When does “Nephesh” begin?

7 Oct

Nephesh is the Hebrew word for soul, or life. In this second post on abortion, I want to ask “When does human tissue become ‘nephesh?'”

There are various views on when exactly a person becomes “a person.” The question is much simpler if we ask when does “humanhood” begin. There’s no question that the moment a sperm meets and egg, its a new human. Some pro-lifer’s seeing this obvious scientific fact argue against abortion from that angle. And its a good argument. Can humanity really be divided into two groups? Is it possible for human beings to not be persons? Those are great questions that the pro-choice advocate needs to offer a good answer for before they can use the “personhood” argument.

In this post though, I want to specifically address the theist who bases their pro-choice argument on “ensoulment.” When does the soul join with the flesh?

At birth?

President Clinton said that he was pro-choice because he was advised by his Southern Baptist pastor that life begins at birth, not conception. The attempted connection some argue for is that when a baby begins breathing on its own, it’s like God breathing the breath of life into Adam when he became a living person (Gen 2:7), so therefore life must begin at first breath. This is a poor argument. First, it is not true in a biological sense that the unborn does not breathe – the process is there from conception. Only the mode of oxygen transfer to the baby is changed upon birth. Second, it’s a bad analogy. Adam was inanimate matter that became life; a baby is alive before birth. Additionally, Adam is an adult when he is created, not a newborn.

Some also try to use Exodus 21:22-25, which discusses a lessor penalty than death for causing a miscarriage, as proof that the Bible treats the premature unborn as less important. This article explains why that reasoning doesn’t work. John Calvin commenting on this passage wrote “The fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being (homo), and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light.”

To suggest that the Bible teaches that ensoulment begins at birth is just a bad theological position. In not only misrepresents these two passages, it completely ignores all the others which teach otherwise.

Here are just a few clear examples that ensoulment occurs before birth (several more are below):
Genesis 22:25a – “The babies jostled each other within her” (Jacob and Esau)
Luke 1:41a – “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb”
Psalm 139:13 – “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”

What about other significant events before birth? Below are other points along the developmental process that will be looked at in regressive order.

At Viability?

This occurs sometime between 22 and 26 weeks. Historically, most major court decisions use viability in their determination of “personhood.” Viability refers to the ability of a fetus to survive outside, independent of the womb (though not necessarily on its own). One problem with using viability as the moment of ensoulment is that as medical technology advances, viability is getting lower. This position is just a moving target based on the state of medical progress. Its completely arbitrary and has no biblical support.

At the Quickening?

Sorry to fans of the Highlander movies, but this isn’t referring to super awesome victory lightening after winning a battle. The quickening in pregnancy is when the mother becomes aware of the baby. Its the first time she feels him inside. The timing varies from about 14 weeks at the earliest to about 24 weeks at the latest. Most are around 17 to 20 weeks.

This development point doesn’t work either because the mother’s perception has nothing to do with the essence of the baby. My wife’s friend was pregnant at the same time my wife was. Her friend’s baby, Eric, is only 10 days older than our son, yet my wife felt our son 2 months before her friend felt Eric. Did that mean Eric was not a person and our son was? No, of course not.

41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. – Luke 1:41-44

I have heard someone trying to use this passage, Luke 1:41-44, to argue that the quickening is when ensoulment occurs. But Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant when this happened! That is far past the normal timing of the quickening. Some who argue using the Exodus 21 passage noted above also suggest the quickening as the ensoulment time saying that the Exodus passage is talking about a fetus before the quickening. But again, there is simply not justification for this. The Bible does not say anything about a soul entering at this point. There is just no biblical support for the quickening being the process of ensoulment.

On the other hand, we can learn a couple significant things from Luke 1:41. First off, Luke uses the same word to refer to the unborn in Luke 1:41 that he uses to refer to to infants in Luke 2:12 (the passage about Jesus in the manger). Luke saw them as one in the same! The other point is that the baby is leaping in the womb because it recognizes the presence of Jesus. This means that ensoulment must be before the quickening because Mary was less than 3 months pregnant with Jesus (Luke 1:26). John (in the womb) recognized Jesus (in the womb) was there. So it must be at least before 3 months. What earlier options are there?

At Sentience or at brain activity?

There is debate about when sentience occurs, but the bottom line is still that the nature of the unborn does not change just because it can begin to feel things (specifically pain). And there really isn’t a biblical argument for either of these moments. There are no passages that I’m aware of that can be used to refer to these moments as the timing of ensoulment. Sentience and brain activity do come up alot in the personhood arguments, but since the focus of this post is “ensoulment,” and the Bible does not address these points (and this post is getting way too long), I’m going to skip the philosophical arguments.

At blood development?

“For the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life.” –  Lev 17:14
“But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” – Gen 9:4
“Only be sure that you do not eat the blood, for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh.” – Deut. 12:23

Some assert that ensoulment occurs at this point. Blood cells do not develop until about 20 days after conception. Proponents of this view use these passages to argue from the Bible. While this is really the first point that may seem to have some more reasonable biblical support, it is not without its issues.

First, the later two passages are referring to other mammals, not necessarily humans. This makes their application to human ensoulment a bit more problematic. On one hand, the context of  Leviticus passage is also discussing other mammals, so it could be a broader statement, and thus potentially be related to ensoulment. But it is not clearly speaking of humans. Furthermore on the pro side, it is interesting to note that in this passage, the word translated “life” is the word nephesh, which is the same word commonly used for soul.

However, a different concern potentially rules out the Leviticus passage though. All of these passages, including the Leviticus passage, refer to adults who need blood for their survival (not a baby in the womb). Their contexts are talking about taking it away, not it being added for life. This would make it seem a bit of a stretch to be confident that blood development is when ensoulment occurs.

Still, there is clearly some connection to nephesh and blood.

At implantation?

This event occurs about a week or two after conception when the embryo attaches to the wall of the uterus. This is another point that often comes up in the “personhood” debate, but which the Bible says nothing. The major concern  many theistic people have with life beginning prior to implantation is the number of developing human embryos that do not implant. Some research shows its over 50%! That would mean that over 50% of people never make it to be born. What happens to them? That’s a good question. Still, should we base our answer to the ensoulment question on something that we don’t understand? Perhaps all those that don’t implant are people that just go straight to Heaven? We just don’t know, but it is clear that there is no direct biblical support for this position.

At conception?

There does seem to be a number of passages where the Bible is teaching that ensoulment happens with conception. Here are a couple:

Judges 13:2-7.

A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was childless, unable to give birth. The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, “You are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son. Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean. You will become pregnant and have a son whose head is never to be touched by a razor because the boy is to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb. He will take the lead in delivering Israel from the hands of the Philistines.”

Then the woman went to her husband and told him, “A man of God came to me. He looked like an angel of God, very awesome. I didn’t ask him where he came from, and he didn’t tell me his name. But he said to me, ‘You will become pregnant and have a son. Now then, drink no wine or other fermented drink and do not eat anything unclean, because the boy will be a Nazirite of God from the womb until the day of his death.’”

She was not yet pregnant and told to stop drinking before her pregnancy, implying that if she had drank after conception the Nazirite vow would not be lifelong. This suggests that the soul of her future son would be present from conception.

Psalm 51:5.

“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”

David wrote this about himself. The important point is that the “me” is not really “me” if his soul wasn’t there. It wouldn’t be him. So it appears that David believed that ensoulment occurred at conception.

What are you willing to risk?

Let’s say after reading this you’re still fairly convinced that life begins at birth, or at some point in the womb. Are you so confident that you’d be willing to take the risk? What if you’re wrong? It’s not like guessing the wrong answer on Jeopardy. It’s a life, or rather a whole lot of them if you happen to argue for it. If you were in charge of a demolition crew, would you order the dismantling of a building if you were 90% sure the building was empty? 95%? 99%? It seems to me that its just too significant an issue to take a risk that you could be wrong. If that means no birth control pills that prevent implantation, then that’s what it means. If it means the doctor gives you news you don’t want to hear about your unborn and you have a life of challenges ahead, then that’s what it means.

It’s your call. You have to answer to God. But as for me and my house, we won’t be taking that risk.

One Response to “When does “Nephesh” begin?”


  1. There is simply no way to take the Bible seriously and be Pro-choice | Sound Reason & More - August 14, 2015

    […] you to consider these Biblical passages. I’ve also written about ensoulment in more detail here. The Bible contains these and several more passages that clearly demonstrate that there is a soul […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: