Think of it. That breath is your closest contact with God, His soul to your newly breathed soul. It’s His holy breath (nishmat) actually residing within you. How miraculous. A profound, loving gift from the King of Kings, the Ruler of the Universe. The One who sits High and lifted up on His mighty throne.
Soul Nuance #2: Wind, breath, spirit
Ruach [roo-akh] rises and descends—designed to move (like the wind) with the flow of God’s divine presence, His Shechinah, dwelling within. You hear the wind, feel it, but can’t see it.
The word ruach is also used for feelings/emotions. The question is, will you hear His voice and follow Him, drawing the entire soul-body upward, surrendering to Him and His leading?
As your life goes this way or that, upwardly seeking Him or not, so this Soul Nuance (spirit/wind/ruach) rises, descends.
Soul Nuance #3: Life force, soul, self, a person, rested breath, living (breathing) being
Nefesh [neh-fesh]—when the breath of life (neshama, Soul Nuance #1) first animated the body, it became a living vessel (nefesh). Since nefesh is enmeshed with the body, it is often linked to blood (Leviticus 17:11), hence the prohibition against eating blood.
The word nefesh is used for the inner breathing soul-substances of a person. It’s taken from the Hebrew root nafash meaning to rest per Exodus 31:17, where God rested after six days of creation. Likewise, the breath of the soul (neshama, Soul Nuance #1) rested (nafash), as in Genesis 2:7.
The nefesh is often translated as self, suggesting it has an awareness of the physical world and of the body. It also has a yearning, a desire, appetite, and a cleaving (attaching itself either negatively or positively), per some rabbinic thinking.
That self-factor with a desire to cling is an important characteristic. Especially if the soul (nefesh) cleaves to things/desires mirroring those of the downward-focused body . . . which inevitably will wind up blocking the soul’s upward call.
Add in what Rabbi Pinchas Winston (a lecturer/author on Torah philosophy) basically describes about the nefesh—in his teaching of Exodus 35-38: it sets out to control and manipulate its physical surroundings in an attempt to “create a sense of self-reliance and security.”
No wonder that globally-and-generationally-known rabbi (who was so much more)—Jesus/Yeshua—taught this about dying to that negative self and turning your soul and body to God, surrendering to Him, serving Him, loving Him:
“Truly, truly, I say to you,
unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Consider this rabbinic poetic image from Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (my inserts in red):
Like a glassblower, God’s action of exhaling a soul
is like the breath [neshama] leaving His lips,
traveling as wind [ruach/spirit],
coming to rest [nefesh/nafash] in the vessel [your/my/everyone’s body].
THE BODY FACTOR
Unlike the soul breathed from God, your earth-derived body has a different agenda.
It has an appetite and cravings for our physical world/natural realm.
As noted by the highly regarded Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz—teacher/author, famed for his edition of the Talmud:
“The body is blind . . . it has the physical power but doesn’t have the understanding, the inner side . . . the soul, on the other hand, has all understanding [it is not visible, but sees spiritually—my note for clarification], but it doesn’t have the physical power to do it.”
Steinsaltz says the soul-body combination is very powerful, being able to do everything: feeling, thinking, saying.
But it’s not that simple. He says with the creation of man, a lump of matter, of earth, God inserted a soul. That resulted in two different and separate entities whose usage later is far more complex—and in daily life takes on a more “symbiotic coexistence of two elements.”
Symbiotic, says Steinsaltz, in that the soul and body are working together and influencing each other . . . creating a type of combined entity.
You, me, today: This soul-body matrix (union/fusion of sorts) can cause the holy mission of the soul to travel a rigorous obstacle course.
The question remains, will the soul gets its earthly partner to look upward—or will the God-breathed soul be duped or falter and be pulled downward, eyes off of God and His ways?
Introducing perhaps a more familiar term: In Judaic fashion, Jesus/Yeshua used the terms soul and body—as in Matthew 10:28.
“Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
But New Testament writers later called the body’s world-tethered component the flesh—referring to the physical body and its self-driven characteristics.
“For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit [of God] is life and peace . . . Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” —Romans 8:5, 6, 8
The dynamic-duo struggle, body and soul, is real. It’s part of the refining, spiritual, and God-designed journey down here.
But does it have to be so chaotic, such a Wild West ride? Depends. And that brings us to part three of this series—how to navigate the battle within and without.
READ PART THREE NEXT. COMBAT ZONE SERIES: PART 3—RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
CREDIT: MAGNIFYING GLASS PHOTO BY MARTEN NEWHALL ON UNSPLASH
CREDIT: UPSIDE DOWN WOMAN PHOTO BY TYLER NIX ON UNSPLASH