God and the invisible air force

In which I wrestle with the best way to explain the concept of "spirit", and the myriad ways it has come to be translated in our English Bibles.

Reading a book that's been translated from a different language is never going to be an easy task. Whilst it's relatively straightforward to produce a word-for-word copy, it is inevitable that certain ideas, idioms, even rhymes get lost.

"Spirit" is one of those ideas, and the Bible is one of those books.

Have a look at the following passages (Old Testament, so Hebrew) in which I've highlighted the word for spirit, the Hebrew ruach.

"And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that was with him in the ark: and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters asswaged;" - Genesis 8v1 (KJV)

"And Esau was forty years old when he took to wife Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite: which were a grief of mind unto Isaac and to Rebekah." - Genesis 26v35 (KJV)

"In four quarters were the porters, toward the east, west, north, and south." - 1 Chronicles 9v24 (KJV)

There are also many different types of spirit, all served by this same word:

My challenge was to figure out what possible Hebrew word would make sense in all of the contexts above. Recourse to Strong's concordance at first appears to complicate the issue.

H7303 - Heb. ruach; Wind, breath, mind, spirit.

Primarily, the word means wind, or the movement of air. The connection to breath (as moving air) is fairly clear to see.

The New Testament actually preserves the same idea through its use of the Greek word pnuema.

G4151 - Gk. pneuma; Vital principle, essence, spirit, movement of air.

It's the same word from which we derive our English words pneumatic and pneumonia, meaning air, gas, or by implication, lung.

So how can this one word possibly make sense in all these contexts? What is the idea behind "wind" that the Bible is trying to convey? The best Scriptural definition I believe actually comes from Christ himself:

"The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit." - John 3v8 (KJV)

Although we know wind is there, it's not directly visible; we only know it by its effect on other things. That, as a concept, is a great definition that helps understand all the places that it appears in Scripture. It does service for any invisible force, like air.

Spirit is any invisible force that has tangible effects.

You don't see the wind, just its effect

Let's review how this might be applied:

  • Grief of mind - In these cases, the invisible force is the emotion or attitude that motivates our visible action. This understanding applies everywhere we hear about people being "moved" in a particular way.

  • Wind - As a moving body of air.

  • Life - From the idea of breath, as a moving body of air.

  • Quarter - As a zone of authority or influence (see context for this one).

  • God's Spirit - As His influencing power working invisibly in the world to bring His will to pass, and thus occasionally used of angels.

  • Spirit gifts - which, although (usually) unseen, allow men to perform miraculous physical acts through use of an invisible power.

I'm surprised how consistently this understanding unlocks many passages which might otherwise be attributed to something vague or ephemeral. Most of all, I find the ability to connect with the concepts through the haze of translation to be particularly enlightening.

What words or ideas do you find confusing when translated into English? Let me know via Facebook or Twitter.

PS - Currently working on a definition for H3519 "glory". Let me know if you have any thoughts!

Photo credit: VillegasLillo via photopin cc


Bible enthusiast, husband, Dad, and tech-head with too many projects and not enough time.