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The meaning of "Spirit" in the Old Testament

Catechesis by Pope John Paul II on the Holy Spirit
General Audience, Wednesday 3 January 1990 - in Italian & Spanish  

"1. In our catecheses dedicated to the person and mission of the Holy Spirit, we have sought first of all to listen to the announcement and promise concerning him made by Jesus, especially at the Last Supper. We have sought to take up again the account of his coming that is given in the Acts of the Apostles. We have re-examined the texts of the New Testament that tell of the early Church's preaching concerning him and faith in him. Yet in our analysis we have often come upon the Old Testament. It is the apostles themselves who in their early preaching just after Pentecost expressly presented the coming of the Holy Spirit as the fulfillment of the ancient promises and prophecies. They considered the old covenant and the history of Israel as a time of preparation for receiving the fullness of truth and grace that was to come with the Messiah.

Certainly, Pentecost was an event thrusting into the future. This is because it marked the beginning of the time of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus himself had indicated as a protagonist, together with the Father and the Son, in the work of salvation—a work destined to be diffused from the cross into the whole world. Nevertheless, to understand all the more fully the revelation of the Holy Spirit, it is necessary to go back in time, that is, to the Old Testament, in order to find there the signs of the long preparation for the mystery of Easter and Pentecost.

2. We must reflect again, therefore, on the biblical facts concerning the Holy Spirit and on the process of revelation which rises gradually from the shadows of the Old Testament to the clear affirmations of the New. This is first expressed within creation and then in the work of redemption, first in the history and prophecy of Israel and then in the life and mission of Jesus the Messiah, from the moment of the incarnation up to that of the resurrection.

In the first place, among the facts to be examined is the name that first suggests the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament and the different meanings that this name conveys.

We know that in the Hebrew mentality a name has the powerful significance of representing a person. We may recall on this point the importance that is given to the way of naming God in Exodus and in the whole tradition of Israel. Moses had asked the Lord God what his name was. The revelation of a name was considered a manifestation of the person himself: the sacred name established a relationship between the people and the transcendent yet present being of God himself (cf. Ex 3:13-14).

The name that serves to suggest the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament will help us to understand his properties, even though we only learn of his reality as a divine person, of one substance with the Father and the Son, through the revelation of the New Testament. It is legitimate to think that the term was chosen with accuracy by the sacred authors, and, what is more, that the Holy Spirit himself, who inspired them, guided the conceptual and literary process which led to the elaboration of an apt expression for signifying his person even in the Old Testament.

3. In the Bible, the Hebrew term for the Spirit is ruah . The first meaning of this term, and that of its Latin translation spiritus , is "breath." (In English the relationship between spirit and respiration is still apparent.) A breath is the most immaterial reality we perceive. It cannot be seen; it is intangible; it cannot be grasped by the hand; it seems to be nothing, and yet it is vitally important. The person who does not breathe cannot live. The difference between a living person and a dead one is that the former has breath and the latter no longer does. Life comes from God. Hence breath, too, comes from him, and he can take it away (cf. Ps 104:29-30). Seeing breath in this way, they came to understand that life depends on a spiritual principle, which was called by the same Hebrew word, ruah. Man's breath bears a relationship to a much more powerful external breath, the wind.

The Hebrew ruah , just as the Latin spiritus , also designates the blowing of the wind. No one sees the wind, yet its effects are impressive. It drives the clouds and shakes the trees. When it is violent, it can whip up the sea and sink ships (Ps 107:25-27). To the men of old the wind appeared to be a mysterious power that God had at his disposal (Ps 104:3-4). It could be called "God's breath."

In the Book of Exodus, a prose narrative says: "Yahweh drove back the sea with a strong easterly wind all night, and he made dry land of the sea. The waters parted and the sons of Israel went on dry ground right into the sea..." (Ex 14:21-22). In the next chapter the same events are described in a poetic manner and the blowing of the easterly wind is called "a blast from the nostrils" of God. Addressing God, the poet says: "A blast from your nostrils and the waters piled high.... One breath of yours you blew, and the sea closed over them" (Ex 15:8-10). This expresses in a very suggestive way the conviction that the wind was God's instrument in these circumstances.

From observations on the invisible and powerful wind one came to conceive the existence of the "spirit of God." In the texts of the Old Testament one passes easily from one meaning to the other, and even in the New Testament we see that the two meanings are present. To help Nicodemus understand the way the Holy Spirit acts, Jesus used the comparison of the wind, and he employed the same term in both cases: "The wind blows wherever it pleases.... That is how it is with all who are born of the Wind [i.e. of the Holy Spirit]" (Jn 3:8).

4. The fundamental idea expressed in the biblical name of the Spirit is, therefore, not that of an intellectual power, but that of a dynamic impulse, similar to the force of the wind. In the Bible, the primary function of the spirit is not to give understanding, but to give movement; not to shed light, but to impart dynamism.

This aspect is not exclusive, however. Other aspects are expressed and they pave the way for the revelation to follow. First and foremost, there is the aspect of interiority. Indeed, breath enters into man. In biblical terms, this could be expressed by saying that God puts the spirit into people's hearts (cf. Ez 36:26; Rom 5:5). Since air is so tenuous, it penetrates not only into our body, but all of its spaces and clefts. This helps to understand that "the spirit of the Lord fills the whole world" (Wis 1:7) and that it penetrates especially "all intelligent, pure and most subtle spirits" (7:23), as the Book of Wisdom says.

Related to the aspect of interiority is the aspect of knowledge. "Who can know the depths of man," asks St. Paul, "if not his own spirit?" (1 Cor 2:11). Only our spirit knows our intimate reactions and thoughts not yet communicated to others. Similarly, and with stronger reason, the Spirit of the Lord present within all the beings of the universe knows all from within (Wis 1:7). Indeed, "the Spirit reaches the depths of everything, even the depths of God.... The depths of God can only be known by the Spirit of God" (1 Cor 2:10-11).

5. When it is a matter of knowledge and communication between persons, breath has a natural connection with the word. To speak we use our breath. The vocal chords make our breath vibrate, and it thus transmits the sounds of the words. Inspired by this fact, the Bible draws a comparison between the word and the breath (cf. Is 11:4), or the word and the spirit. Thanks to our breath, the word is propagated; from our breath it derives strength and dynamism. Psalm 33 uses this comparison with regard to the primordial event of creation and says: "By the word of Yahweh the heavens were made, their whole array by the breath of his mouth..." (v. 6).

In texts of this kind we can perceive a distant preparation of the Christian revelation of the mystery of the Blessed Trinity. God the Father is the origin of creation. He has brought it about by his Word, that is, by the Son, and by his Breath, the Holy Spirit.

6. The multiplicity of meanings of the Hebrew term ruah , used in the Bible to designate the Spirit, seem to give rise to some confusion. Indeed, in a given text, it is often not possible to determine the exact meaning of the word. One might waver between wind and breath, between breath and spirit, or between created spirit and the divine Spirit.

This multiplicity, however, has a certain wealth, for it establishes a fruitful communication between so many realities. In this regard it is better to give up in part the pretenses of neat reasoning in order to embrace broader perspectives. When we think of the Holy Spirit, it is useful to remember that his biblical name means "breath," and that it is related to the powerful blowing of the wind and to our own intimate breathing. Rather than clinging to an over-intellectual and arid concept, we will find it helpful to take in this wealth of images and facts. Unfortunately, translations are unable to convey them to us completely, for they are often obliged to choose other terms. To render the Hebrew word ruah, the Greek translation of the Septuagint uses twenty-four different terms, and so does not permit one to see all the connections between the texts of the Hebrew Bible.

7. To end this terminological analysis of the Old Testament texts concerning ruah, we can say that the breath of God appears in them as the power that gives life to creatures. It appears as a profound reality of God which works deep within man. It appears as a manifestation of God's dynamism which is communicated to creatures.

Though not yet understood as a distinct Person in the context of the divine being, the "breath" or "Spirit" of God is distinguishable in some way from the God who sends it to operate in creatures. Thus, even from the literary point of view, the human mind is gradually prepared to receive the revelation of the Person of the Holy Spirit, who will appear as the expression of God's intimate life and omnipotence."


After the Catechesis, Papa Giovanni Paolo II greeted the pilgrims in various languages

Ai fedeli di lingua francese

Je suis heureux de saluer les pèlerins et les visiteurs d’expression française. En particulier, j’adresse mes salutations cordiales aux forains venus de l’Est de la France. Chers amis, par profession, vous mettez de la joie au coeur des autres. Soyez-en félicités et remerciés! Je vous offre mes meilleurs voeux pour vous-mêmes et pour les membres de vos familles.

A toutes les personnes ici présentes, je souhaite une bonne année nouvelle. Je leur donne de gran coeur ma Bénédiction Apostolique pour les aider à répandre le message et la joie du Christ.

Ai pellegrini di espressione inglese

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I am pleased to welcome the members of the Maitland Catholic Choir from Australia and all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s Audience, especially the Parish Pilgrimage of St. Thomas Aquinas, from Lund, Sweden, and also a Parish Group Polish from Lund, Sweden.

May Jesus Christ, the new-born Prince of Peace, fill your hearts with his peace through this New Year. Upon all of you I cordially invoke the abundant blessings of God our Almighty Father.

Ad un gruppo di fedeli provenienti dal Giappone

Sia lodato Gesù Cristo!

Dilettissimi pellegrini giapponesi, guidati dal P. Hayat: all’inizio del nuovo anno auguro che la vostra vita cristiana sia, per i vostri connazionali, come l’evangelico grano di senape, affinché il Regno di Dio si instauri al più presto anche in Giappone.

Invoco su di voi la protezione della Madonna e vi imparto la mia Benedizione Apostolica.

Sia lodato Gesù Cristo!

Ai gruppi di lingua tedesca

Liebe Brüder und Schwestern!

Herzlich grüße ich bei der heutigen ersten Audienz im neuen Jahr alle anwesenden Pilger deutscher Sprache. Von Herzen wünsche ich euch und allen, zu denen meine Worte gelangen, den Beistand des göttlichen Geistes, sein Licht und seine Führung für ein gottwohlgefälliges Leben und Wirken in diesem neuen Jahr des Herrn. Hierbei begleite ich euch in der Liebe Christi mit meinem besonderen Apostolischen Segen.

Ai pellegrini di lingua spagnola

Junto con mis mejores deseos para el Año que comienza, saludo ahora muy cordialmente a todos los peregrinos y visitantes de lengua española.

Mis primeras palabras de afectuosa bienvenida deseo dedicarlas a los sacerdotes, religiosos y religiosas aquí presentes, a quienes aliento a renovar su generosa entrega a las tareas ministeriales y apostólicas. Igualmente, a las jóvenes del Movimiento Regnum Christi y al grupo de estudiantes de las Academias de Overbrook (Dallas) y de Dal Riada (Dublín).

A todos imparto de corazón la Bendición Apostólica.

Ai fedeli di espressione portoghese

Caríssimos irmãos e irmãs de língua portuguesa,

Saúdo cordialmente aqueles que me escutam, desejando-lhes felicidades, com os favores de Deus, e que o ano que está a começar seja realmente, para todos, um Ano Bom!

Ai pellegrini polacchi

Serdecznie witam pielgrzymów z Polski, z Gorzowa księdza Biskupa Ordynaiusza oraz księży biskupów pomocniczych, zarówno już wyświęconego jak i tego, który ma być wyświęcony w najnliższą uroczystość Trzech Króli w Bazylice św. Piotra; serdecznie witam pilgrzymkę Duszpasterstwa Prawników Polskich z ks. prof. Tadeuszem Pieronkiem ich duszpasterzem; witam także uczestników grup turystycznych z Polski - Turysty i Orbisu. Wszystkich serdecznie pozdrawiam przy pozątku nowego roku 1990. . . . Serdecznie pozdrawiam wszystkich obecnych tu rodaków i życzę błogosławieństwa Bożego w nowym roku dla całej naszej Ojczyzny.

Ai gruppi di lingua italiana

Mi è gradito ora salutare voi, Sacerdoti, che celebrate il 25º o il 50º anniversario di ordinazione, e voi, Suore Benedettine, che festeggiate ricorrenze particolarmente significative della vostra professione religiosa. Sono vicino a voi, cari fratelli e sorelle, con la preghiera, in cui chiedo al Salvatore di ricolmarvi della sua bontà, affinché la vostra vita sia sempre orientata a Lui ed al prossimo. Questo augurio e questa invocazione viene da me elevata anche per le religiose Mercedarie del SS. Sacramento, alle quali rivolgo pure il mio benvenuto.

Cordialmente saluto, poi, voi alunni dei Seminari di Napoli e di Chioggia, che partecipate a questa udienza con i vostri superiori ed i vostri familiari. Carissimi, il ricordo della nascita di Gesù vi sia di sprone a crescere nella sua grazia e nel suo servizio.

Giunga poi una parola di saluto a voi, soci dell’Azione Cattolica della diocesi di Saluzzo, che con il vostro Vescovo, Monsignor Sebastiano Dho, siete oggi pellegrini a Roma. Vi esorto a perseverare nella testimonianza di fede e di amore a Cristo nella vita quotidiana, estendo tale invito ai rappresentanti di alcune Comunità di Sant’Egidio provenienti da diversi paesi. Saluto i bambini del coro denominato “Grillo Canterino” e i membri dell’Associazione dei “ Cantori di Assisi”.

Ai giovani, agli ammalati e agli sposi novelli

Rivolgo pure un saluto ed uno speciale augurio ai giovani, ai malati, agli sposi novelli. Sia sempre Gesù Cristo per tutti voi, la via che segni i passi del nuovo anno, da poco iniziato. Lo sia per voi, cari giovani, nel vostro cammino di crescita, nelle decisioni del vostro programma di vita, nelle scelte morali che vi impegnano. Lo sia ancora per voi, ammalati, nel comprendere e nell’accettare la sofferenza, come momento di redenzione e di grazia, sull’esempio del Redentore. E lo sia per voi, sposi novelli, perché possiate tracciare un cammino di vita familiare capace di testimoniare sempre nell’amore e nella visione cristiana della vostra esistenza la grandezza e la bellezza del Sacramento del Matrimonio. A tutti la mia Benedizione Apostolica.

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