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Nephesh Chayyah

What is the standard of life according to the Bible?

It’s alive! Or is it? Actually, much of what is considered biologically alive today is not necessarily considered alive Biblically. Throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew term nephesh chayyah (נפש חיה), meaning “living creature” or “living soul”, is used only to describe animals and humans – not plants, not microorganisms and, possibly, not even insects.

“Man alone among the living creatures is endowed—like his Creator—with moral freedom and will. He is capable of knowing and loving God and of holding spiritual communion with Him…

Rambam

For example, on day three of creation (Genesis 1:11-12), God brings forth vegetation, plants and fruit trees and never once are they described as living things. In fact, the Bible elsewhere never talks about plants dying, only withering or fading. Therefore, plants might better be described as “self-replicating solar-powered food-factories.”[1] Similarly, while microorganisms like bacteria are not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, nor are we told when they came about, they clearly do not fall under the Biblical category of living things. They, too, are ingenious biological machines. After all, bacterial diseases such as leprosy are not considered living in the Bible.

It is not until Genesis 1:20 that the phrase nephesh chayyah is first used, and it’s here, on day five of creation, that God creates “living creatures” both of the sea and of the air. Similarly, on day six, God creates the nephesh chayyah of the land—both the animals that could be domesticated—the “cattle”—as well as those that could not be domesticated—the “beasts of the earth”. Also, God creates the “creeping things” which definitely refers to reptiles and amphibians, but may or may not include insects. As Bible commentator and physical chemist Jonathan Sarfati points out, “Although many insects ‘creep’, the [Hebrew] word remes (‘creeping things’) seems restricted to vertebrate creepers such as reptiles, not insects.[2] Indeed, the prime example of remes in Strong’s lexicon is reptiles.[3] There also seems to be other Scriptural hints that insects do not fall under the Biblical category of living things. For instance, “We see…in the Flood account that all life forms outside the Ark that breathe through nostrils perished (Genesis 7:22). Insects and arachnids do not breath through nostrils so were not considered nephesh chayyah (living creatures) that needed to be saved as obligate passengers on the Ark… .[4] So insects (like plants and microorganisms) may also be considered ingenious biological machines, though admittedly the Bible does not totally rule out the possibility that they are alive either. (For a more in-depth analysis on whether insects are Biblically considered alive or not, see Did Noah bring insects on the Ark?)

Nevertheless, the Bible does draw a clear line between the non-living vegetation and the living animals and humans. And more importantly, it makes the ultimate distinction which many modern biologists do not and cannot make because it lies outside of the physical realm. That is the distinction between animals and humans. Unlike the animals, only mankind was created in the image of God and according to His likeness.[5] This nonphysical imparting of His image granted humans special attributes which are totally unattainable to the animals. As the medieval Rabbi, Rambam so eloquently put it, “Man alone among the living creatures is endowed—like his Creator—with moral freedom and will. He is capable of knowing and loving God and of holding spiritual communion with Him; and man alone can guide his actions in accordance with reason. He is therefore said to have been made in the form and likeness of the Almighty.”[6]

The Bible makes it absolutely clear that we are not animals, nor did we come from animals, but that we are totally unique and special creations of God.

 

Ryan Hembree | July 10, 2020 – 12:31 PM EST


[1] Jonathan Sarfati, The Genesis Account, 170-171.
[2] Ibid., 247.
[3] Blue Letter Bible, Lexicon: Strong’s H7431 – remes
https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/Lexicon/Lexicon.cfm?strongs=H7431&t=KJV
[4] Jonathan Sarfati, The Genesis Account, 248.
[5] By using the term “mankind” rather than “humankind” I am in no way making a sexist comment. On the contrary, the Biblical term “Mankind” was the name God Himself gave to both male and female human beings: “He created them male and female, and blessed them and called them Mankind in the day they were created (Genesis 5:2).
[6] Zlotowitz and Scherman, Bereishis = Genesis, P.70. Cited from Terry Mortenson, Searching for Adam, 199.

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