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Ecclesiastes 11:5 in the ESV, NAB, and NRSV indicate that the unborn in the womb become a living soul only after significant biological development has occurred:

ESV

the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child

NAB

the life breath enters the human frame in the mother’s womb

NRSV

the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb

The ESV says "bones" exist before "the spirit comes."
The NAB says a "human frame" exists before "the life breath enters."
The NRSV says "bones" exist when "the breath comes."

Ecclesiastes 11:5 speaks of not knowing "how" the spirit is given not "when." Exactly when remains a mystery, but these versions appear to indicate that it's not at conception.

The Scriptures elsewhere show physical development preceding the soul (see Genesis 2:7; Ezekiel 37:7-10).

The other versions of Ecclesiastes 11:5 read similarly to the NIV. "As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed a in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things."

Commentaries that refer to the other versions of Ecclesiastes 11:5 don't contradict these and some appear to support them. Benson, for example, says "As thou knowest not the way of the spirit — Of the soul of man, how it comes into the child in the womb."

Controversies concerning the origin of the soul have been rife from early times, some holding what is called Traducianism, i.e. that soul and body are both derived by propagation from earthly parents; others supporting Creationism, i.e. that the soul, created specially by God, is infused into the child before birth (The Pulpit Commentary).

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  • + 1 Welcome to the group Robert and thanks for a good question. Commented Apr 18 at 13:54

2 Answers 2

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The OP asks: "Does Ecclesiastes 11:5 indicate that personhood (ensoulment) follows only after the initial physical development of the unborn?" If the bones already exist prior to the spirit's coming then yes. But it is important not to seize on one proof-text to support a particular doctrine. This article examines how scriptures can be used to support various positions on the issue of conception, abortion, etc. For example Jeremiah 1:5 is often cited as evidence that personhood begins even prior to the bones being formed:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.

On the other hand, Gen. 2:7 is traditionally understood in Judaism to teach that ensoulment begins when a human being takes its first breath (after birth):

The Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

Conclusion: One of the key messages of Ecclesiastes is that humans cannot fathom the ways of God. Eccl. 3:11:

God has made everything appropriate to its time, but has put eternity into their hearts so they cannot find out, from beginning to end, the work which God has done.

Thus, while Ecclesiastes 11:5 does imply that ensoulment happens after the bones are formed in the womb, other scriptures provide a basis for other understandings. Ecclesiastes, perhaps more than any other scripture of the Bible, cautions us not to be certain in our wisdom.

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  • Which "other scriptures provide a basis for other understandings"? Jer. 1:5 speaks of God having intimate foreknowledge of Jeremiah and, though it also indicates a time in the womb, does not indicate the timing of the onset of personhood. And, the Jewish view of Gen. 2:7 needs to reckon with biblical evidence of personhood in the womb, viz., Luke 1:41: "When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb." Commented Apr 23 at 14:09
  • I appreciate your answer and the open-minded article. It made me think of my own titled [Abortion and the Bible: Can Pro-life and Pro-choice Both Be Right?] (realchurchlife.wordpress.com/2022/06/24/…). Commented Apr 23 at 14:10
  • @RobertS.Morley - By :basis" I mean that people cite these scriptures in support of other views. Jewish interpretation, of course, does not have to reckon with the gospel of Luke since this is not considered scripture in Jewish tradition. Commented Apr 23 at 14:24
  • We are looking at the Scriptures from a Christian point of view, not a Jewish one, and should, therefore, allow the New Testament to comment on the Old. Luke 1:41 gives pause to the extreme Jewish view that life begins at birth. As for Jer. 1:5, the article you included indicates that it had no basis for determining the onset of personhood. Commented Apr 23 at 14:39
  • @RobertS.Morley... Please do take time to read the Tour page to understand how this site is structure. The opening paragraph states: "We welcome Jewish, Christian, Atheist, and other viewpoints, as long as they take seriously the process of understanding Biblical texts." Commented Apr 25 at 3:47
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For what it is worth, here is my translation of Eccl 11:5 -

As you do not know the way of the wind or the bones in the womb of the pregnant

so you do not know the works of God who makes everything

Very similar translations are provided by NIV, BSB, NKJV, NASB, CSB, etc. Note that this says nothing about "ensoulment" at all! It is simply a statement that God's ways, His works and the reasons for why He does things are beyond human understanding.

Now, whether one translates הָר֔וּחַ as "the wind", or, "the Spirit", or, "the spirit" does not change this conclusion.

Lastly, the versions quoted by the OP involving "the spirit coming (in)to the bones" is (IMHO) interpretive - the Hebrew does not suggest this. As shown above, the Hebrew couplet is simply a contrasting Hebrew parallelism saying that God's ways are inscrutable. We find the same idea elsewhere:

  • Isa 55:8, 9 - “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so My ways are higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.
  • Job 38 - 41 is an extended passage about the same idea
  • Isa 45:9 - Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker—one clay pot among many. Does the clay ask the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘He has no hands’?

"Ensoulment"

Let me offer a few remarks about this "ensoulment" idea. The OT present people as souls in many places; ie, "souls" are not distinct from people. We have the original use of this word in Gen 2:7 giving:

Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being [Heb: "soul"].

That is, Body + "breath of life" = Soul.

The "breath of life" exists in al,l living, breathing creatures including animals, Gen 1:30, 6:17, 7:15, 22; and, this is exactly the same for both animals and humans, Eccl 3:19. See also Josh 10:40, Num 16:22, etc.

The reverse process is shown in several places - at death, the breath of life returns to God who gave it, Job 34:14, Eccl 12:7. See also Acts 7:59.

That is, the soul does not exist independently from the body but consists of the body plus the breath of life.

Further, any attempt to translate Eccl 11:5 as something like, " ... the soul enters the bones ... " commits three errors;

  • an error of translation - the verb "enters" or similar does not exist in the Hebrew
  • an error of interpretation because such would confuse the breath/spirit with the soul which the OT does not ever do
  • an error of teaching because such would directly contradict the numerous clear statements elsewhere that, "the life [literally, "soul") is in the blood" of humans and animals, Gen 9:4, Lev 17:11, 14, Deut 12:23.

Finally, contra Bension (despite the great respect I have for him) the word "soul" [Heb: נֶפֶשׁ nephesh] does not occur in Eccl 11:5; nor does the verb "grow".

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  • “As you do not know ... the bones in the womb of the pregnant” seems unusual, which might explain the addition of “how” and “grow/formed” in NIV et al. It’s interpretive to separate “wind” and “bones” with “or,” “or how,” “nor how,” and “and how.” Hebrew to Aramaic: “The Targ. reads ... What the way of the spirit in the bones, i.e., how the embryo becomes animated” (Keil and Delitzsch). Ensoulment is not a problem. The soul is distinguished from the body in the NT (Matt. 10:28). One can use the NT term “soul” to comment here, just not translate (see Jamieson-Fausset-Brown, Poole, and Gill). Commented Apr 22 at 18:22

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