The Spirit of God in Genesis 1:2

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor
of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

In my review of the book Presence, Power, and Promise: The Role of the Spirit of God in the Old Testament by David G. Firth and Paul D. Wegner, I mentioned that a full review would be impossible because of the large number of essays in the book. I also said that in future posts I would discuss a few of the essays in more detail.

Today I want to discuss the first essay in the book. The essay, “Breath, wind, spirit and the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament” (pp. 25-37), was written by Richard E. Averbeck and it deals with the basic meaning of the Hebrew word rûaḥ translated as “spirit” in our English Bibles.

Averbeck mentions that the expression “Holy Spirit” appears only three times in the Old Testament: Psalm 51:11; Isaiah 63:10 and 11. Averbeck recognizes that the literal translation of the Hebrew expression is “the Spirit of holiness.” The reason for this translation is because the two nouns are in a construct relationship in which the second noun serves as an adjective (p. 15).

In his essay, Averbeck discusses the primary meaning of the Hebrew word rûaḥ. In most places where the Hebrew word rûaḥ appears, the word is generally translated as “wind” or “breath.” On a few occasions, the context requires that the word be translated as “spirit.” However, as I will demonstrate below, the context may not be clear enough and the word can be either translated as “wind” or “spirit.”

Rûaḥ as wind

1 Kings 18:45: “In a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind (rûaḥ); there was a heavy rain.”

In this passage, the context is Elijah’s struggle with the prophets of Baal. After the long drought in the Northern Kingdom, Elijah proclaimed that the rain would return. In this context, it is clear that the word rûaḥ means wind.

Rûaḥ as breath

Genesis 7:15: “They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath (rûaḥ) of life.”

According to this verse, the animals “in which there was the breath (rûaḥ) of life” went into the ark with Noah. In this passage only the animals are mentioned as having breath (rûaḥ), but in the Old Testament, both humans and animals have rûaḥ: “For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath [rûaḥ]” (Ecclesiastes 3:19).

Rûaḥ as human spirit

Genesis 45:27: “But when they told him all the words of Joseph that he had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit [rûaḥ] of their father Jacob revived.”

In this passage the word rûaḥ is translated as “spirit,” but the idea behind the word is human vitality. On certain occasions, the word rûaḥ, when used of human beings, may refer to moral or spiritual character or the capacity of the mind or the will.

Rûaḥ as the Spirit of God

Samuel 11:6: “And the Spirit of God came upon Saul” (KJV).

In the Old Testament, the Spirit of God comes upon individuals to empower them to do God’s work. Scholars differ on whether the Spirit of God in the Old Testament refers to the power of God in the lives of individuals or whether it refers to a distinct divine person.

At times the translations have problems in deciding how to translate the word rûaḥ. Below are several examples of how English translations translate the word rûaḥ:

NRSV: “The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass” (Isaiah 40:7).

KJV: “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.”

“for the wind sent from the LORD may have carried [Elijah] away” (2 Kings 2:16 NET).
“spirit of the LORD” (2 Kings 2:16 NRSV).
“Spirit of the LORD” (2 Kings 2:16 KJV).

These different meanings for the word ruah raise a problem for the translation of Genesis 1:2, a passage that Averbeck discusses in detail in his essay. To introduce the problem of translating the word rûaḥ in Genesis 1:2, I will cite three English translations below and then discuss why the translations differ (the emphases are mine):

King James Version: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

New American Bible (NAB): “the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.”

The problem in translating Genesis 1:2 is whether the word rûaḥ should be translated “wind” or “spirit.”

The Targum Onkelos, an Aramaic translation of the Torah, probably translated before 120 A.D., already understood the word rûaḥ to mean “wind.” This is how Targum Onkelos translated Genesis 1:2:

“And the earth was waste and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the abyss; and a wind from before the Lord blew upon the face of the waters.”

This is the view adopted by the NRSV: “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

In English, the expression the rûaḥ elohim is generally understood to be a superlative. The use of the superlative appears often in the Old Testament and it uses the name of God. Thus, the expression rûaḥ elohim can be translated as “mighty,” or “strong.” This is the view taken by the NAB.

Claude Westermann in his commentary on Genesis said that the Hebrew word meraḥephet is the key for translating Genesis 1:2. He said that if the word meraḥephet means “to hover” then the word rûaḥ should be translated “spirit.” If the word means “moving” or “vibrating,” then the word rûaḥ must be translated as “wind.”

Most scholars believe that since the words “deep” and “darkness” are in parallel use to describe the condition of creation before the creative work of God, then the word rûaḥ also must be related to the first pair and be translated “wind.”

However, Wenham, in his commentary on Genesis said that, since the expression rûaḥ elohim does not appear in the Old Testament as the wind of God, and it always refers to the Spirit of God, the expression must be a manifestation of God and he translates rûaḥ elohim as “Wind of God.”

In his discussion of the problem, Averbeck wrote:

In the end it seems to me that our problem in handling Genesis 1:2 arises in the first place because we tend to think that ‘wind’ and ‘Spirit’ are mutually exclusive. In my opinion, there is no reason why ruah in Genesis 1:2 cannot be a reflection of the power of God present and ready to work through ‘wind’ in this watery environment . . . As well as the work of the ‘Spirit’ of God in shaping the creation through pronouncements (p. 34).

Averbeck’s view takes into consideration the meaning of the Hebrew word rûaḥ seriously in his interpretation of Genesis 1:2 and for that I commend him. Whatever the meaning of the word rûaḥ in Genesis 1:2 is, it is still the work of God in bringing creation to order.

Personally, I take a different view. Since the expression “Holy Spirit” occurs in texts that are exilic and post-exilic, and since Genesis 1:2 reflects the theology of the exile, I believe that the exilic community was very aware of the work of the Spirit of God in the world.

The writer of Genesis 1 was presenting an apologetic view of God as the true creator, in contrast to the Babylonian view that Marduk was the creator. In this mature theological view, it is possible the writer of Genesis viewed God working in creation through his Spirit. It is for this reason that I prefer the traditional reading of Genesis 1:2: “the Spirit of God.”

Averbeck’s essay is very informative and presents a good discussion of the meaning of the word rûaḥ.

NOTE: For a comprehensive collection of studies on the Book of Genesis, read my post Studies on the Book of Genesis.


Wenham, Gordon, J. Genesis 1-15. Word Biblical Commentary. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987.

Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1-11. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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18 Responses to The Spirit of God in Genesis 1:2

  1. Rose Stauros says:

    My question would be about the word ‘holy’ or ‘QDSh’ as in ‘holy spirit’
    A simple (consonants only) search of the Hebrews scriptures using %קדש% reveals Deut. 17:23 for crying out loud!


    • Rose,

      Thank you for your comment, however, I do not understand the aim of your question. First of all, there is no Deuteronomy 17:23. Second, what are you trying to say in your comment?

      Please, clarify your comment so that I can answer your question.

      Claude Mariottini


  2. rosestauros says:

    Sorry forgive my bout with dyslexia. My question is regarding Deuteronomy 23:17 where the word commonly translated as ‘holy’ (as in ‘holy spirit’) appears twice. What does the Hebrew word translated as ‘holy’ actually mean, and how does that apply to spirit or breath?


    • Rose,

      Thank you for clarifying your comment. The word that appears in Deuteronomy 23:17 has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of God.

      The Hebrew word is qedeshah, a word that is generally used to describe women who served in the worship of Baal. This is how the NRSV translates the word (italics are mine):

      Deuteronomy 23:17: “None of the daughters of Israel shall be a temple prostitute; none of the sons of Israel shall be a temple prostitute.”

      Here is how the TANAK translates the same word:

      Deuteronomy 23:18 No Israelite woman shall be a cult prostitute, nor shall any Israelite man be a cult prostitute.

      The people who served in the cult of Baal, both men and women, called themselves “holy people,” thus the use of the word QDS. However, most English translations call them temple prostitutes.

      As I wrote above, the word QDS in Deuteronomy 23:17 has nothing to do with the Spirit of God.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Claude Mariottini


  3. Rose Stauros says:

    That’s even more confusing. It’s the identical word used in Deuteronomy and the verses below. Does this mean the word QDSh only applies to the attributes of Baal? Wouldn’t that mean ‘Holy Spirit’ refers to the Spirit of Baal or Breath of Baal?

    [Averbeck mentions that the expression “Holy Spirit” appears only three times in the Old Testament: Psalm 51:11; Isaiah 63:10 and 11. Averbeck recognizes that the literal translation of the Hebrew expression is “the Spirit of holiness.”]

    You seem to be saying that QDSh is a bad word associated with Baal, so (again) why is ‘QDSH rûaḥ’ not related to Baal as well?

    The context of Psalm 51:11; Isaiah 63:10 and 11 is a much better fit for Baal (the God we apparently loved most back in the day).

    Click to access isa63.pdf



    • Rose,

      Thank you again for your comment. Unfortunately, your comment does not reflect a good understanding of the use of the word QDS. Let me use an English example.

      The English word “strike” can be used in different contexts and have different meanings. The word QDS can also be used in different contexts and have different meanings. QDS is a Semitic word that means “holy” but it can be used in different contexts.

      In the Canaanite context, the word was used to describe the temple personnel who served Baal. In the Israelite context, the word was used to describe things associated with God: holy book, holy temple, holy vessels.

      The Holy Spirit refers to a manifestation of God in the life and history of Israel. There is no reference to the spirit of Baal, thus there is no reference to a holy spirit related to Baal. The word QDS is a Semitic word used people with a Semitic culture. It is a word that only means “holy.” Thus, the word was used by other people outside Israel. The concept of a Holy Spirit is unique to Israel.

      I hope this clarifies the issue for you.

      Claude Mariottini


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  5. Rose Stauros says:

    Aren’t you simply saying the Hebrew word ‘holy’ is inconsistent? The word ‘holy’ isn’t the topic, but the interpretation of the word ‘spirit’ when used as ‘holy spirit’ is.

    It’s translated as ‘sodomites’ in 1 Kings 14:24, 1 Kings 15:12&15, 1 Kings 22:46, 2 Kings 23:7 and Deuteronomy 23:17. The feminine form (‘H’ suffix) appears as ‘harlot’ in Genesis 38:21&22, and Hosea 4:14, while it’s ‘whore’ in Deuteronomy 23:17.

    While Deuteronomy 23:17 could be about temple prostitution as you indicate, other passages like Genesis 38 are clearly about the children and offspring of Judah, ruling out the Canaanite theory.

    It would seem you’re just cherry picking one possible definition of ‘holy spirit’ based on your personal axioms, but not necessarily what’s written. Because your whole theory is based on the interpretation that the word ‘holy’ is a good thing when you want it to be, and a bad thing when you’re not pleased by its context. Yet you have no hard rules for me to determine when it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’. At some point the entire codex of text should support your theory, not just cherry picked verses right? Help me out here.

    Spirit or breath (ruch)

    Hosea 5:4
    They will not frame their doings to turn unto their God: for the >spirit of whoredomsspirit of the holy gods:spirit of jealousy< cometh upon him, and he be jealous over his wife, and shall set the woman before the Lord, and the priest shall execute upon her all this law.



    • Rose,

      Many scholars have pointed out the fallacy of depending solely on etymological definitions to interpret a biblical text. Also, you cannot depend on the King James Version in understanding the text. This, I am afraid, is the problem you are having in understanding the issue with the word QDS. In many cases, we must use social and cultural contexts in understanding a text.

      The word QDS means “holy” and in certain contexts, it can be translated with an English synonym. The people who served in the Baal cult called themselves “holy” because they believed what they were doing for Baal was a holy service. The QDST were women who served a cult temple prostitutes. The QDSM were the men who served as male cult prostitutes. They were called the “holy ones.”

      Now look at what you have. In 1 Kings 14:24 the QDS were the men who served in the cult of Baal. The KJV calls them “sodomites.” The NRSV calls them “male cult prostitutes.” While these men called themselves “holy” the translations called them male cult prostitutes.

      Genesis 38 is a similar issue. Tamar was a Canaanite woman (Gen 38:2). So, Judah believed that she was a prostitute in the temple of Baal. The word used is QDS (Gen 38:21). The KJV version translates the word as “harlot.” The NRSV translates as “temple prostitute.”

      The same thing applies to Hosea 4:4. The KJV translates the word QDS as “harlots.” The NRSV translates the same word as “temple prostitutes.”

      You wrote: “It would seem you’re just cherry picking one possible definition of ‘holy spirit’ based on your personal axioms, but not necessarily what’s written.” This is not true. If you read the Hebrew Bible (not the King James Bible or Strong) you will see how the Hebrew Bible uses the word. The word for “spirit” does not appear in any of the examples you cite. This is a complete different issue in the Bible.

      You cannot use secondary knowledge of the original language to interpret how a Hebrew word is used in context. This is the reason anyone who does not know Hebrew must use more than one version of the Bible or must read a good commentary that discusses the original language. I recommend that you compare the KJV with other translations of the Bible.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Claude Mariottini


  6. Rose Stauros says:

    Dr. Mariottini> The word for “spirit” does not appear in any of the examples you cite. This is a complete different issue in the Bible.

    Rose> Actually Hosea 5:4 does cite this example. Again sorry for the corrupt post apparently my arrows were interpreted as HTML markup symbols or something. My online text formatting skills are terrible.

    Actually I do read the Hebrew, but consonants only, the vowel points corrupt the text as proven by the Dead Sea Scrolls (‘70’ vs. ‘weeks’ in 11Q13 for example). We both agree the word קדש can mean a type of male prostitute in all translations or it can be translated as holy. The word קדשה is the female form of קדש and is sometimes translated as female prostitute in all translations, sometimes it’s a place named Kadesh.

    Which brings us back to ’holy spirit’ קדשו רוח (his holy breath, sometimes קדשך or your holy breath).
    Ephraim was born in Egypt and didn’t mix with the Canaanites. Yet in Hosea 4:12 and 5:4 we have the term, “spirit of whoredoms“. In Hebrew it’s זנונים רוח or ruwach zanuwnym (breath of a male prostitute). Right? זנונים is the masculine form of זנון.

    My question to you is what are the rules in Biblical Hebrew that dictate a translation of ‘holy’? It seems we’re just saying קדש means holy when it refers to Ha Shem or God, and prostitute most other times. The term ‘holy’ (at least according to this discussion) doesn’t necessarily mean anything pure or good, it just means something attributed to god (including the Canaanite gods).

    Words do have boundaries, you haven’t articulated any rules when translating the word קדש other than it means sacred when it refers to Ha Shem and prostitute in most other usages.



    • Dear Rose,

      You seem to believe that I am using my own judgment when translating רוח קדש as Holy Spirit. But I am not the only one. Here are how two Jewish translations, the JPS TANAKH (TNK) and the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translate the expression into English:

      Psalm 51:13 (English: 51:11):

      תַּשְׁלִיכֵ֥נִי מִלְּפָנֶ֑יךָ וְר֥וּחַ קָ֜דְשְׁךָ֗ אַל־תִּקַּ֥ח מִמֶּֽנִּי

      Do not cast me out of Your presence, or take Your holy spirit away from me. (Psa 51:13 TNK)

      Cast me not away from Thy presence; and take not Thy holy spirit from me. (Psa 51:11 JPS)

      Isaiah 63:10

      הֵ֛מָּה מָר֥וּ וְעִצְּב֖וּ אֶת־ר֣וּחַ קָדְשׁ֑וֹ וַיֵּהָפֵ֥ךְ לָהֶ֛ם לְאוֹיֵ֖ב ה֥וּא נִלְחַם־בָּֽם

      But they rebelled, and grieved His holy spirit; Then He became their enemy, And Himself made war against them. (Isa 63:10 TNK)

      But they rebelled, and grieved His holy spirit; therefore He was turned to be their enemy, Himself fought against them. (Isa 63:10 JPS)

      Isaiah 63:11

      וַיִּזְכֹּ֥ר יְמֵֽי־עוֹלָ֖ם מֹשֶׁ֣ה עַמּ֑וֹ אַיֵּ֣ה׀ הַֽמַּעֲלֵ֣ם מִיָּ֗ם אֵ֚ת רֹעֵ֣י צֹאנ֔וֹ אַיֵּ֛ה הַשָּׂ֥ם בְּקִרְבּ֖וֹ אֶת־ר֥וּחַ קָדְשֽׁוֹ

      Then they remembered the ancient days, Him, who pulled His people out of the water: “Where is He who brought them up from the Sea Along with the shepherd of His flock? Where is He who put In their midst His holy spirit, (Isa 63:11 TNK)

      Then His people remembered the days of old, the days of Moses: ‘Where is He that brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of His flock? Where is He that put His holy spirit in the midst of them? (Isa 63:11 JPS)

      As you can see, even the Jewish translations translate רוח קדש as Holy Spirit. If you want to know more how Jewish literature treats the concept of the Holy Spirit, please read the article on the “Holy Spirit” in the Jewish Encyclopedia.

      Thank you for visiting my blog.

      Claude Mariottini


  7. Lamed-Vavnik says:

    Dear Professor Mariottini – We appear to be among the few bloggers (including Ms. Stauros, above) discussing Hebrew etymology and the specifics of biblical vocabulary. So it is wonderful indeed to make your [digital] acquaintance. Ironically enough, in a comment I wished to make about the importance of rabbinical studies to this discussion, I was about to take you to task on the datedness of your bibliography. We all have a soft spot for Westermann, however.

    To my more serious comment – Your delightful analysis of the use of רוּח throughout the Tanakh is singularly lacking in reference to the work of the rabbis. Surely you would admit that the community of Jewish sages, with their use of Hebrew as a sacred language and language of study, would have something germane to add to the subject? There are certainly few rabbinical sources (none that I can think of at present) which impute either personality or agency to this divine wind. Perhaps it is your objective to consider the theological use of the Hebrew Bible only through a Christian hermeneutical prism? If so I remove my little quibble.

    – Peace from Jerusalem


    • Dear Jason,

      Thank you for your comment. I would recommend that you read my latest comment to Rose. In my comment I say that even Jewish translations of the Bible use the expression “Holy Spirit.”

      Concerning your statement, let me say two things in response.

      1. I generally address my posts to a Christian audience. I generally do not cite Jewish sages because most of my readers would be unfamiliar with them.

      2. I do not cite an extensive up-to-date bibliography because I was not writing an academic review of רוח קדש on my post. If I were writing an academic article, my approach would be completely different.

      I welcome you to my blog. However, as you read my posts you will discover that my goal is to help non-academics develop an appreciation for the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

      In my response to Rose I have a link to the article on the “Holy Spirit” in the Jewish Encyclopedia. If you want to know what Jewish writers believe about the Holy Spirit, that is a good place to begin.

      Welcome to my blog. I welcome the dialogue.

      Claude Mariottini


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  9. fr. sebastian says:

    Thanks very much for this valuable information. Sebastian.


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