The Old Testament. The Hebrew word for "spirit" is ruah [;jWr]. It appears 389 times in the Old Testament. Its varied use almost defies analysis, but some emphases are discernible. It is used more often of God (136 times) than of persons or animals (129 times).
Its basic meaning is wind (113 times). The trees of the forest sway before a wind ( Isa 7:2 ); a wind sweeps over the waters ( Gen 1:2 ); and the Lord walked in the garden at the breezy time of day ( Gen 3:8 ). It was an east wind that brought locusts ( Exod 10:13 ) and a strong east wind that divided the Red Sea and dried it up ( Exod 14:21 ).
Breath is also a basic meaning of this term. It is the Lord who gives breath to people ( Isa 42:5 ) and to lifeless bodies ( in 1:1 Ezek 37:9-10 in ; this chapter there is a wordplay on ruah [;jWr], allowing it to mean wind, breath, spirit a similar phenomenon is found in John 3:5 John 3:8 ; where pneuma [pneu'ma] means both wind and spirit ). It is also used of bad breath Job's breath was repulsive to his wife ( Job 19:17 ).
By extension when applied to a person ruah [;jWr] comes to mean vital powers or strength. It is the spirit that sustains a person through illness ( Prov 18:14 ), but the spirit of the troubled person can be crushed ( Psalm 34:18 ). This dynamic force can be impaired or diminished as well as renewed or increased. It was a drink that caused the spirit (strength [sunistavw]) of Samson to return and revive him ( Jud 15:18-19 ) and the coming of the wagons from Egypt that revived Jacob's numb heart ( Gen 45:26-27 ). Spirit also bespeaks limitations. When taken back, the person returns to dust ( Psalm 104:29-30 ).
The spirit of the Lord is the creative power of life ( Psalm 33:6 ). When it descends on the judges it activates and enables them to do great exploits ( Judges 3:10 ; 14:6 ). By contrast, there is no spirit in idols of wood and stone. They are inert and have no power to awake and arise ( Hab 2:19 ).
Ruah can also refer to feelings. The queen of Sheba was left breathless when she saw the wisdom and wealth of Solomon ( 1 Kings 10:5 ). She was overcome by astonishment. Eliphaz accuses Job of venting his anger on God ( Job 15:13 ). Ahab was dispirited and sullen because of Naboth's unwillingness to sell his vineyard ( 1 Kings 21:4 ). "Shortness" of spirit is impatience, whereas "longness" of spirit is patience ( Prov 14:29 ). To be proud in spirit is to be arrogant ( Eccl 7:8 ). The suspicious husband is said to have a (fit) spirit of jealousy ( Numbers 5:14 Numbers 5:30 ).
Ruah can also refer to the will. Those whose spirits God had stirred up went up to rebuild the temple ( Ezr 1:5 ). Caleb had a different spirit from the other spies ( Num 14:24 ) and thus was resolute in his assessment relative to the conquest of the land. The psalmist prays for a steadfast spirit ( Psalm 51:10 ).
Given the distributed uses of ruah [;jWr] (standing twice as often for the wind/power of God as it does for the breath/feelings/will of the person), mortals cannot see themselves as independent of God. The ruah [;jWr] is living not simply through a surge of vitality, but because of God's initiatives and actions. The link between the anthropological and the divine ruah [;jWr] is not always clear and well defined.
The New Testament. Pneuma [pneu'ma] is the New Testament counterpart to the Old Testament ruah [;jWr]. While it occasionally means wind ( John 3:8 ) and breath ( Matt 27:50 ; 2 Thess 2:8 ), it is most generally translates "spirit" an incorporeal, feeling, and intelligent being.
It was Mary's spirit that rejoiced ( Luke 1:47 ). Jesus "grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom" ( Luke 2:40 ). He was "deeply moved in spirit" when he saw Mary weeping over the death of Lazarus ( John 11:33 ). Apollos was characterized as speaking with "great fervor" ( Acts 18:25 ) and Paul "had no peace of mind" when Titus did not meet him at Troas ( 2 Cor 2:13 ). Jesus pronounced a blessing on the "poor in spirit" ( Matt 5:3 ).
In the New Testament spirit is also seen as that dimension of human personality whereby relationship with God is possible ( Mark 2:8 ; Acts 7:59 ; Rom 1:9 ; 8:16 ; 1 Cor 5:3-5 ). It is this human spiritual nature that enables continuing conversation with the divine Spirit ( Rom 8:9-17 ).
Occasionally pneuma will be treated in a parallel structure with psyche [yuchv]. The terms seem to be one and the same ( Luke 1:46-47 ) and seem to be interchangeable. On the other hand, there are passages that distinguish between the two. Paul speaks of Adam as a "living soul" but of Christ as a "life-giving spirit." The one is oriented to human life and the other to heavenly life.
Flesh and spirit are often juxtaposed. Both can be defiled ( 2 Cor 7:1 ) and both can be holy ( 1 Cor 7:34 ). The flesh (works) and the spirit (fruit) are unalterably opposed to each other ( Gal 5:16-26 ). Spirit is also contrasted with letter. While the letter kills, the Spirit gives life ( 2 Cor 3:6 ). Spirit is also contrasted with human wisdom ( 1 Cor 2:5 ). Weakness of flesh can prove stronger than the spirit's will to pray ( Mark 14:38 ).
While God's Spirit is holy, reference is made to unclean, evil, and demonic spirits that are injurious to relationships with God and other humans.
There are a few passages that see the spirit as disembodied ( 2 Cor 5:1-5 ; Heb 12:23 ; 1 Peter 3:19 ). Paul speaks of being absent in body, but present in spirit ( Col 2:5 ), and James notes that the body without the spirit is dead ( James 2:26 ).
Bibliography. W. Dryness, Themes in Old Testament Theology; R. H. Gundry, Soma in Biblical Theology; R. Jewett, Paul's Anthropological Terms; A. R. Johnson, The Vitality of the Individual in the Thought of Ancient Israel; N. Snaith, The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament; H. W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Spirit'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".