For the daily notes leading up to Pentecost this year, I will be exploring the most relevant Old Testament passages dealing with the Spirit—that is, the Spirit of God or Holy Spirit. Study of such passages is complicated by the fact that the word typically translated “spirit” (j^Wr, rûaµ), like the corresponding Greek pneu=ma, can also mean “wind” or “breath”. Indeed, “wind/breath” is the more proper, fundamental meaning.
The noun j^Wr is a common word, occurring some 378 times in the Old Testament. In a few instances, the consonantal jwr may have been mispointed in place of a similar noun (vocalized jw~r#) meaning something like “a wide space”. There would seem to be two different weak roots jwr which go back to an original biconsonantal Semitic root jr. The fundamental meaning of the first root jwr apparently has to do with air that is in motion, i.e. something blowing. In this regard, it is similar in meaning to Greek pne/w (“blow”). In addition to the concrete sense of the blowing of the wind, it can denote the “breath” of a living being, as well as the wafting of a scent/aroma in the air. The first two fundamental meanings— “wind” and “breath” —are closely connected, especially as, in the ancient world, the wind could be seen as the “breath” of God (even as the thunder is his “voice”, and so forth).
From this idea of the “breath” of a living being comes the more developed concept of j^Wr as signifying the “life-breath” that animates a person, and dwells/lives within the body. It is parallel is some respects with two other Hebrew words—vp#n# (ne¸eš) and hm*v*n+ (n®š¹mâ)—each of which can be used to refer to the life-force or essence within a person (“soul”, etc). Conceptually, this use of j^Wr would lead to the idea of a personified life-breath—i.e. the breath itself as a living being—most fitting when referring to divine/heavenly beings (such as God [El-Yahweh] Himself). Thus j^Wr, like Greek pneu=ma, could subsequently signify a living spirit-being.
The ambiguity surrounding the precise meaning of j^Wr, and how properly to translate the word in context, is evident from the opening verses of the Creation narrative in the book of Genesis. It will be worth considering briefly the use of the word in Gen 1:2.
Following the initial statement of God’s creation of the universe (“the heavens and the earth”) in verse 1—a statement which has its own difficulties of interpretation—the state or condition of the primeval universe is described, movingly and powerfully, in verse 2. There are three descriptive components to this verse; let us consider the first two:
- “and the earth was emptiness and confusion”
Whb)w~ Wht) hT*y+h* Jr#a*h*w+
- “and darkness (was) upon the face of (the) deep”
<oht= yn@P=-lu^ Ev#j)w+
- “and the earth was emptiness and confusion”
The universe, here designated simply as “the earth” (Jr#a*h*), is in a chaotic and unformed state, indicated by the hendiadys Whb)w` Wht) (tœhû w¹bœhû). The alliterative rhyme-pair, taken together, strikingly depicts this chaos. The rather literal translation above (“emptiness and confusion”), while accurate enough (based on what we can discern of the etymology of each word), is pedantic, and cannot quite capture the force of the original. The same pair occurs in Jer 4:23 (cf. also Isa 34:11), and certainly refers to the same Creation tradition as Gen 1:2.
The second descriptive component involves the nouns Ev#j) (“darkness”) and <ohT= (“deep, depths”). The latter word, occurring frequently in poetry and wisdom traditions (12 times in the Psalms, and 8 in Job-Proverbs; cf. also the 8 occurrences in the poetry of the Prophets), refers primarily to the depths of the sea, and also to the ancient waters which can be tapped in the depths below the earth. Here it unquestionably alludes to the primeval waters at the beginning of Creation, characterized as being shrouded by darkness (“…upon the face of the deep”).
Thus these two components, taken together, describe the primeval condition as a dark, watery mass, within which the universe exists in only an unformed state. This corresponds generally with the basic cosmology (and cosmogony) attested variously throughout the ancient Near East (for more on this, cf. my article in the “Ancient Parallels” series). God’s action, in relation to this watery mass, is indicated in the third part of the verse:
“and (the) j^Wr of (the) Mightiest was hovering upon (the) face of the waters”
Here the “face” refers to the surface, but only in a general sense. The brief notice in the text here offers no further visual indicator regarding the shape or appearance of this watery mass—indeed, the basic idea seems to be that it is essentially formless. Even so, the j^Wr of God is apparently covering it, no less than does the darkness itself.
The term j^Wr can be understood here three different ways:
- “and the wind of the Mightiest was hovering…”
- “and the breath of the Mightiest was hovering…”
- “and the spirit of the Mightiest was hovering…”
The first is the more naturalistic rendering, indicating a wind sent from God, or even understood qualitatively as “a mighty [i.e. great/powerful] wind”. This seems to have been a common rabbinic interpretation (cf. Talmud „agigah 12a), and is shared by many commentators today. We might compare, for example, the great Exodus scene in 14:21ff, where j^Wr clearly refers to a powerful wind (sent by God).
The second option is more appropriate to the theme, throughout the chapter, of creation occurring through the mouth—i.e. the spoken word—of God. The activity of the breath would naturally precede that of speech (beginning in verse 3). The third option is essentially a development of this same idea, more properly reflecting the life-giving power of God (i.e. His “spirit”, or “Spirit”). This aspect of God’s “breath” is clearly indicated in Job 33:4, part of the same set of ancient Creation traditions (cp. Gen. 2:7); this will be discussed further in the next daily note.
The action of the j^Wr here is described with the verb [j^r* (r¹µa¸), which apparently has the basic meaning “shake, quiver”. It is extremely rare in the Old Testament (occurring only two other times, Deut 32:11; Jer 23:9), but is attested in Ugaritic, used in a similar sense as in Deut 32:11 (cp. Aqhat Tablet III, col. i. lines 32-3)—the idiom of a “fluttering” bird (i.e. its wings). That is probably the same image alluded to here, reflecting by the typical translation of the participle tp#j#r&m= as “(was) hovering”. The winged characteristic was part of the typical depiction of divine/heavenly beings in the ancient Near East—indicating the heavenly aspect of flight through the sky (freedom, dominion, power), as well as the motif of protection. The Israelite and Old Testament tradition made use of this same line of imagery in describing El-Yahweh (Deut 32:11, and many other passages). In a different, though perhaps related way, the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of God) came to be depicted as a hovering/descending bird (dove) in Christian tradition, largely by way of the early Gospel tradition of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:10 par).