Flesh (in the OT)

See also Flesh

Literal usage.

Metaphorical use.

A second fig. use of the term “flesh” involved a rhetorical device known as metonymy, which is somewhat different from synecdoche. Instead of naming the thing itself, metonymy describes it in terms of some significant accompaniment or adjunct; whereas in synecdoche the name substituted is generally cognate in meaning, in metonymy the meaning is often less closely related to the substituted term. In the latter figure the instrument can do duty for the agent, the container for the thing contained, the maker for the thing made, the name of a passion for the object of desire, and so on. By using bāsār or se'ēr in this way the Hebrews could think of “flesh” in terms of natural or family relationships. Thus Adam spoke of his helpmeet as specifically “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (2:23), and the brothers of Joseph expressed the same sentiment (37:27). Two terms were employed (Lev 18:6; 25:49) to express the concept of a somatic relative, while se'ēr was used to designate both sides of family descent (Lev 18:12, 13). Under the patriarchal system the unit of natural relationship could reach beyond the family to include the township (Judg 9:2) or the people as a whole (2 Sam 5:1).

Theological implications.

From the comprehensive concept of “flesh” as representative of the people (2 Sam 5:1) it is possible to argue toward the use of bāsār along the lines of corporate personality. This is by no means out of harmony with other aspects of OT thought, since the covenant relationship between God and Israel was based upon this general concept. Consequently, the forgiveness of national sins of inadvertence could be entertained in the Heb. sacrificial system just as readily as atonement could for individuals, both procedures not uncommonly involving animal bāsār. Taking the religious implications of corporate personality one stage further, it was because of the uncovenanted mercies of God to Abraham and his descendants that all the nations of the earth would be able to bless themselves (Gen 12:3; 18:18, etc.).

The OT theology of human personality, noted above, is of a dynamic order which emphasizes the psycho-physical unity of human nature. Although this “flesh” was regarded in the OT as generally weak, there is no single element in Heb. thought which corresponds to the NT view of the “flesh” as the central principle of fallen humanity. While the flesh for the Hebrews was frail, it was not regarded as sinful, and the nearest approach to the idea of moral weakness seems to be in Psalm 78:39. Salvation for Ezekiel constituted that regeneration which would replace a stony heart with one of flesh (Ezek 36:26), which contains the idea that the flesh is perverted.


J. A. T. Robinson, The Body (1952), 11-16; N. W. Porteous, IDB, II, 276; J. A. Motyer, Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (1960), 222f.