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.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Wenham, Gordon, J. Genesis 1-15. Word Biblical Commentary. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987.
Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1-11. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984.