The nature of the Spirit

In most Christian circles an introductory study of the Spirit of God takes a Trinitarian format. We scan through the Scriptures looking for personal and divine attributes to pin to the nature of the Spirit in order to affirm our prior theological commitments. Here I hope to take a different approach. I simply wish to look within the text and see how the Spirit of God is characterised in it. We need to follow the text wherever it leads.

Our first introduction to the Spirit of God in the Bible is very early, right in the opening passage of Genesis. As a book of origins it is very important in introducing biblical motifs, themes and characters. Perhaps our first hurdle in understanding the mystery of the spirit is in understanding and translating the word itself. Ruach Elohim is often rendered as the Spirit of God in English Bibles. Ruach however does not neatly translate into spirit. The meaning of a word is found in its usage and I observe that there are three basic ideas behind it: wind, breath and last of all spirit. In the scriptures ruach is translated in these three different but conceptually related ways. I think the trick in understanding the ruach Elohim is in integrating these three images. We shall attempt to understand each separately and then synthesise them into the unique Biblical perspective of God.

Before we go into these figures of God I want us to be very much aware of the following. The notion that there is a progressive revelation or development in understanding in the scriptures such that in the New Testament there is a better understanding of the Spirit of God is simply not the case. There is a strong continuity between both parts of the Bible. The early Christian community adopted the Jewish view of the Spirit of God albeit their understanding was centred on Jesus the Messiah.

The three figures of ruach can be found in the first two chapters of Genesis.

And the ruach of God was hovering over the face of the waters… – Genesis 1:2 ESV

Here ruach can be rendered as wind. It fits the picture of wind blowing over the sea, stirring the waters. There are many places where ruach is simply rendered as wind. There is a very strong case for translating the second verse as wind and there are Bible translations that do so. Prior dogmatic commitments might be the reason why many translations shy away from the less popular rendering. Translating it as wind seemingly takes away from the personality of the ruach. The truth is that there is no grammatical basis to translate any instance of ruach with a capital “s”. Jewish scholars do not follow this convention. Even some Christian scholars like N.T. Wright do not capitalise. This does not necessarily mean that these individuals hold a low view of the ruach Elohim. Ruach for one in Hebrew is not a personal name neither is it exclusively associated with persons. The ruach is seen as an aspect of God’s being that represents his nature and person.

Like the ancients we know what the wind is. It is no surprise the raw elemental nature of the wind is used to characterize the most powerful being in all of reality. God is viewed like an uncontrollable force of nature which directly influences life on earth. The wind is the master element that controls the atmospheric conditions the whole earth depends on for life. The wind brings the rain and also the heat for the growing of crops and the various seasonal changes that affect living creatures. The wind was seen as life and this concept is seen a little later on in the Genesis narrative.

…the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. – Genesis 2:7 ESV

For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. – Genesis 6:17 ESV

Even though in Genesis 2:7 ruach is not used it is found in 6:17 and it is translated as breath. With the concept of life in Genesis there is a direct link between wind and life since it is the breath that enlivens the human form. The rauch is literally our life. The biblical concept of the air is not an abiotic feature of the environment. The wind had living properties. The creation of man parallels the creation of the world since the wind had to blow on them both before they assumed a living form. It is not only humans or animals that are alive in the biblical narrative, the very earth is alive.

When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground. – Psalm 104:29-30 ESV

The wind is nature’s breath of life. I personally think it is the reason why life is a phenomenon centred on earth. The living presence of the ruach Elohim gives the world life. So far we have seen the rauch as wind and breath what about spirit?

…and man became a living being. – Genesis 2:7 NKJ

The Authorised version translates this as ‘living soul.’ Soul is not really accurate. The idea of a distinct soul or psyche in Greek traces to Platonist thought where it is the real you, that is, the immaterial immortal aspect of your being that continues after death. Nephesh which is the Hebrew word is a more holistic word that denotes the living entity, both material and immaterial aspects. The bringing together of earth and wind to form humans informs us there is a mysterious immaterial aspect of nature that co-exists with the material. This strange immaterial reality is known as the spirit. Unseen, ethereal, pervasive and liberated, the spirit is very much like the wind. Jesus himself drew upon that analogy to explain what it means to be born again to Nicodemus in John 3. Angels are described as ruach i.e. spirits in Psalm 104:4 (Hebrews 1:7.) Ruach is used for the spiritual dimension.

Even though nephesh is used to describe animals as well, it gains a personal tone in relation to people. Ruach imbues humans with the characteristic wisdom that is not seen in the animal kingdom (Job 32:8.) The apostle Paul draws on these insights to describe the ruach Elohim.

For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God – 1 Corinthians 2:11 ESV

No doubt alluding to Genesis 2:7 and other Old Testament passages, Paul explains that the human spirit is similar to the divine spirit. The relationship a person has with his spirit is the same relationship the God has with his spirit. The ruach Elohim is meant to be understood as the spirit that is in God as much as there is a spirit in man. God is described as living. The ruach is his life breath but not in exactly the same sense as us or other living creatures. The spirit is his breath in the sense that he is the source of all life and does not need it. In the light of the Biblical creation accounts the human spirit is endowed with personal attributes that proceed directly from the divine spirit. We have intangible personalities because God has an intangible personality. The spirit becomes crucial in understanding the scriptural concept of the imago Dei.

The three figures of wind, breath and spirit are personified in God. Whenever we see the “Spirit of God” in the scriptures we must remember the figurative qualities of ruach and engage our imaginations to see the images the word is painting. For instance in Psalm 18 God is portrayed as a powerful tempest coming from the heavens to save his anointed. The wind is an angry storm full of indignation to exact justice on those who oppose the one he has chosen. In the same Psalm it speaks of the blast of his nostrils. The idea of a living God who breaths life to all things is captured but in this instance he is expressing personal emotions by snorting in anger. It describes him riding to the rescue on a cherub. Cherubs are spiritual creatures so in this passage the spiritual dimension of the ruach is clearly being represented as well. In this passage the nuances of the ruach is brilliantly personified.

The portrayal of the Spirit of God in the scriptures is by no means one dimensional. It is very lively and exciting. Paul describes the scriptures as suffused with the living breath of the divine spirit (2 Timothy 3:16.) We must open our hearts and imaginations to the word of God, breathe in deeply and allow the mystery of the Spirit to permeate the lives we live.


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