Saturday, April 13, 2013

Living Souls

Genesis 2:7 in the Hebrew says:
And he breathed into his nose the breath of life and the man became a living soul.
The phrase "living soul" occurs throughout the Old Testament, mostly in the early chapters of Genesis, in Leviticus 11:10, 46, and Ezekiel 47:9. A "living soul" is a common trope in Egypt; the phrase occurs in Book of the Dead chapters 85, 130, 134, and 137A, as well as the Daily Temple Litrugy. By the Ptolemaic period, it also appears in Book of the Dead chapters 17, 127, and 153 and in the Document of Breathing Made by Isis.

The difference between the Egyptian use of the term and the Hebrew use of the term illustrates the problem with the verse. In Egyptian, a "living soul" always refers to a person. In Hebrew, it mostly refers to animals (as in Genesis 1:20-24; 9:10-16; Leviticus 11:10, 46, and Ezekiel 47:9), although it can include humans.

The Targum Onkelos, which is a first century Jewish interpretation of the text in Aramaic, reads just a bit differently:
And he blew into his nose the breath of life and it became a speaking spirit in the man.
The Targum alters the text so that man receiving the breath of life sets him apart from the dumb animals. Not just the ability to breathe is at issue, but the ability to talk. Communication becomes the important thing, rather than just inhaling and exhaling.