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The Spirits of All Life

March 14, 2011

This was originally part of my article on souls. As that article expanded and hit six single-spaced pages I divided it in two so it may be helpful to read the soul article before reading this one. However, this article starts with the same basic question: regardless of what “spirit” means in modern English what does it mean in the Bible?

There is some definite overlap between the uses of soul and spirit. Both, for instance, are used in the mind/heart/self sense. In Genesis 26:35 Esau’s Hittite wives are hard for Isaac and Rebecca to deal with. The Hebrew says that Esau’s wives made his parents’ spirits bitter. In Deuteronomy 2:30 a hardened spirit is parallel to a hardened heart. Elsewhere we find people anxious in spirit (Daniel 2:3), oppressed in spirit (1 Samuel 1:15), and we find people’s spirits moving them to be generous (Exodus 35:21). Several more idiomatic uses occur in the same vein: spirit is synonymous with courage in Joshua 2:11 and to “stir up” someone’s spirit is to make them angry (2 Chronicles 21:16).

There is also a single verse in which the spirit of life appears (Genesis 6:17), another use that overlaps with “soul”. However, the other uses of spirit operate in a different manner.

The primary difference between souls and spirits is that spirits exist independently from the person in some sense. This is most obvious with evil spirits (Judges 9:23, 1 Samuel 16:14), unclean spirits (Zechariah 13:2), and the spirits that occasionally appear to steer people in new directions (1 Kings 22:21, 2 Kings 19:7). However, Elijah’s spirit is also apparently mobile: Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit (2 Kings 2:9) and receives it (2 Kings 2:15).

Elijah’s mobile spirit creates a problem: in what way is Elisha the recipient of Elijah’s spirit? Another use of spirit in the Old Testament provides some insight: spirits are often associated with skill or attitude. For instance, a spirit of wisdom is given to Joshua (Deuteronomy 34:9), and in Hosea 5:4 the people are accused of having spirit of harlotry. The spirit of God frequently brings abilities: in Exodus 35:31 the skills are practical craftsmanship for the tabernacle, in Numbers 11:25 the spirit brings leadership ability and the ability to prophesy (the latter being so common that I will skip citing its instances), and in Isaiah 28:6 God brings or is a spirit of justice for the judges.

If we apply this usage to Elijah and Elisha then Elisha should receive a double portion of Elijah’s ability and role. Not perhaps surprisingly Elisha does roughly twice as many recorded miracles as Elijah1. What’s more, many of Elisha’s miracles are of the same type as Elijah’s. Both perform miracles involving jars of oil that never run out and both raise a dead woman’s son. Additionally, it would seem that Elisha’s miracles get credited to Elijah or somehow discounted. While Elisha does more miracles it is Elijah that becomes the prophetic archetype in later literature, John the Baptist is somehow Elijah, and it is Elijah who accompanies Moses to meet with Jesus in the Transfiguration.

Since God’s spirit is also mobile it’s worth noting that the idea that God’s spirit comes upon people is not limited to Yahweh. Pagan rulers in both Egypt (Genesis 41:38) and Babylon (Daniel 5:11, the passage is in Aramaic) attribute “the spirit of the gods” to Jewish holy men2.

New Testament usage generally corresponds to these categories. Evil spirits are much more common in the New Testament (see, for example, Matthew 8:16) although they are often referred to with another term (δαιμόνιον, the Greek word behind the English “demon”). Elijah’s spirit also makes a return appearance (Luke 1:17) in John the Baptizer. Here spirit is paired with power, which would make sense if we assume a transfer of a ministry in both nature and ability. Jesus’ usage of “spirit” to mean “ghost” in Luke 24:39 suggests that many people’s spirits are expected to be mobile and quite like them after death. Acts uses spirit in the mind/heart sense. In Acts 19:21 Paul decides in the spirit/his spirit where to go while in Acts 17:16 his spirit is provoked by the idols he sees in Athens. These uses introduce a complication new to the New Testament: “spirit” sometimes refers to any spirit but sometimes functions as a proper name, the title of the Holy Spirit. (Holy Spirit is, itself, probably a way for pious Jews to avoid saying God’s name when they speak of God’s spirit.) This means it is sometimes unclear who is being referred to in a passage. For instance, is Paul’s spirit the one that decides in Acts 19 or is Paul informed by God’s spirit? Translations differ on this point and my Greek is far too atrocious to attempt to clarify the issue. Similar issues may lie behind Revelation 1:10 (where I suspect John is in the Spirit) and Galatians 6:1 (where “those who are spiritual” are probably those who are under the influence of God’s spirit).

However, one odd usage remains: in 1 Corinthians 5 and Colossians 2:5 Paul refers to being “present in spirit”. Does this mean that he is present in some disembodied way? Actually, I think the answer is clearly yes. However, I am not sure that it is an unnaturally disembodied way. In the Colossians example Paul may simply mean that he is aware of what is happening in Colossi and approves. In the Corinthians example he may intend for the Corinthians to think about what Paul would do when they act. However, the Corinthians example suggests that something else may be afoot as Paul instructs the Corinthians to wait to pass judgment until Paul is with them in spirit. This is harder to reconcile with “remember what I’m like and what I’ve showed you” than the Colossians example. There remains no other evidence that apostles were in the habit of making out-of-body appearances, though, and so I suspect that Paul’s spirit is not Paul himself in this example. Perhaps, like Elijah’s spirit, it is Paul’s authority or capacity.

Why does anyone care? Firstly, understanding spirits has a direct impact on how we understand the Holy Spirit. We generally treat this as a name or title but it might be useful to treat it as an adjective and a noun – the spirit that is holy. This stands for the spirit of God (God is holy, so is His spirit). We still tend to treat “spirit of God” as a title even though God’s spirit may have exactly the same relationship to God as my spirit does to me. In fact, in Revelation 3:1 and 5:6 God has multiple spirits! This doesn’t diminish the role of the third person of the Trinity. Instead, it identifies the Holy Spirit better. We’ve seen what Elijah’s spirit does for Elisha – it brings Elijah’s power and skill to Elisha. God’s spirit, similarly, should bring God’s power and skill to us. When Nebuchadnezzar says that “the spirit of the holy gods” is in Daniel (multiple times in Daniel 4) he has a clear idea what this means – it is the source of Daniel’s uncanny knowledge and wisdom. Many modern Christians seem to have lost any strong sense that the indwelling Holy Spirit should do anything.

This is a point that should be pursued further. If we look at the usages of “spirit” that we’ve seen and apply that to what God’s spirit is, we would decide that God’s spirit is God’s mind/heart/self. If God’s personality (to use another word that doesn’t quite capture what I mean) lives in us then it is simply inevitable that we should be changed. In 1 Corinthians 2:16 Paul quotes from the book of Isaiah asking, “Who has known the mind of the Lord in order to instruct Him?” and responds that we have the mind of Christ. Of course. We have the spirit of God. God’s self is, in some sense, present in us alongside our own self.

A final example should make the point firmly. When someone in the Bible is possessed by an evil spirit, we expect them to act in accordance with that spirit. However, while English says that the spirit possesses the person, the Greek says either that the person is “demonized” or that the person has the spirit. The Bible also tells us that we have God’s spirit. Strangely, though, we often expect that having an evil spirit would change more in us than having God’s spirit would.

Understanding the Holy Spirit as the holy spirit is also useful for understanding Trinitarian theology. Clearly God’s spirit is God. Clearly God’s spirit acts independently of God, too, since God’s spirit enters into people. However, I think this also forms the basis for one of the more strongly Trinitarian passages in the Bible, John 1:1-4. This passage parallels Genesis 1:1-2 in a number of ways. One of the important ones is that the Spirit of Genesis 1 is replaced by the Word. There’s a lot of baggage attached to “word” which we will avoid going into (although I tend to think that the normal focus on the Greek ideas should be replaced by a focus on the Hebrew ideas of God’s word) but the substitution is also important. Saying that something is with God and is God is strange. However, the spirit already meets these criteria. In some sense John may be working to Trinitarianism by saying, in essence, that his audience of monotheists is already unwittingly binitarian and need only add a dimension to their thinking. (Actually, I think that God’s spirit, word, glory, and wisdom are all things that both are and aren’t God in first century Jewish thought which throws the counting off but that’s somewhat irrelevant.)


1Counting Elijah’s miracles is quite tricky. Do miracles that happen to him (like being fed by ravens) count? Is prophesy a miracle? If two prophetic statements are made on two subjects at the same time do we count that as one or two instances of prophesy? I counted Elijah’s miracles under both a restrictive and a liberal definition and came up with between 6 and 16 miracles. Elisha’s miracles were generally easier to count (he engages in less prophesy and extended multi-part miracles but also engages in a posthumous miracle) but I produced a range under the same rules. Elisha’s miracle count was 13 to 23.

2Actually, this case is a bit tricky. In all occurrences of the phrase “spirit” is singular (רוח, ruach). Plural subjects should have plural spirits. For instance, in Numbers 16:22 we see “the spirits of all flesh”. Here even though “all flesh” is grammatically singular its plural status in the real world dictates that “spirits” must appear in the plural (רוחת, ruchath). If this were all that was going on I’d be writing a note about why multiple gods have a single spirit. As is, the word for “god” used here is elohim (אלוהים, in Aramaic the ending differs but not in such a way that the problem disappears), a word that is always in a plural form even when the subject is clearly singular. Determining whether “god” or “gods” is meant is normally not too difficult since both context and conjugated verbs can tell you this. However, in this case the god/gods is/are not doing anything to give us a verb and the context is ambiguous. At the end of the day it’s quite possible that the phrase should be “the spirit of the god”3. None of this really alters the content – the indication is still that people entirely unfamiliar with Yahweh understand what it means for the spirit of a god to be in someone.

3Second tangent: “The god” is one way that Hebrew writers, and later the Greek authors of the New Testament, refer to God. This may mean that “the god” is a Semitic way to indicate the chief deity, something that could probably be determined from other Semitic texts. In this case we have stories of pagan kings recognizing that the most powerful god is acting through Joseph/Daniel. It may also be that they simply mean “the god you mentioned serving”.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Stewart Thomas permalink
    March 16, 2011 11:58 am

    This raises a very important point, that being ‘spiritual’ is not synonymous with Godliness or goodness. (Or at least not in all cases.) Last night, we were looking at Romans 7. Paul says that the law is spiritual, but he is of the flesh. One reading is that the law is God’s spirit, and therefore good, and we, separate from that, are not. However, it seems more interesting to take the mobile spirit route. The law is of spirit, and we, being bodies, can therefore be filled with this law. In Rom 7:21, I really think Paul plays with this idea of spiritual filling. Though he wants to do good, the law of evil is present in him. What’s somewhat confusing is that Paul is somehow making distinctions between the evil being present in his body, but in his ‘inner man’ the law of good is present and he wants to do good. Then to confuse things further, he mentions his mind later on.

    I’m actually quite curious how a lot of these biblical terms could truly be rendered today in modern english. We have these ideas about soul, spirit and mind floating around (haha), but to be honest, they’ve become mostly meaningless. Today on NPR, during a discussion about recording brain signals and playing them back to control a robot a caller asked the scientist if he believed he was either toying with or was able to record the soul. The scientist basically responded he didn’t believe in a soul, but only neurons firing and carrying information. I’m not really satisfied with either answer. We have ideas such as after something like death or a breakup that one ‘hurts to the soul’ or a ‘soul aching’ meaning a deep, deep inner pain which would tend to follow the soul discussion from last week. We also have the idea about what the ‘spirit of a law’ is versus the ‘letter of the law.’ In this, spirit somewhat means essence or maybe intention, but the possession or filling idea isn’t there. If we were to really discuss what being filled by the God’s spirit means, I don’t think we have a clear way of expressing it. We’d have to say Let God’s essence, become your essence, or have your mind start becoming God’s mind.

    I’m not really sure where I’m even going with this besides it just being a few rambling ideas forming. However, I really like this series you’re on and look forward to Monday’s.


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