Many Jews and Christians have come to understand that the “breath of life” is akin to imbuing Adam (and by reference, each human) with a soul. This may be and, to this end, it is noteworthy that the author has nothing to say about the “breath of life” as part of God’s creating the animals (c.f., Genesis 2:19). It’s certainly arguable, if not reasonable, to assume that when created the animals did not get the “breath of life”.
Be that as it may, a closer examination of the Hebrew text – not evident in any English translation – offers more explicit evidence of God creating mankind, but not animals, with a special ability related to the divine.
וַיִּיצֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת־הָאָדָם עָפָר מִן־הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה
Next, the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils a breath of life, and the man became a living being.
formed: The normal spelling of this verb is וַיִּצֶר (vay·yi·tzer) using a single Yod((The Yod is the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet and looks like a single quotation mark.)). In fact, in the Hebrew Bible vayyitzer occurs 19 times and all but one of those occurrences are spelled traditionally with a single Yod. Strangely, in this verse, vayyitzer is spelled with two Yods: וַיִּיצֶר. Why is this significant?
It turns out that two Yods (יי) is a form of the ineffable name of God. The ancient Hebrews interpreted the deliberate addition of the second Yod to express, in literary form, that God endowed mankind with a special and absolutely unique ability – the ability to act in ways counter to our natural instincts. Humans stand alone in having the ability to rise above their natural, animal inclinations. They alone, of all in the animal kingdom, are able to act altruistically. It is why hospitals are only built be humans. It is why only humans care for their poor, their hungry, and their sick.
A detailed discussion of the significance of the second Yod can be found in this article, “Being Human“.
breath of life: Translated from the noun, נִשְׁמַת (nish·mat) and its adjective, חַיִּים (chay·ya), the phrase’s word-for-word translation is elusive. The grammar is straightforward. The Hebrew word, nishmat, occurs as a construct noun and is therefore translated as “breath-of” and chayya is used as a noun adjunct((A noun adjunct is a noun that serves as an adjective.)) and can be reasonably translated as ‘life’ or ‘living’.
a living being: the the translation of the Hebrew phrase – נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה (ne·phesh chay·yah) – is not straightforward. There are two issues in view: first the translation of nephesh is tricky. The Hebrew nephesh has a wide semantic range that, depending on context, has been translated as life, soul, creature, being, person, appetite, and mind among other words3). However, its verbal root, נָפַשׁ (na·phash), means the act of breathing, so that one might reasonably claim that nephesh chayya refers to something living that breaths.
My translation conventions can be found here.
and-formed the-LORD God the-man the-dust from-the-ground and-He-breathed in-his-nostrils breath-of living and-he-became the-man a-being living.
Next, the LORD God formed the man from the ground and He blew into his nostrils a living breath; then the man became a living being.
Commercial Bible Translations
- (nas) Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
- (kjv) 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
- (niv) Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
- (net) The LORD God formed the man from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.