The hovering of the Spirit of God

Join the author in contemplating the activity and personhood of the Spirit of God.

Luiz Gustavo S. Assis is a church pastor in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.

The proper study of the Christian,” said Charles H. Spurgeon, “is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the doings, and the existence of the great God. . . . There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our tools are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. Other subjects we can comprehend and grapple with; in them we feel a kind of self contentment, and go on our way with the thought, ‘Behold I am wise.’ But when we come to this master science, finding that our plumb line cannot sound its depth, and that our eagle eye cannot see its height, we turn away with the thought ‘I am but of yesterday and know nothing.’”1

As human beings, we are limited in our comprehension of some biblical topics.2 One of them is, no doubt, the doctrine of the Godhead. As David acknowledged, “Such knowledge [of God] is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” (Ps. 139:6).3 The only way to know this profound Being is through His own disclosure in the Holy Scriptures.

This article will examine a text not widely used in the approach of this theme. We will look at Genesis 1:2, particularly the last part of the verse: “and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” I have divided our study in two parts: (1) Is the “Spirit of God” God Himself? (2) Is the “Spirit of God” a Person?

Is the “Spirit of God” actually God Himself?

Translating from an ancient language to a modern one does not happen easily. The Old Testament Hebrew is one example. A majority of Bible translations render ruach ‘elohim (Gen. 1:2) as “the Spirit of God,” but some versions give a different meaning, like “a mighty wind,” or “a wind from God.” The latter two options tend to consider the “Spirit” as an inanimate force or a breath from God and not a Divine Person of the Godhead.

The Hebrew word ruach alone has the meaning of wind or spirit. In such cases, the context provides the best translation. In Genesis 1:2, ruach is not alone but appears with the noun ‘elohim, God. In all 24 occurrences of the expression ruach ‘elohim in the Old Testament, none of them is translated as “a mighty wind” or “a wind from God.” Why would this be? As we can see, this biblical passage deals with some­thing deeper than a mere uncontrolled wind. And one has to remember that an uncontrolled wind does not have the capacity to start or create life. While it is difficult to see a mighty wind in this passage, we are dealing with the Holy Spirit of God.4

An isolated reading of the Genesis passage does not provide much infor­mation about this Spirit of God, but when we look at other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures that deal with the Creation topic, we have a better under­standing. For example, observe Psalm 104. The psalm is a hymn to God based on the Creation account of Genesis 1. Jacques Doukhan has provided a care­ful study comparing the structure of Genesis 1 and Psalm 104.5 In verse 30 we read, “When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.” This text suggests that the Creation act was only possible through the work of the Spirit. For those who claim that the Holy Spirit was absent in Creation, Psalm 104 reveals clearly that He had an active part during that process.

In other words, Genesis 1:2 affirms the Spirit of God as the One who starts life. He is not only the Creation instru­ment but is also the Divine One, capable of creating.

Is the Spirit of God a Person?

Our text presents simple but strong evidence for the Personhood of the Spirit of God. This text has to do with the Hebrew verb rachap, to hover, soar, fly. It is an uncommon verb in the Old Testament. Besides in Genesis 1:2, rachap occurs only in Deuteronomy 32:11, where God’s care for His people in the wilderness is compared to an eagle hovering over its nest, reveal­ing the idea of protection. Richard Davidson suggests another insight: the word barren in Deuteronomy 32:10 is the Hebrew noun tohu that also occurs in Genesis 1:2 as “formless.” We have here the same sequence of words in the extremes of the Pentateuch. What the Spirit of God made in Genesis 1, God does with His people in Deuteronomy.6

But let us go deeper in our study of the verb rachap, and for this we must look to another ancient Near Eastern language, Ugaritic. Since the discovery of thousands of clay tablets in 1929 in Ugarit, modern Ras Shamra, in Syria scholars can understand better many Hebrew words. In all Ugaritic text avail­able until now, rachap always relates to birds, especially eagles.7 Thus rachap in Genesis 1:2 describes an action of a Being, not an impersonal power or energy. 8

Looking deeper in other languages, we can see the fullness of the beauty of Genesis 1:2. In Syriac, for example, rachap means “to bring forth,” “to generate.” In the ancient Arabic, the idea means to be suspended above something with open wings and again transmitting the image of protection and care of a bird hovering over its nest.9 We can summarize all information provided by these ancient languages in a single phrase: a Being generating life and protecting His creation! This shows the meaning of the verb rachap in Genesis 1:2 as a creating activity and, at the same time, protective.

Maybe this is the reason why the Holy Spirit chose a dove to manifest Himself at Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:22). The New Testament scholar Greg Beale from Wheaton College, affirms that “when one considers God’s authorship and design of the entire Bible and its sacred history, God’s (the Spirit’s) ‘hovering’ over the chaos of creation is a bird metaphor, which foreshadows God’s sovereign design that a dove would herald the new creation after the flood of Noah, and foreshadows God’s care of Israel after creating them anew out of Egypt, and foreshadows the Spirit descending as a dove on Jesus at His baptism, which recalls Israel’s own Exodus through the Red Sea (and again second generation Israel’s going through the Jordan River into the promised land), both of which were new creation episodes. Indeed, Jesus begins to inaugurate the new, second Exodus and the new creation, so it is suitable again that the Spirit as a dove should show up to indicate this.”10 Think for a moment on the relief that the observers felt when they saw the dove upon the very Son of God! A new creation was beginning.

Final considerations

The insights about the activity and Personhood of the Spirit of God are like a small seed in this text. Throughout the Old and the New Testaments, we can see how the biblical writers felt and described the profound impact of this seed in the human heart, devastated by the suffering and terror of sin.11 There are several examples, but we will look at just two. The first—Psalm 51 where David portrays a scene of total repen­tance after his terrible sins. He asked God to create (Heb. bara’) a pure heart (Ps. 51:10). Only God can create. David knew that and this is why he added, “Do not . . . take your Holy Spirit from me” (v. 11).12 Why did he say that? Saul, the first king of the Israelite monarchy, became dry as a desert when the Third Person of the Godhead was removed from Him. The “hovering” activity of the Holy Spirit would restore David completely.

The second reference is Titus 3:5. Describing the process of salvation, Paul says, “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” The expertise of the Third Person of the Godhead includes giving life, and He also has the power to renew one. Sometimes in our ministry, we have to deal with the tragedy of death and the destructive power of sin. We find it very important to feel restored after these kinds of situations. But not only that, sometimes a minister needs to rediscover the marvelous sense of the grace of God. Unfortunately, I have seen some pastors that do not have the light in their eyes when they are preaching or communicating the Word of God. We must recognize that only the Holy Spirit can give this light back to us.

When we, as ministers, see a large city like Sao Paulo, Paris, Chicago, New York, Mumbai, Beijing, and oth­ers, immediately a question is raised: How shall we reach all these people? Rhetorical skills and technology seem indispensable. Biblical and theologi­cal knowledge are very important. Evangelism methods and theories of church growth must be mastered. But, without the hovering of the Holy Spirit, all these components are dry and superficial. Every pastor, elder, and leader in our congregation can multiply their efforts when the Holy Spirit becomes the urgent need of each one of us.

Ellen White wrote, There is no limit to the usefulness of one who, by putting self aside, makes room for the working of the Holy Spirit upon his heart, and lives a life wholly consecrated to God.”13 Why cannot you and I be that person? Not to be popular, not to receive applause from a large audience, but to be the minister that the gospel deserves. At the time when the entire Seventh-day Adventist Church around the world prays for revival and reformation, we must ask God for this hovering of His Holy Spirit upon our lives and upon our ministry. There is no other way.

References:

1 Charles H. Spurgeon on Malachi 3:16, quoted in Arthur W. Pink, The Attributes of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1975), 89.

2 A majority of the research for this article was done in 2008. However, I am thankful for Richard Davidson’s presentation on the seven functions of the Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch, during the South American Division Biblical Theological Symposium in May 2011, particularly for some of his marvelous insights on Genesis 1:2 that enriched this article. I am also grateful to Elias Brasil de Souza, associate director of the Biblical Research Institute, for critiquing this manuscript.

3 All biblical passages in this article are from the New International Version of the Bible.

4 If the biblical writer intended to refer to a mighty wind, he probably would have used the expressions ruach se’arah (cf. Ps. 107:25; 148:8) or ruach qadim (cf. Jer. 18:7; Ps. 48:7). Jonah 1:4 is a decisive text here. Referring to a strong wind, Jonah used the expression ruach gedolah, not ruach ‘elohim, as in Genesis 1:2. See Sabatino Moscati, “The Wind in Biblical and Phoenician Cosmogony,” Journal of Biblical Literature 66 (1947): 307.

5 Jacques Doukhan, The Genesis Creation Story: Its Literary Structure, Andrews University Seminary Doctoral Dissertation Series, vol. 5 (Berrien Springs, MI: 1978), 81–88.

6 Richard Davidson, The Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch, unpublished paper, 8.

7 H. Neil Richardson, “An Ugaritic Letter of a King to His Mother,” Journal of Biblical Literature 66 (1947): 322.

8 Roberto Ouro, “The Earth of Genesis 1:2: Abiotic or Chaotic?” Part III, Andrews University Seminary Studies 38 (1998): 64.

9 Moscati, 307.

10 Personal correspondence in September 26, 2009.

11 Richard Davidson, in the symposium referred to earlier, gave the following references—John 3:5–8; 6:63; Luke 1:35; Rom. 8:10; 2 Cor. 3:6—to show how the hovering motif was expanded in the minds of the biblical writers.

12 In all 41 occurrences of the verb bara’, to create, God is always the subject. The idea of forgiveness is related here too. Ellen White wrote, “God’s forgiveness is not merely a judicial act by which He sets us free from condemnation. It is not only forgiveness for sin, but reclaiming from sin. It is the outflow of redeeming love that transforms the heart. David had the true conception of forgiveness when he prayed, ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.’Psalm 51:10” (Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing [Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1988], 114).

13 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1988), 250, 251.


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Luiz Gustavo S. Assis is a church pastor in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.

August 2013

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