RUACH: Spirit or Wind or ???
By Jim Myers

And the earth was waste and void;
and darkness was upon the face of the deep:
and the RUACH of God moved upon the face of the waters.

The above words from Genesis 1:2 are some of the best known words in the world.  Books have been written about the use of the word RUACH in it.  Some say it should read:

And the earth was waste and void; 
and darkness was upon the face of the deep: 
and the SPIRIT of God moved upon the face of the waters.

Others argue that it should read:

And the earth was waste and void; 
and darkness was upon the face of the deep: 
and the WIND of God moved upon the face of the waters.

Beyond the question of whether RUACH should be translated “SPIRIT” or “WIND” lies another question: What was the RUACH doing?

The Hebrew text uses the word MeRAChEFET, a feminine singular Piel participle.  The American Stand Version translators decided to translate it as “moving”:

“. . . moving upon the face of the waters.”

However, when Martin Luther translated the same verse in his German translation of Genesis, he decided to translate it  “hovered.”  To use Luther’s term:

“the RUACH hovered above the face of the waters that were not yet divided into those of heaven and those of earth.”

But why did he choose the word “hovered” instead of “moved”?  What sort of “hovering” or “moving” was it anyway?  Was it like a helicopter hovering over a potential landing site?  Or was it like a predatory animal hovering over its next victim? Or, was it something else?

Luther based his decision upon the context in which the word was used in another verse, the only other verse in the Hebrew Bible in which the word MeRAChEFET appears – Deuteronomy 32:11:

As an eagle that stirreth up her nest,
that fluttereth
(MeRAChEFET) over her young, 
He spread abroad his wings, 
He took them, He bares them on his pinions.

In the above verse “God, who takes Israel from among the peoples and bears it into the promised land, is compared with the eagle, who with softly beating wings, hovers over its nest to quicken it, i.e., to agitate its fledgling young to flight, but who then spreads its wings wide, takes up one of its young, and `bears it on its pinions.’”  This same idea is represented in Exodus 19:4

You have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, 
and how I bare you on eagles' wings, 
and brought you unto myself.

With this information we are ready to modify our translation of Genesis 1:2 so that it will more accurately reflect the meaning of MeRAChEFET:

And the earth was waste and void; 
and darkness was upon the face of the deep: 
and the RUACH of ELOHIM fluttered over the face of the waters.

In order to more completely understand this verse we must now examine the genders of the words in the phrase “the RUACH of God fluttered.”

      (1)   RUACH – noun feminine singular
(2)   ELOHIM – noun masculine plural
(3)  
MeRAChEFET – feminine singular piel participle

Notice that of the two feminine words – RUACH & MeRAChEFET – it was the RUACH that fluttered over the waters.  Why is RUACH the subject instead of ELOHIM?  The answer becomes clear when we remember the other two verses that used the example of the mother eagle and her young.  If RUACH had appeared by itself, then the usual lexical choices of “wind” and “spirit” would top out the list.  However, in this case, the use of RUACH with ELOHIM provides us with a third and much better option.  

¬Martin Buber* points out:

RUACH ELOHIM, the breathing, blowing, surging phenomenon, is neither natural (wind) nor spiritual (spirit) but both in one; it is the creative breathing that brings both nature and the spirit into one being.  The Bible here thinks not lexically but elementally, and would have its readers think in its manner, would have the movement from God that precedes all differentiation undifferentially touch the hearing heart.  Here at the beginning of the Bible, RUACH ELOHIM stands as a great, unformulated, latent theological principle, expressed only by implication.

What is that first principle of Genesis?  Again we turn to Buber for insight:

ELOHIM is to be assigned neither to the realm of nature nor to the realm of spirit, that ELOHIM is not nature and is not spirit either, but that both have their origin in the male and female ELOHIM.  RUACH ELOHIM should probably best be understood as the PRESENCE of ELOHIM, which is the unique CREATOR/PARENT of both realms, the natural and the spiritual.

Using the earlier picture of the mother eagle and her young as a guide, the words of Genesis reveal the picture of the DIVINE PARENT (ELOHIM) and the NEST (the earth, darkness, and the deep).  The western institutionalized masculine model of God makes it impossible for the western readers to see of feel the “motherly” picture of ELOHIM painted by these words.  Yet, the ancient person hearing the words of this verse would have felt the “expectation” of the scene.  The time of birth was imminent, something was about to be born.  What would it be?  What was in the nest of ELOHIM?

Then the words of the following verses burst forth and the whole known world of the ancient audience is birthed.  As the entire creation flew out of ELOHIM’s nest, only one thing reflected the “image and likeness of ELOHIM” – mankind, both male and female.

Now let’s return to Buber* for his amazing analysis of the event:

“We should note that ELOHIM’s RUACH is named only at the beginning of the creation story – it is the undivided intentional totality of the work of creation that is assigned to RUACH, not the individual actions in the world’s becoming or even the entirety of them.  Not even where the divine breath is blown into Adam is RUACH named, although (as is clear from 6:3) it is RUACH itself that expands in him into the breath of life … Both accounts of creation – the account of the making of the world (1:1-2:4a) and the account of the making of human beings (2:4b-25), the primordial legend of nature and the primordial legend of history … In the first, RUACH maternally spreads her wings to shelter the totality of the things that are to be; in the second, unnamed and enigmatic, she is infused into the being destined for existence in history, to be present for his decision and to share his fate. . . .

“More immediately accessible to German … is the idea of ELOHIM’s RUACH, which in the beginning of creation hovers above the face of the waters, spreading its wings as the eagle spreads its wings above the children in their nest.  (`Hover,’ however, does not by itself render the Hebrew MeRAChEFET, because, unlike the Hebrew word, `hover’ does not necessarily evoke the image of a bird, in particular a bird holding steady in the air with gently beating wings) … In the Bible, RUACH always denotes a process. . . ."

Every time I read Genesis 1:2 and meditate on its words, one of my most favorite Psalms, Psalm 91, comes to mind.  See if its words take on a new meaning for you.

He that dwells in the secret place of the Highest,
He shall abide under the shadow of the Many Breasted One.
I will say to YAHWEH,
He is my refuge and my fortress;
My ELOHIM, I trust in Him.
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler,
And from the deadly pestilence.

 He will cover you with his pinions,
And under his wings shall you take refuge.
His faithfulness is a shield and a buckler.
You shall not be afraid for the terror by night,
Nor for the arrow that flies by day;
Nor the pestilence that walks in darkness,
Nor for the destruction that destroys at noonday.

 A thousand shall fall at your side,
And ten thousand at your right hand;
It shall not come near you.

 Only with your eyes shall you look,
And see the reward of the wicked.
For you, YAHWEH, are my refuge!
You have made the Highest your habitation.
No evil shall befall you,
Neither shall any plague come near your tent.

 For he will give his messengers charge over you,
To guard and protect you in all your ways.
They shall support you with their hands,
Lest you stump your foot against a stone.
You shall tread upon the lion and adder;
The young lion and the serpent shall you trample under foot.
Because he has set his love upon me,
Therefore will I deliver him.

 I will set him on high, because he has known my name.
He shall call upon me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble.
I will deliver him, and honor him.
With long life will I satisfy him,
And show him my deliverance.

The psalmist paints a beautiful picture in which I can’t but help see the “wings” of ELOHIM spread above the one who trusts in Him and who expectantly awaits the “process of the RUACH” to begin, the process that will bring deliverance from the trial facing him.

* Scripture and Translation by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Translated by Lawrence Rosenwald with Everett Fox. Indiana University Press; Indianapolis, IN; (C) 1994; "People Today and the Jewish Bible: From A Lecture Series" by Martin Buber (November 1926) pp. 4-21.

SOURCE: DISCOVERING THE BIBLE - 1999 Number 5

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