When is a Soul not a Soul?
Most Bible translations render Genesis 12,5 as: And Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot the son of his brother, and all the substance they had acquired and the souls they had made in Haran…
A well-known midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 39,14) explains that ‘the souls they had made’ refers to the people they converted to monotheism; Abraham converting the men and Sarah the women. The midrash is elaborating on one of its key themes, that Abraham was not only the first person to deduce from his own reasoning that God must exist, but that he was an evangelist, converting the idol worshippers around him to belief in the one God.
The problem is that the original Hebrew does not say ‘the souls they had made’. It says ‘the soul they had made’, with the word soul – nefesh in Hebrew- in the singular. This makes it hard to explain the Midrash’s reasoning. Even assuming that making a soul means converting someone to monotheism, where does the midrash get the idea from that Abraham and Sarah had converted more tha none person? The Hebrew seems to suggest that they had converted just one person – the soul they had made.
Interestingly, nearly all translated versions of the Bible, even the ancient Aramaic Targum, translate the singular Hebrew word nefesh in the plural, as souls, and not as soul. This supports the midrash’s view that they had converted many people. This translation is not because the translators had a different version of the text before them, it is not that the original text of the Torah read ‘souls’ but that at some point some careless scribe wrote the word in the singular. Because the Septuagint, the very ancient Greek translation of the Pentateuch, also has the word for soul, psyche, in the singular. It seems that soul was always the original text. So we are still at a loss to explain why the midrash regards Abraham and Sarah as carrying out many conversions.
The answer probably lies in our misunderstanding the meaning of the Hebrew word nefesh which is translated here as soul. It can, and often does mean this. But not always. The root n-f-sh masks one the most difficult concepts to understand in biblical Hebrew. It occurs as the passive form of a verb – vayinafash- in Exodus 31, 17 where the passage is speaking of God resting on the second day. It can’t mean he was made into a soul. In fact it is not at all clear what it does mean. It occurs in Genesis 23,8 where it means desire or choice, and it crops up in other places where it means different things, all connected in some way to an underlying concept of volition, emotion life or humanity.
So although the translation in our verse of the singular word nefesh as souls is inaccurate in a literal sense, it is probably not far off the mark. The verse is not speaking of particular individuals who were converted by Abraham and Sarah, but it is speaking of the consequences of conversion, the mindset of a converted society. What Abram and Sarai did in Haran was to change the way of life of the people they influenced. The ‘nefesh that they made’ is perhaps best translated as the ‘religious environment that they created in Haran’. They took with them people who absorbed that environment, people whom they had influenced and persuaded. If so, then the midrash got it completely right.