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The Spirit in the Old Testament
Pierbattista Pizzaballa ofm
Studium Biblicum Franciscanum

In this year of 1998, dedicated to the Holy Spirit, it is quite appropriate to fix our attention on this great “unknown” of the Holy Trinity. Frequently throughout this year, we are aware of talks about the Spirit, and certainly of studies done concerning the Spirit in the New Testament, in Jesus, in the Church. Yet, it is important to speak about the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, because we find in it all the elements that will later on be renewed and developed in the New Testament. And it is marvelous for us to see just how much unity there is in the entire millennial history of salvation.

However, according to some scholars, one cannot speak of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. They consider it a Christian “theological statement”, and therefore from the New Testament. Certainly one cannot claim to find in the Old Testament the concept of the Holy Spirit as a Person of the Trinity, One and Distinct. However, our faith tells us that the Scriptures are one, and that in them, we can find the basis for that which we believe. If we only use the interpretive method of historical criticism, we do not find a clear and definitive statement of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. There are, however, common elements that do speak somewhat of the existence and prepare for the revelation of the Spirit.

The idea of the spirit in the Old Testament is not a static idea, but rather dynamic. Bit by bit, Israel developed the awareness of being a People, and the idea grew that this was done by God. At the same time, the concept of the spirit of God also developed. It came to be understood as a sort of “assistance of God” (God who assists his people in the desert, God who helps the Jews through specific duties), then as “the Presence of God” (the burning bush or the column of fire), or “the Power of God”, until it comes to be understood , as in the later books, somewhat (“quasi”) as a separate being of God. The texts of Wisdom 15:11, Proverbs 8, Sirach 24, and Psalm 51 are some of the classic examples.

It goes without saying that not everyone agrees on the interpretation of these passages, but Christian exegetes, from the Fathers down to the present, have not ceased to see in these extracts the presence of the Triune God who acts, works and gives life. God did not reveal Himself in a single moment, but slowly, “respecting” the times of his people. The revelation of God, therefore, was continuous and progressive. Thus, we should not hope to find the same idea of the spirit in Genesis, and in Isaiah. We will therefore search briefly to see what are the principle “ideas of spirit” that agree in the Old Testament.

The expression “Holy Spirit” is present only three times in the Old Testament: Psalm 51:13 “Cast me not out from your presence, and your holy spirit take not from me,” Isaiah 63: 10,and 11 “But they rebelled, and grieved his holy spirit; Where is he who put his holy spirit in their midst?” To understand where and how they speak of the Spirit, therefore, we have to also seek other expressions. The language of the Old Testament was Hebrew which, like all Semitic languages, did not love abstraction ideas. To express abstract notions, they frequently had recourse to images or symbols. Through symbols, in fact, we have the first description of the Spirit.

1. The Biblical symbols of the Spirit.
Diverse symbols were adopted in the Bible to describe the Holy Spirit. The wind, water, and fire were the most common. Water was the sign of the spirit that purifies: “ I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you” (Ezekiel 36:25), but also of the spirit that brings back life: “I will pour out water upon the thirsty ground, and streams upon the dry land”, and then adding to the metaphor: “I will pour out my spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing upon your descendants” (Isaiah 44:3; see also Isaiah 44:5-6). “On that day, living waters shall flow from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea, and half to the western sea, and it shall be so in summer and in winter” (Zechariah 14:8). “This water flows into the eastern district down upon the Arabah, and empties into the sea, the salt waters, which it makes fresh. Wherever the river flows, every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live, and there shall be abundant fish, for wherever this water comes the sea shall be made fresh” (Ezekiel 47:8-9). There are so many examples, it is not necessary to list them all. However, it is necessary to remember that water gives life, but it also takes life away. It is enough to recall the flood (Genesis 6). Certainly the people in the time of Jesus were indeed gifted with the significance of the image of water, since all of their tradition was rich with it. It is enough to remember the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus: “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit” (The entire dialogue is John 3: 1-21). It was and always is the symbol of God who purifies, who gives life, who gives birth and at times, also destroys the wicked.

Another very important image is “fire.” It is one of the symbols preferred to express the essence and work of God. The famous passage in which God speaks to Moses from the burning bush (Exodus 3:2) is an example. Note also the account which speaks of God present under the form of a column of fire: “The Lord preceded them, in the daytime by means of a column of cloud to show them the way, and at night by means of a column of fire to give them light. Thus they could travel both day and night. Neither the column of cloud by day not the column of fire by night ever left its place in front of the people.” (Exodus 13: 21-22). A most beautiful image which gives fine evidence that God and his people walked together, and that the Lord was always present. The Christian interpretation has always seen in this passage a clear reference to the spirit of God. In Ezekiel we also find a most significant image: “As I looked, a stormwind came from the North, a huge cloud with flashing fire (enveloped in brightness), from the midst of which (the midst of the fire) something gleamed like electrum” (Ezekiel 1:4). In Daniel 7: 10 we read: “A surging stream of fire flowed out from where he sat.” With fire, God purifies the prophets from impurity (Isaiah 6:7). From the fire, there are seraphim that stand in the presence of God and shine as if on fire. (Seraphim is derived the Hebrew word “seraf” which means “to be on fire” or “to burn”.) The fire that comes forth from the throne, or the column of fire and smoke are visible signs, almost like “intermediaries” of the presence and the action of God, whom no one can see, and with whom no one can speak directly. St. Francis of Assisi certainly had these images in mind when, in one of his prayers, he wrote: “Deign O Lord that, illumined by the fire of the Holy Spirit ... we may be able to follow your ways” (Prayer at the Chapter). Like water, fire also is able to purify, destroy, and also represent divine anger (Jeremiah 21:12), his fury (Psalm 18:9), and his wrath (Deuteronomy 32:22). There is no need to interpret these passages in a pantheistic sense, that is, as if they would affirm that God is in water or in fire. It is only a question of images which were certainly common in all of the Ancient Near East, and which indicate the presence and action of God in specific circumstances.

Another well-known image was that of the “cloud” (still referring to the Exodus or to the giving of the commandments). And still another image was the expression “finger”, “right hand”, or “hand of God.” “The heavens are my throne, the earth is my footstool ... My hand made all these things ...” (Isaiah 66: 1-2). “Your hands have formed me and fashioned me” (Job 10:8). The hand is still the symbol of the love of God for mankind: “That my hand may be always with him, and that my arm may make him strong” (Psalm 89:22). Briefly then, the hand, as fire and water, is an image that points to God who acts, works, and saves. This image is without doubt among the most used and, in the above examples which were so dear to the Fathers of the Church, have inspired the Trinitarian interpretation. The expression “hand of God” or “finger of God” is used the most in showing the creative spirit of God. “When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you set in place ...” (Psalm 8:4). St. Irenaeus wrote in such a manner: “Man is a mixture of soul and body, fashioned to the image of God, and formed by the hands of God, that is, by the Son and the Spirit when it said: ‘Let us make man ... ‘ (Genesis 1:26).” The tradition of the Church in the noted beginning of “Veni Creator” adds the title: “Finger of the right hand of God.”

But certainly the most important image is that of the “wind.” (It is important to state here that there is no specific word in Hebrew for the idea of spirit.) The word “wind”, taken from context, indicates this idea. In Hebrew, wind is “ruah” which also means breath, a light breeze, a puff of wind. It is not easy, therefore, to select the right meaning in every case. In short, we must say that the two principle meanings for this word also express two different ways of the appearance of the spirit: that which is linked with natural phenomena (ruah as wind), and that which concentrates on man (ruah as breathing, puff of breath). We now offer you a glimpse into the first meaning.

Wind is always connected in some way with the appearance or the action of God, but indicates, however, a reality that is always in motion. In Psalm 18:11 it says: “He mounted a cherub and flew, borne on the wings of the wind”. God appears to Ezekiel in a stormwind (Ezekiel 1:4). God speaks to Job “from the midst of the storm” (Job 38:1). The encounter of the prophet Elijah with the Lord is manifested as a gentle breeze, “the whisper of a gentle breeze” (1 Kings 19:12). Still, there is need to pay be attentive to all this in way as not to be misunderstood. The fire, the stormwind, the earthquake are only manifestations. God “was not in the wind ... in the earthquake ... in the fire” (1 Kings 19:11-12). E.g. “The Lord swept the sea with a strong east wind” (Exodus 14:21), and so the people were able to cross the Red Sea. In the Book of Jonah, God sent “a burning east wind, and the sun beat upon Jonah’s head” (Jonah 4:8). “In hurricane and tempest is his path” (Nahum 1:3). Briefly then, whether it is a question of a gentle breeze (Job 4:15) or of a mighty wind (Job 8:2), or even a violent storm (Psalm 55:9), it is always God who is moving it. And it is always God who is the source of the action sustained by ruah.

The prophecy of Isaiah 32:15-20 is very interesting: the ruah will transform the desert into a garden bringing forth peace and justice. Here, it is not possible to translate the Hebrew word as wind. Ruah expressly signifies spirit, understood as a power capable of transforming not only natural phenomena, but also the hearts of men. The wind is as if always the object of the action of God; man observes it (2 Kings 3:17), but is never able to control it (Ecclesiastes 8:8). The power present in the wind, and no one knows where it comes from, are elements which make it possible to see in them the mysterious presence of God. The wind does not come from God when it indicates a reality, carnal or futile, which perishes: “Ah, all of them are nothing, their works are nought, their idols are empty wind!” (Isaiah 4:29). “The prophets (false) have become wind, and the word is not in them” (Jeremiah 5:13).

As in the preceding images, ruah is able to give life, but also destroy it. In Isaiah, the drunkards of Ephraim are destroyed in a violent storm (Isaiah 28:2). In Ezekiel, God lets loose his anger in the wind: “I will let loose the stormwonds; because of my anger there shall be a flooding rain ...” (Ezekiel 13:13). In other passages, the wind is likewise understood as the breath of God wich gives life to the dead (Ezekiel 37, 2 Samuel 22:16; Psalm 18:16). And breath is indeed the other important meaning for ruah. Still, it is not easy to distinguish between the two meanings as we have previously stated. The famous passage from Genesis 1:2 in which it says that the “breath of God hovered over the waters” is able to be understood as wind, or simply as the breath of the Creator.

“When you sent forth your spirit (or wind), they are created, and you renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:30). The excerpts in which ruah is clearly understood as breath or breathing are most numerous, and almost always signify the ongoing revelation of the Holy Spirit. In many cases, the “concrete” meanings of wind and breath are not as noticeable from a visible perspective. That is, it is not possible to have a precise idea of the real stability of the images of wind and breath. In many of these passages the meanings “fluctuate”.

When they had the meaning of breath or breathing, the word ruah often becomes associated with another word which is like a synonym: neshamah.

“Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spreads out the earth with its crops, Who gives breath (neshamah) to its people and spirit (ruah) to those who walk on it” (Isaiah 42:5). [ the Lord who ... forms the spirit within the intimacy of man” (Zechariah 12:1). During the flood “everything on dry land with the faintest breath of life in its nostrils died out” (Genesis 7:21). Not only in man, but also in animals, therefore, there is a “breath of life” (Genesis 1:30), even though it is well distinguished from that of man, to whom all the animals are subservient. God is the same who blows the breath of life into man: “the Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). The Lord is “God of the spirits of all mankind” (Numbers 16:22), and “in his hand is the life breath (ruah) of all mankind” (Job 12:10). It is necessary to be attentive and not confuse these meanings of ruah with those which indicate, on the contrary, simply psychological conditions of the soul. (In the morning, her spirit (ruah) was disturbed” 1 Samuel 1:15.)

Considering what has been said, we are already able to draw some important considerations. The spirit is never an autonomous entity of man or of the universe, nor even a superior quality that would distinguish man from animal. But it is always, and exclusively, a reality that proceeds from God. He it is that gives the vital breath to all living things, and He it is who makes and helps his people grow. He it is who stirs up the wind, the fire, the water to bring every change. It is necessary to add, moreover, that the spirit is always opposite to the flesh (Isaiah 31:3) which is the sole reality which is subject to the will of man. God gives the spirit. In fact, whenever He wishes, He takes it back. The presence of the spirit gives life to the world and to man, and without it (without, that is, the presence of God), the flesh perishes.

We are still quite far from affirmations concerning the existence of the spirit which we meet in the Wisdom literature of the Bible and later on in the New Testament. But certainly it is upon this backround and mentality that such theological affirmations are founded. Here one can see the precious and important source for the discourses of Jesus, and later those of Paul. The antithesis between spirit and flesh which we find in John 6:63: “It is the spirit that give life, while the flesh is of no avail”, or in Paul (Romans, Chapters 6-8), are they not perhaps seen somewhat in this context? Do not the images of the union of spirit and fire, often used in the New Testament (Matthew 3:11-12; Hebrews 1:6-7), find their development in what we have presented? The expression “the hand of the Lord was upon him” (Luke 1:66, Acts 11:21, 13:11), does it not have its roots in the passages we have already looked at?

Reflecting carefully , it plainly follows that the spirit in the Old Testament is not only present, but is the very protagonist of the narrative. One can already clearly find the foundation for the concept of the spirit upon which to solidly base the revelation of the Holy Spirit on the part of Jesus and for all the New Testament. There are also other expressions linked to the concept of the spirit (“Spirit of God”, or “Spirit of the Lord”), and they are very important. They do not, however, pertain to the world of images, but have acquired their own precise meaning, and thus merit to be studied separately.

2. The spirit of the Lord.
The “spirit of the Lord” is present first of all in the history of Israel. In the Pentateuch, the expression “spirit of God” is not frequently used, and it is not always easy to delineate and limit, with precision, the experiences of ruah. “Could we find another like him ... a man so endowed with the spirit of God?” (Genesis 41:38). There exists, therefore, the spirit of wisdom, which Moses before he died , through imposition of hands, transmitted to Joshua: “Now Joshua, son of Nun, was filled with the spirit of wisdom, since Moses had laid his hands upon him; and so the Israelites gave him their obedience, thus carrying out the Lord’s command to Moses” (Deuteronomy 34:9). Certainly there is no precise expression however that has always clearly stated the knowledge that the just man is in a position to understand the will of the Lord and to fulfill it well with the help of God. The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, “Joseph the dreamer” and all the others did not realize for certain whether their works were of their own initiative. The use of images and symbols was still very much stressed.

In ancient times, the action of the spirit was not a permanent gift, but always a dynamic and shattering force that took possession of a person for a short time and for a specific task, almost always for the purpose of guiding the people of Israel. According to Judaic interpretation, Moses was the exception, the one who saw the Lord face to face (Deuteronomy 34:10), and who, for all his life, received a special power from God.

In the book of the Judges, according to scholars, we have the very ancient declaration of the expression “spirit of the Lord” which is found no less than seven times in the book. The spirit “empowers” (Judges 6:34), “penetrates” (Judges 14:6,19), “pushed, or stirred” (Judges 13:25). In a word, God sends a power upon a specific person for the purpose of saving his people. In the book of Judges, the real protagonist is the “spirit of the Lord”, and through the spirit, poured forth on various persons, that God saves the people from corruption and idolatry, confounds the enemy in war, and brings back peace. The book of Judges is a little bit like the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, and the same Judaic tradition, in their commentaries on these passages, have always explicitly affirmed that the “spirit of the Lord” is the “Holy Spirit” (Midrashim, Rashi and others ad. loc.). The passage perhaps most significant as an example is found in Judges 3:7-11: “Because the Israelites had offended the Lord by forgetting the Lord ... the anger of the Lord flared up against them, and he allowed them to fall into the power of Cushanrishathaim, King of Aram Naharaim, whom they served for eight years. But when the Israelites cried out to the Lord, he raise up for them a savior, Othniel ... who rescued them The spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he judged Israel.”

Also in the other historical books, that is, those that are found immediately after the Pentateuch, the spirit is present in diverse persons. First of all Samuel, who was asleep near the same Lord (1 Samuel 3:10). But also on the kings, he gives himself in personal ways. The anointing of the king was a true and proper liturgy, not much different from our actual liturgies. After anointing him with oil, Samuel says to Saul: “The spirit of the Lord will rush upon you, and you will join them in their prophetic state and will be changed into another man” (1 Samuel 10:6). All this, however, does not hinder Saul from sinning and doing evil before the Lord, so that the spirit withdraws from him, as we know from the reading. Naturally, as upon Saul, more so upon David, with oil, the spirit of the Lord comes upon him (1 Samuel 16:13).

Elijah and Elisha both had the spirit of the Lord (2 Kings 2: 9,15), but it is difficult to understand if it is really speaking about the spirit of the Lord, or simply of a particular power. In this case, there is clearly a fundamental element missing: divine providence. Setting aside the significance of this expression, however, it is clear that God is present and acting with His spirit in these two persons. It is especially evident in Elijah. The encounter with God, given in I Kings 19:9-8, is a fascinating description of the “experience of God.”

In these historical books, there also exists another form of the spirit: the so-called prophetic ecstacy, which we simply call “ecstacy” (2 Kings 3:15; I Kings 18:46), and which was quite widespread. Saul “sent his messengers to arrest David. But when they saw the band of prophets, presided over by Samuel, in a prophetic frenzy, they too fell into the prophetic state” (I Samuel; 19:20). Thus, the spirit is also unexpected and totally free.

In the prophets, the presence of the spirit is most abundant, but only in the later prophets. In Osea, Amos, Habakkuk, and in the other early prophets, strangely, there are few signs of the presence of the spirit working. Probably it was a sort of an influence from a distance of certain degenerate forms of prophetic ecstacy. In the later prophets like Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah, to the contrary, the spirit becomes again the protagonist. [ It is difficult to choose among the numerous citations ... The celebrated Chapter 37 of Ezekiel (the vision of the bones rising) opens up solemnly and helps one understand that the subject is the spirit: “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he led me out in the spirit of the Lord” (Ezekiel 37:1). The spirit intervenes and works well in eight places in this chapter, and no less than fifty times in the entire book.

In Isaiah, the relation between the spirit and the Messiah is also very important. [In fact, it is important to note that the idea of the spirit changes in radical ways with the monarchy, especially with the monarchy of David. If at first the spirit was a shattering and transitory power, with the coming of David to the throne, it slowly transforms itself into a stable force, into a continuous assistance for the house of David. If at first the ruah came as “special envoy”, now it “rests” on the elect of the Lord (2 Kings 2:15). The same fact, for example, that the spirit ought to have been “bound” to a rite with the imposition of hands or anointing, clearly indicates how the idea of the spirit has come a very long way from the period of the Judges. For example, it is said of David that the Lord created him “a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). Therefore, the Messiah, his descendant, “shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted” (Isaiah 11:4). “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2). “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1). “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly” (Isaiah 61:1).

Moreover in the later prophets, the spirit is sent only only to a single person, but also to an entire people ( Joel 3:1ff; Haggai 2:5; Isaiah 32:15; 14:3; 59:21, etc.). “I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees” (Ezekiel 36:27). Here the spirit is not only the wind or vital breath, but a reality that purifies man, transforms him completely. The same spirit, in the following chapter of Ezekiel (Chapter 37) brings to life these “dry bones”.

One of the last prophets still needs more an explanation: “Then afterwards I will pour my spirit upon all mankind” (Joel 3:1). Considering all that has been said, the development of the concept of the spirit in the Old Testament appears somewhat clear. Initially it was a power of God. [ the same God who, seen in images or specific expressions, acts and works. The first task of the spirit is that of working in a concrete, temporal situation. Slowly, the term ruah acquires a separate meaning. In the later prophets and wisdom literature, after the tragedy of the Babylonian exile, the destruction of the Temple, the end of the monarchy and the lose of political independence, the spirit is no longer an act of God. Its concept is widened theologically. The spirit not only confounds the enemy, but converts hearts, transforms souls. [in this period, we find the expression: “Holy Spirit” (Isaiah 63: 10,11; Psalm 51:13).] The Book of Wisdom, Sirach, Proverbs, and part of the Psalms speak of the spirit as a reality somewhat separated from God (Wisdom 15:11), and also that they are not so linked to images and symbols. I believe that i is most appropriate, as a conclusion, to offer this passage from St. Gregory of Nazianzen:

    “The Old Testament proclaimed the Father quite clearly, the Son more obscurely. The New Testament revealed the Son, and gave glimpses of the divinity of the Spirit. Now the Spirit has made claim to citizenship in our midst, and grants us a very clear vision of itself. In fact, it was not prudent, when the divinity of the Father was still not declared, to quite frankly proclaim the Son, and when the divinity of the Son was still not acknowledged, to add the Holy Spirit as a additional package ... to use an expression which is a bit dry ... solely as a way to advance and develop: “from glory to glory, the light of the Trinity shining in most brilliant clarity” (Orationes Theologicae, 5:26).

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