The same English phrase, "breath of life," is used to describe three distinct Hebrew phrases.

"Neshamah chay" is in Genesis 2:7 (creation). "Ruwach chay" is in Genesis 6:17 (intention for death at flood) and Genesis 7:15 (those entering Noah's ark). "Neshamah ruwach chay" is in Genesis 7:22 (everyone dying at flood). Three distinct Hebrew phrases, same English translation.

  1. First of all, do the oldest Hebrew manuscripts that we have (not the translations) of Genesis 2:7, 6:17, 7:15 and 7:22 use the same or different Hebrew words to describe “breath of life?"

  2. If the oldest manuscripts use different words, would that suggest something fundamentally different with mankind at these points in time -since "neshamah" and "ruwach," though both refer to breath, are distinctive in the lexicon? Or do the differences indicate something else?

NESHAMAH נְשָׁמָה

"And The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life [neshamah chay] and man became a living soul." (Genesis 2:7, KJV)

Source (neshamah): Gesenius' Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon

"(1) breath, spirit -(a) the Spirit of God imparting life... (b) the spirit of man, soul... a living creature... (2) the panting of those who are angry, used of the anger of God."

RUWACH רוּחַ

"And behold, I even I do bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh wherein is the breath of life [ruwach chay] from under heaven and every thing that is in the earth shall die." (Genesis 6:17, KJV) .

"And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life (ruwach chay)." (Genesis 7:15, KJV)

Source (ruwach): Gesenius' Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon

"(1) spirit, breath... (a) breath of the mouth... (b) breath of the nostrils."

NESHAMAH RUWACH נְשָׁמָה רוּחַ

"All in whose nostrils was the breath of life (neshamah ruwach chay), of all that was in the dry land, died." (Genesis 7:22, KJV)

  • I don't know what you mean by "translated using" - the translations are translated from those words. The standard Hebrew text does use those words, and while it's possible there are could be a textual criticism issue, I doubt that there will be much to say.
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 18, 2016 at 4:19
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    hi curiousdannii, You're 100% right; it sounded weird. Thank you! I changed it, let me know if it sounds ok.
    – Daisy
    Apr 18, 2016 at 4:46
  • Yeah that's good (though you really don't need the bold)
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 18, 2016 at 4:49
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    If they are the same terms in the oldest manuscripts, why are they translated differently? -- but isn't your concern the opposite -- that two distinct Hebrew phrases are translated by the same English phrase? (It looks to me like the substance of this question is "what's the difference between ruach and neshamah [in these two verses]?" which is a good one despite the lack of evidence that any text critical issue is at stake.)
    – Susan
    Apr 18, 2016 at 6:44
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    I can't tell you how much I appreciate a good editor. Both you and curiousdanni (and Steve Taylor). I woke up thinking this. I will change it because of what you are saying and because I see a difference in the terms. I think it could be suggesting something important.
    – Daisy
    Apr 18, 2016 at 13:22

2 Answers 2


The Hebrew Phrase נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים

In Gen. 2:7, it is written,

And Yahveh God formed the man from the dust of the earth, and He blew into his nostrils the (נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים), and the man became a living soul.

וַיִּיצֶר יַהְוֶה אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם עָפָר מִן הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה

Whatever נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים (nishmat chayyim) is, it is written that Yahveh "blew"1 it into the man's nostrils, at which point "the man became a living soul" (וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה), or a living creature. Likewise, it is written that man's (נְשָׁמָה) is in his nostrils.2 Furthermore, when the Israelites conquered the cities that Yahveh gave them, they were commanded to "not let any (נְשָׁמָה) live."3 Here, נְשָׁמָה is used as a synecdoche for a person, since the נְשָׁמָה is the vital constituent.

Aubrey Rodway Johnson wrote,4

enter image description here

Hence, when a young boy fell sick, he died when "there was no (נְשָׁמָה) left in him."5 The contexts in which נְשָׁמָה occurs suggests that it is simply the breath breathed in and out through the nostrils (and mouth), and it is called the נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים or "breath of life" in Gen. 2:7 because only living creatures possess "breath" or נְשָׁמָה. Hence, the presence of the נְשָׁמָה, "breath," is indicative of life.

The Hebrew Phrase רוּחַ חַיִּים

In Gen. 6:17 and also 7:15, a different phrase is used to describe that which was possessed by "all flesh under heaven" that was destroyed by the flood: רוּחַ חַיִּים (ruach chayyim). Being different words seems to suggest that נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים and רוּחַ חַיִּים are different things. After all, why use different words if they are the same thing? On the contrary, different words are often used in the Hebrew scriptures to describe the same concept when the different words are synonyms.

Aubrey Rodway Johnson wrote,6

enter image description here

Regarding נְשָׁמָה and רוּחַ, the first proof that they are synonyms is derived from their usage in Hebrew parallelisms. In his commentary on Gen. 2:7, Carl Friedrich Keil wrote,7

It is true, נְשָׁמָה generally signifies the human soul, but in chap. vii. 22 נִשְׁמַת־רוּחַ חַיִּים is used of men and animals both; and should any one explain this, on the ground that the allusion is chiefly to men, and the animals are connected per zeugma, or should he press the ruach attached, and deduce from this the use of neshamah in relation to men and animals, there are several passages in which neshamah is synonymous with ruach (e.g. Isa. xlii. 5; Job xxxii. 8, xxxiii. 4)... (bold-faced emphasis mine)

For example:

By the (נְשָׁמָה) of God they perish, and by the (רוּחַ) of His nostrils they are consumed. Job 4:9

All the while my (נְשָׁמָה) is in me, and the (רוּחַ) of God is in my nostrils. Job 27:3

The (רוּחַ) of God made me, and the (נְשָׁמָה) of the Almighty gave me life. Job 33:4

In addition, Isa. 42:5, regarding which Aubrey Rodway Johnson wrote,8

enter image description here

Like the נְשָׁמָה, the רוּחַ is also blown into someone, causing them to live.9 Also like the נְשָׁמָה, the רוּחַ is present in the nostrils.10 It, like נְשָׁמָה, is followed by חַיִּים ("life") because it is a vital constituent in living creatures.

The Hebrew Phrase נִשְׁמַת רוּחַ חַיִּים

While Gen. 7:22 is the only verse that contains the phrase נִשְׁמַת רוּחַ חַיִּים, the phrase נִשְׁמַת רוּחַ without חַיִּים occurs in 2 Sam. 22:16 and Psa. 18:15. As was previously demonstrated, נְשָׁמָה and רוּחַ are synonymous. Thus, the double genitive construction נִשְׁמַת רוּחַ חַיִּים could be understood as, "the (נְשָׁמָה), that is to say, the (רוּחַ חַיִּים)," where נְשָׁמָה stands in apposition to רוּחַ חַיִּים, and thus, רוּחַ חַיִּים (ruach chayyim) = נְשָׁמָה (neshama), just as נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים (nishmat chayyim) (used elsewhere in the Tanakh; cp. Gen. 2:7) could theoretically stand in apposition to רוּחַ (ruach).

Oldest Extant Manuscript

As far as the oldest manuscript is concerned, it would probably be the Samaritan Pentateuch as the earliest extant Masoretic texts (those with diacritics) are dated around the 9th-10th century A.D.

According to August Freiherr von Gall in Der Hebräische Pentateuch der Samaritaner, there is no difference between the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Masoretic text as far as the letters themselves are concerned (Samaritan Pentateuch lacks diacritics).

Gen. 2:7 contains the phrase נשמת חיים (nishmat chayyim):

Der Hebräische Pentateuch der Samaritaner, Gen. 2:7

Gen. 6:17 contains the phrase רוח חיים (ruach chayyim):

Der Hebräische Pentateuch der Samaritaner, Gen. 6:17

Gen. 7:15 contains the phrase רוח חיים (ruach chayyim):

Der Hebräische Pentateuch der Samaritaner, Gen. 7:15

Gen. 7:22 contains the phrase נשמת רוח חיים (nishmat ruach chayyim):

Der Hebräische Pentateuch der Samaritaner, Gen. 7:22


1 cp. Isa. 54:16

2 Isa. 2:22

3 Deu. 20:16 cp. Jos. 10:40, 11:11, 11:14; 1 Kings 15:29; Psa. 150:6

4 p. 27, footnote 6

5 1 Kings 17:17

6 p. 27

7 p. 78

8 p. 29

9 Eze. 37:9

10 Job 27:3; Lam. 4:20


Johnson, Aubrey Rodway. The Vitality of the Individual in the Thought of Ancient Israel. 1964. Reprint. 2nd ed. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2006.

Keil, Carl Friedrich. Commentary on the Old Testament. Vol 1. 1900. Reprint. Trans. Martin, James. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.

Der Hebräische Pentateuch der Samaritaner. Ed. von Gall, August Freiherr. 1918. Reprint. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010.

  • hi Simply, Just want to clarify: Is there a requirement on this site that the patrons know Greek or Hebrew? If yes, I need to leave the site because I'm trying to learn it but I'm nowhere close. If no, could you please go back and insert the English words, where applicable? I'd like to read your response. Thanks-
    – Daisy
    Apr 24, 2016 at 18:10

The Distinction between "Nephesh cHayah" (נֶ֣פֶשׁ חַיָּ֔ה) & "Nishemat Chayim" (נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים):

In [Bereishit (Genesis) 1:30] * "Nephesh cHayah" (נֶ֣פֶשׁ חַיָּ֔ה) is translated literally in English as Spirit-of Living or "Living Spirit".

  1. "Nephesh cHayah" is given to all of the Beasts (חַיַּ֣ת) of the earth (הָ֠אָ֠רֶץ).
  2. "Nephesh cHayah" is then given to the Birds (ע֨וֹף) of the skies ( הַשָּׁמַ֜יִם).
  3. "Nephesh cHayah" is then given to "everything moving" ( כֹ֣ל רוֹמֵ֣שׂ) upon-the earth ( עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ).

In [Bereishit (Genesis) 2:7] * "Nishemat Chayim" (נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים) is literally translated in English as "Soul-of Life".

  1. God breathed the "Soul of Life" (נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים) into man's nostrils.
  2. Making "The-Man into-a Living Spirit" (הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה).

// The Distinction is "Nishemat Chayim" (נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים) comes from God, but animate creatures become "Nephesh cHayah" (נֶ֣פֶשׁ חַיָּ֔ה) after receiving God's "Nishemat Chayim". - Thus all living creatures have extensions of God's Soul of Life in them.

  • another superb answer very similar to the one I might have provided but you beat me to it! Many thanks. I particularly liked the way you correctly emphasized that all breathing creatures have this breath of life.
    – Dottard
    Aug 25, 2020 at 20:54

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