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What is the Breath of God?



"Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature." (Ge 2:7)


What is the Breath of God?


Notice that the body was made from the temporal earth. It will pass away. Paul refers to the body as an "earthen vessel" or "clay jar" (2 Cor 4:7). This is fitting because the verb "to form" yatzar יצר in Gen. 2:7 is used elsewhere (Jer. 18:4-6) to speak of a potter's work of forming clay according to his desire.


1. Our bodies are temporal, growing weaker and fading away (2 Cor. 4:16). Peter, quoting Isaiah, says that all flesh perishes like flowers (1 Pet. 1:24).

2. God took great care in forming our bodies like a potter would a vital piece of pottery.


Peter also says that the word of God endures forever (v. 24). After God formed Adam into a human, he was a mere “jar of clay”—lifeless. But then God breathes life into him, and he becomes a “living soul” nephesh chaya (נפש חיה). “Breathed is warmly personal, with the face-to-face intimacy of a kiss and the significance that this was giving as well as making; and self-giving at that.”[1] This is the eternal part of man. The life of God in man does not end when the physical body wears out. The image here is God “blowing on” (naphah, נפח) Adam with the intent of filling him with life.


We have to make a differentiation between lifeless clay and the life-giving breath of God. Going back to Peter, he says the word of God endures forever, and you can’t speak without breathing. The breath of God is infused with life. Man became “a living soul” because God “blew into Adam’s nostrils “the breath of life” nishmat chayim (נשמת חיים). In other words, in God’s breath is life, just as his word is life. His breath is eternal, just as his word is.


Can these Dry Bones Live?


It brings to mind the image of Ezekiel seeing the slain of Israel as a valley of dry bones. Just like in Genesis 2:7, there are two stages. He prophesies for bodies to be formed, but they were still dead. Ezekiel says, “but there was no breath in them,” just like clay-jar-Adam. The word for “breath” here is not nishimat chayim (נשימת חיים) like in Gen. 2:7, but ruach (רוח), which means spirit, breath, or wind. It is what we call the third person of the Godhead, “Holy Spirit” Ruach haKodesh רוח הקודש. In other words, God’s breath is his Holy Spirit, and his Spirit is eternal. Scholar K. A. Matthews agrees that the “breath of life” nishimat chayim in Genesis 2:7 is the “breath” ruach in Ezekiel 37.[2]


There are striking parallels between Ezekiel 37 and Genesis 2:7. Bodies without the breath (of God) are dead. In Gen 2:7, God breaths the breath of life in Adam, and in Ezekiel 37, he says, “I will cause to come in you spirit/breath and you will live” (v. 5) and “I will put in you spirit/breath and you will live” (v. 6). In v. 9, he’s given the exact words to prophesy. This is my translation from the Hebrew:


“Thus says the Lord Yahweh, come Spirit/breath (ruach singular) from the four “winds” (same word ruach, but plural) and fill (same word naphah used in Gen. 2:7 to fill Adam with life) these who were killed and they will live.”


In Ezekiel, it is a true resurrection, as these people have been killed, and now they live. They live because 1) their bodies have been restored and 2) the breath of God is in them. But in both cases, God’s breath nishma in Genesis and ruach in Ezekiel is blown into them. The same verb is used in Genesis 2:7 and Ezekiel 37:9, naphah. The verse is different in Hebrew than in English.


Paul’s use of God’s breath

Do you know what else God breathed? The word of God. Paul tells Timothy that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). In the previous verse, Paul says that Timothy has known the “holy writings” (hiera grammata) from infancy. “‘Holy writings’ (hiera grammata) is the name for the holy scriptures of the Old Testament in Greek-speaking Judaism.”[3] The New Testament was merely a collection of letters at that time—the God-breathed Bible was the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).


The word for God-breathed is theopneustos. Theo, as many know, is “God,” and pneustos is “breathed.” Many translations say God-inspired, but the literal definition of “inspiration” is to inhale. As with Adam, God is breathing out truth from his character, his core being. “The phrase tells us that, when God caused his divine word to be written by human authors, he breathed it through them.”[4] 


Wind and Spirit

In both Hebrew and Greek, the same words ruach and pneuma can mean both “spirit,” “breath,” or “wind.” Spirit and wind are both invisible, but we can see their effect on this natural world. When the wind blows on trees, we see them move. When the Spirit moves on a person, we see a change in that person. Richard Averbeck, a scholar on spiritual formation, writes, “The image of wind ‘driving’ a sailboat along is a good one for understanding some of the essential features of spiritual formation.”[5] 2 Peter 1:21 speaks of the prophets being “carried along by the Holy Spirit.”


If you don't put your sails up, the wind will not help you. On the other hand, you can have your sails up, but you will go nowhere if the wind is not blowing. What made Adam a nephesh haya, a “living being,” was the “breath,” nishima, of God filling him. The key to spiritual formation (allowing the Spirit to form us into the image of Yeshua) is getting our sails up so that we catch the breath of God. We do that by embracing spiritual disciplines (reading God’s word, prayer, solitude, walks in nature, fasting, practicing humility, preferring others, etc.).


As I look out my window, I can see the Mediterranean Sea. Some days are like today, with the wind blowing and the water choppy. Such days draw out the surfers. On other days, it is quite calm. As those seeking spiritual formation, we must recognize that not every day will be surfing or sailing weather. But we go out to the sea regardless.


Beloved Israeli anchorman Dani Cushmaro traveled to Norway to swim with the orca whales in the wild. For several days, he and other tourists would go out in a rubber boat and freeze, hoping to spend some time in the frigid waters with the elusive whales—but each day, they were disappointed. It was only on the final day that they spotted orcas and were able to get into the sea with them. Those who have done it say it is a life-changing experience. To experience deep spiritual formation, we must be in the right place to encounter the wind or breath of God’s Spirit. There are many distractions competing for your time, from social media to television, but we must make time to grow in God.



“You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”[6] —Dallas Willard.

 

Footnote:

Growing up Jewish, I am woefully ignorant when it comes to hymns. I know the famous ones like Amazing Grace and It is Well with My Soul. But I found this one by Edwin Hatch, written in the 1800s, and want to share it with you.


Breathe on me, breath of God: fill me with life anew, that as you love, so I may love and do what you would do.

Breathe on me, breath of God, until my heart is pure, until my will is one with yours to do and to endure.

Breathe on me, breath of God; fulfil my heart's desire, until this broken part of me glows with your heavenly fire.

Breathe on me, breath of God; so shall I never die, but live with you the perfect life of your eternity.


The idea of the hymn writer is that when God breathes on you, you will be drawn to him, to his purity, and you will experience inner healing and, ultimately, eternal life.


 

[1] D. Kidner, Genesis, TOTC (Downers Grove: IVP, 1967), 60.

[2] K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 196.

[3] Martin Dibelius and Hans Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), 119.

[4] Greg Stiekes, “The Men who Wrote Scriptures were not Inspired by God,” BJU Seminary, February 1, 2021, https://seminary.bju.edu/theology-in-3d/the-men-who-wrote-scripture-were-not-inspired-by-god/

[5] Richard Averbeck, “Worship and Spiritual Formation,” in Foundations of Spiritual Formation, ed. Paul Pettit (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2008), 62.

[6] John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: How to stay emotionally healthy and spiritually alive in the chaos of the modern world (Colorado Springs, CO: John Murray Press, 2019), 24, Kindle.

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When I read the sailing analogy, I recalled that sailboats move fastest when the sails are at an angle to the wind. When the wind is pushing the sail, the boat will move sluggishly. But when the wind crosses the sail, it acts as an airfoil and pulls the boat along.


This is also true of our spiritual walk. We tend to be resistive when being pushed. But when the Spirit goes before, we are pulled along in His wake.

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