The Difference Between Humans and Animals

I recently recalled an old conversation that my daughter and I had when she was in grade school, many years ago. It was about the difference between humans and animals. She had told to me that her friend believed that we were just animals, which then led to a great discussion. What triggered my memory was coming across these verses in Ecclesiastes…

Ecclesiastes 3:19-20 (HCSB) – For the fate of people and the fate of animals is the same. As one dies, so dies the other; they all have the same breath. People have no advantage over animals since everything is futile. All are going to the same place; all come from dust, and all return to dust.

Unfortunately, it is very common for people to think that we humans are just mere animals. But, the Bible doesn’t categorize humans and animals as being exactly the same. Yes, there are similarities described. However, whatever about us is similar, such does not make us synonymous; and to characterize humans and animals as being the same is simply a big mistake.

What is Similar

Before I get into what is different between humans and animals, it is important to at least talk about what is similar between the two. Notice in the above reference in Ecclesiastes that humans and animals, “have the same breath.” The Hebrew word for “breath” is ruach (h7307). The writer also says that both, “are going to the same place; all come from dust, and all return to dust.” The Hebrew word for “dust” is apar (h6083). When we put these two concepts together we see that humans and animals both become dust when their breath is no more. In other words, when they die, they go back to where they came from. This idea is not unique to the book of Ecclesiastes. Take Psalm 104…

Psalms 104:29 (HCSB) – …when You take away their breath, they die and return to the dust.

This reference has in view both humans and animals. (Here is what comes before it if interested… Psalms 104:10-29) Just as with Ecclesiastes 13:19-20, “breath” is ruach (h7307) and “dust” is apar (h6083) in Psalm 104:29.

There is another characterization that humans and animals share according to the Bible, besides the fact that if our breath leaves us both we then return to the dust… That is the concept of “nephesh.” Nephesh is the Hebrew word which describes an earthly being, which needs to breath in order to remain alive. Genesis 1 and 2 both label animals and humans as being nephesh (h5315). The bolded words below are “nephesh” in the Hebrew…

Genesis 1:20-21 (HCSB)Then God said, “Let the water swarm with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.” So God created the large sea-creatures and every living creature that moves and swarms in the water, according to their kinds. He also created every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

Genesis 1:24 (HCSB)Then God said, “Let the earth produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that crawl, and the wildlife of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so.

Genesis 2:7 (HCSB)Then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust from the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being.

Genesis 2:19 (HCSB)So the LORD God formed out of the ground every wild animal and every bird of the sky, and brought each to the man to see what he would call it. And whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name.

Both animals and humans are formed out of or from the ground, and when God breaths the breath of life into them they then become a living nephesh. The Hebrew word for “living” is hay (h2416). A nephesh that is alive is a “hay nephesh,” where a nephesh that is dead is labeled this way in the Old Testament…

Numbers 6:6 (HCSB)He must not go near a dead body during the time he consecrates himself to the LORD.

The Hebrew word for “dead” is mut (h4191). The NASB does a better job of rendering this verse, because the Hebraic concept of “nephesh” describes the whole person, and not just a person’s body as the HCSB rendered it…

Numbers 6:6 (NASB)All the days of his separation to the LORD he shall not go near to a dead person.

The Hebrew here reads “mut nephesh.” This means that according to the Bible, a nephesh (a whole person/being/self) can be either dead or alive. Here’s a simple way of looking at it which might make it easier to see…

hay nephesh = living creature/being/person

mut nephesh = dead creature/being/person

Again, here is the Psalm that I referenced above. I added the next line that appears after what I referenced earlier to help illustrate what I’m getting at.

Psalms 104:29-30 (HCSB)…when You take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When You send Your breath, they are created

That is when a living nephesh comes into being.

It is important to grasp the fact that when God brings into being a living nephesh from the dust of the ground by breathing the breath of life into it, the Bible does not ever say that God injects the formed ground with a preexisting spirit or immaterial soul. Instead, it describes that when God breathes the breath of life into it, the formed ground/dust becomes a living being. It is not that a living, immaterial, core essence of a being has entered the dust. In other words, by God’s breath (ruach) the dust (apar) then transforms into a life (hay nephesh). Here’s a simple way of looking at it…

dust (apar) + breath (ruach) = living being (hay nephesh)

And, when the breath leaves the living nephesh, it then becomes a dead nephesh and goes back to dust…

living being (hay nephesh) – breath (ruach) = dead being (mut nephesh) or dust (apar)

Job 10:9 (HCSB)Please remember that You formed me like clay. Will You now return me to dust?

The Biblical way to approach the concept of “soul” is to not think that we have a soul, but that we are a soul. In other words, humans and animals do not possess a soul according to the Bible, but individually they both are a soul (a whole being/creature). We actually have this as part of our modern thinking as well. For example, whenever we describe how many “souls” are on a ship, we are not referencing the amount of immaterial aspects of people that are on board, but how many whole beings/persons are on board. Again, when we hear the word “soul,” we need to start thinking “whole being/person,” and not merely the inner aspect of a being/person (which I do believe a living nephesh has, but that’s for a future article).

On a side note, the King James Version correctly renders “nephesh” (whole being) as soul in Genesis 2…

Genesis 2:7 (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.

Again, the “adam” BECAME a soul, which is not at all the same as saying that a soul (an immaterial aspect) was injected into the formed dust of the ground. By the way, many other Bible versions mirror the KJV correctly using “soul” to describe the whole being for nephesh in this verse: American Standard Version, Aramaic Bible in Plain English, and the Brenton Septuagint Translation, just to name a few.

What is Different

Obviously, we humans are not animals, even though we share some things that make us similar to them. Let’s go back to the very first reference that I used…

Ecclesiastes 3:19-20 (HCSB)For the fate of people and the fate of animals is the same. As one dies, so dies the other; they all have the same breath. People have no advantage over animals since everything is futile. All are going to the same place; all come from dust, and all return to dust.

Animals and humans are two different sub-categories of nephesh. In Hebrew, an animal is a behema (h0929) and a human is usually referred to as an adam (h0120). Sometimes we are referred to as a ben (h1121) in the Bible. In this verse, both are used. The first reference to humans (people) is ben and the second instance is adam.

Animals are never labeled as an “adam” or a “ben” in scripture. Humans though, can at times be labeled as a “behema” however. Take when the psalmist recognized how he was being disloyal to God, he wrote…

Psalms 73:22 (HCSB)I was stupid and didn’t understand; I was an unthinking animal (behema, h0929) toward You.

What makes humans different from animals is that humans are image bearers of God, where no other created living beings (animals or even spirit beings for that matter) are considered as such. The only thing that we share with spirit beings (elohim in Hebrew, h0430) is that those who are loyal to God are labeled as sons of God (see Job 1:6). We humans who are loyal to God are also given that same label…

Galatians 3:26 (HCSB) …for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

Just as we share nephesh status with behema (animals), we who are loyal to God also share sons of God status with the loyal elohim (spirit beings). The thing is though, neither behema or elohim are ever described in the Bible as image bearers of God. That designation is only used for us….

Genesis 1:27 (HCSB)So God created man (adam, h0120) in His own image; He created him in the image of God; He created them male and female.

At this point in the story, spirit beings (elohim) already existed, so they are not in view when image bearers were first brought into being. As for the animals, even though they share a “nephesh” status with humans, it is the sub-category of nephesh (adam) who are exclusively given the designation of being made in God’s image. (For a description of what it means to be an image bearer of God, check out my articles What it Means to Image God and Bearing God’s Image.)


I want to leave you with these words from Paul, which summarizes what we “adam” (who were made from the dust) are supposed to do with our lives… image Christ:

1 Corinthians 15:45-49 (HCSB)So it is written: The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving Spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth and made of dust; the second man is from heaven. Like the man made of dust, so are those who are made of dust; like the heavenly man, so are those who are heavenly. And just as we have borne the image of the man made of dust, we will also bear the image of the heavenly man.

Here is a great 20 minute lesson on this topic that I came across on YouTube…

Godspeed, to the brethren!

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  1. One thing I know. I cannot look through another’s eyes, human or otherwise, and be them thinking, so I can never know exactly what is happening. However, I can talk to people, listen to them, and over time, have good ideas, some which I’m sure, but some which I’m not. With animals, I can also watch, look, ponder, and consider. This is what I think, and others can consider. A human being can ponder the meaning of life, can wonder why they’re here, and wonder what happens when they die, if there’s an afterlife. An animal, and this depends to some degree, I believe, on the complexities, has feelings, does think in its own way, and does “negotiate” with others of its species as we understand. I believe animals sense death, but also read people. However, they can’t ponder the mysteries. I don’t think they can sin. They’re instinctive creatures, with some personality differences, and I’m sure there’s much more there than I’m aware, but they don’t have a sense of the universe and meaning as humans do.


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