Skip to content

Appetite and Desire

December 30, 2012

One of my favourite topics! When is it desire, and when is is appetite? This is the original puzzle,

Et ad virum tuum erit desiderium tuum

And to your man will be your desire Gen. 3:16

Et in te erit appetitus eius

And to you will be his appetite Gen. 4:7

These two citations are translations of teshuqah. It is in translation that the chasm opens between “desire” and “appetite”, not in Hebrew. This is the Latin of Pagninus, who brought this meaning of teshuqah into the European tradition.

So, now to Isaiah and psyche, as a translation of nephesh, also possibly “desire” and “appetite.” But I don’t find any illumination in the Latin translations of nephesh – it is simply translated as anima (soul.) Some, including Alter,  suggest that this is wrong-headed, that all would be solved if we translate nephesh as “throat.” In my view, this does not solve the problem. There is a double meaning in the Hebrew that we cannot reproduce in English, and could not be done in Greek either. Here is Ecc. 6:7,

 כָּל-עֲמַל הָאָדָם, לְפִיהוּ;

וְגַם-הַנֶּפֶשׁ, לֹא תִמָּלֵא.

πας μοχθος του ανθρωπου εις στομα αυτου

και γε η ψυχη ου πληρωθησεται

All the labour of man is for his mouth,

and yet the appetite is not filled. JPS

In this passage, we really want to read nephesh as “throat.” How simple! A neat parallel between “mouth” and “throat”- “the labour of a man is for his mouth, and yet his throat is not filled.” But what about Ecc. 6:9?

טוֹב מַרְאֵה עֵינַיִם,


גַּם-זֶה הֶבֶל,

וּרְעוּת רוּחַ

αγαθον οραμα οφθαλμων

υπερ πορευομενον ψυχη

και γε τουτο ματαιοτης

και προαιρεσις πνευματος

Better is the seeing of the eyes

than the wandering of the desire;

this also is vanity

and a striving after wind. JPS

Is it possible to translate nephesh as “throat?” “Better is the seeing of the eyes than the wandering of the throat?” Oh help! And afterall, what is wrong with this?

All the labour of a human is for the mouth,

and yet the soul is not satisfied.

Better what is seen with the eyes

than where wanders the soul,

this is futile

and chasing the wind.

Believe me, my soul wanders, but my throat stays at home. The duality of the Hebrew is hard to translate into English, or Greek or Latin. My throat has appetite, but it has no desire. But what is the author speaking of – the throat or desire. I choose desire. Even death has desire, it seeks and consumes, that is the image, just as crouching sin desires Cain. I accept that this is the poetry of Hebrew. Sheol desires us. This is central to the Hebrew Bible.

Update: Here is an example of the Greek word psyche being used for appetite, in Cyropaedia, by Xenophon,

οἱ δ᾽ αὖ τεταγμένοι, ἐπεὶ ὥρα ἦν,
δεῖπνον παρετίθεσαν:
τῷ δὲ ἡ ψυχὴ σῖτον μὲν οὐ προσίετο,
διψῆν δ᾽ ἐδόκει, καὶ ἔπιεν ἡδέως.

And then again, when the hour came,

those whose office it was set dinner before him.

But his soul had no desire for food,

but he seemed thirsty and drank with pleasure.

Surely here his “soul” refers to his literal appetite.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 30, 2012 2:58 am

    I am perturbed when two Hebrew roots overlap so severely such separated semantic domains. I looked at the drafty ruins I left behind 2 years ago on Qohelet. There I woodenly stick with being or throat depending on whatever the context is. I like the word soul but never use it unless its metaphorical sense is obvious. In the Isaiah passage. Maybe I had better rework all my old student exercises. Many times I just use a pronoun. I had not noticed this contrast between Eccl and Genesis – a marvel of confusion to think about. – and the LXX has ψυχὴ in both cases.

    In the Isaiah passage the KJV just has herself for נַפְשָׁהּ

    Greek is new to me – I’m at lesson 5 in my book. I sometimes read it backwards!

  2. December 30, 2012 8:40 am

    The bit in Isaiah — and its translation — is interesting. The ambiguities you show us get born out by various translators:

    לָכֵ֗ן הִרְחִ֤יבָה שְּׁאֹול֙
    וּפָעֲרָ֥ה פִ֖יהָ לִבְלִי־חֹ֑ק וְיָרַ֨ד הֲדָרָ֧הּ וַהֲמֹונָ֛הּ וּשְׁאֹונָ֖הּ וְעָלֵ֥ז בָּֽהּ׃

    Therefore the nether-world hath enlarged her desire, and opened her mouth without measure; and down goeth their glory, and their tumult, and their uproar, and he that rejoiceth among them. — JPS

    For this, hades enlarged her soul, and opened wide her mouth without bound: and her honor shall go down, and her multitude, and her tumult, and he rejoicing, into her. — Julia Evelina Smith (translating the Hebrew as the JPS team did, but here with the different interpretation)

    καὶ ἐπλάτυνεν ὁ ᾅδης τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ καὶ διήνοιξεν τὸ στόμα αὐτοῦ τοῦ μὴ διαλιπεῖν, καὶ καταβήσονται οἱ ἔνδοξοι καὶ οἱ μεγάλοι καὶ οἱ πλούσιοι καὶ οἱ λοιμοὶ αὐτῆς. — LXX

    Therefore hell has enlarged its desire and opened its mouth without ceasing: and her glorious and great and her rich and her pestilent men shall go down [into it] — Brenton (translating the Greek)

    And Hades has enlarged its appetite / and opened its mouth without ceasing; / and her glorious ones and her great / and her rich and her pestilent shall go / down. — Silva (for the NETS)

    Curiously, only Smith has “soul,” and she’s not even translating the Greek ψυχη. Rather for her the Hebrew נַפְשָׁ֔הּ is “soul.” And how, for Silva, is ψυχη “appetite”?!!

    In Greek literature, of course, Hades (the unseen god) has a psyche, or takes two. And Euripides has Admetus saying to the Chorus (in “Alecestis” with the translation of David Kovacs following) –

    ὦ μακρὰ πένθη λῦπαί τε φίλων τῶν ὑπὸ γαίας.
    τί μ’ ἐκώλυσας ῥῖψαι τύμβου τάφρον ἐς κοίλην
    καὶ μετ’ ἐκείνης τῆς μέγ’ ἀρίστης κεῖσθαι φθίμενον;

    δύο δ’ ἀντὶ μιᾶς Ἅιδης ψυχὰς τὰς πιστοτάτας σὺν ἂν ἔσχεν,
    ὁμοῦ χθονίαν λίμνην διαβάντε.

    Oh, how great is the pain and grief for loved ones who lie beneath the earth!
    Why did you keep me from throwing myself into the open grave
    and lying there dead with her, the best of women?

    Hades would have had two most faithful souls instead of one,
    crossing the nether lake together.

    Suzanne, Hope you don’t mind that I shared a link to your post here on fb. (Also, to your post I added the series tag, to make it easier for readers here to find the different posts related to Greek Isaiah.)

  3. December 30, 2012 12:02 pm

    Some, including Alter, suggest that this is wrong-headed, that all would be solved if we translate nephesh as “throat.” In my view, this does not solve the problem. There is a double meaning in the Hebrew that we cannot reproduce in English, and could not be done in Greek either.

    Interestingly, Signed English does seem to capture some of this double meaning. The signs for “appetite” and “desire” both involve moving the hand down the chest: following the throat and esophagus down the inside of the body, one might say. According to one Signed English dictionary from Australia:

    Appetite: Move right fist down centre
    of chest.

    Desire: Move cupped right hand
    diagonally down from throat closing fingertips on to

  4. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 30, 2012 12:41 pm


    Thanks for adding the tag. Its an interesting puzzle.


    Its neat to see this comparison to sign language, using the literal body part to reflect a figurative meaning.

  5. December 30, 2012 1:59 pm

    Nefesh can also means soul (or life), language that forms the basis of many kabbalistic commentaries on these verses.

  6. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 30, 2012 6:40 pm


    I may have given a wrong impression. Gen. 3 and 4 do not use psyche at all, but quite a different construction,

    και προς τον ανδρα σου η αποστροφη σου και αυτος σου κυριευσει Gen. 3:16

    And your recoursea will be to your husband, and he will dominate you.”

    ησυχασον προς σε η αποστροφη αυτου και συ αρξεις αυτου Gen. 4:7

    Be still; his recourse is to you, and you willc rule over him.”

    Its in the Latin of Pagninus that we read desire and appetite. Desire is attributed to Eve, and appetite to sin. But for humans, desire is longing, either spiritual or sexual, whereas appetite refers to the palate. This is a distinction made in English, and not made in Hebrew. In Hebrew desire and appetite are the same thing.


    I looked up a reference and found this,

    “The Nephesh is the animal soul, the “soul of the body”. Animals possess this soul, and ashuman beings are animals, we share this inher-itance. The Nephesh is concerned with theneeds of the body – hunger, pleasure, rest, sexual satisfaction, social status and so on.”


  1. Keep ‘em coming back with the December Biblical Studies Carnival | Words on the Word

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: