Hebrew scholars have identified 754 uses of the noun nephesh in scripture. A majority of these uses are translated soul in our English Bible. There are a number of other translations. Soul probably comes closest to the correct meaning for most readers of scripture. We resist the temptation to define the term in English, not to mention the complexities of Hebrew. Suffice to say the term soul extends to a defining characteristic beyond mere physical life--that “something special” possessed by many life forms. Most people may agree that soul is a characteristic of most pets and domesticated animals, but the human possession of spirit (let’s call it God-consciousness), sets humans apart from even the most soulish of animals. The categories of body, soul, and spirit, help us distinguish between simple life forms without a soul, more advanced life forms with body and soul, and humanity in possession of body, soul, and spirit.
Nephesh describes an array of life-forms which manifest a combination of intellect, will, emotion, and volition. These characteristics did not characterize the simple life which persisted before the Cambrian Explosion nor did such characteristics apply to the many complex creatures which appeared suddenly at the onset of the Cambrian Explosion, 530 mya. Moreover, in the approximately 400 million years following the Cambrian Explosion, most animals did not possess soulish characteristics. Many animals of the Cenozoic period, extending from the extinction of the dinosaurs, 66 million years ago until the present, may be most clearly categorized as soulish.
Reasons to Believe scholar Hugh Ross has produced provocative thinking about soulishness in animals and the origin of this characteristic. Ross defines the Hebrew verb bara as a special category of God’s creative activity: the transition from non-existence to existence. In Genesis 1 the verb is used for the creation of the universe (verse 1), the creation of soulish animals (verse 21), and the creation of humans (verse 27). The creation of soulishness, therefore, is in a special category. Evolutionists consider the acquisition of this characteristic a gradual outcome of an evolutionary progression, an outcome explained by natural processes. Evolutionists consider “advances” in earth’s creatures as gradual changes in degree, a slow accumulation of traits having origins in prior generations. Creationists, on the other hand, see soulishness as a divine, creative innovation supernaturally imparted to certain animals but not to others.
Some evolutionary scientists note the discontinuity with respect to cognitive abilities in animals, and between animals and humans. Evolution does not explain the phenomenon. They see the evolutionary notion of cognitive continuity as an error. We broaden our proposal as follows: Our Creator has implanted a special trait in many created animals. The trait has been termed “soulishness.” The soulish trait is actually the product of a transcendent miracle, not the product of an ill-defined, gradual evolutionary process.
Hugh Ross has catalogued the “Top Ten Nephesh” from Job 38-39 for special attention in his volume Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job. As we observe the hundreds of created animals, Job’s list is impressive but certainly incomplete. Most readers would probably list dogs and cats as near the top of their preferred categories of soulishness. Job, however, lists a select group of animals as examples of nephesh creatures. The catalog includes the lion, raven, goat, deer, donkey, wild ox, ostrich, horse, hawk, and eagle. All of these animals appeared on Earth during the Cenozoic, a term which means “new life.” Most of these animals appeared fairly late in the Cenozoic era, mostly within the past 10-15 million years. Soulish animals, therefore, were present prior to man’s creation in very recent times, soulishly interacting with each other. When humanity arrived, these beautiful animals were already present to give pleasure, provide service to him, afford companionship, and contribute a source of admiration and amusement (Genesis ).
On a personal level, I have learned to exult in the wondrous antics of our northwest
wildlife, especially our neighborhood birds which exhibit a riveting degree of soulishness. This 2012 blog entry is worth reposting for the benefit of our readers: Illinois