idols without breath
In “idols without breath” Jefferson Vann examines how the minor prophets of the Old Testament used the word רוּחַ (ruach) – a word that is often translated “spirit.”
I have recently shared my translation of the books of Moses, the historical books and the major prophets of the Old Testament with reference to רוּחַ. So far, I have only used three words to translate this Hebrew term. 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 original 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 minor prophets: Hosea to Malachi. רוּחַ appears 80 times in 30 verses in the minor prophets. My analysis of these texts shows that there is no need to add to the semantic range of רוּחַ.
The New American Standard Bible – a translation that seeks for accuracy and formal equivalence as far as possible – translates רוּחַ as wind in the following texts:
- Hosea 4:19 The wind wraps them in its wings, And they will be ashamed because of their sacrifices.
- Hosea 8:7 For they sow the wind And they reap the whirlwind. The standing grain has no heads; It yields no grain. Should it yield, strangers would swallow it up.
- Hosea 12:1 Ephraim feeds on wind, And pursues the east wind continually; He multiplies lies and violence. Moreover, he makes a covenant with Assyria, And oil is carried to Egypt.
- Hosea 13:15 Though he flourishes among the reeds, An east wind will come, The wind of the LORD coming up from the wilderness; And his fountain will become dry And his spring will be dried up; It will plunder his treasury of every precious article.
- Amos 4:13 For behold, He who forms mountains and creates the wind And declares to man what are His thoughts, He who makes dawn into darkness And treads on the high places of the earth, The LORD God of hosts is His name.
- Jonah 1:4 The LORD hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up.
- Jonah 4:8 When the sun came up God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint and begged with all his soul to die, saying, “Death is better to me than life.”
- Micah 2:11 “If a man walking after wind and falsehood Had told lies and said, ‘I will speak out to you concerning wine and liquor,’ He would be spokesman to this people.
- Habakkuk 1:11 “Then they will sweep through like the wind and pass on. But they will be held guilty, They whose strength is their god.”
- Zechariah 2:6 “Ho there! Flee from the land of the north,” declares the LORD, “for I have dispersed you as the four winds of the heavens,” declares the LORD.
- Zechariah 5:9 Then I lifted up my eyes and looked, and there two women were coming out with the wind in their wings; and they had wings like the wings of a stork, and they lifted up the ephah between the earth and the heavens.
Just as in the writings of Moses, the historical books and the major prophets, רוּחַ (ruach) is used rather consistently to identify pockets of air moving throughout the sky. If רוּחַ had become a technical theological term describing a demon or angel by this time, continuing to use it in this mundane secular sense would have been quite confusing.
breath as power or skill
The NASB uses the term “inspired man” as a translation of the phrase אִ֣ישׁ הָר֔וּחַ (ish ha’ruach) in Hosea 9:7. Here is my rendering of this verse:
- Hosea 9:7 The days of punishment have come; the days of recompense have come; Israel shall know it. The prophet is a fool; the man of the breath is mad, because of your great iniquity and great hatred.
Just as Bezalel was empowered by God’s breath to create skillfully,¹ so the prophet is empowered by God’s creative breath to reveal his will. But Hosea points out that in days of punishment, even the prophets are corrupt and insane.
Joel’s famous prophecy (which began to be fulfilled at Pentecost) is another case in point where our fascination with the English word Spirit hides the prophet’s prediction.
- Joel 2:28 (NASB) “It will come about after this That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; And your sons and daughters will prophesy, Your old men will dream dreams, Your young men will see visions.
- Joel 2:28 After this I will pour out my Breath on everyone with skin;² then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will have dreams, and your young men will see visions.
God’s Spirit has always been among us, but in Joel’s day, only a few dared to prophesy and speak for God. What Joel actually prophesied was a change in that. He envisioned a time when God would express his power and skill through male and female alike, old and young alike. The prophets would be numerous, rather than sparse.
Obviously, a lot more took place at Pentecost than just the empowerment of more prophets. But what we tend to do when looking at prophecies like Joel’s is read into them the theology that we expect. Yes, the Discipler that Jesus promised did come at Pentecost to be with God’s church in a special way. But it is wrong to read all the truths we have learned about him in two thousand years of pneumatological study back into Joel’s words. That is doing our exegesis in the wrong direction. We should be asking what Joel could have meant when he referred to God pouring out his ruach.
When Old Testament writers wanted to speak of people specially empowered and given particular insight or wisdom, they would speak of God placing his breath on them – as if reanimating them with new life. That certainly is what happened at Pentecost.
Micah describes a kind of showdown between himself and the false prophets he is contending with. The difference will be the Breath of Yahveh empowering him.
- Micah 3:5-8 This is what Yahveh says concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who proclaim peace when they have food to sink their teeth into but commit to war against the one who puts nothing in their mouths. Therefore, it will be night for you– without visions; it will grow dark for you– without divination. The sun will set on these prophets, and the daylight will turn black over them. Then the seers will be ashamed and the diviners disappointed. They will all cover their mouths because there will be no answer from God. As for me, however, I am filled with power by the Breath of Yahveh, with justice and courage, to proclaim to Jacob his rebellion and to Israel his sin.
breath as altered characteristics
The minor prophets also continue to use the changed breath as a metaphor for altered characteristics, or an altered disposition. Hosea speaks of a breath of whoredom keeping Israel from being faithful to God.
- Hosea 5:4 Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God. You see, the breath of whoredom is within them, and they know not Yahveh.
Micah asks if God’s breath is shortened (הֲקָצַר֙ ר֣וּחַ יְהוָ֔ה) – which does not mean he is literally out of breath, but that he is impatient.
- Micah 2:7 House of Jacob, should it be asked, “Is the Breath of Yahveh shortened? Are these the things he does?” Don’t my words bring good to the one who walks uprightly?
Haggai describes the zeal of those who volunteered together to rebuild the temple. He explains this dramatic altering of their lethargy and depression by saying that Yahveh himself roused their breath within them.
- Haggai 1:13-15 Then Haggai, Yahveh ‘s messenger, delivered Yahveh’s message to the people: “I am with you– this is Yahveh’s declaration.”Yahveh roused the breath of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, the breath of the high priest Joshua son of Jehozadak, and the breath of all the remnant of the people. They began work on the house of Yahveh of Armies, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month, in the second year of King Darius.
breath as a creature’s breath
Habakkuk ridicules the idolatrous because they chose to worship and serve material objects with no רוּחַ (ruach) inside them.
- Habakkuk 2:19 (NASB) “Woe to him who says to a piece of wood, ‘Awake!’ To a mute stone, ‘Arise!’ And that is your teacher? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, And there is no breath at all inside it.
Remember that Moses, describing God’s creation of the universe, spoke of his Breath shaking the waters. Habakkuk accentuates a clear distinction between the paltry gods of the nations, who cannot even put breath in their idols, but God puts his breath of life into the universe, and creates new life.
We have problems if we read the popular theology into texts like this. Popular theology teaches that the gods of the nations are spirits – demons masquerading as gods. The biblical terms behind this conception are the Hebrew רוּחַ (ruach) and the Greek πνεῦμα (pneuma). But, according to the prophet, these idols do not have ruach or pneuma! How can they be ruchot without any ruach? How can they be breaths without any breath?
So, what Habakkuk is saying is that these idols are not gods, and he proves it by asserting that they lack the one thing that God himself has: breath. The idols are dead stone and wood, and that is why it is blasphemy to worship them. They are not the givers of life. They are not the Sacred Breath.
Breath as the Sacred Breath
Joel 2:28 has already been examined above. But let’s look at it again, and include verse 29 as well.
- Joel 2:28-29 After this I will pour out my Breath on everyone with skin;1 then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will have dreams, and your young men will see visions. I will even pour out my Breath on the male and female slaves in those days.
This was a promise to empower a new generation and future generations regardless of gender or age or even social status. Jesus explained this empowerment more completely by explaining that this Sacred Breath is actually another discipler. God’s Sacred Breath (Holy Spirit) is poured out on believers, enabling us to witness to his saving power and to make disciples in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Sacred Breath.
angels or demons?
There are two passages in the minor prophets which may hint at the existence of living beings (other than God) who are designated as ruchot.
- Zechariah 6:5 (NASB) The angel replied to me, “These are the four spirits of heaven, going forth after standing before the Lord of all the earth,…”
The prophet had just seen a vision of four chariots, and asks what they are, and this is the explanation. If this translation is correct, then this is the first instance where ruach is used to designate a spirit being other than God.
But hold your horses – and chariots. Here is my translation.
- Zechariah 6:5 The angel told me, “These are the four winds of the sky going out after presenting themselves to Yahveh of the whole land.
In all other cases in the Old Testament, the four ruchot are four winds, indicating four directions.³ In fact, Zechariah himself had used the same words to describe Yahveh’s scattering of his people:
- Zechariah 2:6 “Listen! Listen! Flee from the land of the north”– this is Yahveh’s declaration– “for I have scattered you like the four winds of the sky” – this is Yahveh’s declaration.
So, there is no indication that heaven has four spirit beings here. At any rate, we all know that there are a lot more angels than that. I am simply pointing out that in our study so far, we have seen no biblical proof that heaven is populated by human spirits with no bodies.
The second reference in the minor prophets that supposedly proves that ruchot are incorporeal spirits is this:
- Zechariah 13:2 (NASB) “It will come about in that day,” declares the LORD of hosts, “that I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, and they will no longer be remembered; and I will also remove the prophets and the unclean spirit from the land.
An unclean breath refers to an evil disposition or inclination toward sin. There may be some demonic attack that causes this, but in the Old Testament, the unclean breath is not the demon. By the time the New Testament was written, it was common to refer to demonic attacks as having an unclean breath.4 We will examine those texts as we come to them. But this text in Zechariah can be scratched off the list of proof-texts for “spirit” as an appropriate translation of ruach.
- Zechariah 13:2 On that day” – this is the declaration of Yahveh of Armies – “I will remove the names of the idols from the land, and they will no longer be remembered. I will remove the prophets and the unclean breath from the land.
In the final installment of the Old Testament portion of our study, I will examine the use of ruach in the Hebrew poetical books. That would be the last opportunity to find a text within the Old Testament that actually suggests that human beings have incorporeal spirits within them as part of their created identity.
Previous articles in this series:
introducing the breath of God March 15, 2019. where did all the spirits go? March 23, 2019 the breath of our nostrils April 24, 2019
1 Exodus 35:31.
3 Jeremiah 49:36; Ezekiel 37:9; Daniel 7:2; 8:8; Zechariah 2:6.
4 Matthew 12:43; Mark 1:23, 26; 3:30; 5:2, 8; 7:25; 9:25; Luke 4:33; 8:29; 9:42; 11:24; Revelation 18:2.