The natural force which represents in its extended meaning the breath of life in human beings and the creative, infilling power of God and His Spirit.
Early Concepts Two words in the Bible—the Hebrew ruah and the Greek pneuma—bear the basic meaning of wind but are often translated as spirit. Some understanding of the development of the latter word clarifies this transfer in meaning and enriches the concept.
Pneuma originally represented an elemental, vital, dynamic wind or breath. It was an effective power, but it belonged wholly to the realm of nature. This force denoted any type of wind and ranged from a soft breeze to a raging storm or fatal vapor. It was the wind in persons and animals as the breath they inhaled and exhaled. It was life, since breath was the sign of life; and it was soul, since the animating force left when breathing ceased.
Metaphorically speaking, pneuma could be extended to mean a kind of breath that blew from the invisible realms; thus, it could designate spirit, a sign of the influence of the gods upon persons, and the source of a relationship between humankind and the divine. In primitive mythology, this cosmic wind possessed a life-creating power, and a god could beget a son by his breath. The divine breath also inspired poets and granted ecstatic speech to prophets.
In all of these reflections, wind remained an impersonal, natural force. When we come to the Judeo-Christian understanding, however, the concept and terms retain their dynamic characteristics, but rise from cosmic power to personal being.
Old Testament In the Old Testament, the primary meaning of the word ruah is wind. There is the slight breeze (Psalms 78:39), the storm wind (Isaiah 32:2), the whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11), and the scorching wind (Psalms 11:6 NRSV). Winds from the mountains and sea to the north and west brought rain and storm (1 Kings 18:43-45; see
Ezekiel 1:4); those coming from the deserts of the south and east could at times be balmy but more often would sear the land and dry up the vegetation (Genesis 41:6;
Job 37:1-2). Coming from different directions, wind was identified with those directions, referring to the four corners or quarters of the earth or of heaven (Jeremiah 49:36;
Theophanies, or manifestations of God, were often associated with the wind. God answered Job out of the whirlwind (Job 38:1), and the four living creatures appeared to Ezekiel in a strong wind from the north (Job 1:4).
Wind was a symbol of transience (Psalms 78:39), fruitless striving (Ecclesiastes 1:14 NRSV), and desperateness (Job 6:26). More importantly, it was a mighty force which only God could command (Jeremiah 10:13). The wind did God's bidding (Psalms 104:4 NRSV). So closely is the wind connected with God's will that it is called His breath which He blew on the sea to cover the chariots of Pharaoh (Exodus 15:10), or by which He froze rivers (Job 37:10) and withered grass (Isaiah 40:7).
The wind is also breath in humans as the breath of life (Genesis 6:17). The entry of breath gives life (Ezekiel 37:5-7); and, when it is taken away, the person dies (Psalms 104:29). The breath which brings death when it is withdrawn is identified as God's breath (Job 34:14-15). This same breath of the Almighty is the spirit of wisdom and understanding in a person (Job 32:8 NRSV). When ruah is used of the will, intellect, and emotions, or related to God, the meaning often expands from the wind to spirit (Isaiah 40:13). Thus
Psalms 51:1 uses ruah three times when referring to the steadfast, willing, and broken spirit of the psalmist and once when speaking of God's Holy Spirit (Psalms 51:10-12,Psalms 51:17). Sometimes opinions differ whether the meaning is best served by translating the word as “wind” (breath) or “spirit” when it is specifically designated the ruah of God. Thus NRSV translates
Genesis 1:2, “a wind from God,” to meaning that a wind was moving over the primordial waters; other translations speak of God's Spirit hovering there. See Spirit.
New Testament God makes His angels winds (Hebrews 1:7 NIV), and “with the breath of His mouth” the Lord Jesus will destroy the wicked one (2 Thessalonians 2:8 NIV).
The extended meaning, after the experience of Pentecost, has become dominant, and pneuma usually refers to a person's inner being (in distinctions from the body) with which the personal Spirit of God communicates and blends as it generates and sanctifies Christians and forms them into the body of Christ (John 3:5-8;
1 Corinthians 12:7-13;
Galatians 5:16-23). In each of these extended meanings, we can still detect in their foundation the image of the wind (pneuma) which blows where it wills (John 3:8).