The idea of “breath” is completely integral to the human experience.
We cannot live without taking a breath of life. No wonder in songs like “Great Are You Lord” by All Sons & Daughters, lines that talk about God’s breath inhabits our lungs, so we pour our praise with the same breath he gives us.
If we understand the idea of God, especially the Holy Spirit, being like a breath or wind, we can grasp the meaning of the Hebrew word “Ruach.” This word, featured in verses such as Genesis 1:2, Numbers 27:16, Job 33:4, among others, refers to God as a breath, a wind, or a life force that sustains all living things, human beings included.
Although the Bible can sometimes attribute this word to humans, often in reference to their souls or spirit (Genesis 6:3; Genesis 26:35; Numbers 5:14; and others), it most commonly refers to the breath of life that inhabits humans, given to them by God. It also can be used to describe God as a wind or breath or spirit.
Does this word just exist in the Old Testament? Why is the word important? And why should we care about the meaning of this Hebrew word? We’ll dive into these questions and more.
Where Do We See the “Breath of God” in the Bible?
Not surprisingly, God’s “breath” or “ruach” doesn’t cease when the Bible switches languages in the New Testament. We have an equivalent word in the Greek called pneuma.
In the New Testament, the spirit “pneuma” refers to the Holy Spirit. For instance, when the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove during his baptism (Matthew 3:16), the New Testament writers use the word “pneuma” to describe the Holy Spirit.
Similar to ruach, although it mostly is in reference to the Holy Spirit, it can also refer to the animating life principle that exists in humans. A soul or spirit.
So why do we see such a dichotomy? How can both words: ruach and pneuma, refer to both a divine spirit and a non-divine one? In fact, in Matthew 8:16, when Jesus casts out demons, the verse refers to the spirits inhabiting the person as pneuma. Shouldn’t this concern us that a word attributed to something good, the Holy Spirit, can be attributed to something evil as well?
Why Can Ruach Have So Many Meanings?
In the most simple and broad definition possible, ruach (and pneuma) refer to a life force. It can refer to the life force that animates angels, demons, and even human souls. Nothing can exist on its own. Everything needs some life force to animate them. Even in all of our own strength and power, we cannot command stones to live or even our own lungs to work as we please.
So, although all things may have a ruach with a lowercase r, whether evil or good, only one thing is Ruach, with a capital R: God.
God doesn’t need anything to exist. He is. Jesus says this succinctly, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Because God exists, we exist. Without Him, nothing can exist. God does not need us to exist.
Therefore, just because the word ruach (or pneuma) can be attached to something evil like demons or humans with debased morals and spirits, the word itself isn’t inherently bad. The word reminds us that we breathe, and everything else breathes because the breath of life inhabits us.
Why Does This Word Matter?
The word Ruach, when applied to God, can often indicate creative divine activity. God creates, empowers, emboldens, and sustains all things, and the name Ruach Elohim reminds us of this power and facet of God’s character.
Furthermore, with every breath we take, we remind ourselves that our life force exists because of God. His breath has filled our lungs. The spirit or wind that we cannot see empowers us and drives us to live for the Creator in everything we do. With every breath we take, we seek to serve our God who fills us with the breath of life.
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Hope Bolinger is an editor at Crosswalk.com, literary agent at C.Y.L.E., and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 1,000 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her modern-day Daniel trilogy released its first two installments with IlluminateYA, and the final one, Vision, releases in August of 2021. She is also the co-author of the Dear Hero duology, which was published by INtense Publications. And her inspirational adult romance Picture Imperfect releases in October of 2021. Find out more about her at her website.