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Young's Literal Translation and KJV say in Psalm 72:13 that Solomon will save the "souls" of the needy.

Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition, NIV say Solomon will "save the needy from death."

Some other versions say Solomon will save the "lives" of the needy.

What is the best translation? Will Solomon save the lives of the needy or their souls? What accounts for the different translations? What are the best arguments for each translation?

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Psalm 72:13 says that the king will save the lives of the poor (in modern American usage), as the Cambridge NEB translates,

May he have pity on the needy and the poor,

deliver the poor from death;

You can see the correct sense of נפש in this verse from the context. This psalm is a prayer for the king, and for a king who performs the righteous acts expected of him. It is all about the king and what he does - making the nations serve him and making his enemies eat dust, and insuring economic prosperity and justice for the downtrodden. These are all very earthly and practical expectations.

The translation "soul" (in modern American usage) can result in the anachronistic and mistaken interpretation that the king can or should save some spiritual aspect of the poor. But the theological idea of "saving souls" of the living or the dead, is post OT, and if applied to this verse would raise questions such as

  1. Why save the souls only of the poor, and not also those of all of the righteous, even if they have money, like Job?
  2. Since when do kings have the power to save souls?

The following verse, 14, (Cambridge NEB),

may he redeem them from oppression and violence

and may their blood be precious in his eyes.

makes it clear, by juxtaposition of נַפְשָׁם in the first half of the verse with דָּמָם, "their blood", in the second half, that נַפְשׁוֹת in the previous verse refers to the lives of the poor.

In defense of the translation "souls" you could say that in older English usage, "souls" is used to mean "lives", as in1

He also noted in his Diary in early May the sinking of the Lusitania with 'some 2000 souls on board - all non-combatants, and carrying no contraband or war supplies, torpedoed by a German submarine near Greentown harbor. Some 1400 souls perished'...


  1. Roman Catholic Modernists Confront the Great War, edited by C.J.T. Talar, Lawrence F. Barmann, Springer, 24 Apr 2015, quoted from Google Books
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The King James Version translated ně·p̄ěš in terms of "life" (Psalm 31:13), "soul", "person" (Proverbs 28:17), and even "mind" (Deuteronomy 18:6) and "heart" (Psalm 10:3). Jewish translators (e.g. JPS Tanakh) render the word as "living creature" (Genesis 1:20), "life" (Genesis 1:30), "living thing" (Genesis 9:12), "person" (Genesis 12:5).

One could probably argue, I suppose, that the word refers to either sense - material or immaterial - from the lexicons. It seems, though, from the context of the Psalm that it is simply referring to persons. The "needy" are one group of people among other persons that the Psalmist refers to: e.g. they that dwell in the wilderness (v.9), kings of various kingdoms (v.10-11). Also in the verse that follows, he writes that the king shall redeem their soul from deceit and violence (KJV; Tanakh: fraud and lawlessness). These seem to be things that one would experience tangibly from other men and not some sort of spiritual trial.

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The Hebrew is this.

יָ֭חֹס עַל־דַּ֣ל וְאֶבְיֹ֑ון וְנַפְשֹׁ֖ות אֶבְיֹונִ֣ים יֹושִֽׁיעַ׃

He will have compassion on the poor and needy and the souls of the needy he shall save. (Psalm 72:13)

The word נֶפֶשׁ (used here in the plural) can mean either life or soul. What's more, it can even mean breath. This is not surprising. Compare it to the Greek word ψυχή, which can also mean life, soul, or breath. Words often have a literal meaning—in this case, "breath"—and then accumulate additional meanings that are related, either logically or figuratively.

Thus, both translations are correct. The KJV uses "souls of the needy", and the ESV uses "lives of the needy". These are both straightforward, word-by-word translations.

The NIV phrasing, "save the needy from death", is more liberal, as the word "death" does not appear in the Hebrew.

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The word "soul" in Psalm 72:13 (KJV) is the Hebrew word נָ֫פֶשׁ (nephesh - Strong's H5315), the same word that is found in Genesis 2:7, which says:

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.

So, the "soul", as far as the Old Testament is concerned, is something that one IS - a collection of atoms (the dust of the ground). To become a LIVING soul, the collection of atoms had to be animated by the breath of God נִשְׁמַ֣ת (neshamah - Strong's H5397. The breath of God was needed so that the collection of atoms would want (desire) to move - all on its own.

Things that have no neshamah, are inert, i.e. they have no power within themselves to move from a state of rest, or from a state of fixed motion - they must be "coerced" from one state to another.

Conclusion

Actually, none of the versions you mention have it right. It should read:

יחס | על־ | דל | ואביון | ונפשות | אביונים | יושיע׃
VERB | ADJ | NOUN | ADJ | ADJ | (prep) | (verb)
shall | | | (the) | (the) | | shall have
save | needy | soul | needy | poor | on | compassion

Which, I contend, gives:

He shall have compassion on the poor and the needy, and shall save the needy souls.

I put the parts of speech in so you can see this for yourself. The adjective "needy" modifies the noun "souls", so it's not "the souls of the needy", but "the needy souls"

I think translators have been influenced by the presiding philosophies of their day, in particular Greek philosophy, and they think of the notions of "soul" and "spirit" as being synonymous. They aren't, of course.

Addendum

For those who might be struggling with the regular use of the adjective here, please present an answer to the question being asked. In your answer give some thought to the claim that it should be translated in any other way than what is natural.

For example, in English we might reconfigure the sentence, "The young woman had blue eyes.", as "The young woman had eyes of blue", but never as "The young woman had the blue of the eyes". That is what the translators are doing in this instance. They are allowing their bias towards the idea that "soul" and "spirit" are synonymous, from whatever source it comes, to dictate what should be a straight forward translation of the text.

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    This is the problem with interlinears, or rather, with using interlinears to second guess translations done by competent scholars. You have seen the words "needy" and "adjective" and attempted to construe something from this as it if were English. In reality, the adjective is functioning substantively (i.e. as a noun), a fact that can be determined from the previous noun's construct ("bound") state and the lack of gender agreement. These are not considerations we have in English, which is why our excellent English translations remain the best tool for English speakers to understand the text. – Susan Nov 15 '15 at 3:40
  • @Susan. You don't understand in many languages adjectives can be cast as nouns. "Needy" is an adjective that in it's normal use would modify a noun, however, if it stands alone, as it does in the first instance here, then it becomes a noun - "The Needy" and "The Poor". I gave a link in an answer to another question relating to this use of articles in the Greek language that explains this. Perhaps you didn't read it. – enegue Nov 15 '15 at 7:05
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    Right, that’s the substantival use of the adjective (in both Greek and Hebrew, although I’m not sure where the Greek comes in here). My point was that the second “needy” here is also a substantive (“the lives/souls of the needy”) -- not attributive as you have indicated -- due to grammatical considerations. The difficulty is that there’s no way to figure this out from the interlinear, which is why I question your methodology. And from the now-deleted comment, highly recommended: God, Language, and Scripture. – Susan Nov 15 '15 at 7:35
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    The difference in meaning is probably trivial (I'm not sure I follow the point you're making about that), but the pointing of נַפְשׁוֹת is that of the construct state, and syntactically the word that follows should be a substantive (similar to the genitive if you're familiar with Latin or Greek) because the relationship is between nouns. Some interlinears might translate נַפְשׁוֹת as "souls-of". An intro grammar would be the best place if you really want to learn about this, e.g. this one starting on page 48. – Susan Nov 16 '15 at 1:47
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    It’s not disabled. It just that once it gets three down votes, it appears dim. People can still see it and vote. – Susan Nov 16 '15 at 2:53

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