The Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch: Introduction
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
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.