Do Insects Possess Nephesh Life? – Karl C. Priest

by / April 2, 2016

Scientifically speaking insects are living animals.

The matter becomes a problem if a skeptic uses the argument of Adam or Eve killing an insect before the Fall.  That is an attack on the Young Earth Creation positon that there was no death before Adam and Eve rebelled.  The short solution is that the original creation was perfect so Adam and Eve would not have been “bugged” by insects, therefore intentionally killing one is of no concern.  How about Adam or Eve accidentally stepping on an insect?  It is not likely that Adam and Eve had much time to do that before they sinned and God instituted the Curse.  Archbishop Ussher figured that the curse came about on the tenth day after Creation began.  Regarding an accidental insect death, well that gets into a matter of faith in God’s ability to prevent such an accident.  It really is a matter of faith and not being victimized by our imperfect thinking processes. There will be more on this subject below.

Whether or not insects are living animals in the biblical sense is complicated.

Referring to what parts of creation are considered to be “living,” the Institute for Creation Research focuses on plants in the New Defender’s Study Bible Notes with animals having “consciousness–which plants do not possess, and this required a second act of true creation (the first was in Genesis 1:1, the creation of the basic space/mass/time universe). Such ‘consciousness’ is the essential meaning of the Hebrew word nephesh, commonly translated “soul,” but in Genesis 1:20 (its first occurrence) translated ‘life,’ and then in Genesis 1:21 ‘living creature.’ In Genesis 2:7, referring to man, it is rendered ‘living soul.’  Thus, both men and animals possess the specially-created nephesh.” 

John D. Morris concurs and almost mentions insects.  “The Bible never refers to plants as living. They may ‘grow,’ or ‘flourish,’ but they do not ‘live.’  Neither do they ‘die.’ The Bible teaches that they may ‘wither,’ or ‘fade,’ but not ‘die,’ since they are not ‘alive,’ having neither ‘life’ (nephesh), nor breath of life (ruach), nor ‘blood’ (i.e. ‘the life of the flesh is in the blood’ [Leviticus 17:11]). This state may be analogous to lack of consciousness, so that, while biologically alive, plants are therefore not Biblically ‘living.’ A similar argument can be made for some of the ‘lower’ animals (perhaps some types of worms, sponges, etc.), and certainly for protozoans and viruses. Their ‘death’ would not constitute death of truly living organisms.” 

Regarding insects being on the ark, John Morris said, specifically (but not firmly—see added bold font), “I further speculated that insects might not have been on board, since they don’t breathe air. They absorb oxygen through abdominal membranes. They could have survived, particularly in their egg and larvae states, on floating plant debris. Actually, they would be needed worldwide as the Flood ended, to help seeds and sprigs re-germinate and flourish once again.

The esteemed Henry Morris wrote, “Man’s body is made of the same ‘earth’ material (Genesis 2:7) as the animals (v. 19) and as the earth itself (Genesis 1:10). Furthermore, he shares the created ‘soul’ (Hebrew nephesh) and ‘spirit’ (Hebrew ruach, same as ‘breath’) with the animals (compare 1:21; 7:15, where nephesh and ruach respectively are used of the animals). However, he shares the created ‘image of God’ (1:27) only with God Himself.”

Referring to one of the “key doctrines taught in Genesis” the Answers in Genesis ministry states, “God shaped what He created into various inanimate objects but then created living things like plants and animals, which reproduced ‘according to their kind.’ AiG adds a clarification:  “People and animals are described in Genesis as having, or being, nephesh (Hebrew), where nephesh chayyah is translated ‘living creatures,’ and in Genesis 2:7, where Adam became a ‘living soul’ (nephesh chayyah).  Nephesh conveys the basic idea of a ‘breathing creature.’”  That statement does not specify if insects are included in the category of “living creatures.” (4) However. Ken Ham, leader of Answers in Genesis is sure that insects are not living creatures. “In Genesis 1, we see a general Hebrew term—nephesh. This word refers to living creatures such as man and animals. The word doesn’t apply to plants, but it does apply to vertebrates. The Bible clearly distinguishes between animals that have a nephesh and the plants and insects which do not… Originally, there was no death for those who had nephesh.”

That “insects are not what the Bible refers to as truly living creatures” is also the position of Creation Ministries International.  The source of that stance appears to come from Chapter 6 of The Answers Book.

In reference to the ability of some ants to attack and enslave another species, another CMI and AiG (1) writer is not so sure.  “Such behaviours seem likely to be post-Fall, not part of a perfect world. But caution is needed: insects (like plants) may not qualify as ‘nephesh’ life. Not only might they have ‘died’ before the Fall, but equally, in creatures at this barely sentient level of existence, ‘suffering’ may be a non-issue.”  The same view is expressed by another writer regarding the predatory behavior of fireflies (Fireflies are actually beetles.).  “(W)e should be mindful that the world was much different prior to Adam’s Fall. Animals with nephesh (Hebrew for ‘life’) didn’t devour each other, and this may have included insects (Genesis 1:30).”

In response to questions regarding death before the Fall, “The objections “can be answered within a biblical framework. The Bible never uses the Hebrew term nephesh chayyah (living soul/creature) when referring to invertebrates, but it does when referring to humans and fish (Genesis 1:20; 2:7). Also, insects do not have the same sort of ‘blood’ that vertebrates do, yet ‘the life of the flesh is in the blood’ (Leviticus 17:11) (Sarfati, Jonathan. 2004. Refuting Compromise. Green Forest, Arkansas: Master Books, p. 211). It is reasonable then to assume that the pre-Fall diet of animals could have included invertebrates. Even so, if we consider the fact that God foreknew the Fall (1 Peter 1:18–20; Ephesians 3:11; Revelation 13:8), then it is also logical that he programmed creatures with the information for attack and defence features, which they would need in a cursed world. This information was ‘switched on’ at the Fall (Sarfati 2004, p. 212).”

As Answers in Genesis did research in preparation for the The Ark Encounter there was debate over the subject of insect life.  “The term ‘living creatures’ is the same as in Genesis 1, which includes birds, larger domestic and wild animals, and small, scurrying animals. This list likely includes small vertebrates, such as rodents and lizards, and possibly invertebrates, such as insects.”  (Footnote 1 “The Ark Encounter team was unsure about the status of insects as land animals with “the breath of life” (Genesis 7:15), but space is still being allotted for them on the Ark (which is very minimal because of their size). We need to be careful not to equate modern labels with the biblical words. Hebrew has no equivalent for “invertebrates,” though there are terms for a number of specific invertebrates, such as lice, locusts, spiders, gnats, and even leeches.)  “Over one million animal species have been named, but it’s a mistake to assume all were on the Ark. The Bible says Noah took only air-breathing land animals. So that excludes sea creatures and possibly insects and other invertebrates.”

The subject is further complicated when considering the blood and nervous system of insects.

A peer reviewed scholarly article reports that, “Many worms, insects, shelled animals use blood in a similar fashion as do humans. Therefore it would appear that these “lower” animals must be included in defining biblical life. Blood is an important parameter of life… One could rightly conclude that the insects are a complicated group because of their complex nervous system… This is a good example of the error of man’s own thinking, because the Bible says much more concerning the basar (flesh) and nepes (soul) than (a leading Progressive Creationist) is willing to acknowledge. The Bible uses these words of small creeping things (Hebrew: remes). This word occurs a total of 17 times in the Old Testament, and includes both aquatic and land creatures. God uses this word in Genesis 1:20 where He creates the sea life, and says that this group too is part of the ‘living.’ It occurs again in Genesis 1:24 among the land animals. Here too, God gives this group the status of ‘living.’ God includes this group in the vegetarian diet of Genesis 1:30 with the beasts and birds. This word remes is significant because it denotes a variety of living things. Psalm 104:25 suggests that there are innumerable remes in the seas. 1 Kings 4:33 (5:13) and Ezekiel 38:20 suggest that this could speak of rodents and reptiles.  Leviticus 11:20–44 signifies rodents, snails, reptiles, insects, spiders as all who qualify as remes. Even more specifically, Leviticus 11:9–12 says the remes in the water have basar. So it would appear that biblical ‘life’ then must extend to at least the insect world.

“The respiratory apparatus in insects consists of a system of tubes, called tracheae (singular, trachea), which directly ventilate the tissues… The insect has openings called spiracles scattered throughout its body, which are the openings to the tracheae. In small insects, gas exchange occurs by diffusion only. Larger insects will actively pump air into the tubes.”

“The (tracheal) system is so extensive that most cells are in close proximity to a tracheal branch and the tissues do not depend on blood circulation for gas transport.”

“An advantage of tracheal respiration is that it provides oxygen directly to the muscles.  Muscle cells use this oxygen, together with the carbohydrates and other energetic molecules in the hemolymph (insect blood), to generate the energy needed for flight.”

“Insects and some molluscs use a fluid called hemolymph instead of blood, the difference being that hemolymph is not contained in a closed circulatory system.”

“Hemolymph, or haemolymph, is a fluid in the open circulatory system…and is analogous to the fluids and cells making up both blood and interstitial fluid (a solution that bathes and surrounds the cells of multicellular animals)…in vertebrates… The hemolymph of lower arthropods, including most insects, is not used for oxygen transport… but it does contain nutrients such as proteins and sugars… (I)n insects, exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide occurs in the tracheal system.  Hemolymph plays no part in the process in most insects. In a few insects living in low-oxygen environments, there are hemoglobin-like molecules that bind oxygen and transport it to the tissues.”

It was my understanding that insects receive oxygen straight to the cells via the tracheal system.  However, the statement “The hemolymph of lower arthropods, including most insects, is not used for oxygen transport…” puzzled me. (Emphasis added.)  I emailed a professional entomologist (2) and asked, “What insects use hemolymph to transport oxygen?”

He replied, “A few species that live in temporarily hypoxic (i.e. low oxygen) environments, such as the aquatic larvae of the chironomid midges, some aquatic Hemiptera, or larvae of the horse botfly harbor hemoglobins (the oxygen carrier in our blood) either in the hemolymph or in specialized tissues.  Other insects such as certain stonefly species can harbor other ‘oxygen carriers’ like hemocyanin.”

It is not a simple matter for scientists because insects just do not fit a standard mold.  Likewise, biblical scholars must scratch their heads as they try to expound upon the subject.

A detailed definition of, and an extensive examination of, the biblical (3) usage of “nephesh” leaves lots of leeway for interpretation.

The Creation Research ministry has, I think, the best summary of the situation.  “The term ‘living creature’ is derived from a Hebrew word nephesh meaning breath. Genesis 1:24-25 tells us that God created livestock, beasts of the earth and creeping things. Invertebrates are among the creeping things… “After God created the first man and woman he told them what they and the animals could eat. The animals are again listed in these same three categories (livestock, beasts of the earth and creeping things), and along with the flying creatures, they are further described as being creatures with the breath of life, i.e. nephesh, in them (Genesis 1:30)…

“The animals that came to Noah to be kept alive on the ark are also described in these three categories, and as having the breath of life in them. (Genesis 6:17-20, 7:14-15) After Noah’s Flood, God gave mankind permission to eat all the ‘moving things that live,’ i.e. birds and animals. However, there is one strict proviso for being allowed to eat meat – man must not eat meat with its lifeblood in it, because the life, i.e. nephesh, is in the blood. (Genesis 9:2-4) God’s instructions indicate that all the ‘moving things that live,’ including the creeping things, contain lifeblood, and are different from the plants that God had previously given man to eat… “By putting together God’s instructions about living creatures we can summarise that they are creatures with breath and blood. Invertebrates breathe and have blood, i.e. fluid carrying dissolved gases, nutrients and waste products, body defence cells (white blood cells) and proteins that are actively pumped around the body. They are therefore ‘living creatures’ or creatures with nephesh. This means that in the original very good world man, animals or birds did not eat invertebrates or kill them…

“Some people have suggested that it would have been impossible for Adam to have avoided squashing a few bugs as he walked on the ground or worked in the garden. But think about what a ‘very good’ world would be like. This was a world of lush vegetation and deep rich soils. Bugs could quickly move to a tree. We know from the fossil record that some insects and other invertebrates were quite large, so people would have no trouble seeing them and avoiding them. Along with this is the fascinating fossil data that the fossil record reveals that some insects such as slaters (Pillbugs are actually crustaceans.), ants, dragon flies mosquitoes etc. were so large, Adam would have had to step up to even stand on them. Therefore people would have no trouble seeing them and avoiding them.

“All plants and animals lived in perfectly sustainable proportions. Insects and other bugs would not have existed in the nuisance numbers they are now, and would not have attacked or annoyed people or ravaged the vegetation, so there was no temptation to swat them or kill them. Therefore, like all living creatures, invertebrates would not have died before the Fall of Man, when death came into the world, and no other animals or birds would have eaten them. OUR CONCLUSION: The Bible does make a distinction between the life of plants and animals, but there is no basis for classifying invertebrates with plants rather than animals, and therefore, not having the same life as animals…

Mankind is set apart from all creatures according to Genesis 1:26a:  “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”  Also, Genesis 2:7: “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.”  It could be argued that the biblical context is the key with a separation of a soul (humans) to respiration (only) for animals.

A pastor who published an article for CMI has a point-of-view that is reasonable.  “Do creatures, like insects, that function only by instinct, not conscious planning also have nephesh life? Possibly not. There may be insufficient information to determine from Scripture where to make the distinction for certain.”

I know for sure that since God was able to create the amazingly complicated insects, God could have easily kept them from dying before the Fall.

(1) An unfortunate squabble between Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International has resulted in the same articles being published on both websites.  I randomly chose citations for duplicate articles.  I do not take a position on which side was right.

(2) Daniel L. Frank, Entomology Extension Specialist & Assistant Professor, West Virginia University, email of 16 February 2015)

(3) Search the King James Bible is a handy tool also.

(4) The matter becomes more complicated when other words are considered.  “However, it is interesting to observe the usage of neshamah in this light. The Old Testament never uses this word referring to water dwellers. Still, those who possess this “breath of life” inhabit the land and were the recipients of the judgment of God by the Flood. So, although neshamah is semantically related to ruach one cannot say this is part of the biblical parameters of life. This is true because God said of the sheretz, or swarmers of the sea, that they had life. So it would appear that this term neshamah would be instructive in terms of those animals that God brought onto the Ark. God told Noah to bring also the sheretz of the land, so this would have been those small air-breathing insects. According to Genesis 7:21 “Every living thing that moved on the earth perished” and this includes the sheretz of the land. So then, one may observe that the term ruach is informative in defining biblical life, while the term neshamah is not. The term ruach refers to those that possess some sort of structure that helps in this gaseous exchange.”

“Nefesh, neshama and ruach as words for ‘soul’”.   Nefesh and Nephesh are interchangeable.

For further study:

Concise definition Detailed study

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Karl Priest has over 35 years of experience as an educator mostly as a mathematics teacher. He has worked with students from grades K through 9 including four years as a principal. He is a strong supporter of home and Christian schools. While in the Navy Karl accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior in November of 1968. God led Karl into several different areas of ministry one of which is using his insect collection to proclaim Christ as the creator. You can see Karl’s testimony on the Internet at www.insecman.us.

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