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In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Jack Levison about the spirit of God throughout the Bible as they explore the following questions:

  • Is the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament?
  • What does rûaḥ mean and why is it difficult to translate?
  • What does it mean to be people of the spirit?
  • Can everyone have the spirit of God or just some?
  • What is the connection between the spirit of creation and the spirit of salvation?
  • Do Jews have the same access to the Holy Spirit as Christians do?
  • What is the significance of Pentecost? 
  • What is unique about the Christian faith if everyone has the spirit of God?
  • How do we recognize the spirit of God?
  • What is the paraclete?
  • What has Jack learned about the spirit as he has gotten older?
  • What are some implications of recognizing the spirit of God in every person?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Jack Levison you can share. 

  • “If there is a message for the American church in a study of the spirit in the Old Testament, it’s to learn to breathe again.” @spiritchatter
  • “When you read your Bible carefully, it shatters the categories you usually come to it with.” @spiritchatter
  • “The language of filling [of the Holy Spirit] doesn’t necessarily mean taking something empty and pouring something into it… it can also mean taking what’s there and sort of frothing it up.” @spiritchatter
  • “I think discerning the spirit is the great task of today.” @spiritchatter
  • “People who know how to breathe and live into the daily miracle of life are people who are inspired.” @spiritchatter
  • “The rûaḥ is never tidy.” @spiritchatter

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript



Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty Intro Music]]

Pete: Hey folks, welcome to another episode of The Bible for Normal People, before we get started, an announcement. Our second pay what you want course is coming up March 26th, 8:30 – 9:30PM Eastern Time, and it’s on reading the Bible like adults. So, go to to register and hope to see you there.

Now, today’s topic is spirit, wind, and breath of God in the Bible, and our guest is Jack Levinson. Jack is, besides being a great guy, he is a professor of Old Testament and he has written a lot about the Holy Spirit before Christianity. In fact, his latest book is called The Holy Spirit Before Christianity, sort of makes sense. And here’s a question that I have heard a lot, I’ve asked, and I get this question too. It’s about the Holy Spirit, and do we find the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament as we do in the New, and I think the common sort of reflex answer for Christians is to say, “well, hmm, dang if I know. No? I don’t think so. Not really?” You know, things like that. But Jack’s answer is “uh, yeah. Yes, yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes.” Cause you see the terms spirit, wind, and breath are important. Spirit, wind, and breath – they’re actually the same Hebrew word, just translated differently. And it’s fine to translate that word differently in different contexts, but we shouldn’t miss the overlap of meanings between those words. That’s really the point. And with that, that’s sort of what Jack’s gonna talk about. So, let’s go to the interview and let Jack speak for himself.

[Music begins]

Jack: There is a message for the American church; it’s to learn to breathe again. When we are feeling our breath deep within us, when we are allowing that breath to roll over our tongues in words of truth and integrity, we are the people of the spirit. It’s not the dangly, shiny, things that make us people of the spirit, it’s the deep ability to breathe and slow down and let our souls catch up and be people of integrity.

[Music ends]

Jared: Well welcome, Jack, to this episode of The Bible for Normal People.

Jack: Thanks, good to be here.

Pete: Yeah, good to have you. Fantastic!

Jared: Well, you know, we think about, most people associate the Holy Spirit with the New Testament, but you spent a long time studying the spirit of God in the Old Testament as well. So just, as we launch in, what got you interested in that? It’s kind of a peculiar topic. What got you interested in that?

Jack: Well, it’s in a sense the New Testament.

Pete: [Laughter]

Jack: I mean, you can’t study the New Testament without the Old Testament and with the Judaism that made Jesus and the apostle Paul who they were. So basically, trying to understand the New Testament is like beginning a book about three quarters of the way through. Can’t do it. So, I had to go to the Old and I had to go into Judaism, and I’ve loved it ever since.

Pete: Yeah. Well, I’m guessing that one reason why people, why Christians really associate the Holy Spirit more with the New Testament probably, I’m just riffing here, maybe you know better. It’s trinitarian language. You know, we think of the trinity, a Holy Spirit as a separate person, and we don’t have this separate person of the trinity in the Old Testament, I guess. And so maybe they just associate it more but, I guess you’ve uncovered a lot more than just that, right?

Jack: Yeah, I actually had a book just come out in September called The Holy Spirit Before Christianity. And I actually argue in that book that five hundred years before Christianity, the Israelites saw the Holy Spirit as a person.

Pete: Oh!

Jack: So, we’ve got a blow out of the water the sense that all of a sudden, the power of the Old Testament became a person in the New Testament. Historically, it’s not true. Didn’t happen that way.

Jared: Well, maybe before we get into the idea of personhood and these concepts with the spirit, maybe we can talk a little bit about language, because, you know, we think of spirit and we use that in English, but in the Hebrew Bible there’s a different word that’s used, or maybe a few different words, and then in the New Testament, can you just give us a little lay of the land so we can feel grounded in what we’re talking about here?


Jack: I would be happy to. So, there’s one word in the Hebrew Bible called ruah, it’s sort of clearing your throat, ruah, and it gets translated into English as wind, or as breath, or as Spirit with a capital “S”, or as spirit with a “s”, but it’s one Hebrew word. That Hebrew word, and this is the killer, that Hebrew word occurs three hundred and seventy-eight times in the Hebrew Bible. That’s more than the word Sabbath, that’s more than the word shalom, that’s more than the word covenant, so a lot more than any of those words you have this Hebrew word ruah, but it gets sort of sliced and diced in English translations and just, they have to decide, does this mean breath, or spirit, or wind, or Spirit with a capital “S”.? And what I’ve tried to suggest in a lot of my writing is that you can’t slice it and dice it that way. That they belong together, so three hundred and seventy-eight times ruah occurs in the Old Testament. And then in the New Testament of course, the word is pneuma as in pneumatic drill or a person has pneumonia. That that occurs about three hundred and seventy-nine times, so the testaments are almost equally split between ruah in the Old and pneuma in the New. And yet, they have to be translated all sorts of different ways in English.

Jared: So, maybe say a little more, because that’s interesting the, what I heard you say was the word ruah is maybe, for us, we would say, well sometimes it means wind and breath, and sometimes it means spirit, but you’re saying maybe those lines aren’t as nice and neat and what do you mean by that? They’re saying that somehow the wind and the breath is a spirit of some sort, or how do you talk about that?  

Jack: Yeah, it’s a great question and I could go on forever with it and I’ll try not to. But basically, very often you’ll see the word ruah, and people will say, oh, that’s the spirit because someone is prophesying, or that’s the spirit because they’re doing a miracle. But when ruah is wind, that’s not the spirit. But then you get a problem. So like, in Numbers 11, you have all these elders who are prophesying when the spirit from Moses is put on them. That’s the ruah, and yet, it’s never clear whether it’s the spirit from Moses or the spirit from God. So, it’s kind of ambiguous. Later in the chapter, the ruah from the Lord comes and deposits a bunch of quail. That ruah is clearly a wind, but it’s described as a ruah from the Lord and it delivers the quail. Which one is divine, and which one is merely natural? It’s actually flipped in the book of Numbers so that the spirit as wind is actually God’s spirit. Same thing at the Exodus, right?  

Pete: Yeah. 

Jack: When the blast of God’s nostrils, and it’s translated in English as “blast”, that’s the word ruahThe blast of God’s nostrils breathes, and the sea opens up. So, there is a case where ruah is spirit, wind, and breath all at once at the Exodus.  

Pete: Yeah, so, alright. Let’s push a little bit further. You really can’t separate these terms. You do have distinctives, I mean, sometimes you just have the spirit of people or something? Is that, I mean, cause that word is used a lot, but it’s not always used in ways that implicate God.  

Jack: Well, yeah. Not all are used in ways that implicate God, but it’s a little difficult to say the spirit in me is not God. 

Pete: Right.  

Jack: You know, that the breath in me, and here’s, I think one of the most important things is the book of Job. In the book of Job, he talks about the ruah, and he talks about the neshama. So, the breath in me, the spirit in me, is what gives me life. And as long as those are in me, I’m gonna have integrity and I’m gonna speak the truth. Is that the spirit of God from heaven, is that the human spirit, is that just breath, or is that something divine? And of course, it’s something divine and something deeply human. What I love about this notion of ruah is that it cuts across all the lovely dichotomies we use to make life tidy. The ruah is never tidy. It’s probably why I spent so much time on it.  

Pete: Yeah. And that’s why it takes time to sort of tease these meanings out, because –  

Jack: Processing. 

Pete: Yeah, I definitely connect with our tendency, maybe our modern western tendency influenced by the enlightenment and blah, blah, blah, etcetera, etcetera.  

Jack: [Laughter] 


Pete: To categorize things and put things where they belong so to speak, but the ambiguity of ruah, the way you just described it in Job is very interesting. It, to put it in other language, I may say something like, the presence of God in all of us.  

Jack: Mm hmm, yeah.  

Pete: Which is a good thing to remember, and to see that in the Old Testament, not just, you know, after Pentecost or something, you know, maybe there’s something about this God that was always acting in ways we’re familiar with in the New, also acting that way in the old.  

Jack: The best theologians talk about making a connection between the spirit of creation and the spirit of salvation and not drawing a dichotomy or putting a wedge between them. And I tell ya, I tell you guys, if there is a message for the American church in a study of the spirit in the Old Testament, it’s to learn to breathe again. It is the ability to breathe. When we are feeling our breath deep within us, when we are allowing that breath to roll over our tongues in words of truth and integrity, we are the people of the spirit. 

Pete: Mmm.  

Jack: It’s not the dangly, shiny things that make us people of the spirit. It’s the deep ability to breathe and slow down and let our souls catch up and be people of integrity.  

Jared: I want to go further with that, because you talk about the sparkly, dangly things. Like, I would have grown up in a tradition where the spirit of God was associated with the exceptional and the particular sort of miraculous things and speaking in tongues, and what I hear you saying, what Pete said is the spirit of God is the presence of God in each of us. That’s a very democratizing universal experience, and so in the same way I would’ve grown up thinking, you know, the spirit of God comes upon you when you become a Christian. And it sounds like with this Old Testament blurring of breath and spirit it’s harder to make the case that way. Is that the implications of what we’re saying?  

Jack: Yeah, you said it really well, in fact. It made me feel like I explained myself okay, yes! You said it exactly as it should be said. 

Jared: Could I just clarify then, so you’re saying that the Holy Spirit then is in everyone in this sense.  

Jack: Yes. And no, I don’t think you need the caveat “in this sense.” So, if you read the book of Genesis, you have Joseph. If you read the book of Exodus, you have Bezalel, Oholiab, and the artisans both male and female who have ruah in them and then you move into Numbers and the ruah brings the quail. I mean, throughout the Old Testament, all the way into the book of Daniel where I think the word occurs twelve times. This is a person with exceptional ruah in him. This is not the spirit of salvation versus the spirit of creation. They are one and the same. Let’s throw away the dichotomies. Let’s throw away should it be a capital “S” or a small “s”. Is it God’s spirit or the human spirit? Let’s stop doing that. I think the way you said it was beautiful, Jared. So, it’s all one and the same. And we need to stop saying, oh, they’re a Christian, they have the spirit; they’re not a Christian, they must not have the spirit when we have an entire testament telling us – not true.  

Pete: But I think, I mean, I completely resonate with what you’re saying. I’m just trying to imagine what people would say in response.  

Jack: Well I know what they say in response.  

Pete: Yeah, I’m sure you do. Well, actually, I’d like, maybe, in a minute you can sort of offer some of those to help people who, you know, maybe we’re not gonna get to all those objections and what Jared and I are thinking, but people do say, you know, I’ve got the Holy Spirit and therefore I can interpret the Bible right or whatever. But there is language like that, isn’t that, in the New Testament, at least it seems like it. People receiving the Holy Spirit in a special kind of way.  

Jack: Absolutely. I think there is receiving, I think there is receiving the Holy Spirit to do particular things in the community in the world. I think there is that, but the language of filling doesn’t necessarily mean taking something empty and pouring something into it. The language of filling can also mean taking what’s there and sort of frothing it up, so I think of Pentecost. Perhaps they receive the spirit. I mean, it sounds like that. Jesus seems to suggest that they receive power from on high, but I don’t think that means what they did as human beings prior to that time is completely excluded. I think there is the movement of spirit or even receiving further spirit that combines in such a way that it combusts into something really powerful.  

Pete: Yeah.  


Jack: So, let me give you the example at Pentecost. They, they’re filled with the Holy Spirit. This is the promise of the father and what do they say? They speak the praiseworthy acts of God, which, you know, as you two know, needs nothing more than the mighty acts of God from creation all the way up to Jesus. They didn’t learn anything new with the gift of the spirit. The gift of the spirit enabled them to communicate what they had studied.  

Pete: Mm hmm.  

Jack: So, it’s not like they, what they said was given to them. What they said they had studied to learn and then the spirit communicated it to a multi-cultural group of people. Does that make sense?  

Pete: Yeah, it does. Maybe it’s a little bit, if I’m tracking you correctly, it’s a little bit analogous to saying it’s not like God’s presence isn’t with anyone until Jesus, even though that’s maybe a different kind of “filling,” a different kind of presentation. Maybe a clearer, or bigger, or more meaty kind of presentation of God’s presence. Does that make sense?  

Jack: Yeah, it does.  

Pete: But not really, does it?  


Jack: Well, no it does. No, I agree with you and I’m not –  

Pete: It isn’t like God’s not around and cares or loves people until Jesus, right? And we say that about the Holy Spirit. Like, the Holy Spirit is really not, maybe a couple of prophets, but that’s about it. You know, and we have to wait for Pentecost, now everybody gets to have the spirit.  

Jack: Yeah, it’s really, it’s amazing watching Christians either not read the Old Testament at all when it comes to the Spirit or read the Old Testament and place some of these categories that can’t possibly fit. So, one of them is, oh, the spirit came intermittently in the Old Testament, but it’s permanent in the New. Of course, then, you read the Old Testament, and most texts don’t suggest it’s intermittent at all. The Messiah of Isaiah 11, the architects of the tabernacle, Daniel – three generations he had ruah in him. So, no. It’s not intermittent in the Old Testament. The other kind of formula they use is it’s a power in the Old Testament, but a person in the New.  

Pete: Mmm.  

Jack: No, it’s a person in the Old Testament as well. So, I think Christians, I think what we often do is we don’t read the Old Testament to begin with. But if we read it, we read it with categories that have determined the story from the start. And I’m not sure that’s super helpful. 

Pete: No.  

Jared: Yeah, I agree. I agree. One other thing, just because this is my only other text that may need some explanation in my mind, is in John where Jesus says sort of, no, no, listen – you want me to go away because when I go, someone else is coming who will guide you into all truth. And is that a similar kind of thing? I’m just trying to figure out how to put that into this narrative here.  

Jack: Well that’s a really good question and John is the hardest one to put into this narrative. Not so much from those passages as in chapter seven where he says, “as of yet, there was no spirit.” The spirit was not yet given. And so, you say, well, the spirit was not yet given, that kind of blows my whole thesis, doesn’t it? Except for the fact that if you go back a few chapters to Nicodemus in chapter three and the Samaritan woman in chapter four, he’s telling them they can have the spirit. So, if chapter seven says the spirit was not yet given, it’s a little hard to understand the conversations Jesus is having that basically says the spirit can be yours, it could bubble up, it could spring up. Here’s what this wonderful Pentecostal theologian called Frank Macchia –  

Pete: Mm hmm.  

Jack: Teaches out at Vanguard University. Frank did, he did a response to one of my books, and in it, he said, we bask in the revivalist glow of the spirit, but that doesn’t mean we have to suggest that everything was dark before we received the spirit, that everything outside of our reception is dark. And I think sometimes as Christians, we feel that we need to make everything else so dark, so that our reception of the spirit is sort of the defining moment.  

Pete: Yeah, special. Yeah, better.  

Jack: By making everything else dark, we make ours lighter. It’s sort of the bully mentality, right? If we could push everybody else down into the dirt, then we’re fine.  

Pete: Yeah, that’s the history of theology.  

Jack: [Laughter]  

I’m not a theologian.  

Pete: Sorry, that’s the cynicism coming through, okay, anyway.  

Jared: But I think that’s, I, maybe speaking to that, because I do think that’s fair. I would almost say it, cause I tend to maybe psychologize this more. I think it’s, there’s a fear of Christianity not being unique, and so, if you create these common threads of, hey, the spirits presence is all over the Old Testament as well, it leaves the question of okay, then what’s unique about the Christian story?  


Jack: That’s exactly the kind of question I receive. Well, it’s usually put in terms of can Jews have the Holy Spirit? And of course, it’s a one answer question for me – yes. And it does separate me from many people. Now, I’ve been on evangelical radio shows where the people have been very gracious and kept asking the question to see, and they really wanted to know. But, I think, and you all know this, when you read your Bible carefully, it shatters the categories you usually come to it with.  

Pete: Mm hmm.  

Jared: Mm hmm.  

Jack: And so, what I’ve done is basically read my Bible about a topic that’s largely neglected – the Holy Spirit – and it shattered my categories. I thought, oh my gosh, the spirit is in everyone. The spirit is in every, the spirit is there in the seventeenth Hebrew word of Genesis 1, you know, hovering over the chaos. And the spirit is very much there doing an awful lot of things and inspiring an awful lot of people before Jesus ever came onto the scene. Which I, as a Methodist, is great for me, cause I believe in prevenient grace, I believe that God goes before us. And there’s a wonderful missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin, who basically said our job in mission is to see where the spirit is already at work and get ourselves there. 

Pete: Hmm.  

Jack: I love that image of living in the spirit, it’s not what I have, it’s the spirit’s working outside of me and it’s my job to discern and look and be alert and get myself there.  

[Music begins] 

[Producers group endorsement] 

[Music ends] 


Jared: So, that kind of does lead me into what I was, my next question, which was, Pete mentioned earlier, you know, some people think, well, I have the spirit of God, so when I read the Bible, I can trust my interpretation because the spirit is there. And you mentioned, you know, Newbigin’s “see where the spirit of God is.” How do we discern that, you know? I think of, you were just mentioning John, where Jesus kind of says the spirit kind of goes where it wishes, it blows where it wants. And so, it’s this weird, there’s this wildness to it, but there’s also, if it’s too wild, how do we discern then? Have you come across as, now we’re kind of moving from the academic study of this to some practical things, but have you found ways to talk about that?  

Jack: I have. I’m not sure they’re adequate. I think discerning the spirit is the great task of today. So, I think, there’s a scholar called Michael Welker, who wrote a book called God the Spirit, and he, believe it or not, was looking at 1 Kings 22 in the story of Micaiah ben Imlah, a prophet – 

Pete: Oh my, yeah.  

Jack: And he gave criteria for discerning the spirit, and one of them is the consensus is not truth. So, that if everybody is agreeing on something, that does not make it true. But often, something is true because it goes against the consensus. And this is from the story in 1 Kings 22 of Micaiah ben Imlah. Something else that I think is a discernment is, does it cost you anything to believe what you believe, or is it something that sort of establishes you in the status quo? I’d be suspicious of anything that makes us comfortable in the status quo. So, consensus is not truth, the status quo is not the spirit. And I, and Jared, you said this earlier, I do not think the spirit should be associated with the spectacular and the exceptional. I think that is really a problem of interpretation. I mean, the only reason we know about speaking in tongues, essentially, is that the Corinthians got it wrong. They made a mock of it.  

Pete: Mmm.  

Jack: Otherwise, Paul would never have touched it. We only know about it because they made it more spectacular than it should’ve been – the experience. So, I also think a principle of discernment should be spectacular is not the spirit. Consensus is not the spirit. The status quo is not the spirit, and the spectacular is not the spirit.  

Pete: Yeah.  

Jack: I think the spirit is found in far quieter corners of our world.  

Pete: Well also, I mean, I agree with what you’re saying and not to play games with words, but in a way the breath of life is rather spectacular when we stop to think about it, but we know what we mean. The non-ordinary, so to speak, and, you know, the spirits presence. I mean, the older I get, the more I see the wisdom in what you’re saying, Jack, with the quiet places and when you’re left alone to think through things in the presence of God in your midst is, that’s good enough. That’s actually pretty good. It’s, you don’t need the firecrackers and things like that.  

Jack: And, you know, frankly, in today’s political world, I worry about people who have the firecrackers and then don’t see the injustice around us.  

Pete: Hmm.  

Jack: You know, I’ve probably become more critical of Pentecostals than I would have been, maybe, four years ago because I think some of the discernment, much of the discernment has to do with, again, our world, not my experience.  

Pete: Yeah.  

Jack: And you know, another thing you said, as you get older, you know, I’m sixty-three now, and I’ve had a couple ablations from my heart, and that sort of, plenty of physical things, and one of the great miracles of life is that my heart sometimes beats steady –  

Pete: Yeah.  

Jack: And that I can feel my breath coming into my body, and sometimes, I say things that actually matter to people. Those are real miracles and to suggest that something has to be exceptional to be miraculous sounds sometimes a little young to me.  

Pete: Yeah, right. Well can I, you mentioned John, and I’m really intrigued by what you said about the spirit being given earlier on in John, at least the promise of that spirit being given earlier on. But Jesus calls the spirit the comforter, so what do you think of that?  

Jack: Aw, I feel terrible breaking down all these notions, but obviously the comforter is –  

Pete: Somebody has to do it.  


Jack: Well, yeah, but it’s not really kind of my nature. I guess maybe it’s more my nature than I want to admit. The Greek word, as you well know even as you ask the question, is parakletosparaclete, which means something called alongside. And it could mean everything from a comforter, to an advocate in a courtroom, to an angelic messenger who like the angel that interprets things for Daniel would be parakletos, the people at Job, when standing with Job are bad parakletores. So, the word can mean comfort, but I tend to think that’s probably not the best translation in the Gospel of John where the spirit comes and stands alongside a beleaguered community that is in desperate need of help as it’s being increasingly pushed onto the margins. So, I don’t think comfort is the word, the spirit of truth leads them into all the truth, which I think means leads them into the truth of what Jesus said and did, so it sort of leads them back to the past. So, it comes alongside them. Pete, you’re a teacher! What’s our best moment? Our best moment is when we come alongside a student and help them to understand what they’re struggling with, and at the end they look at you and they say, oh! That’s what I think the Holy Spirit is in the Gospel of John, standing alongside the community, helping them to understand what they haven’t yet understood about Jesus.  

Pete: Well if you were, if you were translating that for a Bible translation, would you use a different word or a cluster of words rather than comforter?  

Jack: I wouldn’t use advocate. I tend to cheat and take the cowardly way and use paraclete. I just transliterate it because I don’t –  

Pete: [Laughter] 

When in doubt… 

Jack: Yeah, when in doubt, transliterate, right? Baptism, paraclete. But I don’t think, you know, there’s not a lot in the Greek Old Testament to help us with that. So, I think allowing the paraclete’s activities in probably a better way to understand the paraclete than to try and find a translation. Advocate, advocate is okay, but it’s so impersonal.  

Pete: Yeah.  

Jack: Comforter is far too passive for what’s going on in John’s gospel with the conflict between light and dark.  

Pete: Right.  

Jack: So, I’ll cheat. I’ll take the coward’s way out – paraclete – there ya go.  

Pete: Sounds like that’s an article –  

Jack: Do you have a better, you’ve been asking the question. Do you have a better idea?  

Pete: No! I don’t. I mean, I was thinking of bystander, but that doesn’t sound good either. Somebody who stands by you.  

Jack: No, that would be spectator.  

Pete: That would be Pete’s really bad translation of the New Testament.  

Jack: Well, I’ve got no translation at all.  

Pete: Yeah, well. That’s cause you’re smart enough to know you can’t have one.  

Jack: No, I think it’s because I’ve got no translation at all.  

Pete: Okay, because, I mean, that’s a passage people know something about. They’ve heard it, it’s rather common. The other one Jared mentioned before, alluding to the story of Nicodemus where, you know, they’re going back on this little pharisaical back and forth where Jesus says you have to be born from above and Nicodemus says, well how does that happen? Do I climb back in? I mean, I don’t understand. He’s just, you know, egging him onto a conversation or a debate, but then Jesus has that line that really comes out of nowhere in a sense, at least, you know, from a casual reading of it where, you know, the spirit blows where it wills. And like, what, I mean, what sense do you have of what Jesus is trying to communicate in that story to this figure Nicodemus by saying that?  

Jack: Well I think, first of all, it’s a wonderful play on ruah, that the spirit is wind, breath, and spirit all at once, so the ruah blows where it wills like in the Old Testament, back to the Old Testament where the ruah blew from the east and brought quail or where the ruah moved among the people. So, I think it gives freedom to the spirit. I think helpful there is later on in the chapter where it says the spirit, the pneuma in this case, the spirit is given without measure. And I think what’s happening in John 3 and 4, and you gotta take these as pairs, as you know. You got Nicodemus and then the Samaritan woman. He comes, it he says he comes at night, but I think it means he comes at dawn, like someone seeking a rabbi, but that’s another story. So, he comes in the late watches of the night and she comes at mid-day, but both of them, notice, are offered the spirit without measure. Nicodemus is offered the spirit wind that can blow as it will, and she’s offered the spirit springing up from the earth. So, what I love about John 3 and 4 is the immeasurable gift of the spirit blowing where it wills, bubbling up from the ground. And I think that’s a lot of what’s going on there.  

Jared: Well, could we, just cause I want to make sure I’m understanding and just for our listeners too. This interplay, so you’ve been going back to the Old Testament where it seems to be, there’s not a clear line between wind, breath, and spirit. What is the, what would you say is the relationship? Is that a purposeful ambiguity that we, there isn’t a distinction and that the people of the Old Testament wouldn’t have made a distinction between those three things?  


Jack: Yeah, you really, you hit it again right on the nose. I think there’s deliberate ambiguity. I think there’s a play on the ambiguity and so they don’t want to divide between God’s breath and our spirit. It’s sort of the English language that’s weaker than Hebrew, and so we have to divide. We have to say, oh my gosh, is this spirit, breath, wind, or Spirit with a capital “S”? And they use ruah and I think they play, they play on the ambiguity in Genesis 1, the ruah hovering. Is that God’s breath? Is that the wind? Is that the spirit? And so, you’ll have the NIV translating Genesis 1 as Spirit with a capital “S”, and the liberal NRSV translating it as the wind of God. Is it a wind? Is it a spirit? Yes. It is.  

Pete: [Chuckles] 

Jack: And I think, I think, Jared, you hit the nail on the head. Deliberate ambiguity, and it’s why every time I try to leave writing on the spirit, I keep being drawn back in because I love the ambiguity because the older I get, the more ambiguous life seems to become.  

Jared: Hmm.  

Pete: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting the way you just put that, at least the way I’m putting these pieces together. The ambiguity, I mean, it may be more for us an ambiguity than it is for them. This is just where my thinking is right now, because they, the ancients didn’t have these categories that we have. So, they have, you know, I mean, I’m just, again, I may just be totally making this up, tell me I’m crazy. But, you know, wind and breath and spirit, I mean, the wind that comes out of me when I breathe –  

Jack: Uh huh.  

Pete: And the wind that’s around me, well, how is that coming about? This is maybe a divine breath, a divine wind, and it’s the spirit of God which is a spirit in us. And, you know, it’s maybe like one of those Venn diagrams. You know, you’ve got this, a lot of overlap between these terms and the need to distinguish them is our need, it’s not their need. They just didn’t think that way. They thought in a more, like, even evolutionary biologists who were Christians who were thinking about the interrelatedness, interconnectedness of all of life; maybe they were already there. They were thinking along those lines holistically about creation, and not segmenting and diving into parts.  

Jack: I agree. The people I respect, the people I love, the woman I live with now… I mean, my wife of thirty-seven years.  


Pete: Your wife? I was gonna ask.  


Jack: It happens to be woman I live with now. I mean, I pray with her, I live with her. I work. She has an office at SMU just like, right down the hall from me and I wouldn’t begin to say, oh, wow, that was the Holy Spirit. Oh, no, that was your human spirit at work. Oh, you were just breathing then.  

Pete: [Laughter] 

Jack: I would never think to take the people whom I love and respect the most and try to divvy up whether it’s, is it breath in her, is it wind around her, is it her small spirit or the big spirit, that would do her a great disservice. It’s the whole of it. I mean, the older she gets, the more I see a melding between the divine and human in her life.  

Pete: Mmm.  

Jack: The less I can detect any edge between her human inclinations, and we’re Methodists so we talk about sanctification. This is sanctification. I live with a woman who is like that for whom it would be an insult to try to say, oh, you experienced the spirit just then! When she is in the spirit even when she is doing very ordinary quotidian things.  

Jared: Hmm. So yeah, maybe you could speak to this, because I, I mean, you know, my background is more in philosophy and ethics, and I think there’s a lot of ethical implications of what you’re saying. So, maybe, can you just share a few of those for your own life as you’ve studied this in the text, what are some of the practical out-workings? You shared a little bit of how you see your wife in a new way in that, but are there other ethical implications of equality or other things that you’ve noticed?  

Jack: Oh my, yes. But I’m not sure I’m your best example. She’s a much better example. But the first thing I would say is, people who know how to breathe are often people who have virtue. So, I think people living in the ruah moment by moment are people I have learned to respect. Quieter spirits which are inspired spirits. So, number one, I think –  

Pete: Christian or not.  

Jack: Christian or not, yeah.  

Pete: Right, yeah.  


Jack: People who breathe, yeah. Not Christians who breathe. People who know how to breathe and live into the daily miracle of life are people who are inspired, in my opinion. Secondly, people who have a hunger to know Jesus. I know this sounds trite, but all through the New Testament, and I’ve done some pretty serious work on the New Testament. What I see time and again is that the spirit inspires them to go back to Jesus. So, in the book of Acts, they’re moving back to understand Jesus in the light of the Old Testament. The book of John, I think the promise is leading into the truth of Jesus through the Old Testament. So, people who are not hungry to worship necessarily, or hungry to do things, but really still have a hunger to know Jesus, I think is really important. So, people who breathe, people who want to know Jesus, who study Jesus – I think people who are willing to live in community because the spirit transcends another dichotomy; transcends the individual and the communal, so people who are committed to community. And then finally, people who are very committed to justice. To working in the world, to overturn the status quo. We cannot be people of Pentecost unless we take seriously that the slaves will prophesy, that the young women will prophesy, that the old men will dream dreams, that the people on the margins, the people excluded – these are the people of Pentecost. And so, I think maybe those four things, and I can’t even remember what they are because I can’t repeat them. But those are four signs of the spirit, you know, I think: breathing, yearning to learn about Jesus, living in community, and really wanting to upend our world.  

Pete: Well that is a great note to end on, and that’s a very practical set of pointers for us. So, just in closing then, do you have anything in the works at this moment, or are there places where people can reach you? Are you active on social media or are you more, like, in your cave?  

Jack: Oh no, I have a very old website. My dog was on the website and she died two years ago, which tells you how old my website is.  

Pete: Yeah.  

Jack: But I got some projects, I had the book Holy Spirit Before Christianity come out in September, and I have a book coming out with Baker Academic, which I really love, called A Boundless God: The Spirit According to the Old Testament

Pete: Hmm.  

Jack: And then later in the year, I have another Baker Academic book, which I just submitted to them in October, called An Unconventional God: The Holy Spirit According to Jesus, and those are kind of companion books. A Boundless God, and then An Unconventional God. And you can tell from that title that I really, I really think understanding the Holy Spirit through the life of Jesus changes how we understand God.  

Pete: Hmm, yeah.  

Jack: So that’s a whole fresh approach that will be out probably in October, I think. So those projects are on the docket.  

Jared: You’ve done a lot of thinkin’ about this spirit thing.  

Pete: The Holy Spirit must be with you.  

Jack: Uh, I, I, –  

Pete: Or did I just miss the whole point of the lesson?  


Jack: No, I, yeah, the Holy Spirit I think is in conversations like this.  

Jared: Alright, we should probably end this before Pete puts his foot in his mouth again.  

Pete: [Laughter] 

Jack: No!  

Jared: [Laughter] 

Jack: I am so glad to be here with you guys, this is really –  

Pete: Yeah, it’s been great Jack, thanks so much, we appreciate it!  

Jack: Thank you.  

Jared: Thanks so much.  

Jack: Bye bye.  

Pete: See ya.  

[Music begins] 

Pete: Hey, thanks for listening folks, be sure to check out Jack’s latest book, the Holy Spirit Before Christianity, and don’t forget – How To Read The Bible Like Adults, our live, pay what you want course, coming March 26th, 8:30 PM Eastern Time, input Thanks for listening folks and see ya next time!  

[Music ends] 

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.