John T. Willis

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


The Hebrew word "ruach" often means "wind" in the Hebrew Bible.

1. God often actively sends or brings the wind to accomplish his purposes.
a. Exodus 10:13 describes God sending the locust plague on the Egyptians in these words: "So Moses stretched out his staff over the land of Egypt, and THE LORD BROUGHT AN EAST WIND (RUACH) UPON THE LAND ALL THAT DAY AND ALL THAT NIGHT; when morning came, THE EAST WIND (RUACH) HAD BROUGHT THE LOCUSTS." Exodus 10:19 describes the end of this locust plague in Egypt with these words: "The Lord changed the wind into a very strong WEST WIND (RUACH), which lifted the locusts and drove them into the Red Sea . . ."
b. In the wilderness, when the Israelites complained because they had no food, God sent them quail. Numbers 11:31 describes the sending of the quail in this way: "THEN A WIND (RUACH) WENT OUT FROM THE LORD, and it brought quails from the sea and let them fall beside the camp . . ."
c. The composer of Psalm 83 prays that God will deal with his enemies in the following way, according to verse 13:
"O my God, make them like whirling dust,
like chaff before THE WIND (RUACH)."
d. When Jonah went to Joppa and caught a ship going to Tarshish in order to escape Yahweh's command that he go to Nineveh and preach to the Assyrians there, the Bible says in Jonah 1:4: "BUT THE LORD HURLED A GREAT WIND (RUACH) UPON THE SEA, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up."
There is an important message which the Bible asserts in all these passages [and many others which could be mentioned here]: the wind does not blow accidentally as a result of certain atmospheric conditions on earth; rather, God actively in the world he has created, and "CAUSES THE WIND TO BLOW" whenever and wherever he wishes to carry out his purposes.
2. There are three special uses of "ruach" meaning "wind" in the Hebrew Bible which deserve special mention.
a. The Hebrew Bible says that God "rides on" the wind or the wings of the wind. For example, 2 Sam. 22:11=Psalm 18:10 says:
"He [Yahweh] rode on a cherub, and flew;
he came swiftly UPON THE WINGS OF THE WIND (RUACH)."
(See also Psalm 104:3 and the similar expressions "who rides through the heavens" in Deuteronomy 33:26; "him who rides upon the clouds" in Psalm 68:4; "rider in the heavens" in Psalm 68:33; and "the Lord is riding on a swift cloud" in Isaiah 19:1). The Hebrew Bible composers borrowed this phrase from their Canaanite neighbors, who spoke of their god Baal "riding on the clouds," declaring that what the Canaanites attributed to Baal was actually true of Yahweh. The picture is that of a KING riding into battle, leading his troops [his hosts] against his enemies.
b. Psalm 148:8 personifies the wind when the poet calls on the wind to "praise" God, its creator:
God controls the wind to carry out his purposes. Thus, the psalmist summons the wind [as one would summon a PERSON] to "PRAISE" its creator by doing what its creator created it to do.
c. One task God actively uses the "wind" to do is to cause water to subside. What we call "evaporation," the Bible claims God actively accomplishes by causing the wind to blow over the water. Three striking examples of this deserve brief comment.
1. Genesis 8:1 describes the end of the flood which God sent over the earth in the days of Noah in these words: "AND GOD MADE A WIND (RUACH) BLOW OVER THE EARTH, AND THE WATERS SUBSIDED."
2. Exodus 14:21 describes the parting of the Red Sea so the Israelites could pass over on dry land in this way: "Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. THE LORD DROVE THE SEA BACK BY A STRONG EAST WIND (RUACH) ALL NIGHT, AND TURNED THE SEA INTO DRY LAND; AND THE WATERS WERE DIVIDED."
3. These passages indicate the correct understanding of Genesis 1:2: "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." Then, verse 9 states the result: "And God said, 'LET THE WATERS UNDER THE SKY BE GATHERED TOGETHER INTO ONE PLACE, AND LET THE DRY LAND APPEAR.'" This is the translation of the NRSV. Older translations missed the meaning by reading: "The Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters," leading many people to think this was a reference to the Holy Spirit of the New Testament. The flow of the narrative in Genesis 1 and the comparable statements in Genesis 8:1 and Exodus 14:21 show that the biblical composer had in mind "wind," which causes water to subside.

[More to come]

John Willis

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Study of the Meaning of "Spirit" in the Bible [Spirit]

We human beings are constantly in the process of creating new words and expressions to communicate with one another. This has always been true of the human race. We have words and phrases for all kinds of things: varieties of birds and animals and plants, shades of color, shapes, sizes, distances, ways of travel, parts of the body, names of cities and countries and rivers and mountains and mountain ranges, and the list goes on and on.

One thing about words and phrases that is very confusing is that the same word or phrase may have one meaning in one context or in one time period or in one culture--but may have a different meaning in another context or in another time period or in another culture. Furthermore, all languages are changing constantly, so that a word which meant one thing 100 years ago may have an entirely different meaning now. The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language is a wonderful source for tracing the changing meanings of words and expressions.

An interesting example of this for Bible students is the word "prevent." This word comes from the Latin verb praevenire, "come/go before." Thus, quite correctly, the King James Version of 1611 translated 1 Thess. 4:15: "we who are alive . . . will by no means 'prevent' those who have fallen asleep," which all readers of the early part of the seventeenth century easily understood to mean: "we who are still alive [when Christ returns] . . . will by no means 'go [to be with Christ in heaven] before' our fellow-Christians who have already died, [but first God will raise from the dead those who have already died, and they together with us will go up to join Christ in his eternal glory]." But in 2006, 1 Thess. 4:15 means: "we who are alive . . . will by no means 'keep' those who have died 'from' ?" At this point, we are stumped! Keep them from doing what? The meaning of the word "prevent" has changed in the last 400 years. So more recent English translations correctly translate this word "precede," that is, "go before": "we who are alive . . . will by no means 'precede' or 'go before' those who have died to meet Christ when he returns.

One word which troubles students of the Bible is the word "spirit." The Hebrew word for "spirit" is "ruach," and the Greek word is "pneuma." In the next several blogs, we will be taking a trip through the Bible in an attempt to learn the various meanings of the words "ruach" and "pneuma." At the very beginning, one thing is very clear: THESE TWO WORDS HAVE DIFFERENT MEANINGS IN DIFFERENT CONTEXTS. So we do our best to stay with the context in each case.

One final introductory observation is important: the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts with which we work do not distinguish between words which begin with capital letters and words which begin with small letters. So, it is ALWAYS the translator's decision which determines whether we translate "Spirit" or "spirit." The problem here will soon become evident when we compare different English translations of the Bible.

John Willis