May 10: Isaiah 11:2; 28:6

Isaiah 11:2; 28:6

When we turn to the Prophetic books of the Old Testament, we find a significant number of references to the Spirit (j^Wr) of God. These occur throughout the writings, but are concentrated especially in the books of Isaiah and Ezekiel. They indicate a development of earlier lines of tradition, regarding the association of the divine spirit with leadership roles in ancient Israel—namely, that of the prophet (ayb!n`) and the king.

In previous notes, we examined the role of the spirit of God in the legitimate establishment and exercise of kingship. Going back to the time of Moses and Joshua, through the period of the Judges, and then with the first Israelite kings (Saul and David), there was a clear principle of spirit-inspired charismatic leadership. The spirit (j^Wr) of YHWH would come upon the person, enabling him/her to function effectively as ruler. The presence of the divine spirit was manifest primarily two ways: (1) giving the person the wisdom and discernment by which to lead, and (2) enabling strength and skill for battle, etc. The former was emphasized, for example, in the case of Joshua (Deut 34:9, cf. Num 27:18), while the latter was stressed repeatedly in the Judges narratives. In the David-Saul traditions of Samuel, the connection was primarily between the spirit and the manifestation of an ecstatic prophetic experience (1 Sam 10:6, 11; 11:6; 16:13ff; 18:10; 19:20-24; cp. Num 11:17-29).

By the 8th century B.C., with the establishment of a hereditary monarchy, the older tradition of charismatic leadership more or less disappeared. However, the idea of the spirit of God coming upon the ruler continued, built into the very imagery of the anointing of the king. Thus, for example, we find repeatedly in the Prophets language to the effect that the Spirit of God is “poured out”, i.e. like water or oil. In particular, there are numerous passages which indicate that the anointing of a leader (king or ayb!n`) is in mind. This imagery occurs in numerous passages in the book of Isaiah, both in the first half (chaps. 1-39), as well as the second (so-called Deutero-Isaiah, chaps. 40-66).

Isaiah 11:2

Study of the book of Isaiah is complicated by composite nature of the material, and by the rather clear evidence that the book was composed in stages, over a considerable length of time. Even in the first half of the book (chaps. 2-39), which is much more clearly connected with the life and times of the prophet Isaiah himself, there is considerable debate regarding the date and provenance of the oracles, etc. For example, chapters 2-12 comprise a definite division; within this portion, chapters 5-10 unquestionably derive from the later half of the 8th century B.C. (c. 740-701), while much of 6:1-9:6[7] can be dated even more narrowly, to the time of the Assyrian crisis in the north and the Syro-Ephraemite war (735-732). The surrounding material in chaps. 2-4 and 11-12 is more difficult to date, with some evidence that it may have been composed a century or so later, though perhaps drawing upon authentic Isaian oracles, set in the context of the Babylonian conquest and exilic (or post-exilic) period. I have discussed this to some extent in recent Saturday Series studies on the book of Isaiah, and will not go over the matter any further here. Such critical theories are, by their nature, rather speculative and subjective, relying on limited evidence from within the text itself.

If Isa 11:1-10 is an authentic Isaian oracle, then it would date from the final decades of the 8th century, much like the rest of the material in chaps. 5-10. In 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7], the promise of a time of peace and prosperity (and restoration) for the people of the northern Kingdom is tied to the coming of a new king from the line of David in Judah (vv. 5-6 [6-7]). Many critical commentators would identify the original historical context of this passage as the accession/coronation of Hezekiah (715 B.C.?). In any case, the “birth” of the king (as in Psalm 2:7) almost certainly refers to the time of his coronation, and reflects the language and ritual symbolism of the ceremonies performed on such occasions. On the significance and background of the divine titles in vv. 5-6 [6-7], cf. my earlier article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”.

The same sort of language and imagery occurs in Isaiah 11:1-10, and likewise refers to the rise of a new king from the line of David. An 8th century setting may well have Hezekiah in mind, but, at the very least, would refer to a king coming after (or in place of ) Ahaz. Even if the oracle has a later period in view (Babylonian/Exilic/post-Exilic), the basic hope remains the same; not surprisingly, this came to be a key Messianic passage in later Jewish thought, though it appears to have been adopted less readily by early Christians.

The “golden age” that is ushered in with this king’s rule echoes the language in 2:2-4 (cf. Mic 4:1-4), and illustrates the clear (and intentional) parallelism between chaps. 2-4 and 11-12. The king as a descendant of David is alluded to in the opening lines (v. 1): “And a branch will go forth from the trunk of Yishay {Jesse}, and a green shoot from his roots will bear (forth)”. By alluding to the origins of David, the implication is that the new king will recapture the greatness and character of David himself. This is indicated by the emphasis on the special spirit (j^Wr) that will come upon him (cp. this for David in 1 Sam 16:13, following his anointing by Samuel). This is given four-fold expression in verse 2:

“And (the) spirit of YHWH will rest upon him,
(the) spirit of wisdom and discernment,
(the) spirit of counsel and strength,
(the) spirit of knowledge and fear of YHWH.”

The emphasis is on wisdom and knowledge, rather than strength and prowess in battle, etc (in spite of the mention of hr*Wbg+, “strength, greatness, vigor”, in line three, with it possible allusion to military victory). That wisdom and discernment come from the spirit of God is attested, as a general principle, in Job 32:8 etc. The gifted leader was specially endowed with such qualities (e.g., Joshua in Deut 34:9, cf. above), a sign of divine inspiration, and so it is attributed to the new/ideal king here.

Isaiah 28:6

The same basic idea is expressed in Isa 28:6, at the conclusion of a brief oracle, contrasting the failed leadership of the northern Kingdom (which faced judgment in the form of the Assyrian invasions) with the promise of faithful leadership, under the Davidic king, in Judah. It is the presence of YHWH which will offer hope and salvation, even to the survivors of the destruction in the north, and this divine presence (marked by God’s spirit [j^Wr]) will extend to the faithful ruler of the people:

“In that day YHWH of (the heavenly) armies will be
as an encircling (wreath) of splendor and a surrounding (crown) of beauty for the remainder of His people,
and as a spirit [j^Wr] of (right) judgment for (the one) sitting upon the (seat of) judgment,
and as strength [hr*Wbg+] for (the one)s returning battle (at) the gate.” (vv. 5-6)

The two aspects of leadership (cf. above) are clearly delineated in verse 6:

    • “spirit of judgment/justice”, i.e. requiring wisdom and discernment, and
    • “strength” (hr*Wbg+, as in 11:2 [line 3] above)—that is, the vigor of the young warrior in battle; specifically the king leads his warriors to victory in the battle.

In the next daily note, we will continue this study on the references to the Spirit of God in Isaiah, including an examination of several key passages from so-called Deutero-Isaiah (chaps. 40-66).

May 7: Psalm 104:29-30; 139:7; 143:10

Psalm 104:29-30; 139:7; 143:10

Before continuing in these notes on the subject of the association between the Spirit of God and prophecy (cf. the previous note), and how it was developed in the Prophetic writings, let us pause to consider briefly today the few references to the Spirit (j^Wr) in the Psalms. We already looked at Ps 51:12-14 [10-12] in an earlier note, where the three-fold use of j^Wr occurred in the context of the ancient tradition and (royal) theology, whereby the legitimacy of rule was based on a (charismatic) gifting by the presence of the spirit of God (discussed in prior notes). However, within the Psalm, this idea has been generalized somewhat, to the point where it could easily be applied the average person or the people of God as a whole. What is most important to note is the way that sin and impurity breaks the covenant bond with YHWH and stands as a barrier to experiencing the presence of His Spirit. This is the significance of the qualitative term “holy” —i.e. “your holy spirit” (lit. “spirit of your holiness”).

There are three other references to the “spirit” of God in the Psalms, and in each of these, the term j^Wr essentially stands for the presence of God, drawing upon the language and imagery of the Creation account (Gen 1:2, etc, cf. the earlier note)—that is, as a breath or wind that extends over the entire universe and gives life to all things.

Psalm 104:29-30

Psalm 104 is among the grandest of the Psalter, a hymn extolling the creative power of YHWH—that is, YHWH as the Creator God (identified with the Semitic ‘El). As many commentators have noted, the Psalm resembles the Egyptian hymn to the Aten (the creative power manifest in the disc/orb of the sun), composed during the Amarna period, in the way that it describes the deity’s life-giving and sustaining power as it touches the different parts of creation. Ultimately, however, this Psalm is a uniquely Israelite composition, adapting and applying the cosmological tenets of ancient Near Eastern thought entirely to El-Yahweh.

In verses 27-30, the focus is on the sustenance YHWH provides, for all living beings on earth, by way of His own life-sustaining power. This extends from the manifestation of His power within the natural order, through the food that is available to creatures (vv. 27-28), to a consideration of His immanent presence in a more general sense (vv. 29-30). This latter aspect is defined in terms of the contrast between life and death—i.e. His presence brings life, while the absence of His presence causes death.

The rhythm and meter of vv. 29-30 is irregular, and may reflect an adaptation of the 3-beat (3+3) couplet format to produce a chiastic structure:

    • The face of God (His presence)
      • Death from the absence of His spirit
        • The dust from which humans were created
      • Life from the presence of His spirit
    • (His presence over) the face of the earth

Within this parallelism, there is a clear correspondence between the “face” of God and His “spirit/breath” (j^Wr). As far as the corresponding idea of the “face” of the earth is concerned, we may recall the imagery from Gen 1:2, where the spirit/breath of God hovers over the “face” of the deep (i.e. the dark mass of the primeval waters). With this structure in mind, here is a translation of the extended pair of couplets, with the additional/central line in italics:

“You hide your face and they are disturbed,
you gather (up your) breath [j^Wr] and they perish
and return to dust;
you send (out) your breath [j^Wr] and they are created,
you make new the face of the ground [hm*d*a&].”

In light of this parallelism, I am inclined to follow Dahood (pp. 46-47) in reading the <-suffixes in v. 29b as enclitics, rather than the 3rd person plural suffix. The Qumran manuscript 11QPsa, which specifically reads “your breath” (as a correction?), confirms that this is the intended meaning. There may well be a bit of dual-meaning wordplay, since, clearly, the removal of God’s breath (spirit) leads to the removal of the human breath/spirit (i.e. their death). The reference to the “ground” (hm*d*a&, i.e. the surface of the earth) also involves some traditional (and longstanding) word-play with <d*a* (“man, humankind”).

Psalm 139:7

In this Psalm, of a type found rather frequently in the collection, the Psalmist affirms his faithfulness and loyalty to YHWH. The first half (vv. 1-13) is a meditative hymn on the all-encompassing presence and power of God, the heart of which, we may say is the couplet in verse 7, where we find the same parallelism of face / spirit as in 104:29-30 (cf. above). Both the terms “face” (pl. <yn]P*) and “breath/spirit” (j^Wr) fundamentally signify the presence of YHWH. The parallelism of the 3+3 couplet is simple and precise:

“(To) where shall I walk (away) from your spirit,
and (to) where shall I run away from your face?”

In later theological terminology, we would refer to this as part of an overall statement in the Psalm on the omnipresence of God—YHWH is everywhere, His presence extending over the entire “face” of the earth.

Psalm 143:10

Ps 143 may be regarded as a penitential Psalm, similar in tone to Ps 51 (discussed in a prior note), but more properly functioning as prayer to YHWH that justice be done. It consists of two parallel parts (vv. 1-6, 7-12). The word j^Wr (“spirit, breath”) occurs three times, each of which involves parallels or associations already encountered in these notes:

    • Verse 4— “spirit” (j^Wr) is parallel with “heart” (bl@), referring to the inner life-force or essence of a person; in his suffering and distress, the Psalmist feels his life-force emptying.
    • Verse 7—again the idea is of the Psalmist’s life-breath departing (ending, vb hl*K*), only now the association is with God’s own life-sustaining presence (i.e. His “face”) being removed (cp. Ps 51:13 [11]) from him.
    • Verse 10—as in Ps 51:14 [12], the emphasis here is on the Psalmist being renewed/restored by the stimulating and guiding spirit of God. The verse is comprised of a pair of 3+2 couplets, exhibiting synthetic parallelism:
      “Teach me to do your pleasure,
      for you (are) my Mightiest (One);
      may your good spirit [j^Wr] guide me
      into the straight [i.e. level] land.”
      The expression “good spirit” (hb*of j^Wr) is similar in certain respects to “holy spirit” (lit. “spirit of holiness”) and “stimulating spirit” in Ps 51:13-14 [11-12]. The “straight” land has a dual-meaning: (a) its smooth/level surface characterizes the heavenly afterlife for the righteous, and (b) it alludes to the straight (i.e. upright) character of the righteous.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms III: 101-150, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 17A (1970).

 

 

 

May 6: 1 Kings 18:12ff; 22:10-28

1 Kings 18:12ff; 22:10-28

The main occurrences of the word j^Wr in the book of Kings (1-2 Kings) are found in the Elijah narratives, and the usage of the word here is quite illuminating. It is related to the idea, discussed already in several prior notes, of prophetic inspiration—of the spirit (j^Wr) of YHWH coming upon (or “rushing” to) a person, manifesting itself in a kind of dramatic (and ecstatic) prophetic experience. If Moses was the principal figure for the earliest mode of prophecy in Israel, Elijah serves much the same role in a later line of tradition during the Kingdom period. The main difference in the Elijah narratives, however, is that there is now a strong sense of conflict between the true prophet (Elijah, Micaiah) and the older tradition of spirit-enthused prophetic ecstasy.

1 Kings 18:12ff

The narrative in chapter 18 has, at its heart, the contest between Elijah and the prophets (<ya!yb!n+) of Ba’al and Asherah. This, of course, reflects the marked tendency of religious syncretism in Israel, whereby Canaanite religious traditions and practices where blended together with those devoted exclusively to El-Yahweh, to the point that Yahwism could become displaced in importance within the culture. Such tendencies had been present for centuries, practically from the first Israelite settlement of Canaan, but increased dramatically under the influence of certain royal houses and their administrations. This began with Solomon, but reached its pinnacle, it would seem, with the Northern court of Ahab and Jezebel, the principal setting of the Elijah narratives.

Almost in passing, within this narrative, there is an interesting notice at verse 12, involving the encounter between Elijah and the royal messenger Obadiah. Elijah instructs him to return to Ahab and announce “See! Elijah (is here)!” (v. 8). Obadiah is frightened at how Ahab may react to this. The king had been searching for Elijah, without success; and, if he is now told “Elijah is here”, and then comes and does not find the prophet, then the messenger giving this report will suffer for it. The rather superstitious and fearful mindset of Obadiah is reflected in the concern he expresses in verse 12:

“And it will be (that), (as) I go (away) from you, and (then the) spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH carries you upon [i.e. to] (a place) which I do not know, and I come to make (this known) before Ah’ab, and he does not find you, then he will slay me…”

Here the fundamental meaning of j^Wr as “breath” or “wind” (i.e. something blowing) is clear. The idea is that, as a divinely-inspired prophet, around whom supernatural events and phenomena can occur, Elijah might suddenly (and/or miraculously) be taken away to another place by the “wind” of God. Indeed, this very thing was essentially described in the famous departure (or ‘ascension’) of Elijah in 2 Kings 2:11-12, though depicted more colorfully through the image of a ‘fiery chariot’ carried up by a powerful storm-wind (hr*u*s=). In this scene, the idea of the j^Wr of God is expressed through the imagery of Storm-theophany (i.e. God manifest in the storm), frequently applied to YHWH in the Old Testament. Such an identification is made in verse 16, when Elisha (now possessing the prophetic spirit that had been on Elijah) encounters the “sons of the prophets” (essentially a group of prophets-in-training) at Jericho. One of these young prophets, interested in searching for Elijah, suggests that the “spirit/wind [j^Wr] of YHWH” may have carried him off to another location (cp. Acts 8:39), echoing the earlier language of Obadiah.

Even though Elijah—and, after him, Elisha—clearly possesses the prophetic spirit (j^Wr) from YHWH (2:9, 15), these narratives tend to avoid the older manner of expression, in their referring to the spirit of YHWH coming/rushing upon the prophet. Instead, where this idea occurs in Kings, the preferred expression is “the hand of YHWH”. Like the spirit rushing upon the Judges (on this, cf. the earlier note), etc, the “hand” of YHWH brings special inspiration (3:15) or supernatural ability to the person. So it was for Elijah, in the episode following the contest with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18—the “hand” of God gives him special ability to run (v. 46), further proof of his status a true inspired prophet (in contrast to the false prophets of Baal).

1 Kings 22:10-28

A similar sort of prophetic contest/conflict is narrated in chapter 22. The situation is comparable, though instead of 450 / 400 prophets of Baal / Asherah, we now have 400 prophets of YHWH who belong to Ahab (i.e. attached to the royal court), vv. 6ff. We might be inclined to read this in light of the chap. 18 narrative, which recorded that the prophets of Baal/Asherah were put to death (v. 40); however, given the syncretistic tendencies at the royal court, there is no reason why the king might not employ prophets of YHWH in addition to those of Baal. Perhaps implicit in the chap. 22 narrative is the idea that there is little difference between these court-prophets—whether of Baal or YHWH—as they function the same way, and are generally branded by the author (and the underlying prophetic tradition) as false prophets.

On the surface, these 400 men function very much in the manner of prophets and diviners throughout the ancient Near East—including those in Israel. It was common practice for kings to consult such (apparently gifted) men, especially when they were about to make an important decision, such as going to war. It was important to ascertain the will of God (or the gods) in this regard—i.e., what the result would be, and whether one ought to take a particular action. There had been a longstanding tradition of priestly divination in Israel, especially involving the “urim and thummim”, stones used to obtain a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to questions. The prophets of Ahab in chapter 22 apparently utilize similar kinds of instrumental means for divination, in addition to oracular responses obtained during moments of prophetic ecstasy.

In verse 10, we read how the kings of Israel and Judah (Ahab and Jehoshaphat), together consult the group of prophets on the question of whether to engage in battle with the kingdom of Aram-Damascus at Ramoth-gilead. They meet at the threshing-floor (/r#G)) outside the city, the open area best suited for public gatherings. Here the prophets (<ya!yb!n+) are all “acting like a ayb!n`” . This denominative verb (ab*n`), in the reflexive hithpael stem, was discussed in the earlier notes (on Num 11:13-30 and 1 Sam 10:5-11; 18:10; 19:20-21ff). It seems to connote specifically an ecstatic manner of prophetic experience, brought about by the presence and activity of the divine spirit, and marked by unusual behavior. In the earlier lines of tradition (in Numbers and Samuel), this was an entirely valid expression of the prophetic gift, however strange and disturbing it may seem to us today.

In the book of Kings, by contrast—and especially here in the Elijah narratives—such ecstatic modes of prophecy are very much devalued, due in large part, I am sure, to the continued reliance upon them, in a superficial manner, among all these many prophets attached to the royal court (of Ahab, etc). Since such court-officials were expected to give the response that the king wanted to hear, all of the supposedly spirit-inspired phenomena had become largely a matter of show, lacking the substance of true prophecy. It is no coincidence that the verb ab*n` occurs in the books of Kings only in the narratives of chapter 18 (v. 29) and 22 (vv. 8, 10, 12, 18), referring essentially to the false prophets (of Baal and YHWH). While the true prophet of YHWH in chapter 18 was Elijah, here it is Micaiah, unique among the prophets because he typically does not tell the king what he wishes to hear (v. 8).

There is an important parallel involving the vision Micaiah narrates as part of his prophetic response to the king (vv. 19-23):

    • a heavenly being from YHWH’s court volunteers to be sent as a lying/deceitful spirit [j^Wr] from YHWH (vv. 21-23), to deceive Ahab and cause him to go out to battle (where he will be killed)
    • the 400 prophets who tell Ahab it is God’s will for him to go to battle, and that he will be victorious, similarly act as a ‘lying spirit’, speaking falsely (as prophets) on YHWH’s behalf (v. 24)

Zedekiah represents these 400 prophets, and confronts Micaiah regarding his contrary response, striking him as an insult, along with the following words:

“Where (did) this (happen), (that the) spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH crossed over from me to speak to you?” (v. 24)

The implication is, that if Zedekiah had spoken under inspiration by the spirit of God, and Micaiah gave a contrary response, then Micaiah could not possibly have been inspired by God as Zedekiah was—i.e., Micaiah is a false prophet. The narrative, of course, shows the situation to be exactly the opposite—Micaiah’s prophecy is true, while that of Zedekiah (and the other 400) is false, their apparent ecstatic manifestations of the spirit notwithstanding. The emphasis is on the substance and result of the prophecy, not the various phenomena that accompany it (vv. 25, 28)—a point fully in accord with the Deuteronomic principle for the testing/confirmation of true prophecy (Deut 18:21-22). The prophets of the 8th/7th centuries, whose oracles and activity received written form, attest a similar caution regarding prophecy apparently uttered under ecstatic inspiration from the divine spirit (Hos 9:7; Mic 2:11; cf. also Jer 5:13), and likewise tend to avoid use of the verb ab*n` (cf. above), though the verb does reappear with some frequency in the later prophets of the 6th/5th century (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah).

May 5: Psalm 51:10-13

Psalm 51:10-13

In the previous note, in this series exploring the references to the Spirit (j^Wr) of God in the Old Testament, we examined the tradition of the Saul-David conflict as narrated in 1 Samuel, and how it is expressed in terms of the spirit of God. As I have discussed, there was a strong principle of charismatic leadership in early Israel—that is to say, the qualified leader of the people was marked by possession of a divine spirit, their giftedness a product of being specially touched by the spirit of God. This entailed the possession of wisdom and understanding (to guide the people), but also the (physical) strength and skill needed to lead the people in times of battle. From Moses to his successor Joshua, through the Judges and the first kings (Saul and David), this principle of divinely-inspired leadership was maintained. Only with the establishment of a hereditary monarchy did the principle gradually fade; even then, the king was seen as holding a special relationship with YHWH, reflected in the repeated phrase that “YHWH was with him (i.e. with the king)”. Rooted in the ancient concept of covenant loyalty, it came to be a central component of the (Judean) royal theology, focused on the Davidic line—beginning with David (1 Sam 16:18; 18:14; 2 Sam 5:10; cf. also 1 Chron 11:9; 2 Chron 1:1) it was emphasized especially with Hezekiah at the time of the Assyrian crisis (2 Kings 18:7), and underlies the significance of the Immanuel title in Isa 7:14; 8:8, 10.

We saw how, when David was chosen (and anointed) to be the next king, the spirit of YHWH “rushed” to him (1 Sam 16:13); correspondingly, the same spirit that had been upon Saul departed from him (16:14ff), and, in that vacuum, an evil spirit from YHWH came to afflict Saul in its place. This same sort of idea is expressed in Psalm 51, which, according to the superscription, was composed by David after his condemnation by the prophet Nathan (2 Sam 12:1-15) for his role in the Bathsheba/Uriah affair (chap. 11). Certainly it is a penitential Psalm, in which the Psalmist asks for forgiveness from YHWH, vowing to repent and amend his ways, making right the wrongs he may have done.

The motif of the spirit (j^Wr) is introduced in verse 10 [12], at the climax of the Psalmist’s plea to be forgiven:

“Create for me a clean heart, O Mightiest,
and make new (the) firm spirit in my inner (part)s”

Here a clean (rohf*) heart is parallel with a firm/fixed (/okn`) spirit. The passive participle /okn` (from the root /WK) denotes the idea of something being firm, sound, secure (i.e. healthy and whole). If the motif in the first line is that of cleansing, in the second line it is healing and renewal. It may be better to translate j^Wr here in the more fundamental sense of “breath” (i.e. life-breath), but the same use of the word in vv. 11-12 [13-14] clearly indicates that a broader meaning is in view as well.

To the extent that the Psalm genuine comes from David—or at least reflects the Israelite/Judean royal theology—there may well be an allusion here to the tradition of charismatic leadership noted above, whereby the king is touched/possessed by a divine spirit. If so, then the king is praying that he would not share in Saul’s fate, when the divine spirit departed from him. Certainly, the language of verse 11 [13] may be rooted in this idea, at least in part:

“Do not throw me out (away) from your face,
and your holy spirit—do not take (it away) from me!”

The sense of the ancient tradition appears to have been generalized, set in a broader religious and ethical context. The relationship between the Psalmist and YHWH is in danger of being broken, expressed here from both sides: (a) being removed from God’s presence (line 1), and (b) God’s presence being removed from him (line 2). This is one of the only occurrences in the Old Testament of the expression “holy spirit”; it must not be understood here from the later Jewish or Christian standpoint, but simply as reflecting a specific quality or aspect of God’s spirit—namely holiness and purity. Literally the expression is “spirit of your holiness” (;v=d=q* j^Wr), the holiness (vd#q), from the root vdq) of El-Yahweh being a key attribute and central tenet of Israelite religion. The regular/frequent impurity of human beings was fundamentally incompatible with the purity of YHWH; this was realized both in the ritual and ethical sphere of Israelite religious culture, and had to be dealt with accordingly. The Psalmist’s sin threatened the removal of God’s holy presence (and his removal from that presence).

The thoughts expressed in the two couplets of vv. 10-11 [12-13] are combined together, in summary form, within the third (v. 12 [14]), and it brings the Psalmist’s petition to a close:

“Return to me a rejoicing (in) your salvation,
and may you lay hold of me (with) a stimulating spirit!”

The term uv^y#, typically translated “salvation”, in the royal theological context of the Psalms often reflects the idea of the covenant bond between the ruler (as vassal) and YHWH (as Sovereign). This bond means that YHWH is obliged to bring help and assistance to the ruler in his time of need, unless the terms of the agreement have been violated. While such language could easily be broadened to apply to God’s people in a more general sense, the royal/Davidic background in such Psalms needs to be recognized. The breaking of the bond results in the Psalmist being unable to rejoice in the salvation that YHWH, his Sovereign, can provide; he prays that this would be “returned” to him.

The precise meaning of the final line is difficult to determine. The verb Em^s* has the basic meaning “lay (upon)” or “lean (upon)”, often in the specific (ritual) context of the laying on of hands. The prayer is that YHWH will again lay His ‘hands’ upon the Psalmist, by way of a blessing that will restore the covenant bond. Here the place of the noun j^Wr (“spirit”) is ambiguous—is it a spirit from God that comes upon the Psalmist by this “laying on” (par with v. 11), or does it refer to the effect of this in/on the spirit within the Psalmist (par with v. 10)? The word hb*yd!n+ is a bit difficult to translate (it can be a noun or adjective), the root bdn fundamentally indicating an impulse—i.e., something that prompts a person to act, etc. What is being described? There are two possibilities:

    • The spirit of YHWH stimulates the Psalmist to repentance and a newfound loyalty, etc
    • By laying hold of him, YHWH stimulates the Psalmist’s spirit so that, from now on, he will be inclined to act in faithful/loyal manner

Both are valid ways of reading the line, but probably the emphasis is more on the action of God’s spirit.

In the concluding notes of this series, we will explore further the expression “holy spirit” as it came to be used subsequently in Jewish literature and tradition. However, it is first necessary to continue our Old Testament study with a survey of additional references to the j^Wr of God in the Psalms and Prophets. A key aspect of this will focus again on the specific association between the Spirit and prophetic inspiration, and how this developed over time.

May 4: 1 Samuel 16:13-15 etc (continued)

1 Samuel 16:13-15

In the previous note, we considered the role of the spirit (j^Wr) of God in determining and guiding political leadership in ancient Israel. In the case of the Judges, this involved primarily military leadership in times of warfare and national crisis. Previously this was also true of Joshua, though the Scriptures also mention the wisdom he possessed due to the presence/activity of the divine spirit. With the Judges, as also Saul and David in the book of Samuel, the spirit of God is said to “rush” (vb jl^x*) upon them, indicating a rather violent sort of experience. This was fitting for the inspiration of prophetic ecstasy as well as for the strength and aggression needed for military action.

Overall, these traditions suggest a concept of charismatic leadership, understood as being the product of possession by a divine spirit. In the ancient world, gifted individuals were seen as possessing such a spirit; the word genius in English preserves a vestige of this original meaning. The signs of such giftedness could be superficial, drawing on certain aspects of personal appearance, as well as based on the obvious markers of natural ability and skill, physical strength, etc. For example, Saul possessed these natural signs (1 Sam 9:2), making him a clear candidate for leadership. David in his own way had these same attributes (of beauty, strength, skill, etc)—cf. 16:18; 17:1-18:8—though the narrative in Samuel also makes certain efforts to downplay this, as a way of emphasizing the unique choice of David by YHWH (16:6-7, etc). An important detail in the narrative is David’s musical ability, in addition to all the other factors (16:16-18, 23), which serves as a clear contrast to Saul’s deteriorating condition.

Once God’s spirit “rushes” to David (16:13), it is clear that Saul can no longer serve in this role as leader, according to the ancient principles of charismatic leadership. In the very next verse we read:

“And (the) spirit of YHWH turned (away) from (being) with Ša’ûl, and an evil [hu*r*] spirit from YHWH terrorized him.” (v. 14)

While God’s rejection of Saul is explained, to some extent, in chapter 15, according to the prophetic viewpoint of the author, it scarcely suffices as an explanation for the phenomenon narrated here. It is difficult for modern-day readers to understand the ancient worldview, with regard to the cause-and-effect of certain psychological and physiological conditions. To begin with, the idea of an “evil spirit” (hu*r* j^Wr) does not necessarily imply the kind of malevolent personal power we often associate with the term. Rather, it is “evil” (ur^) in the sense that it is the cause of something bad—such as illness, incapacity, or any manner of misfortune. In the ancient Near East, virtually any physical or mental illness was seen as caused by the activity/influence of a deity or spirit. This same worldview existed among the Israelites, and is clearly reflected in numerous passages throughout the Old Testament. However, from the standpoint of Israelite monotheism, all such divine activity was under YHWH’s control, and the spirits causing disease and death were sent by Him. That is why the text can state that the evil spirit comes from YHWH—just as He sends out a lying/deceitful spirit in 1 Kings 22:22-23. It is only much later that a more dualistic worldview developed, whereby the the spirits/powers causing evil were seen as operated separately from God (and opposed to him).

It is clear from the narrative that Saul is struck by a certain kind of illness—we would probably refer to it as a mental or psychological disorder (such as schizophrenia)—marked by paranoia, outbursts of anger and violence, etc. This serves as the basis for the conflict that arises between Saul and David. At first, the king is soothed and helped by David, through his musical ability (16:16, 23). This is described, from the ancient viewpoint, in terms of the evil spirit “turning away” (rWs, the same verb used in v. 14) and leaving Saul:

“And it was (that), in (the) (evil) spirit [j^Wr] of the Mightiest coming [i.e. when it came] to Ša’ûl, and Dawîd took the harp and made music (on it) with his hand, (then) there was spirit/breath [jw~r*] (again) for Ša’ûl, and (all was) good with him, and (the) evil spirit turned (away) from (being) upon him.” (v. 23)

The relationship between the noun j^Wr (“breath, spirit”) and the related verb jw~r* (“breathe”) here is hard to convey in English translation. It is a reminder that the fundamental meaning of the root jwr is not “spirit”, but “breath” or “wind” (i.e. something blowing).

1 Samuel 18:10-11; 19:9-10

This same scenario is described again in 19:9-10, but this time David’s playing, apparently, is not enough to ease Saul’s illness. Things had deteriorated for Saul, and the king lashes out at David with violence:

“And the evil spirit of YHWH came to be to [i.e. upon] Ša’ûl, and he was sitting in his house and his spear (was) in his hand, and Dawîd was making music (on the harp) with his hand. And Ša’ûl sought to strike at Dawîd with the spear [and in(to) the wall], but Dawîd got through (away) from (the) face [i.e. presence] of Ša’ûl, and the spear struck in(to) the wall, and Dawîd fled and made (his) escape on that night.”

There is a doublet (a second version) of this tradition in 18:10-11, part of the complex situation surrounding the composition of these narratives, and how the various historical traditions were preserved and included. There are several details which strongly indicate that 18:10-11 genuinely represents a second (separate) preserved version of the historical tradition:

    • When the evil spirit comes upon Saul, he “acts like a ayb!n`” (vb ab*n` in the reflexive hithpael stem), that is, like an ecstatic inspired prophet; the spirit also “rushes” (vb jl^x*) on Saul, as it does upon the prophets and charismatic leaders (cf. above). Here, this is probably meant to convey several things:
      • The violent character of the spirit’s influence, resulting in unusual and aggressive behavior
      • That Saul was “raving”, seemingly out of his mind, uttering strange words
      • That he was truly possessed by a divine spirit, as the ecstatic prophets were—only this time it was an evil spirit of God (i.e. sent by God), which results in more negative and destructive conduct.
    • Saul’s intent to harm David is expressed: “I will strike Dawîd…”
    • It is said that David evaded his attack twice (an allusion to the second version of the tradition in 19:9-10?)

It is interesting that, in the overall course of the narrative, after this episode Saul again is struck by the ecstatic prophetic spirit (19:18-24). This largely repeats his earlier experience narrated in 10:5-12; it contains the same elements—the role of Samuel, a group of ecstatic prophets gathered together, a sacred “high place” site, etc. However, this time Saul arrives with the evil intent of arresting David, and the onrush of the (prophetic) spirit serves to waylay these efforts, disabling Saul for a full day and night. These two parallel scenes frame the period of Saul’s role as divinely-inspired leader. The first precedes the coming of God’s spirit on him (11:6), and the second follows the departure of that spirit (16:14ff). It is a vivid reminder of how closely connected the prophetic spirit was to the tradition of charismatic leadership in the ancient world.

In light of this theme of God’s spirit departing from a person, it is worth considering the famous expression of this idea in Psalm 51; this we will do in the next daily note.

 

May 3: 1 Samuel 16:13-15, etc

1 Samuel 16:13-15, etc

In the previous note, mention was made of the tradition in 18:10 of the evil spirit from God that came upon Saul. This is part of a wider line of tradition in the book of Samuel, involving the conflict between Saul and David. The folkloric elements and style of these David narratives can make it difficult to discern clearly the shape of the underlying historical tradition. To this must be added certain text-critical difficulties, especially in instances where a basic tradition is narrated or explained two different ways in the text.

1 Samuel 16:13-15

The Saul-David conflict is introduced in 16:14ff, but within the overall narrative the theological basis for it was presented earlier, in chapter 15—a traditional narrative intended to explain, from the prophetic standpoint of the author, why Saul was rejected (by God) and David chosen in his place. The choice of David follows in 16:1-13, and ends with the climactic statement:

“And the spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH rushed [jl^x=T!] to Dawîd, from that day and upward [i.e. beyond]” (v. 13)

We saw how this same verb jl^x* (“rush [ahead], push [forward]”) was used of the spirit (j^Wr) of God in 10:6, 11, where it referred to the affect of God’s spirit on those gifted to be prophets (<ya!yb!n+)—manifest specifically in ecstatic experience (and the strange/unusual behavior that accompanied it). Saul came to experience this same ecstatic onrush of God’s spirit, and it was some time after this that the spirit of God rushed upon him (again), enabling/inspiring him to act (as leader) on behalf of his people (11:6).

The two primary aspects of the Spirit’s influence that we have so far studied in these passages—(1) wisdom/discernment, and (2) violent possession of an individual—are combined together, equally we might say, in the gifted leader. We saw this role of the Spirit, in more general  terms, in the case of Moses as spokesperson (ayb!n`) and guide of the people. Though there is no apparent evidence in the Pentateuch for Moses undergoing ecstatic prophetic experience, it seems to have occurred among the 70 elders who partook in the prophetic spirit (of God) that was upon him (cf. the prior note on Num 11:13-30). It is not surprising that Moses’ successor, Joshua, as leader (and spokesperson for God) over the people, would also have the spirit of God present in/on him (Num 27:18). While Joshua was gifted with wisdom (aspect #1 above, cf. Deut 34:9), we may say that the divine spirit was manifest in him more properly in terms of his military leadership, since he oversaw the military campaigns involved in the initial Israelite settlement of the land.

The violence/aggression brought about through the presence of God’s spirit, was especially well-suited for military action, and it is no real surprise that the Spirit features in the narratives of the Judges—persons gifted by God to serve as (military) leaders in times of crisis. The military aspect of these rulers was prominent, the people being otherwise, in normal circumstances, governed by a representative federation of the tribes and clans. The author of the book of Judges makes no attempt whatever to whitewash or explain away the negative (even destructive) characteristics of these leaders, demonstrating that their gifting was, indeed, largely military in nature, and, on the whole, they scarcely would be held up as paragons of religious devotion or morality.

Let us here briefly survey the relevant references in Judges:

    • 3:10 (of Othniel): “And the spirit of YHWH came to be upon him, and he judged Yisrael and went forth to do battle
    • 6:34 (Gideon): “And the spirit of YHWH wrapped (itself around) Gideon {lit. Hacker}…” (and he sounded the horn, i.e. assembling the people for battle)
    • 11:29 (Jephthah): “And the spirit of YHWH came to be upon Yiphtah, and he crossed over…”
    • 13:25 (Samson): “And the spirit of YHWH began to ‘step’ (on) him [i.e. Samson, as a youth]…”
    • Three times in the Samson narratives the spirit “rushes” on him, using the same verb jl^x* noted above; the result is a burst of unusual physical power and aggression, including being directed against Israel’s enemy the Philistines—14:6, 19; 15:14.

In the next daily note, we will return to the Saul-David narrative in 1 Samuel, to explore a bit further how the presence and activity of God’s spirit relates to the (political) conflict between the two men. This will be instructive in terms of how the work of the Spirit was understood within the early strands of Israelite religion and tradition.

April 30: Numbers 24:2; 1 Samuel 10:6ff

Numbers 24:2; 1 Samuel 10:6ff

In the previous note of this series on Old Testament passages involving the Spirit [j^Wr] of God, I discussed the fundamental association of the Spirit with prophecy. In particular, it is the special gifting by the spirit/breath [j^Wr] of YHWH that enables a person to fill the role of ayb!n`—a spokesperson who speaks and acts on God’s behalf, communicating His word and will to the people. From the standpoint of Old Testament tradition, prophecy in Israel begins with Moses; he was the ultimate ayb!n`, though, as we saw in Numbers 11:10-30, this role was not limited to him even at the time.

Various forms of prophecy had, of course, long been practiced in the ancient Near East. I previously mentioned the evidence from the city-state of Mari, where at least two different kinds of prophets are attested—one (the ¹pilum) apparently functioning in an official capacity (at the royal court, etc), while the other (the mu——ûm) operating at a more popular level, was marked especially by ecstatic experience (cf. below).

Numbers 24:2

As it happens, the Old Testament Scriptures refer to at least one such non-Israelite prophet, the famous (and rather enigmatic) figure of Balaam (Bil±¹m, <u*l=B!). He is featured in the narratives of Numbers 22-24, including four distinct oracles attributed to him; his role in the Baal-Peor incident (chap. 25), itself a complex tradition as recorded in the text, is more problematic (cf. Num 31:8, 16). It is the latter association, especially, that colored Balaam as a negative, evil figure-type in later Jewish and Christian tradition.

The historicity of Balaam, and the general authenticity of the Pentateuch traditions (in Num 22-24), would seem to be confirmed by the extra-biblical evidence of the Deir ±All¹ inscription from Jordan (c. 800 B.C.). For a translation of this inscription, along with photographs, see the treatment online at livius.org.

The entirety of the matrix of traditions in chaps. 22-24—but especially the oracles in 23-24—make clear that Balaam was a prophet, primarily in the sense of being a seer (ha#r)), a visionary clairvoyant, one who could discern the course of future events. Despite the lampooning episode of 22:22-35, and his subsequent negative caricature, there is no evidence in the text that he is in any way a false prophet, or that his visions do not genuinely come from God (El-Yahweh). Indeed, in the narrative he repeatedly receives communication from God (22:9ff, 20, etc). This is an extraordinary datum, and serves as an objective confirmation of the authenticity of the oracle-traditions.

As previously mentioned, Balaam would best be characterized as a seer (ha#r), from the root har), and the text several times mentions his eyes being “opened” (by God); indeed, this is stated at the beginning of the third and fourth oracles (24:3-4, 15-16), indicating that such revelatory experience was a regular occurrence for Balaam. Moreover, in accordance with the ancient understanding that all such prophetic experience was the result of divine inspiration (from the spirit of God), this is stated of the non-Israelite Balaam as well:

“And Bil’am lifted his eyes, and he saw [vb ha*r*] Yisrael residing (according) to its staffs [i.e. by tribe], and (the) spirit [j^Wr] of (the) Mightiest [<yh!ýa$] came upon him” (24:2)

It is possible that this detail was emphasized as a way of legitimizing the oracles of a non-Israelite (Canaanite) prophet, affirming (for an Israelite audience) that they are genuine and true prophecies. Much more likely, however, this simply reflects the basic understanding of how prophecy worked in the ancient Near East. Any distinct prophetic experience was the result of a divine presence (spirit) working in or upon the person—its source was the spirit/breath [j^Wr] of a deity, whether El-Yahweh or another.

1 Samuel 10:6ff

In the previous note, we saw the distinctive use of the denominative verb ab*n`, which essentially means to “act or function as a ayb!n`” . This verb occurs either in the passive Niphal stem or the reflexive Hithpael stem—both of which imply the idea of a person being under the influence or control of a prophetic “spirit”. Outside of Num 11:25-27 (discussed in the previous note), the verb ab*n` (in both passive and reflexive stems) occurs a number of times in Samuel-Kings, where it unquestionably reflects old/authentic historical tradition. The very oddity and unorthodox character of some of the details in these narratives would tend to confirm, on objective grounds, the authenticity of the traditions.

A particular early reference occurs in 1 Samuel 10:1-13, where the young Saul is directed by Samuel that, on his journey, he will encounter a group of <ya!yb!n+ in front of the hill-site city of Gibeah, or Gibeath-Elohim (“hill of God”), vv. 5-6. Both the name, and the presence of these prophets, suggests that it was a sacred site (or “high place”); at the moment, it also was marked by a Philistine garrison. The prophets Saul will encounter will be coming as a procession from the city, playing musical instruments as they “act as ayb!n`” . As most commentators recognize, this involves a specific mode of ecstatic prophetic experience, of a kind frequently aided (or induced) through music. That it is a dramatic and aggressive (even violent) sort of experience is indicated by the wording in verse 6, stating that the spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH would rush (vb jl^x*) upon Saul and overtake him, so that he would “act as a ayb!n` ” with all the others. So dramatic would this experience be that it is said Saul would be “turned over” (i.e. changed/transformed) into “another man”.

This prediction by Samuel is fulfilled in verse 10, and the state of prophetic ecstasy indeed results in such unusual behavior that everyone who knows Saul has to take note and wonder at it: “What (is) this (that) has come to be [i.e. happened] to the son of Qîš?” (v. 11). A similar kind of evil spirit comes upon Saul in a later narrative (18:10ff), resulting in the same sort of unusual manic/ecstatic behavior, only in a more destructively violent manner. The same verb ab*n` is used here, even though it has nothing to do with “prophecy” in the typical sense. This is most informative, as it demonstrates rather clearly that, in the context of prophecy, the emphasis is squarely on the divine presence/spirit that influences and overcomes the person. In 18:10, though it is an “evil” spirit, it still comes from God, utilizing the common expression “spirit of the Mightiest” (<yh!ýa$ j^Wr). While this certainly created (and still creates) theological problems for subsequent readers, it is fully in accord with the ancient way of thinking (cp. the episode in 1 Kings 22:19-23).

We should point out that the prophetic ecstasy that came over Saul in 10:10 was repeated in a separate tradition (19:20-24). There, at another sacred “high place” site (Ramah), there is a group of ecstatic prophets (<ya!yb!n+), only this time Samuel himself is present with them. The frenzied character of this experience, marked by unusual or aberrant behavior, is indicated especially by the detail of Saul tearing off his clothes, and laying naked in that place all day and night (v. 24). Again, this will no doubt seem troubling to our modern sensibilities, in terms of our conceptions regarding the nature of prophecy, etc, but it very much reflects aspects of traditional prophetic experience worldwide, both in ancient and later times.

The verb ab*n` (in the passive/reflexive) also occurs in 1 Kings 18:29 and 22:8-12 (note the group of prophets, v. 10), 18 par. Interestingly, while the verb is frequent in the later Prophetic writings (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah) it is quite rare in the earlier books (only Amos [6 times] and Joel [once]). This suggests that the earlier usage—indicated by the underlying historical traditions in Exodus–Kings—was abandoned for a time, only to be picked up again in the Exilic/Post-exilic period.

In the next note, we will touch further on the idea of the violent effects of the Spirit’s influence, as recorded in the Old Testament.

April 29: Numbers 11:10-30

Numbers 11:10-30

There is an interesting historical tradition recorded in the narrative of Numbers 11. Like most such narratives, there are simplifications involved in the telling of the story, and that can make it difficult, at times, for us to gain a clear picture of the underlying historical situation.

The basic tradition begins in verse 10 (see vv. 1-9 for the narrative context), as Moses is feeling overwhelmed at the responsibility for leading the people on their difficult journey across the desolate stretches of the Sinai peninsula. Within the Tent where Moses speaks with YHWH, he complains of this to God (vv. 11-15). In response, YHWH decides to relieve Moses of some of this burden, by having it be shared with seventy elders specially appointed for the role (on the tradition of seventy elders, cf. Exod 24:1ff, and cp. Gen 46:27; Exod 1:5 etc). Though it is not stated as such here, this relates to the idea of Moses as the ayb!n`, the spokesperson and intermediary between YHWH and Israel (cf. Exod 19:18-21, etc). In a real sense, prophecy in Israel begins with Moses, at least in terms of the Scriptural narrative, and he stands in many ways as the ultimate prophet-figure.

This is not to say that there was no prophecy and no prophets prior to Moses, since various forms of prophecy were practiced in the ancient Near East centuries before. Some of our best, and most relevant, information in this regard comes from the site of Mari, where at least two kinds of prophets were known (cf. Milgrom/JPS, pp. 380-4):

    1. ¹pilum, those functioning in an official capacity, it would seem, such as at the royal court
    2. mu——ûm, those operating at a more popular level, their gifted status marked especially by ecstatic experience

The use of the word “prophet” to translate Hebrew ayb!n` is actually rather misleading, since it tends to imply the limited function of telling/seeing the future. While the role of the ayb!n` may involve a measure of clairvoyance and visionary experience (as a “seer”, Heb. ha#r) / hz#j)), it is better defined as that of a spokesperson—i.e. one who speaks and acts on God’s behalf. The noun ayb!n` is quite rare in the Pentateuch, occurring just four times in Genesis–Numbers; this, along with the three passages in Deuteronomy where it is used (13:2-6; 18:15-22; 34:10), confirms the point above that the position of ayb!n` in Israel properly begins with Moses. Though in Exod 7:1 the word is used of Aaron (as Moses‘ spokesperson), the implication is that Moses himself is the one representing YHWH (Num 12:6ff; the use of the word in Gen 20:7 may be influenced by the Exodus/Moses traditions).

This brings us back to the tradition in Numbers 11, and YHWH’s response to Moses’ complaint in verses 16-17ff. Regarding the 70 elders chosen to share in Moses’ role (as spokesperson/ayb!n`), God says this about them:

“…and I will lay aside (some) from the spirit [j^Wr] that (is) upon you, and I will set (it) upon them, and they will carry with you (the) burden of the people, and you will not carry (it) by yourself alone.” (v. 17)

Though it is never so stated elsewhere in the Pentateuch, here it is clearly implied that Moses prophetic ability—that is, his role as spokesperson (ayb!n`) for God—is the result of a special gifting from the spirit (j^Wr) of God (on this, cf. the previous note). Now YHWH says that he will “lay aside” (vb lx^a*) something from this same spirit, and put it upon the 70 elders, just as it is upon Moses. In later terminology, this could be referred to more abstractly as “the spirit of prophecy” (Rev 19:10). According to the ancient way of thinking, all varieties of ‘prophetic’ experience were the product of divine inspiration—that is, the possession of (or by) a deity or spirit. For Christians, of course, true prophecy comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:21; Eph 3:5; 1 John 4:1-5, etc), and a comparable idea is expressed numerous times throughout the Old Testament (this will be discussed in upcoming notes).

The chosen elders are to gather around the Tent of Meeting, and, while Moses is inside, this transfer of the ayb!n`-spirit will take place. This is narrated in verses 24-25, precisely as declared earlier by YHWH:

“And YHWH came down in a cloud and spoke to him [i.e. Moses], and He laid aside (some) from the spirit [j^Wr] that (is) upon him, and gave (it) upon the seventy elder men; and, it came to be, as the spirit rested upon them, they also (themselves) acted as ayb!n` [WaB=n~t=y!]…” (v. 25)

While the specific noun ayb!n` is not used here (cf. below), the related verb ab*n`, a denominative from ayb!n`, does occur. The basic meaning is “act/speak as a ayb!n`” —that is, to fulfill the role as an inspired spokesperson for God. This is the same role Moses has, but now it is being shared by these 70 elders. The extent of their prophetic role is a matter of some dispute, given the ambiguity of the last two words of the verse: Wpsy aýw+. The Hebrew text wpsy could be parsed as Wps*y` (“they continued [to do]”, i.e. did repeatedly, vb [s^y`), or as Wps%y` (“they ceased [doing]”, vb [Ws). According to the first reading, the negation (with the particle ) would be “and they did not continue” (i.e. in this role as ayb!n`)—that is, it was only temporary, under special circumstances. The second option would be “and they did not cease” (in their role as ayb!n`). The latter is much to be preferred syntactically (but compare e.g. Gen 38:26), and in the context of the narrative; it is also supported by the Targums (Onkelos, Jonathan), while the former reading has the support of the LXX and other Rabbinic authorities. It remains an open question of interpretation. Cf. Milgrom/JPS, pp. 89, 308.

A fascinating related tradition follows in verses 26-30. Two of the appointed elders—named Eldad and Medad—apparently were not gathered around the Tent with the others, and yet the prophetic spirit still came upon them. They, too, acted as ayb!n` —the same reflexive Hithpael form of the verb ab*n` used in v. 25 (cf. above). Such use of this verb seems to have the technical meaning of exhibiting a certain form of inspired prophetic experience. Based on similar occurrences elsewhere in the Old Testament (to be discussed in the upcoming notes), it would imply an ecstatic experience, manifested at times in strange or aberrant behavior. If so, it would have been striking indeed for these two men to go about through the camp, speaking and acting under such ecstatic inspiration. It is understandable why Moses’ young attendant Joshua might be troubled by reports of their activity (v. 27), calling out as he does to his master, “My lord Moshe, restrain them!” (v. 28). Moses’ answer in verse 29 is not what we might have expected, given the importance (expressed elsewhere) of regulating and testing apparent prophetic experience; here is his reply to Joshua:

“Are you red (with concern) for me? And (yet) who would (not) give (that) all (the) people of YHWH (would be) <ya!yb!n+, that YHWH would give His spirit [j^Wr] upon them!”

One is reminded of Jesus’ response to his disciples’ complaint about people, outside his immediate circle, performing miracles in his name (Mark 9:38-41 par). Moses’ words also seem to foreshadow the use of Joel 2:28-32 in Peter’s famous Pentecost speech, with the promise that the Spirit of God would come upon all His people, and that they (i.e. all believers) would act as prophets. The initial question posed to Joshua suggests that the younger man’s concern may have been for any possible threat to Moses’ leadership that might arise out of such prophetic activity in the camp. Since Moses was aware that the inspiration of the 70 elders was the direct result of YHWH’s action, he had no immediate cause for concern. This also confirms Moses’ position as supreme ayb!n`, a point made even more explicit in several other passages which would greatly influence the subsequent Old Testament and Jewish tradition.

In the next few notes, we will continue to explore this important emphasis on the relationship of the Spirit to prophecy.

References above marked “Milgrom/JPS” are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers rbdmb, commentary by Jacob Milgrom (Jewish Publication Society: 1990).

April 28: Genesis 41:38

Genesis 41:38, etc

In the previous note, we saw how the spirit/breath (j^Wr) of God, more than simply giving life to human beings, is also the source for the wisdom and understanding within the person. This wisdom is available to all, as part of the way humankind was created (by God), though many people do not hear or listen to its voice. At the same time, certain people are uniquely or specially gifted with certain kinds of wisdom and ability. In the ancient world, such gifted individuals were seen as possessing a special divine presence or “spirit” (our term genius reflects its origins in the ancient concept of an indwelling deity). Israelite and Old Testament tradition followed this ancient way of thinking, ascribing the special talent and insight of certain individuals to the spirit of God (El-Yahweh).

There are a number of such references in the Old Testament Scriptures, beginning with the Pentateuch. Regardless of when the final form of the books were actually composed, there is no reason to doubt that these references reflect genuine historical tradition and the most ancient way of thinking (i.e. going back to the time of the Patriarchs).

Genesis 41:38

In response to Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, and the prospect of an impending famine-crisis, the decision was made to appoint a special overseer to manage the crisis (vv. 33ff). It was to be a man discerning (/obn`, i.e. possessing discernment) and wise (<k*j*). The Pharaoh realized that there was no one better qualified than Joseph, as he declares in verse 38:

“Can there be found (anyone) like this man [i.e. Joseph], wh(o has the) spirit [j^Wr] of (the) Mightiest [<yh!ýa$] in him?”

Joseph’s ability to know the meaning of Pharaoh’s dream was proof of his wisdom/discernment (v. 39). The main point here, however, is that such wisdom is an indication of God’s spirit at work in Joseph, much as Elihu declared that the wisdom/understanding available to human beings has its source in the spirit/breath of God (Job 32:8, cf. the previous note).

I have translated <yh!ýa$ above in accordance with the basic usage in Scripture. However, it is worth pointing out here that it is a plural form, which, as a substantive, would literally mean something like “mighty (one)s”, more or less equivalent to the simpler plural <yl!a@. There has always been some difficulty explaining the use of this plural in a monotheistic setting, to refer to the one God (El-Yahweh). In my view, the best explanation is that the word serves as an intensive plural—i.e., “mightiest (one)”—and so I typically translate in these notes and articles (as opposed to blandly rendering it as “God”). Yet, if we accept the authenticity of tradition recorded here, it is possible that the Egyptian Pharaoh would have had a true plural in mind (i.e. Mighty Ones, “gods”). The parallel in Dan 5:14, where Belshazzar makes a similar statement regarding Daniel (in Aramaic), would tend to confirm this: “I have heard about you that (the) spirit [j^Wr] of the Mighty Ones [/yh!l*a$, i.e. “gods”] (is) in you”.

For more on the meaning and significance of the related titles la@ (‘El) and <yh!ýa$ (‘Elohim), cf. my earlier articles indicated by the links here.

Exodus 31:3; 35:31

Such special wisdom and knowledge can be demonstrated in other ways, and these no less reflect the working of God’s j^Wr. It can apply to persons with considerable gifts and talents in areas of art and science, for example. We see this expressed in the case of Bezalel, a craftsman and artisan, who was appointed (along with at least one other man) to design the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and its furnishings (Exodus 31:1ff). The divine source of this ability is clearly stated in verse 3:

“And I have filled him (with the) spirit [j^Wr] of (the) Mightiest—with wisdom, and with discernment, and with knowledge, and with all (the) work [hK*al*m=] (he is to do)”

The common word hK*al*m= is a bit difficult to translate in English. It means something like “business”, i.e. the work a person is expected to do. Sometimes the word connotes the skill or ability required to perform such duties. The first three terms—wisdom, discernment, knowledge—show one side of this ability, while hK*al*m= signifies the working out of it in practice, in the actual business of his craft. Interestingly, it is YHWH who is speaking, and yet the expression “spirit of the Mightiest [i.e. of God]” is still used (rather that “my Spirit”), indicating how fundamental it was to the idea involved.

This same declaration regarding Bezalel is repeated, this time by Moses, in 35:31:

“And He [i.e. YHWH] (has) filled him (with the) spirit [j^Wr] of the Mightiest…”

In using the word inspiration, we tend to think strictly in terms of the composition of the Scriptures, or in the related sense of inspired prophecy (within the context of Scripture). However, these passages we have examined thus far demonstrate that the concept of divine inspiration cannot—and should not—be limited in this way. In the next daily note, we will turn to the idea of the “prophet” —that is, the ayb!n`, one who serves a position of leadership, a spokesperson for God in relation to His people.