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From Spirit to
Holy Spirit in
the Old Testament

by Leonard Doohan

We hear a lot about the the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives, devotions, liturgies and ministry these days. In fact, we even speak about "the decade of the Holy Spirit." As individuals and as a Church, we have a much greater awareness than ever before of the powerful role the Holy Spirit plays in our daily lives.

The first major Church teachings on the Holy Spirit did not take place until the great ecumenical councils of the fourth century. In this Scripture From Scratch, we will go back even further, asking how the Chosen People understood the role of the Holy Spirit. We will find that their appreciation grew over time as well, from the first hints of the spirit to the profound celebration of the gift that the Holy Spirit is to all the people.

A Breath of Fresh Air

The original meaning of "spirit" (ruah in Hebrew) is simply "breath" and often means the breath of life (Genesis 2:7; Job 33:4). So Job can say: "For the spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life" (Job 33:4).

Besides meaning an individual person's breath of life, the word "spirit" sometimes means the world's breath, in other words, the wind, understood as a mysterious power, a noise like the voice of Yahweh, a messenger that can be powerful and even destructive
(1 Kings 19:11; 2 Samuel 22:11, 16; Psalm 18:15).

From this early simple understanding, the word "spirit" comes to mean the source of life and vital activity, because when people have breath in them they are alive and when the breath leaves them they die (Genesis 6:3; Job 34:14; Psalm 33:6; 104:29).

Thus, "spirit" gradually means God's breath within us, creative, renewing and life-giving; when we have it we are alive, when we do not we die. "If he were to take back his spirit to himself, withdraw to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together, and man return to the dust" (Job 34:14-15).

Since "spirit" refers to a person's vital activity it begins to mean the kind of spirit a person has—is a person in a good spirit or a bad spirit? From this point it is logical to understand "spirit" to refer to what is ethical and unethical—the spirit of God leading to good living and its absence to immoral living (Isaiah 30:1; 11:2; Psalm 51:12-13; Ezekiel 36:26-27).

Thus, God says to Ezekiel: "I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances" (Ezekiel 36:27).

This sense of spirit is also applied on a world scale to mean the spirit or presence of God directing world history (Exodus 33:14-16; Psalm 139:7). We see good examples of God's spirit directing Israel's history in the writings of the prophets.

"This is the pact I made with you when you came out of Egypt,/And my spirit continues in your midst; do not fear" (Haggai 2:5).

"This is the Lord's message to Zerubbabel: Not by an army, nor by might, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts" (Zechariah 4:6).

Gifts of the Spirit

Once the Chosen People begin to think about the kind of life the spirit brings they focus on the gifts or charisms the spirit gives to individuals, whether leaders (Numbers 11:24-30), judges (Judges 3:10; 6:4; 11:29; 13:25), kings (1 Samuel 11:6; 16:13), wise people (Job 32:8; Proverbs 1:23), craftspeople (Exodus 31:3) and prophets (1 Samuel 11:6; Micah 3:8; Ezekiel 2:2).

So the spirit is a force that has unique effects on people, transforming them, challenging them to exceptional deeds, urging them to act prophetically, strengthening them in their vocation, sanctifying them, giving them wisdom and discernment.

Although the first references to the spirit in the Old Testament are simple, they increase in importance and the spirit's presence is seen as a sign of God's constant action in the world.

Switching on the Power

The many blessings of God's spirit were seen in a special way in the person of the anointed king. When a king was unworthy, the people looked forward to a future king who would be filled with the gifts of God's spirit.

The time of the future anointed one—Messiah—was viewed as a time of fulfillment and of a particular presence of God's spirit. In the future messianic times people believed that there would be a collective outpouring of God's spirit on all the messianic people and an individual outpouring of God's spirit on the person of the Messiah.

For the prophet Isaiah the restoration of the nation would begin with the purification of the people by the spirit of God (Isaiah 4:4-6). Their future growth and salvation would be the work of the same spirit, and so he urges the people to wait "until the spirit from on high is poured out on us, then will the desert become an orchard" (Isaiah 32:15).

With God's redemption come many gifts of the spirit for the nation: "I will pour water upon the thirsty ground, and streams upon the dry land; I will pour out my spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing upon your descendants" (Isaiah 44:3).

In fact, Isaiah sees a new covenant established through the spirit and considers this same spirit as an everlasting gift to the people—a gift that is also a pledge of God's future blessings.

"This is the covenant with them, which I myself have made, says the Lord. My spirit which is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall never leave your mouth, nor the mouths of your children, nor the mouths of your children's children, from now on and forever, says the Lord" (Isaiah 59:21).

Like Isaiah, Ezekiel also saw that the people's purification would be through the gift of the spirit (Ezekiel 11:18-20), and that the spirit would lead the people to a spiritual regeneration.

"I will give you a new heart, and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts" (Ezekiel 36:26).

Moreover, he taught that the spirit would be an abiding power among the people, leading them to live the Lord's law and calling them on to the renewal and reconstruction of the whole nation (Ezekiel 36:27; 37:1-14).

The prophets' conviction of a general outpouring of the spirit on the messianic people is summed up by the prophecy of Joel that we read on Pentecost, the day when these prophecies are fulfilled.

"Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all mankind; your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions" (Joel 3:1).

The future times to which the people looked forward would include—in addition to the outpouring of the spirit on all people—a special individual pouring out of the spirit on the person of the Messiah.

Three main prophecies emphasize this, all coming from Isaiah. The prophet describes the spiritual reign of a future king: "The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and might, a spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord" (Isaiah 11:2).

Clearly, the gifts of the spirit are concentrated in this future king—the wisdom of kings like Solomon, the counsel and might of David and others, and the religious attitudes of leaders like Moses and Abraham.

Isaiah also sees the Messiah as God's servant, filled with the spirit and sent to the people with a mission of bringing justice to the world. "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 42:1-7).

Endowed with the spirit and sent to the people, the Messiah becomes the source of the spirit's gifts to others. "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,/because the Lord has anointed me..." (Isaiah 61:1-3).

The spirit brings power and blessings to the Messiah, to the messianic people, and nowadays to us. In Baptism we are anointed with this same spirit and sent on mission to serve others, endowed with the gifts God sees we need.

Starting Over Every Day

A third characteristic of the spirit in the Old Testament is that the spirit is the creative source of new life.

Present at the first creation as "a wind from God [that] swept over the face of the waters" (Genesis 1:2), the spirit appears as a dove in the re-creation after the time of Noah (Genesis 8:6-13), and finally as a cloud, representing the presence of God, during the Exodus (Exodus 14:15).

In the New Testament this image of the spirit reappears in the stories that surround Jesus' baptism in all four Gospels.

Psalms reiterate this same idea of the creative power of the spirit of God, applying it to God's actions in the world. "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host" (Psalm 33:6).

"When you send forth your spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth" (Psalm 104:30).

Other psalms apply the idea of the creative action of the spirit to the individual lives of believers. "A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me. Cast me not out from your presence, and your holy spirit take not from me. Give me back the joy of your salvation, and a willing spirit sustain within me" (Psalm 51:12-1).

Getting Ready for Jesus

Nowhere in the Old Testament is the Holy Spirit spoken of as a separate person of the Holy Trinity. In fact, it will take the Church a long time to arrive at a clear explanation of the role of the Holy Spirit.

Even in the centuries before the coming of Jesus, however, we can see the traces of future teachings in the people's growing awareness of the role of the spirit.

The spirit is a power in the world and in individuals, breathing life into both. The spirit not only gives life but determines the type or quality of life both of individuals and of history, good, ethical, given to God.

The spirit is God's charismatic presence in individuals, enabling them to be leaders, prophets, kings, craftspeople and so on.

Since the spirit is seen as so powerful and good, it is natural to expect that when the best of times come in the Messiah, both the people and the Messiah himself will be filled with the spirit of God.

In the Old Testament the people's experience was that the spirit brought life where there was none. So, it is natural that the Chosen People should also think of the spirit as the creative presence of God.

When Jesus comes he will develop these ideas even more, so that eventually believers will be able to see the actions of a divine person, distinct from Father and Son, and deepen their faith in the Holy Spirit of the living God. *

Leonard Doohan is dean of graduate studies and professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University. He has written numerous books and articles on prayer and biblical spirituality. With his wife, Helen, he gives workshops on spirituality across the United States and around the world.

Next: The Trinity (by Elizabeth Johnson)



Praying With Scripture

The newness of life and power of the spirit let us begin again every day our life of dedication to God. The spirit renews us to rise from failures and begin anew. Take time each morning to breathe deeply and pray, "Come, Spirit of God, inspire all that I do this day."



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