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And Yahweh God formed man out of the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life;
and man became a living being.
Gen. 2:7; see 7:22

This is the significant text regarding the constitution of man; here are three concepts: “dust of the ground,” “the breath of life,” and “a living being.” Each of these thoughts will be discussed.

“dust of the ground”

“Yahweh God formed man out of the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7)—such is the affirmation of Moses; and in the words of Paul there is confirmation: “The first man was of the earth, made of dust” (I Cor. 15:47). Therefore, in both Testaments man is associated with the earth, and his origin is said to be from dirt.

Even Adam’s name reflects his origin and association with the earth: adam, meaning “man,” is related to adamah, a word which means “dirt,” “ground,” “soil,” or “earth” (transl. “ground” in 2:7). So, Adam  (man) came from the dust of the adamah (ground or earth). Not only does the account in Genesis indicate that man is from the earth, but the etymological relationship of the words—Adam and adamah—indicates the same fact.

Being from the earth man is related to the earth for his continued existence, which in its origination, continuation, and termination is inextricably bound to the earth. Not only is man from the earth, the earth is necessary for his existence. But man is also distinct from the earth, separate from the earth, elevated above the earth, and finally will return to the earth at death (see: From the Dust).

Exactly how God brought man into existence is nowhere specified; however, the speculation by Keil and Delitzsch is worthy of consideration:

The formation of man from dust and the breathing of the breath of life we must not understand in a mechanical sense, as if God first of all constructed a human figure from dust, and then, by breathing His breath of life into the clod of earth which he had shaped into the form of a man, made it into a living being. The words are to be understood Theoprepos. By an act of divine omnipotence man arose from the dust; and in the same moment in which the dust, by virtue of creative omnipotence, shaped itself into a human form, it was pervaded by the divine breath of life, and created a living being, so that we cannot say the body was earlier than the soul. The dust of the earth is merely the earthly substratum, which was formed by the breath of life from God into an animated, living, self-existent being (Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 1, 79).

This description is engaging and appeals to the sense of the wonder of man’s immediate creation—an event that was supernatural, mysterious, and glorious.

“the breath of life”

The word “breath” is neshamah, and it appears approximately twenty times in the Old Testament, and translated as follows in the KJV: “breath” or “breathes” (14), “blast” (3), “spirit” (2), “soul” (1). It is from the root, nasham, meaning “to blow.”

According to Brown-Driver-Briggs, neshamah is used four ways: the breath of God (Isa. 30:33); the breath of man (Gen. 2:7); every breathing thing (Josh. 11:11); and the spirit of man (Prov. 20:27). Neshamah simply speaks of the breath the man breathes; to associate more than this with the word is suspicious exegesis.

In relationship to man the word is used in the following verses:

in whose nostrils was the breath (neshamah) of the spirit of life (Gen. 7:22);

there was no breath (neshamah) left in him (I Ki. 17:17);

as long as my breath (neshamah) is in me (Job 27:3);

the breath (neshamah) of the Almighty gives me life (Job 33:4);

Let everything that has breath (neshamah) praise Yahweh (Ps. 150:6);

the spirit (neshamah) of man is the lamp of Yahweh (Prov. 20:27);

whose breath (neshamah) is in his nostrils (Isa. 2:22);

gives breath (neshamah) to the people (Isa. 42:5).

The word “life” is chayyim (plu.; lit., “breath of lives”), a common word for life in the Old Testament, and the plural is translated “life” 132 times in the KJV.

The phrase, “the breath of life,” speaks of “the breath,” which is the breath “of life”; the breath is that which initiated the life of Adam. The “nostrils” of Adam were made to breathe and in that act life was imparted to the first man. With the breath man became living, a breathing being, which is a being with life. God imparted to the body, the dirt, the ability to breath, which is indicative of life and is essential to life (see: Miracle of Matter). This is “a personal, vitalizing act of the Creator” which “imparts life to man—an honor bestowed upon none of the lesser creatures” (Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, 116).

The “breath of life” is from God, true for man and animals; in the following verses note the Source of the breath that brings life:

the Spirit of God has made me, and the breath (neshamah) of the Almighty gives me life (Job 33:4);

You take away their breath (ruach), they die and return to their dust. You send forth Your Spirit (ruach), they are created (Ps. 104:29-30);

Thus says Yahweh God . . . Who gives breath (neshamah) to the people (Isa. 42:5);

the God who holds your breath (neshamah) in His hand (Dan. 5:23);

He gives to all life, breath (pnoe), and all things (Acts 17:25);

the breath (pneuma) of life from God entered them (Rev. 11:11).

Life is the gift of God, brought to man by the breath of God; and life is according to His Sovereign determination.

“a living being”

The combination, “living being,” is used of man, and is also used of fish and animals in Genesis 1:20, 21, 24.

The word “living” is chay, a word that appears over 100 times in the Hebrew Bible and over 70 times is translated “living” in the KJV: Gen. 1:20, 21, 24, 28; 2:7, 19; 3:20; 6:19; 7:4, 23; 8:1, 17, 21; 9:10, 12, 15, 16; it is from the root word chayah, meaning “to live”.

The word “being” is nephesh and is from the root naphash, “to breathe”; it appears in the Hebrew over 700 times, translated “soul” over 400 times, “life” over 100 times, “person” 30 times, “self” 19 times, and “creature” 9 times in the KJV.

Consider the following passages where nephesh is used of man:

man became a living being (nephesh) (Gen. 2:7);

and the people (nephesh) whom they had acquired in Haran (Gen. 12:5);

that I (nephesh) may live because of you” (Gen. 12:13);

as her soul (nephesh) was departing (Gen. 35:18);

fourteen persons (nephesh) in all (Gen. 46:22);

when anyone (nephesh) offers a grain offering (Lev. 2:1);

the person (nephesh) who touches any unclean thing (Lev. 7:21)

defiled by a corpse (nephesh) (Num. 5:2);

he shall not go near a dead body (nephesh) (Num. 6:6);

whatever your heart (nephesh) desires (Deut. 12:15);

with all the desire of his mind (nephesh) (Deut. 18:6);

deliver our lives (nephesh) from death (Josh. 2:13);

He restores my soul (nephesh) (Ps. 23:3);

the will (nephesh) of my adversaries (Ps. 27:12);

as he thinks in his heart (nephesh), so is he (Prov. 23:7);

to Him whom man (nephesh) despises (Isa. 49:7);

take heed to yourselves (nephesh) (Jer. 17:21);

as their life (nephesh) is poured out (Lam. 2:12);

the soul (nephesh) who sins shall die (Ezek. 18:4, 20).

From the above verses it is seen that nephesh can be translated: “being,” “people,” “I,” “soul,” “anyone,” “person,” “corpse,” “body,” “heart,” “mind,” “life,” “will,” “man,” and “yourselves.” So nephesh speaks of the individual, regardless of which word is used in translation.

It is difficult to see how any interpreter can legitimately identify “soul” as an independent entity that occupies the “body” in light of these verses.

“soul” is simply one of several words
that can be used to refer to the person—
the soul is the person.

Adam became a nephesh, that is, a living individual. Nephesh is what the body became when it was animated by God—when the dirt was made alive, it became a nephesh.

Translations of nephesh in the modern editions of Genesis 2:7 reflect this understanding of the word:

“a living soul” in KJV, ASV;

“a living being” in the NKJV NASB, RSV, NIV, CSB;

“a living creature” in ESV;

“a living person” in NLT.

Confirmation of the Old Testament is found in one verse in the New Testament: “The first man, Adam, became a living being (psuche)” (I Cor. 15:45; text is not "come to have" but "became"). Psuche is the Greek word for “soul” and is used in the Septuagint to translate nephesh.

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