What is the difference between soul and spirit from the Judeo-Christian perspective? Could the Language of Creation help define and clarify these two entities? Yes. But in order to understand the meaning of both words, it is necessary to turn to Scripture and determine how the words were originally used. Then it will be possible to consider The Language of Creation and allow the images of Creation to speak.
The Hebrew word for spirit, “rûwach” (rooʹ- akh), is defined as ‘wind; by resemblance breath.’ The first time that the word spirit or rûwach is used in Scripture is in Genesis 1:2.
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit ‘Rûwach’ of God was moving about over the waters.
The Hebrew word for soul, “nephesh” (nefʹ- esh), is defined as ‘a breathing creature.’ The first time that the word soul or nephesh is used in Scripture is in Genesis 2:7.
And the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living ‘soul’ or ‘nephesh.’
Thus SPIRIT is BREATH itself! SOUL is A BREATHING CREATURE!
The distinction between spirit and soul is important. It suggests that the spiritual life of a human being, nephesh, begins when breath, rûwach, enters the physical body. The meeting time for the union between breath and creature takes place immediately after the birth of the physical body. As soon as the infant leaves its sac of water and takes its first breath of air, rûwach and nephesh are united.
Fish and Birds
The spiritual aspect on which I would like to focus is the change that takes place when a creature leaves its sac of water within the womb and enters into spirit – or life in the air. The two entities within The Language of Creation that best represent this change from life in the water to life in the air are the sea creatures and the birds. The image of the fish speaks of all things related to life in the water. The birds speak of all things related to life in the air. Both fish and birds are living creatures with the breath, rûwach, of life in them. They are breathing creatures. But the fish is designed to explore life in the water; the bird is designed to explore life in the air.
In order to understand the spiritual communication offered by the fish and birds, it must be noted that life in the water originates because of the Light of Life - God’s energy that brings life into being. And life in the air originates because of the Breath of Life, God’s Rûwack or Sky. These two complementary relationships mark the completion of the 1st, 2nd, and 5th Days of Creation according to Genesis 1. As a result of the completion, a blessing is spoken upon these completed relationships.
Spiritually speaking the fish represents the thirsty soul – the breathing creature that must find a secondary source of water because it has been removed from its primal waters – the waters of the womb. From the moment that rûwach enters our body we become a nephesh – a breathing soul who longs to find another source of water – ‘living water!’ The source of the eternal water is God, whose breath, Rûwach, moved over the waters before the waters were separated, temporal from eternal, however …
This never-ending feeling of thirst motivates the soul to continuously explore options while searching for the ‘river of life,’ or the spiritual waters of eternity. Too often the thirsty soul does not realize what it is longing for. Therefore the breathing creature will seek substitutes to satisfy the longing. And when the longing isn’t satisfied by the substitutes, the thirsty soul becomes depressed, angry, or agitated.
Jesus understood the ‘thirsty soul.’ His infamous words spoken to the woman at the well revealed the source of living water.
“If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” John 4: 10
Speaking of the water in the earthly well, Jesus said,
“Everyone who drinks from this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” John 4: 13-14.
But Jesus also understood the connection between the thirst soul and the image of the fish.
As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men,” Mk 1:17.
The call to follow Jesus is a call to care about the needs of thirsty souls. And finally these prophetic words from Revelation 22: 17 reveal the reward for the thirsty soul.
The Spirit and the Bride say “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.
The ‘Confined’ Spirit
The other image in The Language of Creation which represents the confined human spirit and mind is the bird. From the moment that rûwach enters our body and we become a nephesh, we are breathing creatures who long to flap our wings and transcend the confines of our earthly body. The place of unrestrained freedom is eternal life but …
This never-ending feeling of confinement motivates the spirit/mind to continuously explore options while searching for the unrestrained freedom of eternity. Too often the caged bird does not realize why it feels confined by its temporal home in the body of a breathing creature. Therefore the breathing creature will seek substitutes to satisfy the need to free the spirit. And when the need for freedom isn’t satisfied by substitutes, the confined spirit/mind becomes deflated, lonely, and hopeless.
Jesus understood the feelings of spiritual bondage as he quoted Isaiah 61:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has annointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4: 18-19
Jesus suggested the idea that truth leads to freedom …
“If you hold to my teachings, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8: 32
Jesus also suggested the he was the truth …
“I am the way and the truth and the life.” John 14: 6
In the letters of Paul we find these words …
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Cor 3: 17
But regardless of whether one believes the words of Scripture, every nephesh (soul) and rûwach (spirit) must ultimately embark on their own journey of spiritual discovery in order to find the way, truth, and life. I am of the opinion that no one can know God’s comings and goings within another soul. Only God can know how someone’s journey toward truth will end. As a wise bible scholar once said, “If Jesus is the gatekeeper then let Jesus be the gatekeeper!”
As mentioned earlier, the meeting between rûwach and nephesh occurs with the first intake of air at the moment of birth. Nephesh, the thirsty soul, and rûwach, the confined spirit, are inseparable within the breathing creature. Nephesh cannot exist apart from rûwach that gives life to nephesh. The soul cannot exist apart from breath that gives life to soul. However, when breath leaves body, rûwach and nephesh are believed to transcend together into eternal life.
Does nephesh drink from the living waters of eternity? Is rûwach freed to enjoy an eternal life of unrestrained flight?
Definitions taken from: Strong, James. The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.McLean,Virginia: MacDonald Publishing Company
Scripture taken from: Barker, Kenneth, ed. The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids,Michigan: Zondervan, 1985