In “the breath of our nostrils” Jefferson Vann examines how the major prophets of the Old Testament used the word רוּחַ (ruach) – a word that is often translated “spirit.”
Translating words from one language into another is a complicated process. The translator has to decide all the shades of meaning that can be conveyed by a particular word. This list of potential meanings is sometimes called the semantic range of the word. A word may have a wide variety of possible interpretations within its semantic range. In the two previous articles in this series, we noticed that the Hebrew word רוּחַ (ruach) can refer to wind, power or skill, altered human characteristics, human breath, or God’s Sacred Breath.
Once she has determined the various possible meanings in the semantic range of a word, the translator must then ask another question. She must ask how many particular words in the target language are necessary to convey all of those various semantic nuances. The answer to that question is often dictated by the translator’s philosophy of translation. If she is inclined toward a dynamic equivalence translation philosophy, the translator may utilize numerous glosses for a single host-language word. A gloss is a word used to convey the meaning of a host language word, and it is not uncommon for a word in one language to be represented by a short list of glosses.
I have recently shared my translation of the books of Moses and the historical books of the Old Testament with reference to רוּחַ. So far, I have only used a few glosses for the word. For the idea of wind, I have used wind or breeze. For all the other ideas expressed by the word, I have sought to utilize breath or Breath. I have done this deliberately, because I am concerned that utilizing too many glosses has tended to hide the word. I have noted that I am particularly opposed to using the word spirit or Spirit in my translation. That word has several denotations which I do not find expressed in any text of scripture – at least so far.
In this article, I am sharing the results of my translation of the major prophets: Isaiah to Daniel. רוּחַ appears 261 times in 108 verses in the major prophets. My analysis of these texts shows that there is no need to add to the semantic range of רוּחַ.
wind (samples from Isaiah)
- Isaiah 7:2 When it was reported to the house of David, saying Aram stands by Ephraim, his heart and the heart of his people shook like the shaking of the forest trees because of wind.
- Isaiah 11:15 And Yahveh will utterly destroy the tongue of the sea of Egypt and he will wave his hand over the river with his scorching wind; and he will strike it into seven streams, and he will enable someone to walk through it with the sandal.
- Isaiah 26:18 We became pregnant, we writhed; we produced wind. We cannot bring about deliverance to the land, and no residents of the world are born from our efforts.
Here the word רוּחַ may refer to flatulence, but the idea is still expressed well and euphemistically by the gloss: wind.
- Isaiah 32:2 And each one will be like a hiding place from a strong wind and a covering from a rainstorm, like streams of water in a dry region, like a large rock shading a weary land.
- Isaiah 41:16 You will winnow them and the wind will carry them, and the storm will scatter them. And you yourself will rejoice in Yahveh; you will boast in the holy one of Israel.
- Isaiah 57:13 When you are crying out, let your collection deliver you, and a wind will carry all of them away; a slight puff will blow it away. But he who takes refuge in me will take possession of the land, and he will inherit my mountain of holiness.
- Isaiah 64:6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous works are like a menstrual cloth. We all fall like a leaf, and our iniquities sweep us away like the wind.
breath as power or skill
(The major prophets do not use the word with this denotation.)
breath as altered characteristics
- Jeremiah 51:1 This is what the Lord says: I am about to rouse the breath of a destroyer against Babylon and against the population of Leb-qamai.
Rousing the breath of Babylon’s enemy makes that nation enraged and intent on destroying that empire.
- Ezekiel 3:14 The Breath lifted me up and took me away. I left in bitterness and in an angry breath, and the Lord ‘s hand was on me powerfully.
The prophet’s disposition is described as an angry breath. The word picture depicts huffing and snorting.
- Ezekiel 11:19 I will give them integrity of heart and put a new breath within them; I will remove their heart of stone from their bodies and give them a heart of flesh,
- Ezekiel 18:31 Throw off all the transgressions you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new breath. Why should you die, house of Israel?
- Ezekiel 36:26 I will give you a new heart and put a new breath within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
A new breath is an altered disposition.
- Ezekiel 21:7 And when they ask you, ‘Why are you groaning? ‘ then say, ‘Because of the news that is coming. Every heart will melt, and every hand will become weak. Every breath will be discouraged, and all knees will run with urine. Yes, it is coming and it will happen. This is the declaration of the Lord God.'”
In modern western cultures we are not used to expressing discouragement and terror by implying that it changes our breath. But that is how the ancient Hebrews expressed it. By using the gloss “spirit” instead of breath, today’s English translations are hiding the metaphor. But they are doing more than that. They are hiding the fact that the core meaning of רוּחַ is breath. They are essentially replacing the biblical metaphor with another one, taken not from Hebrew culture, but from Greek religion.
breath as a creature’s breath (samples from Jeremiah and Lamentations).
- Jeremiah 5:13 The prophets become only breath, for the Lord ‘s word is not in them. This will in fact happen to them.
- Jeremiah 10:14 Everyone is stupid and ignorant. Every goldsmith is put to shame by his carved image, for his cast images are a lie; there is no breath in them.
- Jeremiah 14:6 Wild donkeys stand on the barren heights panting for breath like jackals. Their eyes fail because there are no green plants.
- Jeremiah 51:17 Everyone is stupid and ignorant. Every goldsmith is put to shame by his carved image, because his cast images are a lie; there is no breath in them.
- Lamentations 4:20 The Lord ‘s anointed, the breath of our nostrils, was captured in their traps. We had said about him, “We will live under his protection among the nations.”
The anointed one referred to here was Zedekiah. Being the “one on whom the whole of the people’s hopes depended for the continuance of their national life”¹ the prophet referred to him as the very breath of their nostrils. In much the same way, Seneca referred to a ruler as the spiritus vitalis of his people.² The Romans used spiritus the same way the Hebrews used רוּחַ – referring to the air coursing through our lungs.
Breath as the Sacred Breath (samples from Ezekiel)
- Eze 2:1-2 He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak with you.” As he spoke to me, the Breath entered me and set me on my feet, and I listened to the one who was speaking to me.
- Ezekiel 3:12 The Breath then lifted me up, and I heard a loud rumbling sound behind me – bless the glory of Yahveh in his place! –
- Ezekiel 3:23-24 So I got up and went out to the plain. The Lord ‘s glory was present there, like the glory I had seen by the Chebar Canal, and I fell facedown. The Breath entered me and set me on my feet. He spoke with me and said: “Go, shut yourself inside your house.
This is not describing possession so much as animation. The prophet was face down perhaps in fear, and God’s Breath enters him and revives him, setting him back on his feet.
- Ezekiel 8:3 He stretched out what appeared to be a hand and took me by the hair of my head. Then the Breath lifted me up between the land and the sky and carried me in visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the inner gate that faces north, where the offensive statue that provokes jealousy was located.
- Ezekiel 11:5 Then the Breath of Yahveh came on me, and he told me, “You are to say, ‘This is what Yahveh says: That is what you are thinking, house of Israel; and I know the thoughts that arise in your mind.
- Ezekiel 36:27 I will place my Breath within you and cause you to follow my prescriptions and carefully observe my rules.
The new breath of verse 26 is not a new immortal spirit possessing the old body, but the Breath of God himself. This new life will result in the renewed person of God following God’s rules.
Ezekiel uses רוּחַ as part of an elaborate description of his vision of the dry bones:
- Ezekiel 37:1-12 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by his Breath and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them. There were a great many of them on the surface of the valley, and they were very dry. 3 Then he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I replied, “Lord God, only you know.” 4 He said to me, “Prophesy concerning these bones and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Lord God says to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you will live. 6 I will put tendons on you, make flesh grow on you, and cover you with skin. I will put breath in you so that you come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” 7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded. While I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 As I looked, tendons appeared on them, flesh grew, and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. 9 He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man. Say to it: This is what the Lord God says: Breath, come from the four winds and breathe into these slain so that they may live!” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me; the breath entered them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, a vast army. 11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Look how they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore, prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Lord God says: I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them, my people, and lead you into the land of Israel.
Ezekiel saw the revival and restoration of Israel dramatically depicted as a resurrection. He described that revival as the opening of graves and breathing breath back into dead bodies, bringing those bodies up from the graves, and leading them out of their lands of exile, and back to their land.
The pagans were not interested in bringing life back to bodies. They thought that human beings possessed immortal life already in their spirits. But God’s word uses the word often translated “spirit” (רוּחַ) in a totally different way. The רוּחַ is the breath that animates the body, making it a living soul. The רוּחַ is the breath of our nostrils.
Previous articles in this series:
introducing the breath of God March 15, 2019. where did all the spirits go? March 23, 2019
¹ Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges.
² Clement. i. 4.