‘Ruach’: The Breath That Moves through Everything

By Myk Habets, adapted from The Progressive Mystery

The Old Testament consistently teaches the distinct, creative agency of the Spirit of God over the cosmos and all that is in it, including humankind. Not only does the Spirit of God [ruach] create all things but he also sustains them (Gen 6:3). Central to this understanding of the Spirit of God is the initial creation account of Genesis. 

Compiled perhaps during Israel’s wilderness wanderings, Genesis 1 is clearly a polemical account, possibly against the popular Hymn of Aton (dated around 1350 B.C.), hence giving the people a firm foundation against the polytheistic and pagan worldviews surrounding them. So to Israel in the wilderness, Moses stresses that the same God who led them out of bondage by the divine ruach (Exod 15:8–10) also singularly made the heavens and the earth by the ruach, and that the power behind the original creation is also now at work in the creation of the people of God through deliverance.

Spirit as Creator in Genesis 1

Specifically, in Genesis 1:2 we read the integral phrase “and the ruach’elöhîm was hovering over the waters.” While the meaning of this verse is hotly debated and cannot be treated in any real depth here, a few summary observations may be permitted. 

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Genesis 1:2 contains three nominal clauses: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The first two of the three clauses introduce the chaotic order of the cosmos, characterized by the use of the words töhû wäḇöhû. The narrative structure would then proceed in the following way; firstly, the lack of form (töhû) is overcome in the first three days, and secondly, the empty space (wäḇöhû) is filled up in the fourth to sixth days.

Moses stresses that the same God who led them out of bondage by the divine ruach (Exod 15:8–10) also singularly made the heavens and the earth by the ruach, and that the power behind the original creation is also now at work in the creation of the people of God through deliverance.

What then of the third clause? It must either continue to describe the chaotic state of the cosmos or it may introduce the creative presence and activity of God to bring order to the chaos. It seems best to see the clause as separate from the first two (due largely to the use of waw before ruach) and to translate ruach as “Spirit” and not “wind.” 

What is clearly stated in Genesis is that God’s presence is active in the ruach and that the ruach’elöhîm is superintending the work of creation and also, linked to verse 3, bringing creation about through the W/word. As Hildebrandt states, “The passage is emphasizing the actual, powerful presence of God, who brings the spoken word into reality by the Spirit.” In this sense then the Spirit of God is not merely the “wind” of God blowing across the cosmos, but rather the personal, creative, and very active presence of God awaiting the proper time to begin the creation process.

Spirit as Creator outside of Genesis

Outside of Genesis and the original creation account we see further evidence of the Spirit’s creative function. In Isaiah 40:13 we read: “Who has understood the mind of Yahweh [ruach yhwh], or who was his counselor, who instructed him? Whom did he consult for his guidance, and who taught him the way to achieve order, and showed him how to exercise creative skill?” Here the extent of the Spirit’s involvement in creation is heightened to include not just the power to create but also the “mind,” the “creative” power to create. Creation was planned by the ruach yhwh, who then moved to bring that plan into existence.

This creating activity did not stop with the cosmos, however. It extends to all humankind and all people groups, especially the chosen people of God (Pss 71:6; 89:48; 94:9; 100:3; 139:13; 149:2; Deut 32:6). The sphere of the Spirit’s operations is only limited by our lack of comprehension. When the usage of ruach is surveyed, one sees the vital role of the Spirit of God in the granting of life to humankind. This is epitomized by the creation account of Genesis 1:26–27. Again, these verses occasion a great divergence of interpretation that we cannot resolve here. However, we shall survey the main involvement of the Spirit of God in this creation account.

As the ruach’elöhîm was the active creator of the cosmos, so too he is the active creator of humanity. Concerning the plural references in this text (cf., Gen 3:22; 11:7), we can say that the throne of God in heaven is surrounded by a throng of angelic beings, is transported by the cherubim, and is directed by the ruach (Ezek 1). This heavenly council superintends all the activity of God, but God by his ruach carries out the actual activity of creation and providence. This creation by the divine plural, and especially carried out by the Spirit of God, invests humans with the dignity of being in the likeness of God. This likeness includes the right and ability to rule, to create (by procreation), and to reason and develop relationship.

Other texts apart from Genesis also support the fact that the Spirit of God, ruach, in the Old Testament was ascribed the glory for the existence of life. The Spirit of God was clearly the animating life force that both initiates life (respiration) and sustains it. To have the ruach of God was to have life, to have the ruach taken away was to no longer possess life. While the topic of creation occurs relatively infrequently in the entire Old Testament, God’s ruach is clearly God himself in action, and if his activity includes creation, the doctrine of Spiritus Creator, developed by the early church, must follow; unless the Spirit is to be detached from God himself in a fashion running directly counter to the thrust of the Old Testament teaching.

‘Ruach,’ the breath that moves through everything

In the various texts indicating the work of the Spirit in creation, the Old Testament presents the efficacy of the Spirit’s activity. It is both creation and preservation that is the direct result of the Spirit of God. Moltmann writes:

Everything that is, exists and lives in the unceasing inflow of the energies and potentialities of the cosmic Spirit. This means that we have to understand every created reality in terms of energy, grasping it as the realized potentiality of the divine Spirit, the Creator is himself present in his creation. He does not merely confront it in his transcendence; entering into it, he is also immanent in it.

Because of the immanent activity of God as ruach, not only is God the Creator, but the Spirit of God is also the sustainer of all things. An emphasis is present in the Old Testament account of God as the immanent agent in all world changes and all world movement, thus laying a firm foundation of providence—God in the world and in history, leading all things to their destined goal. 

Specifically, we see the providential activity of the Spirit in the following areas . . . The ruach was active in the creation of the world (Gen 1:2; Ps 104:29; Job 33:4), along with being the agent of recreation after the flood (Gen 8:1), the agent of the creation of God’s people of Israel (in the form of wind, Exod 14:19–20; 15:10), along with the New Testament account of his creation of the Church (Acts 2:1–4). 

In addition to this creating function, the ruach is also seen as the agent of God by which God exercises his sovereign control over world affairs. The ruach can be destructive or disruptive (Judg 9:23; 1 Sam 16:14–16, 23), often energizes his people (Ezek 2:2), transports them (1 Kings 18:12; 2 Kings 2:16; Ezek 3:12), endows (filling) them with his Spirit, gives gifts and power for sacred service (Exod 35:31; Mic 3:8), comes and “falls” on people divinely chosen and commissioned for the work of God, inspires people (Num 11:17), and, most vividly, is seen in the prophets, the “men of the Spirit” (Num 24:2; 2 Sam. 23:2). The ruach also importantly empowers leaders, especially military ones (Judg 6:34; 13:25; 1 Sam 11:6), and authorizes a person for the leadership of God’s people (Deut 34:9; Judg 3:10; 11:29).

As Warfield concluded; “The Spirit of God thus appears from the outset of the Old Testament as the principle of the very existence and persistence of all things, and as the source and originating cause of all movement and order and life.”

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This post is adapted from The Progressive Mystery by Myk Habets, available now through Lexham Press. The headings and title of this post are the additions of the editor.  

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