But don’t souls depart from people when they die?
Texts in question: Genesis 35:18; 1 Kings 17: 21, 22)
“And so it was, as her soul was departing (for she died), that she called his name Ben-Oni; but his father called him Benjamin” (Genesis 35:18).
“And he stretched himself out on the child three times, and cried out to the LORD and said, ‘O LORD my God, I pray, let this child’s soul come back to him.’ Then the LORD heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came back to him, and he revived” (1 Kings 17:21, 22).
These two Old Testament stories, as translated in the traditional and New King James versions, appear to support the idea that each person has an immortal soul that departs from the body when the body dies. This theology typically includes the idea that the soul then travels to heaven or hell, where it remains for eternity, though neither of the texts in question contain anything about heaven or hell.
The key to understanding the texts from Genesis 35 and 1 Kings 17 is to know how the Bible defines a “soul.” Genesis 2:7, in the original King James, tells us:
“And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
Thus, a soul is the combination of a body made of dust and the breath of life, elsewhere called the spirit of God. This spirit, or breath, is only one component of the soul, not the soul itself. When the body and the breath are disconnected from one another, the soul ceases to exist. It “departs,” as it were.
With this understanding, the texts tell us nothing except that the people in question died. Their “souls,” or essence of life, departed. In the case of the child, it came back. The bodies remain, but without the breath of God, there is no soul.
Additionally, the Hebrew word used in both instances is נפשׁ, pronounced neh'-fesh. It translates, roughly, to “breath,” or “vitality,” and often connotes a living creature. Thus, the נפשׁ (breath, vitality) departed from the people when they died.
Many modern translations of the Bible do not use the word “soul” in the texts in question. For example, the New International Version translates Genesis 35:18 as:
“As she breathed her last—for she was dying—she named her son Ben-Oni. But his father named him Benjamin.”
First Kings 17:21, 22, also in the NIV, reads:
“Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried out to the LORD, ‘LORD my God, let this boy’s life return to him!’ The LORD heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived.”
It is clear, then, that these texts do not offer evidence of an immortal soul that exists separately from the body.
*All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.