7 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know: Ruach
May 23, 2021
I recently came across the story of a Christian singer who rented a recording studio. After an extensive setup and sound check, she began performing her first song. The sound technician thought it sounded great. But about halfway through the first verse, she stopped abruptly, threw up her hands, and said, “It’s no use. Turn it off! She’s not here.”
“Umm, who’s not here?” asked the sound tech.
“Her” she said, “the Holy Spirit. God’s presence—it’s missing.” The singer called a few friends into the studio, and they began laying their hands on various pieces of equipment, praying for God’s presence and dabbing the equipment with oil.
After a few minutes, she began singing again. About thirty seconds in, she again said: “Stop! She’s not here. Let’s pray again.” And again in came the prayer posse: anointing, praying. By this time, the sound tech was getting annoyed. His equipment was getting greasy.
As she began recording for the fourth time, he noticed that the reverb on her monitor was turned off, so he reached down and turned it up, at which point she put her hands in the air and began to say, “Hallelujah, there she is! The Spirit is here!” The sound tech simply did not have the heart to say to her, “Uh … no ma’am. That was the reverb.” (J. D. Greear)
The Holy Spirit: that mysterious third person of the trinity who we mention in prayers and benedictions, occasionally in conversations or Bible studies. Growing up in youth group we talked a lot about the Holy Spirit as God’s presence in our midst and as our guide that directed us through life, sometimes with words and intuitions. And so I tried to pay attention for signs that the Spirit was close by. It was probably no surprise that I felt God’s Spirit most clearly in the emotional highs of Christian winter camps, and especially when the bass and the reverb were turned up really high. And it is probably no wonder that in high school the Holy Spirit’s voice often sounded much like my own inner voice, nudging me to ask this or that girl out, because I thought it was God’s providence. Spoiler alert: I didn’t end up really asking any girls out because I was too afraid.
What really is the Holy Spirit, if not an emotional high or an inner voice nudging us forward, like some of us were taught. As Christians what are we to do with the idea of God’s Spirit dwelling among us as our guide, when there are so many different factions and denominations of Christians who disagree with each other and they all claim to be guided by the same Spirit?? How does that work?
On Pentecost, we celebrate the day that Jesus sent his Spirit to dwell in us and among us as our advocate—praying for us—and as our guide, directing us through the complexities and difficulties of life. But I wonder if over the years we’ve reduced the idea of God’s Spirit to a magic eight ball of sorts – you know those kind that you shake to receive an answer to some existential or practical problem. And it worries me that God’s Spirit so often seems to be weaponized, wielded as a sword against other Christians and non-Christians alike to put them in their place: “Well God’s Spirit spoke to me and it’s supposed to be this way.” A seminary professor once warned us, “Be careful what you attribute to the Spirit, because it’s amazing how often the Spirit’s voice will sound like your own inner voice.” In other words, if you never feel nudged to think differently, to live differently or to consider things in a different light, then it’s probably not God’s Spirit you’re listening to, because there’s no way any of us have it all figured out.
It’s difficult to figure out how to preach on the Holy Spirit, because I know many of us are coming from very different places based on our upbringings and our previous church or religious experiences. So rather than try to untangle the messy web of various and competing ideas about who or what God’s Spirit is, I’m going to start with the Hebrews and how they understood God’s Spirit.
The Spirit is the way that biblical authors talk about God’s personal presence. The Hebrew word is ruach (you gotta clear your throat at the end). Ruach can refer to a number of different things, but what they all have in common is energy.
There’s an invisible energy that makes the clouds move or the tree branches sway. We’d call that wind. And in Hebrew, that’s ruach. Now take a big breath. Do you feel that inside you? That energy and vitality you get in your body from breathing deeply? That too is ruach. And this is the same word used in the Bible to describe God’s personal presence. Just like wind and breath are invisible, God’s Spirit is invisible. Wind is powerful and God’s Spirit is powerful. Just as breath keeps us alive, so God’s Spirit sustains all of life. (Much of this description of ruach is taken from the Bible Project’s phenomenal video on “The Holy Spirit.”)
I want to briefly mention as an important aside, that ruach is actually feminine in Hebrew. God’s creative power and abiding presence in the world is feminine. Now, I don’t think we can try to make too much out of this, but I do think it’s true that most of Christianity has gotten much too comfortable viewing God as a male. And not only is this unbiblical, because there is much feminine imagery used to describe God in scripture, but this is a problem. If God created humanity in God’s image as both male and female, then that means that both maleness and femaleness are part of God. God is male and female, at the same time. So even though most of us are comfortable using male pronouns for God, we mustn’t forget that God is not a male. I think an important corrective for this type of male-dominated thinking is to refer to God’s Spirit with feminine pronouns. You may have noticed already that I try to do this, but there’s support for it in scripture because God’s ruach is a feminine. I’ll probably preach a full sermon on this eventually, but I just wanted to point that out for now.
Now, I want to go all the back to the beginning to help us understand the role of God’s Spirit in the world. Page one of our Bibles opens with, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” And so on and so forth. I bet you’re thinking, “Man, he wasn’t kidding when he said he was starting in the beginning!”
On page one, the uncreated world is depicted as this dark chaotic place that is formless and void, or tohu vabohu in Hebrew. The uncreated world is described as nothing but a large body of water. In the ancient world large bodies of water were used to represent chaos and disorder; they were something that can’t be controlled or tamed. And it’s over this dark, chaotic and disordered body of water that the Spirit of God hovers. From this chaos and nothingness, out of the tohu vabohu, God’s Spirit brings about life, order and beauty in the form of creation.
After God’s ruach created life out of the primordial chaos, as we continue on in the story of the Bible we see God’s ruach giving special empowerment to people for specific tasks. The first person in the Bible this happens to is Joseph. God’s Spirit enables him to understand and interpret dreams. And then it happens to this guy named Betzelel and he’s an artist. God’s Spirit empowers him with wisdom and skills; he’s given creative genius to make beautiful things in the tabernacle. And we also see God’s ruach empower a group of people called the prophets. The prophets are able to see what’s happening in history from God’s point of view. Here’s the problem as the prophets saw it: while God’s ruach had created a really good world, humans have given into evil, they’ve unleashed chaos back into the world with their injustice, creating a new type of disorder, similar to what we see on the first page of the Bible. (Much of this description of ruach is taken from the Bible Project’s phenomenal video on “The Holy Spirit.”)
This chaos and disorder that the prophets pointed to is something we see documented on our phone screens, newspapers and TV stations every day. We see nations raging against each other and trying to get the upper hand through politics, violence and trade embargos. We witness unjust economic practices that allow people and corporations to make gross amounts of money while exploiting their workers with unfair wages and unsafe working conditions. In the US we see partisan politics ripping families, friendships and our nation apart. We see black, brown and immigrant lives maligned, dehumanized and treated unjustly by economic, educational and correctional systems that were created to keep them on the bottom of society. As I preached on last week, even though we were all made in God’s image, we live within social structures that disproportionately value rich lives and beautiful lives, young lives and straight live, white lives and able-bodied lives.
Even if we don’t see the chaos, disorder and injustice at a macro- systemic level, we know it’s existence in our personal lives. We are not a people who are unfamiliar with selfishness and loneliness, with addictions and anxiety. We know that if God created a good world, that it does not seem as if we are living in it right now.
You all know by now that in my free time when I’m not pastoring, I’m doing nerdy things like reading Lord of the Rings. This probably takes me to a whole new level of “nerd”, but my favorite book in the world is called the Silmarillion, which is a prologue of sorts to Tolkien’s fictional masterpiece, Lord of the Rings. It’s basically a bunch of history and genealogy. Super weird, I know right?
But the Silmarillion details the creation of Middle-Earth, the world where Lord of the Rings takes place. In this creation story, the world is sung into being. Eru, the supreme deity places within each of his angelic beings a musical theme of their own and they’re instructed to begin singing that theme. As they all begin to sing, their themes weave together and create a collaborative symphony as they sing creation into being. Plants, animals, mountains and wind are all created as the angelic beings are elated and surprised at what their themes are able to create when sung together.
But there is one being, Melkor, who chooses to sing his own melody and doesn’t want to sing in harmony with the other beings. His discordant melody disrupts the harmony of creation and thus evil, decay and death are born and incorporated into the fabric of Middle-Earth.
I think Tolkien’s creation story of Middle-Earth is beautiful and brilliant and helpful for understanding the work of the Holy Spirit. If we imagine the Spirit’s creative energy at the beginning of creation, singing the world into being, creating order from disorder and beauty from chaos, then it is humanity’s voice that has sung its own discordant melody, reintroducing chaos and disorder into the world.
As humans we have watched the harmony of creation suffer, sometimes by our own selfishness and injustices, our own lack of care and action, and sometimes we experience suffering and death just as a result of living in a world that is not in harmony. It is this disharmony that the prophets point to and warn us about. But the great prophets do not just warn us. They also provide us with hope. The prophets said that God’s Spirit, God’s ruach, would come again just like in Genesis 1, but would come now to transform the human heart, to empower people to truly love God and love others, thereby restoring harmony to creation. As Isaiah writes,
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
We see the Spirit’s empowerment most clearly in the life of Jesus, upon whom the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, and she empowers Jesus to heal the sick, to preach good news, to give up his life for others and ultimately to conquer death with new life. Jesus’ earliest followers believed that it was God’s energizing ruach that raised Jesus from the dead, introducing the beginning of new creation.
And after this, on Pentecost, God’s ruach powerfully comes on all of Jesus’ followers so that they too can become part of this new creation, learning how to live by the energy and influence of God’s ruach. It is this same Spirit that lives in us, empowering us to live lives of love and justice, of grace and forgiveness, of inclusion and advocacy. Through God’s Spirit we are included in God’s new creation movement, restoring this world and everything in it back to life, order and wholeness.
In Tolkein’s creation story, Melkor and his discordant melody do not have the final word, because Eru, the supreme deity smiles at Melkor’s vain attempt to ruin creation and he raises his left hand to begin a new creation theme, one that transforms Melkor’s discordant themes into beautiful themes of redemption and new life. The Christian hope is that God’s ruach will finish the job of new creation, and will sing all things towards redemption and harmony.
Today God’s ruach is still hovering over dark places, pointing people towards Jesus, transforming and empowering us to sing harmonies of love and life where there is currently disorder and chaos. This spirit of creative energy, ruach—God’s very presence—dwells within us, and she is teaching us a new song. Let us join our voices to her beautiful chorus of new creation. Amen.