A Tragic Trajectory

Read: Song of Solomon 3:1-4

Upon my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves. I sought him, but found him not; I called, but he gave no answer. “I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.” I sought him, but found him not. The sentinels found me, as they went about in the city. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?” Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go until I brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me” (Song of Solomon 3:1-4, NRSV).

Navigators rely on something called the “one degree rule.” If you’re flying a plane, this means that for each degree you’re off course, you’ll miss your destination by one mile for every 60 miles you fly. In practical terms, this means that if you’re trying to fly from LaGuardia to O’Hare, but you miscalculate by even one degree, you’ll end up in Lake Michigan. Not good. The longer one flies, the more drastic the deviation. If you’re trying to circumnavigate the globe, you’ll end up a whopping 500 miles off course.

It’s obvious why this rule matters for navigation. But as an analogy, I think it matters for interpretation as well.

In case you’re just joining this series, we’ve been looking at examples of just how much interpretation goes into translation. The series is called, “What a Difference a Word Makes,” and it seeks to highlight a handful of words that may be translated in different ways, but which have very different meanings.

This week’s word is nephesh, for which there is no good English equivalent. In my opinion, this word wins the prize for how a bad translational choice can skew one’s entire theology. One degree off can—and has—ended us up in the drink.

With this as preface, let’s look at a passage that makes liberal use of the Hebrew word, nephesh.

In four short verses, the female protagonist in Song of Solomon 3:1-4 refers to her lover as the one “whom my nephesh loves” four times. Most English translations render this as the one “whom my soul loves.” It’s beautiful, I suppose. But before you use the line on your homemade Valentine’s Day card, you might want to examine your assumptions.

The English word “soul” denotes “the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being…the part that is regarded as immortal.”

You don’t have to read very far in the Song of Solomon to know that the lovers’ relationship is more than spiritual. Whole chapters are devoted to enumerating each other’s physical attractions. One has to allow for changes in “love language”—perhaps you will be less thrilled than the woman in the Song to have your lover describe your neck as a “tower of David”—but the physicality of the descriptions is undeniable.

Why should we care, you may ask.

Here’s why. The Hebrew word nephesh includes the physical, the spiritual, and the psychological. When the female lover talks about the one whom her nephesh loves, she’s essentially saying, “All of me! Why not take all of me!” I love you with every part of my being.

I do have some sympathy for translators in this instance. As I’ve pointed out, English has no good equivalent for the Hebrew word, nephesh. (What does that say about us?) But when we translate nephesh as “soul,” we risk spiritualizing something that was never meant to be exclusively spiritual.

There is a lesson in this for those who see sexual intimacy as purely physical as well. The use of the word nephesh in the Song elevates the couple’s relationship in a way that should serve as both a caution and an inspiration to our sex-obsessed, pornography-prone culture.

So, how would I translate nephesh? I appreciate the NRSV’s efforts in translating it as “living being” in Genesis 2:7. When God forms Adam from the dust of the ground and breathes into his nostrils the breath of life, Adam becomes a “living being.” That preserves something of the “package deal” that nephesh implies. And it saves a lot of heavy lifting when we get to the New Testament and people start talking about the “resurrection of the body.”

But I wonder if this is one of those instances where we might just have to buckle down and learn a new word. I’m a nephesh, you’re a nephesh, all God’s creatures are a nephesh. Anything less risks getting us seriously off course.

Ponder: Try substituting the Hebrew word nephesh every time you encounter the English word “soul” in the Old Testament. How does it change the meaning of what you read?

Pray: All of me. Why not take all of me, O God? I offer all that I am to you.