Category Archives: The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit in the Historical Books

The Holy Spirit in the Historical Books

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

With a desire to learn more about the Holy Spirit, particularly with regard to the Old Testament, I am working my way through the book, A Biblical Theology of the Holy Spirit. This book, written by various scholars, begins with an investigation of “The Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch” by Walter Kaiser Jr. (click here to read my review and thoughts), This post builds on that initial article by looking at chapter two which explores the Holy Spirit in “The Historical Books.” This informative chapter is authored by David Firth, and encompasses the books of Joshua – Esther in our Old Testament. Of the 62 occurrences of ruach in the historical books, Firth notes that a majority either refer to breath, wind, or the human spirit. Firth also cautions that, “Because of the semantic breadth of ruach, we need to consider the possibility that even [when] ruach is associated with God it may refer to something other than the Spirit” (p. 14). Due to the ambiguous nature of the expression in certain texts, Firth limits his investigation to 13 passages in Judges and 1&2 Samuel (books which are part of the “Former Prophets in the Hebrew Bible), and 6 passages in Chronicles-Nehemiah.

The Holy Spirit in the Historical Books: Judges

The Holy Spirit is an important motif in the Book of Judges
The Holy Spirit is an important motif in the Book of Judges

Firth notes that, “A central motif in Judges is that the Spirit’s presence indicates Yahweh’s power to deliver his people….The Spirit is thus principally associated with military action” (pp. 14-15). The giving of the Spirit to enable leadership is reminiscent of one of the features of the Spirit in the Pentateuch (Num. 11). In Judges this leadership is raised up as a means to deliver God’s people from various oppressors. These leaders include Othniel (Judg. 3:10), Gideon (Judg. 6:34), Jephthah (Judg.  11:29), and Samson (Judg. 13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14). Firth makes the important point that it “becomes clear that the Spirit’s presence does not compel the judge to comply with Yahweh’s purposes. The Spirit’s power is a resource that can be drawn upon but is not something that overcomes the judge” (p. 16). This is evident in Gideon, who still operates out of fear although he has received the Spirit (Judg. 6:34-40; 7:9-11), Jephthah who pronounces a foolish and unnecessary vow after receiving the Spirit (Judg. 11:29-31), and Samson who receives the Spirit on various occassions, but also acts in dubious ways.

The ability to draw upon the power of the Spirit but not be overcome by the Spirit, reminds me of a similar principle enunciated by the apostle Paul when writing to the Corinthian believers. Paul notes the confusion that exists in the Corinthian assembly over the expression of spiritual gifts during their corporate worship. Paul counsels them to take turns, and if there is no interpreter for a tongue to keep silent in the church (1 Cor. 14:27-28). He states that “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor. 14:32). Although this is not a direct reference to the Holy Spirit, it is a reference to the gifts given by the Spirit and suggests the same principle we see at work in the Book of Judges. From this observation we can learn several important principles. First, God’s Spirit is given to someone (whether a deliverer and judge, or believer in a church) to benefit the people of God. This means that the giving of the Spirit involves a certain individual but it isn’t merely about that individual. The Spirit is given to one in order to benefit many. This is overlooked by some churches where the gift of the Spirit seems to take on an “it’s all about me” attitude. Second, while a person can draw on the resources of the Spirit, they can also act out in the flesh. Gideon continued to fear, Jephthah made a foolish vow, Samson violated his vows, and the Corinthian assembly was a place of confusion rather than order (1 Cor. 14:33, 40). In other words, receiving the Holy Spirit is no guarantee that we will not react in a fleshly manner. We still need to practice discernment and humbly offer ourselves, our actions, and our decisions to God.

The Holy Spirit in the Historical Books: 1&2 Samuel

"But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him" (1 Sam. 16:14)
“But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him” (1 Sam. 16:14)

Firth states that in 1&2 Samuel, “The Spirit continues to designate those chosen by Yahweh, though without removing the flaws of those so empowered. However, the books of Samuel also include the motif of the Spirit’s association with prophecy from Numbers 11, but (especially with David) in new ways. Most originally, the books of Samuel also point to the possibility of the Spirit disempowering those who set themselves against Yahweh” (p. 18). In other words, a number of the ways in which the Spirit works and manifests himself continue to be seen in the books of Samuel with some further development. Certainly one of the intriguing aspects of 1 Samuel is how the Spirit is given, but then taken from Saul due to his disobedience (1 Sam. 10:10; 16:14). A similar idea is introduced in the story of Samson, although there it does not mention the Spirit but simply says, “But he did not know that the Lord had departed from him” (Judg. 16:20). The other major difference with Samson is that later, when he prays, God restores his strength (Judg. 16:28-30). Saul, on the other hand, not only receives no further answers from the Lord (e.g., 1 Sam. 28:6), he also is sent an “evil spirit” from the Lord (1 Sam. 16:14). Firth writes, “Previous references to the Spirit indicated a means by which Yahweh empowered someone to work for him, but here the Spirit acts independently of a human servant, disempowering those who opposed Yahweh’s purposes” (p. 20).

Firth also notes a development in the idea of Spirit-inspired prophecy. Whereas previous depictions of Spirit-inspired prophecy seem to be of the ecstatic type (e.g., Num. 11), David is said to speak a prophetic oracle by the Spirit (2 Sam. 23:2). Firth concludes, “David’s experience of the Spirit is pivotal for the whole of the Old Testament’s understanding of the Spirit, so that from this point on the emphasis is upon the Spirit and the spoken word of prophecy, though elements such as empowering for leadership do emerge occasionally. The books of Samuel have thus brought new emphases on the Spirit’s work” (p.21).

The Holy Spirit in the Historical Books: Chronicles and Nehemiah

“In contrast to the more complex theology of the Spirit in Judges and Samuel, references to the Spirit in Chronicles and Nehemiah have a simpler focus. Without fail, they are concerned with the Spirit’s involvement in the delivery of Yahweh’s word to his people” (p. 21). Although Chronicles often seems to use Samuel and Kings as a source, “it is notable that none of the references to the Spirit in Samuel occurs in Chronicles” (p. 21). Firth concludes that “This suggests that the Chronicler has conciously chosen to associate the work of the Spirit only with prophetic utterance” (p. 21), the same can be said for the Book of Nehemiah.

Conclusion and Evaluation

Firth concludes that the references of the Holy Spirit in the historical books show a “progressive development of the understanding of the Spirit.” While Judges focuses on the role of empowering leadership, especially in regards to military deliverance, the books of Samuel act as the pivot taking up motifs from Judges but moving them forward especially in the areas of the Spirit withdrawing from Saul and David speaking the prophetic word of God through the Spirit. This leads to the usage in Chronicles and Nehemiah which is wholly focused on “the Spirit’s role in enabling prophets to speak God’s message to his people” (p. 23).

Firth’s treatment of the Holy Spirit in the historical books is more nuanced and more insightful than Kaiser’s on the Pentateuch. I found his ability to show a progressive development in the understanding of the Holy Spirit in the historical books and to discuss various aspects of that development to be very helpful as I seek to better understand the role of the Spirit in the Old Testament.

The Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch

The Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch: Introduction

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

For sometime I have been interested in what the Old Testament teaches about the Holy Spirit. What are the similarities and differences between the role and activities of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament and New Testament? Many believe there is a major difference in the access and indwelling of the Holy Spirit between Old Testament and New Testament believers. Some scholars maintain that this difference is overstated. So what is the biblical view? In an effort to come to a better understanding, particularly of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, I am currently reading several new studies on this topic. This article (and others in the future) is a combination book review and investigation into the work and role of the Spirit of God. In this, and future posts, I will be looking at A Biblical Theology of the Holy Spirit, a book which consists of articles by various biblical scholars who are experts in their field of study and seeks to trace “the role and work of the Spirit across the entire biblical canon” (p. xiv). In this post I look at Walter C. Kaiser Jr.’s treatment of the Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch from chapter 1.

The Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch

 The Hebrew word for Spirit is ruach. However, this word not only refers to God’s Spirit, it refers to the human spirit, and can also be translated “breath” or “wind.” Therefore, context is important in determining what the word ruach means. According to Kaiser the term ruach occurs 38 times in Genesis-Deuteronomy (with no occurrences in Leviticus), but only 6 passages are “key teaching passages” regarding the work of the Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch. These passages include Genesis 1:2; 2:7; 6:3; 41:38; Num. 11:4-30 especially v. 25; and Num. 24:2.

Genesis 1:2

Is Genesis 1:2 the first mention of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament?
Is Genesis 1:2 the first mention of the Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch?

Although some scholars and translations have opted for the translation that “a mighty wind” or “wind from  God” is the correct interpretation of ruach ‘elohim, Kaiser defends the traditional interpretation, “Spirit of God.” Kasier’s reasons involve a positive and a negative. Positively, Kaiser says that ‘elohim is used as a name for God and “not as an intensifying adverb such as ‘mighty'” throughout the account (p. 4). Negatively, Kaiser denies that there is any dependence on the Babylonian creation story which speaks of 8 winds being present (an argument used by his former teacher and others to suggest “wind” is the correct translation). Because the Hebrew phrase tohu wa vohu is best translated “empty and vacant” (p. 3) with tohu meaning “desert” in many passages (e.g., Deut. 32:10), Kaiser makes the interesting suggestion that the Creation may foreshadow (my terminology) God bringing his people through the desert (pp. 4-5). One of the most intriguing suggestions is that the Spirit’s hovering at creation is comparable to the cloud of glory overshadowing the tabernacle (Exod. 40:35), the Spirit’s overshadowing Mary at conception, and God’s overshadowing presence on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:5). Kaiser concludes, “Thus the same figure of speech was used for the overshadowing presence and care of the Holy Spirit, whether it was at the creation of the earth, the conception of the incarnate Christ, or the magnificent appearance on the Mount of Transfiguration” (p. 5). The problem with this conclusion is that the Greek of the LXX (Septuagint) uses the same word in Exodus 40:35 that is used on Mary’s conception and the overshadowing on the Mount of Transfiguration, but the Greek word in Genesis 1:2 of the LXX is different. I suppose one might argue it is a synonym, but this makes an interesting proposal  less convincing in my eyes.

Genesis 2:7

Kaiser’s treatment of this verse faces the same problem just encountered above. Genesis 2:7 does not use the word ruach. Kaiser argues that the Hebrew word used here (neshmah) is a synonym of ruach. This may be true, but more evidence is needed to demonstrate this. One of Kaiser’s main points is, “Since God was also spirit, the breath breathed into Adam was more than mere physical breath; it was also spiritual breath” (p. 6). While I agree with this conclusion, I don’t see how it gives us any insight into the Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch.

Genesis 6:3

This is the famous passage on the sons of God and daughters of men and the growing mountain of sin that eventually led to the Flood. In the statement, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever,” Kaiser sees the Spirit working to convict the world of sin, as elsewhere in Scripture.

Genesis 41:38

Pharaoh recognizes that Joseph possesses the Spirit of God.
Pharaoh recognizes that Joseph possesses the Spirit of God.

This verse contains Pharaoh’s declaration that Joseph is a “man in whom is the Spirit of God.” This recognition is connected with the wisdom and administrative ability that Joseph demonstrates. Some argue that because this statement is found in the mouth of a pagan, it is not a reference to the Holy Spirit. However, Kaiser argues that Joseph has already told Pharaoh that the gift of dream interpretation comes from God. I lean toward agreement with Kaiser on this interpretation, but I would also argue that in the larger context of Genesis, the reader is certainly to understand a reference to the Spirit of God even if Pharaoh meant something different. Kaiser makes the observation that “the role of the Spirit of God is frequently seen in connection with the leadership roles of major figures of the Old Testament” (p. 8).

Numbers 11:4-30

This passage relates how the Spirit that was upon Moses was distributed among 70 of the elders of Israel. Evidence that the Spirit was received came through the men prophesying. Thus this passage connects prophesying with one of the manifestations of the Spirit. The story concludes by saying that Joshua was jealous for Moses when he saw two men continuing to prophesy, but Moses  responded by saying, “Oh, that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:29). Kaiser notes how this anticipates Joel’s prophecy in Joel 2:28-29. Further elaboration on this point would have been helpful. Is Moses saying that not all of God’s people have access to the Spirit?

Numbers 22:1-24:25

Although Balak wants Balaam to curse Israel, Balaam blesses Israel.
Although Balak wants Balaam to curse Israel, Balaam blesses Israel.

The last significant passage regarding the Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch, according to Kaiser, is found in the story of Balaam. Kaiser states, “Surprisingly the ruach ‘elohim was not limited to individual Israelites, but also rested on one who clearly was a Gentile and who lived outside Jewish territory” (p. 10). Even though King Balak of Moab had hired Balaam to curse Israel, Balaam was warned by God that he could not curse what God had already blessed. In spite of God’s warning in the famous passage about Balaam’s talking donkey, God allows Balaam to continue on his mission. Numbers 24:2-3 even speaks of the Spirit coming upon Balaam and records his words of prophecy. Kaiser notes that some believe Balaam sought to curse Israel through using sorcery, but he says this is uncertain. Regarding the Holy Spirit coming upon Balaam, Kaiser states, “Whether Balaam was a willing or unwilling recipient of the Holy Spirit’s work cannot be said at this distance from the event” (p. 10). I would add that the one thing that is certain is that Balaam does not have a good reputation in the rest of Scripture. Kaiser does say that this incident demonstrates “that God can bring his message occasionally through an unbelieving, or unwilling, speaker” (p. 11).

Evaluation of Kaiser’s essay on the Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch

 Although I have great respect for Walter Kaiser Jr., and have benefitted from many of his writings, I must admit to being disappointed by his treatment of the Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch. At places, Kaiser suggests interpretations that aren’t firmly anchored in the text. For example, his connection of the “overshadowing” passages with Genesis 1:2, or his treatment of Genesis 2:7 that doesn’t even use the term ruach. Furthermore, as noted above, his interpretation of Genesis 2:7 doesn’t offer any insight in understanding the role or nature of the Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch. My other criticism is that throughout his essay it seemed like Kaiser was approaching his intepretation of the text with an eye on the New Testament. This certainly has its place, but I would first suggest that the focus should be on what the text means in its present context and what that may tell us about the Holy Spirit. My suspicion seems confirmed when Kaiser takes an apologetic tone in his conclusion. Without quoting the entire conclusion, here is a sample statement: “In this regard, it is an unnecessary attenuation of the life, ministry and significance of the Holy Spirit to limit his appearance and real work until NT times, for not only does that bifurcate the higher order of the Trinitarian Godhead but it also removes credit from the Holy Spirit for the works he did during those times covered by Moses in the Pentateuch…” (p. 11).

On the positive side, the Pentateuch teaches us that the Spirit of God was present at Creation, and may convict or bring judgment (Gen. 6:3). The Holy Spirit can be given to leaders and administrators (Joseph, and the 70 elders), and prophesying can accompany the giving of the Spirit. Finally, the Pentateuch teaches us that the Holy Spirit can also be given to Gentiles, even Gentiles of dubious character, if it accomplishes God’s purposes.