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The Meaning of "Spirit" in the Old Testament

General Audience — January 3, 1990

In our catecheses on the person and mission of the Holy Spirit, we have sought first of all to listen to the announcement and promise concerning him made by Jesus, especially at the Last Supper. We have sought to take up again the account of his coming that is given in the Acts of the Apostles. We have re-examined the texts of the New Testament that tell of the early Church's preaching concerning him and faith in him. Yet in our analysis we have often come upon the Old Testament. It is the apostles themselves who in their early preaching just after Pentecost expressly presented the coming of the Holy Spirit as the fulfillment of the ancient promises and prophecies. They considered the old covenant and the history of Israel as a time of preparation for receiving the fullness of truth and grace that was to come with the Messiah.

It is true that Pentecost was an event thrusting into the future. This is because it marked the beginning of the time of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus himself had indicated as a protagonist, together with the Father and the Son, in the work of salvation—a work destined to be diffused from the cross into the whole world. Nevertheless, to understand all the more fully the revelation of the Holy Spirit, it is necessary to go back in time, that is, to the Old Testament, in order to find there the signs of the long preparation for the mystery of Easter and Pentecost.

We must reflect again, therefore, on the biblical facts concerning the Holy Spirit and on the process of revelation which rises gradually from the shadows of the Old Testament to the clear affirmations of the New. This is first expressed within creation and then in the work of redemption, first in the history and prophecy of Israel and then in the life and mission of Jesus the Messiah, from the moment of the incarnation up to that of the resurrection.

In the first place, among the facts to be examined is the name that first suggests the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament and the different meanings that this name conveys.

We know that in the Hebrew mentality a name has the powerful significance of representing a person. We may recall on this point the importance that is given to the way of naming God in Exodus and in the whole tradition of Israel. Moses had asked the Lord God what his name was. The revelation of a name was considered a manifestation of the person himself: the sacred name established a relationship between the people and the transcendent yet present being of God himself (cf. Ex 3:13-14).

The name that serves to suggest the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament will help us to understand his properties, even though we only learn of his reality as a divine person, of one substance with the Father and the Son, through the revelation of the New Testament. It is legitimate to think that the term was chosen with accuracy by the sacred authors, and, what is more, that the Holy Spirit himself, who inspired them, guided the conceptual and literary process which led to the elaboration of an apt expression for signifying his person even in the Old Testament.

In the Bible, the Hebrew term for the Spirit is ruah . The first meaning of this term, and that of its Latin translation spiritus , is "breath." (In English the relationship between spirit and respiration is still apparent.) A breath is the most immaterial reality we perceive. It cannot be seen; it is intangible; it cannot be grasped by the hand; it seems to be nothing, and yet it is vitally important. The person who does not breathe cannot live. The difference between a living person and a dead one is that the former has breath and the latter no longer does. Life comes from God. Hence breath, too, comes from him, and he can take it away (cf. Ps 104:29-30). Seeing breath in this way, they came to understand that life depends on a spiritual principle, which was called by the same Hebrew word, ruah. Man's breath bears a relationship to a much more powerful external breath, the wind.

The Hebrew ruah , just as the Latin spiritus , also designates the blowing of the wind. No one sees the wind, yet its effects are impressive. It drives the clouds and shakes the trees. When it is violent, it can whip up the sea and sink ships (Ps 107:25-27). To the men of old the wind appeared to be a mysterious power that God had at his disposal (Ps 104:3-4). It could be called "God's breath."

In the Book of Exodus, a prose narrative says: "Yahweh drove back the sea with a strong easterly wind all night, and he made dry land of the sea. The waters parted and the sons of Israel went on dry ground right into the sea..." (Ex 14:21-22). In the next chapter the same events are described in a poetic manner and the blowing of the easterly wind is called "a blast from the nostrils" of God. Addressing God, the poet says: "A blast from your nostrils and the waters piled high.... One breath of yours you blew, and the sea closed over them" (Ex 15:8-10). This expresses in a very suggestive way the conviction that the wind was God's instrument in these circumstances.

From observations on the invisible and powerful wind one came to conceive the existence of the "spirit of God." In the texts of the Old Testament one passes easily from one meaning to the other, and even in the New Testament we see that the two meanings are present. To help Nicodemus understand the way the Holy Spirit acts, Jesus used the comparison of the wind, and he employed the same term in both cases: "The wind blows wherever it pleases.... That is how it is with all who are born of the Wind [i.e. of the Holy Spirit]" (Jn 3:8).

The fundamental idea expressed in the biblical name of the Spirit is, therefore, not that of an intellectual power, but that of a dynamic impulse, similar to the force of the wind. In the Bible, the primary function of the spirit is not to give understanding, but to give movement; not to shed light, but to impart dynamism.

This aspect is not exclusive, however. Other aspects are expressed and they pave the way for the revelation to follow. First and foremost, there is the aspect of interiority. Indeed, breath enters into man. In biblical terms, this could be expressed by saying that God puts the spirit into people's hearts (cf. Ez 36:26; Rom 5:5). Since air is so tenuous, it penetrates not only into our body, but all of its spaces and clefts. This helps to understand that "the spirit of the Lord fills the whole world" (Wis 1:7) and that it penetrates especially "all intelligent, pure and most subtle spirits" (7:23), as the Book of Wisdom says.

Related to the aspect of interiority is the aspect of knowledge. "Who can know the depths of man," asks St. Paul, "if not his own spirit?" (1 Cor 2:11). Only our spirit knows our intimate reactions and thoughts not yet communicated to others. Similarly, and with stronger reason, the Spirit of the Lord present within all the beings of the universe knows all from within (Wis 1:7). Indeed, "the Spirit reaches the depths of everything, even the depths of God.... The depths of God can only be known by the Spirit of God" (1 Cor 2:10-11).

When it is a matter of knowledge and communication between persons, breath has a natural connection with the word. To speak we use our breath. The vocal chords make our breath vibrate, and it thus transmits the sounds of the words. Inspired by this fact, the Bible draws a comparison between the word and the breath (cf. Is 11:4), or the word and the spirit. Thanks to our breath, the word is propagated; from our breath it derives strength and dynamism. Psalm 33 uses this comparison with regard to the primordial event of creation and says: "By the word of Yahweh the heavens were made, their whole array by the breath of his mouth..." (v. 6).

In texts of this kind we can perceive a distant preparation of the Christian revelation of the mystery of the Blessed Trinity. God the Father is the origin of creation. He has brought it about by his Word, that is, by the Son, and by his Breath, the Holy Spirit.

The many meanings of the Hebrew term ruah , used in the Bible to designate the Spirit, seem to give rise to some confusion. Indeed, in a given text, it is often not possible to determine the exact meaning of the word. One might waver between wind and breath, between breath and spirit, or between created spirit and the divine Spirit.

This multiplicity, however, has a certain wealth, for it establishes a fruitful communication between so many realities. In this regard it is better to give up in part the pretenses of neat reasoning in order to embrace broader perspectives. When we think of the Holy Spirit, it is useful to remember that his biblical name means "breath," and that it is related to the powerful blowing of the wind and to our own intimate breathing. Rather than clinging to an over-intellectual and arid concept, we will find it helpful to take in this wealth of images and facts. Unfortunately, translations are unable to convey them to us completely, for they are often obliged to choose other terms. To render the Hebrew word ruah, the Greek translation of the Septuagint uses twenty-four different terms, and so does not permit one to see all the connections between the texts of the Hebrew Bible.

To end this terminological analysis of the Old Testament texts concerning ruah, we can say that the breath of God appears in them as the power that gives life to creatures. It appears as a profound reality of God which works deep within man. It appears as a manifestation of God's dynamism which is communicated to creatures.

Though not yet understood as a distinct Person in the context of the divine being, the "breath" or "Spirit" of God is distinguishable in some way from the God who sends it to operate in creatures. Thus, even from the literary point of view, the human mind is gradually prepared to receive the revelation of the Person of the Holy Spirit, who will appear as the expression of God's intimate life and omnipotence.