In Matthew 12:12, Jesus asks the question:
"How much, then, is a man better than a sheep?"
In view of what is taught in the name of science these days in regard to the notion that man is only an animal, a little more highly developed than the rest; and particularly in view of the fact that some Bible scholars agree that such a notion is consistent with the Bible's teaching, it might be instructive to consider, in the light of Scripture, the above question of Jesus. How does man differ from the animal creation? Is the difference merely one of degree, or is quality involved? What is the nature of the image and likeness of God in which man was created? That it does not refer to man's physical structure is obvious, although the fact that God made him able to walk upright physically illustrates the fact that he also has the capacity to walk upright morally and spiritually. See Eccl. 7:29. The image and likeness of God does not refer to the fact that man is a living soul, for that exact expression is applied to animals five times in the Hebrew. (e.g. Gen. 2:19). Nor can it be the fact that man has a spirit, for the animals are also said to have spirits (Hebrew: ruach). See Gen. 7:15, Eccl. 3:21.
Yet the Old Testament reveals that man received something in the act of creation in which animals do not share, and it is this element which constitutes the difference between man and the animals and makes him into the image and likeness of God. That element is called neshamah, and is first mentioned in Gen. 2:7, where it is translated breath in our English versions:
"And He breathed into his nostrils the breath (neshamah) of life, and man became a living soul".
The animals also were made living souls (nephesh chayyah) but not by having breathed into them the neshamah of life. Thus it is the possession of this divine neshamah which makes the difference between man and beast. Nowhere is any animal said to have received, or to possess, this neshamah. Rather, it is the possession of it which sets man apart from the animal creation. In Deut. 20:16, Israel is told that when they take the land of Canaan, they are to save alive nothing that breatheth. This expression in Hebrew is literally nothing that has neshamah. That this did not include animals is evident from Joshua 11:14; where it is recorded:
"And all the spoil of these cities and the cattle, the children of Israel took for a prey unto themselves but every man they smote with the edge of the sword, until they had destroyed them, neither left they any to breathe (that had neshamah)."
The word neshamah comes from the verb nasham which means to pant, to breathe out forcefully. Thus neshamah signifies out-breathing. In Job 4:9 it is translated blast:
"By the blast of God they perish".
Cf. Isa. 30:33, where it is translated breath.continued at top of next column
Neshamah denotes the ability to use the outgoing breath in speech. Notice how the gift of speech and neshamah are associated: In Job 26:4, the patriarch asks:
"To whom hast thou uttered (or imparted) words, and whose spirit (neshamah) came from thee?"
In Job 27:3-4, he says:
"All the while my breath (neshamah) is in me, and the spirit (ruach) of God is in my nostrils: my lips shall not speak wickedness nor my tongue utter deceit".
In Psalm 150:6, we read:
"Let every thing that hath breath (neshamah) praise the Lord".
In Daniel 5:23, the prophet rebukes Belshazzar for having praised the gods of silver and gold, etc., and says:
" ... and the God in whose hand thy breath (neshamah) is, hast thou not glorified,".
Neshamah also denotes what the power of speech implies, such as intelligence (Job 32:8; inspiration = neshamah), discernment, (Proverbs 20:27; spirit = neshamah) and the other intellectual abilities which are prerequisites for the faculty of intelligent speech.
Man is therefore superior to the animals and made in the image and likeness of God, in that he has the capacity to walk uprightly (has a moral nature) has intelligence that far surpasses that of the animals, and is able to speak, or communicate in symbols.
John H Mattox