In “where did all the spirits go?” Jefferson Vann shows how the authors of the Hebrew historical books in the Old Testament used the word that is most often mistranslated as “spirit.”
In our study of the Hebrew word רוּחַ (ruach) in the books of Moses, we found this semantic range for the word:
First, רוּחַ is the Breath of God, as the source of life for all creatures.
Secondly, רוּחַ is the Breath of God as initiating a creative act, or a source of human creative power or skill.
Thirdly, רוּחַ (as breath) is a basis for metaphors relating to the altering of various human characteristics.
Fourthly, רוּחַ is a common word for wind.
I noted in a previous article that there is not a single instance where the word spirit (or Spirit) more clearly indicates the original author’s intended meaning for this word.
We now turn our attention to the 61 verses in the historical books of the Old Testament (Joshua to Esther) which contain this word. We are on the lookout for new developments in the use of the word, but first we will summarize the uses which follow the same pattern set by Moses.
power/skill (semantic range #2)
The Judges were known for their valor as warriors for God and his people, but it was the Breath of God which was always pointed out as the source of that power and skill. This puts the judges in the same category as those Moses had pointed out as recipients of God’s special creative power and skill, like Joseph, Bezalel, the seventy elders and Joshua.
- Judges 3:9-10 The Israelites cried out to the Lord. So the Lord raised up Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s youngest brother, as a deliverer to save the Israelites. The Breath of the Lord came on him, and he judged Israel. Othniel went out to battle, and the Lord handed over King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram to him, so that Othniel overpowered him.
- Judges 6:34 The Breath of the Lord enveloped Gideon, and he blew the ram’s horn and the Abiezrites rallied behind him.
- Judges 11:29 The Breath of the Lord came on Jephthah…
- Judges 13:24-25 So the woman gave birth to a son and named him Samson. The boy grew, and the Lord blessed him. Then the Breath of the Lord began to stir him in the Camp of Dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.
- Judges 14:6 the Breath of the Lord came powerfully on him, and he tore the lion apart with his bare hands as he might have torn a young goat.
- Judges 14:19 The Breath of the Lord came powerfully on him, and he went down to Ashkelon and killed thirty of their men.
- Judges 15:14 When he came to Lehi, the Philistines came to meet him shouting. The Breath of the Lord came powerfully on him, and the ropes that were on his arms and wrists became like burnt flax and fell off.
Samuel instructed Saul to travel to Gibeah and the historian records what he said would happen, and also what happened:
- 1 Samuel 10:6 The Breath of the Lord will come powerfully on you, you will prophesy with them, and you will be transformed.
- 1 Samuel 10:10 When Saul and his servant arrived at Gibeah, a group of prophets met him. Then the Breath of God came powerfully on him, and he prophesied along with them.
A similar thing happened when Saul heard of the plight of the men of Jabesh-Gilead:
- 1 Samuel 11:6 When Saul heard these words, the Breath of God suddenly came powerfully on him, and his anger burned furiously.
Later, God decided to withdraw his powerful breath from Saul and to endue David with his power:
- 1 Samuel 16:13-14 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and the Breath of the Lord came powerfully on David from that day forward. Then Samuel set out and went to Ramah. Now the Breath of the Lord had left Saul…
Three teams of agents were sent by Saul to arrest David, but they all were overcome by this same powerful Breath of God, and began prophesying instead (1 Samuel 19:20-21). When Saul himself sought David in Naioth, the same thing happened to him (1 Samuel 19:23-24).
altered characteristics (semantic range #3)
Rahab admitted that she and her city had been deeply moved to fear because of the Israelites.
- Joshua 2:11 When we heard this, our heart melted, and everyone’s breath continually failed because of you, because Yahveh your God is God in the sky above and on land below.
The Transjordan Amorite kings had the same reaction.
- Joshua 5:1 When all the Amorite kings across the Jordan to the west and all the Canaanite kings near the sea heard how the Lord had dried up the water of the Jordan before the Israelites until they had crossed over, their heart melted and their breath stopped continually because of the Israelites.
When Gideon appeased the anger of the Ephraimites, their angry breath against him relaxed (Judges 8:3).
To avenge the crime against the seventy sons of Jerubbaal, God sent an evil breath between Abimelech and the citizens of Shechem (Judges 9:23-24).
God miraculously provided water to keep Samson from dying of thirst after he had killed a thousand Philistines. He split a hollow place in the ground at Lehi, and water came out of it. After Samson drank, his breath returned, and he revived (Judges 15:19). An Egyptian was revived from a similar state by food from David and his men (1 Samuel 30:11-12).
In describing her anguish at being barren, Hannah said I am a woman with hard breath (1 Samuel 1:15).
After Saul had proven himself unfaithful, God removed his breath from him and empowered David instead. The result was an evil breath sent from the Lord began to torment him (1 Samuel 6:14). The resulting irritation he felt could only be soothed by music.
- 1 Samuel 16:23 Whenever the breath from God came on Saul, David would pick up his lyre and play, and Saul would then be relieved, feel better, and the evil breath would leave him.
It didn’t always work so well. One day, David was administering his lyre therapy, when Saul decided that David was his problem, and threw his spear at him. This happened because an evil breath sent from God had come powerfully on Saul (1 Samuel 18:10). David avoided being skewered, but then it happened again (1 Samuel 19:9-10) so David knew he had to escape Saul.
wind (semantic range #4)
We also find a few instances where the word refers to some kind of wind.
David, in a song about his rescue from Saul, says that God flew down to help him, soaring on the wings of the wind (2 Samuel 22:11).
- 1 Kings 18:45 In a little while, the sky grew dark with clouds and wind, and there was a downpour. So Ahab got in his chariot and went to Jezreel.
- 1 Kings 19:11 Then he said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the Lord ‘s presence.” At that moment, the Lord passed by. A great and mighty wind was tearing at the mountains and was shattering cliffs before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.
- 2 Kings 3:17 For the Lord says, ‘You will not see wind or rain, but the wadi will be filled with water, and you will drink– you and your cattle and your animals.’
- 1 Chronicles 9:24 The gatekeepers were on the four winds: east, west, north, and south.
breathing of the breath (semantic range #1)
One of the interesting things about Hebrew is the way it uses synonyms to express things poetically. This characteristic is most predominant in the poetical books, but appears in the other genres as well. In David’s song celebrating his rescue from Saul, he describes God’s answer to his prayer for deliverance this way:
- 2 Samuel 22:16 The depths of the sea became visible, the foundations of the world were exposed at the rebuke of the Lord, at the breathing of the breath of his nostrils.
The word David uses for breath is רוּחַ. The word that I translate breathing is נְשָׁמָה (neshamah) which is also often translated breath in English. The first appearance of נְשָׁמָה in the Bible is a very familiar verse.
- Genesis 2:7 then Yahveh God formed the first man from dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breathing (נְשָׁמָה) of life, and that man became a living soul.
It is clear that Moses uses נְשָׁמָה in the same way as he uses רוּחַ – as the animating force which gives life to a lifeless creature. There are numerous other passages in the Old Testament (in addition to 2 Samuel 22:16) where these two words are used as parallels, showing that they are synonyms.1 I think that breathing is a better gloss for נְשָׁמָה because there are a few instances in the historical books where the term implies a creature still alive:
- Joshua 10:40 So Joshua conquered the whole region– the hill country, the Negev, the Judean foothills, and the slopes– with all their kings, leaving no survivors. He completely destroyed every breathing (נְשָׁמָה) being, as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded.
- Joshua 11:11 They struck down everyone in it with the sword, completely destroying them; he left no one breathing (נְשָׁמָה). Then he burned Hazor.
- Joshua 11:14 The Israelites plundered all the spoils and cattle of these cities for themselves. But they struck down every person with the sword until they had annihilated them, leaving no one breathing (נְשָׁמָה).
- 1 Kings 15:29 When Baasha became king, he struck down the entire house of Jeroboam. He did not leave Jeroboam anyone breathing (נְשָׁמָה) but destroyed his family according to the word of the Lord he had spoken through his servant Ahijah the Shilonite.
- 1 Kings 17:17 After this, the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. His illness got worse until he stopped breathing (נְשָׁמָה).
So, neither of these Hebrew words imply the imparting of (or possession of) an immortal soul or spirit. Both terms refer to the animating breath of God given to a creature in order to make it alive. Both terms refer to breath without which a person or animal is dead.
The reason I have to make this point is that the popular English versions of the Bible regularly use the word spirit to translate both these words. When they do so, they introduce the concept of possession of a secondary element into the creature – and this secondary element is presumed to be an incorporeal being.
The following lists show how often this is done in the historical books. For each reference, the word spirit is used instead of breath or breathing.
ESV = Joshua 2:11; 5:1; Judges 9:23; 15:19; 1 Samuel 1:15; 16:14-16, 23; 18:10; 19:9; 30:12; 1 Kings 21:5; 22:21-23; 2 Kings 2:9, 15; 1 Chronicles 5:26; 2 Chronicles 18:20-22; Ezra 1:1,5.
KJV = Joshua 5:1; Judges 9:23; 15:19; 1 Samuel 1:15; 16:14-16, 23; 18:10; 19:9; 30:12; 1 Kings 10:5; 21:5; 22:21-23; 2 Kings 2:9, 15; 1 Chronicles 5:26; 12:18; 28:12; 2 Chronicles 9:4; 18:20-22; 21:16; 36:22; Ezra 1:1,5; Nehemiah 9:20, 30.
NASB = Joshua 5:1; Judges 9:23; 1 Samuel 1:15; 16:14-16, 23; 18:10; 19:9; 30:12; 1 Kings 10:5; 21:5; 22:21-23; 2 Kings 2:9, 15; 1 Chronicles 5:26; 2 Chronicles 18:20-22; 21:16; 36:22; Ezra 1:1,5.
NET = Judges 9:23; 1 Samuel 16:14-16, 23; 18:10; 19:9; 1 Kings 22:21-23; 2 Kings 2:9, 15; 1 Chronicles 12:18; 2 Chronicles 18:20-22; Ezra 1:1,5; Nehemiah 9:20, 30.
More lists could be added, because it is very common for Bible versions to utilize the word spirit to translate either of these Hebrew words. By so doing, these versions are influencing the theology of the readers. They are convincing the readers that there are numerous biblical references to humans possessing incorporeal beings which cannot be destroyed. Linguistically, these translations are introducing a fifth meaning into the semantic range of רוּחַ and also add to the semantic range of נְשָׁמָה.
One of the purposes of this series of articles is to show that those extra meanings added to the semantic range of these words is not necessary linguistically. The idea of God’s Breath supplying a person with supernatural power or skill is already implied in the second item in the semantic range of רוּחַ. The idea of an altering of a person’s breath being used metaphorically of an altering of his or her character is already implied in the third item in the semantic range of רוּחַ. Between those two, every instance of apparent possession of a so-called spirit in the historical books is explained.
Whether there exist such things as angels and demons is not the issue here. I personally believe that such beings do exist, and I have encountered them in my ministry as a pastor and missionary. My point is that both Hebrew terms we have been investigating show that humans do not possess any immortal substance which survives their death. They possess bodies with breath in them. When they die, they stop breathing. Whether there is an afterlife (or the possibility of one) cannot be proven by referring to these texts.
As conditionalists, our hope for the future does not depend on a theology that humans automatically possess something within us that cannot die. Our hope and expectation of a future life depends on God who promised to raise believers from the dead, and grant them immortality by his grace.
Previous article in this series:
introducing the breath of God March 15, 2019.
- Isaiah 42:5; 57:16; Job 4:9; 27:3; 32:8; 33:4; 34:14; Psalm 18:15.