Have you ever heard someone say, “The difference between man and the animals is that man has a soul,” and then quote Genesis 2:7? The idea that the word soul, the Hebrew nephesh or the Greek psueche, or the spirit, the Hebrew ruach or Greek pneuma, is what distinguishes man from the animals is very widespread. However, it is clearly and blatantly unbiblical. Why is this the case?
First, the Old Testament word for soul, nephesh, is very clearly employed for both animals and man. Indeed, Genesis 2:7 is the only text where the Hebrew for living soul is used of man alone. In Genesis 9:16 the phrase is arguably used for both men and animals. In every other text where the phrase living soul is found, it refers not to people, but to the animals, and often to the animals in contrast with man. The relevant passages are as follows:
Gen. 1:20 And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
Gen. 1:24 And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.
Gen. 1:30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so. (KJV margin, “life: Heb. a living soul.”)
Gen. 2:7 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.
Gen. 2:19 And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
Gen. 9:12 And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations:
Gen. 9:15 And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.
Gen. 9:16 And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.
Ezek. 47:9 And it shall come to pass, that every thing that liveth, which moveth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live: and there shall be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters shall come thither: for they shall be healed; and every thing shall live whither the river cometh.
There is no basis for saying that the distinguishing feature of man, in contradistinction to animals, is the possession of a soul or nephesh. Since living soul, nephesh chayyah, is employed identically of the animals in Genesis 1:20, 24, 30 and for man in 2:7, the conclusion that Genesis 2:7 teaches that the soul is what distinguishes man from the animals in Genesis 2:7 flies in the face of context in a radical way. In fact, the nephesh is what distinguishes what is properly Biblically alive—and thus could not pass away before sin entered into the world at the time of the Fall—from the plants, which do not have nephesh, and could therefore be eaten before the Fall without there being death in the world. Because both man and the animals have a soul or nephesh, neither of them could die before the Fall.
Furthermore, the spirit or ruach (Aj…wr) is also employed for animals in Genesis 6:17; 7:15, 22 (KJV, “breath of life”), as well as appearing in texts where the ruach is a part of man (Genesis 26:35; 41:8; 45:27). Animals and men also both have a body or gewiyyah (hÎ¥yˆw◊…g; Gen 47:18 (people); Judges 14:8-9 (animal)). Similarly, the New Testament word for soul, pseuche (yuch/), is also used for both animals (Rev 8:9; 16:3) and people (Matthew 10:28). The word spirit or pneuma (pneuvma) is used for people (Acts 7:59) but not specifically for animals in the New Testament, although there are also simply not that many animals in the NT, and pneuma is employed in the Greek LXX for the animals in the verses where the Greek translates the Hebrew ruach (e. g., Gen 6:17; 7:15, pneuma zoes, pneuvma zwhvß, but not 7:22, where the LXX has pnoen zoes, pnoh\n zwhvß, instead).
So if neither the terms for body, soul, or spirit distinguish man from the animals, what does? Genesis 1:26 provides the answer—the image of God. Only mankind possesses the image of God, while animals and men both have ruach and nephesh; plants have no nephesh and, therefore, are not living, Biblically speaking. Because man is in the image of God, one can properly say that man has a radically different soul and spirit (and body, for that matter) than those of animals, and that man’s body, soul, and spirit will exist forever either in the New Jerusalem or the lake of fire, unlike those of animals. However, these differences are not the fundamental ones, but are built upon the fundamental difference of man’s unique characteristic of being created in God’s image.
This study, including a PDF file where Hebrew and Greek characters are not garbled if they are so on your computer, can also be accessed here.
 The Hebrew for these verses, with the relevant phrase in red, is as follows:
:Mˆy`DmDÚvAh Aoyñîq√r y™EnVÚp_lAo X®r$DaDh_lAo P∞Epwøo◊y ‹Pwøo◊w h¡D¥yAj vRp∞Rn X®r™Rv Mˆy$A;mAh …wâx√rVvˆy My$IhølTa rRmaâø¥yÅw Gen. 1:20
:N`Ek_yIh◊y`Aw ;h¡DnyImVl X®r™Ra_wøt◊y`Aj◊w cRmö®rÎw h¶DmEhV;b ;hYÎnyImVl ‹hÎ¥yAj vRp§Rn X®r%DaDh a°Exwø;t My#IhølTa rRmaâø¥yÅw 1:24
:N`Ek_yIh◊y`Aw h¡DlVkDaVl bRc™Eo q®r¶Ry_lD;k_tRa hYÎ¥yAj vRp∞Rn ‹wø;b_rRvSa X®r#DaDh_lAo c∞Emwør — lâOkVl…w Mˆy%AmDÚvAh Pw°øo_lDkVl…w X®rDaDh t∞A¥yAj_lDkVlá…w 1:30
:h`D¥yAj vRp¶RnVl Mä∂dDa`Dh y¶Ih◊y`Aw My¡I¥yAj t∞AmVvˆn wy™DÚpAaV;b j¶AÚpˆ¥yÅw h$Dm∂dSa∞Dh_NIm ‹rDpDo M#∂dDa`Dh_tRa My%IhølTa h∏Îwh◊y ·rRxyˆ¥yÅw 2:7
:wáømVv a…wñh h™D¥yAj vRp¶Rn Mö∂dDaèDh w¬øl_a∂rVqˆy r°RvSa · lOk◊w wóøl_a∂rVqˆ¥y_hAm twäøa√rIl M$∂dDa∞Dh_lRa ‹aEbÎ¥yÅw Mˆy$AmDÚvAh Pwâøo_lD;k ‹tEa◊w ‹h®dDÚcAh t§A¥yAj_lD;k h#Dm∂dSa`Dh_NIm My%IhølTa h∏Îwh◊y ·rRxˆ¥yÅw 2:19
:M`Dlwøo tëOrOdVl M¡RkV;tIa r∞RvSa h™D¥yAj vRp¶Rn_lD;k Ny¢Eb…w M$Rky´ny∞Eb…w ‹yˆnyE;b N#EtOn y∞InSa_rRvSa ‹tyîrV;bAh_twáøa taôøz My#IhølTa rRmaâø¥yÅw 9:12
:r`DcD;b_lD;k t™EjAvVl l…w$;bAmVl ‹Mˆy‹A;mAh dwôøo h∏‰yVh`Iy_aáøl◊w r¡DcD;b_lDkV;b h™D¥yAj vRp¶Rn_lD;k Ny¢Eb…w M$Rky´ny∞Eb…w ‹yˆnyE;b r§RvSa y#ItyîrV;b_tRa y∞I;t√rAkÎz◊w 9:15
:X®r`DaDh_lAo r¶RvSa r™DcD;b_lDkV;b hYÎ¥yAj vRp∞Rn_lD;k ‹NyEb…w My$IhølTa Ny∞E;b M$Dlwøo tyâîrV;b ‹rO;k◊zIl Dhy#ItyIa√r…w N¡DnDo`R;b tRvä®;qAh h¶Dt◊yDh◊w 9:16
:lAj`D…nAh hD;m™Dv awøb¶Dy_rRvSa löO;k y$DjÎw ‹…waVpá∂r´y◊w hR;l#EaDh Mˆy∞A;mAh hD;m%Dv …wa°Db ·yI;k dóOaVm h∞D;bår h™Dg∂;dAh h¶DyDh◊w hY‰yVj`Iy ‹Mˆy‹AlSjÅn M§Dv aw°øbÎy ·rRvSa_lD;k l∞Ra X&OrVvˆy_rRvà≈a —h∞D¥yAj vRp∞Rn_lDk h∞DyDh◊w Ezek. 47:9