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Notes on the meaning of Ruah


“Ruah" on its own means wind, an impersonal, natural force. It is often extended to mean breath or spirit of life. 


In the Old Testament, “Ruah" is sometimes followed by the word “Elohim", which means God; hence the translation of the two words together as “wind, breath, or spirit of God” when it is specifically designated “Ruah Elohim” (the Spirit of God) or “Ruah Hayyim” (the breath of life). 


References below from


The natural force which represents in its extended meaning the breath of life in human beings and the creative, infilling power of God and His Spirit.


Early Concepts: Two words in the Bible — the Hebrew ruah and the Greek pneuma (πνε?μα) — bear the basic meaning of wind or breath, but are often translated as spirit. Some understanding of the development of the latter word clarifies this transfer in meaning and enriches the concept.


Pneuma originally represented an elemental, vital, dynamic wind or breath. It was an effective power, but it belonged wholly to the realm of nature. This force denoted any type of wind and ranged from a soft breeze to a raging storm or fatal vapor. It was the wind in persons and animals as the breath they inhaled and exhaled. It was life, since breath was the sign of life; and it was soul, since the animating force left when breathing ceased.


Metaphorically speaking, pneuma could be extended to mean a kind of breath that blew from the invisible realms; thus, it could designate spirit, a sign of the influence of the gods upon persons, and the source of a relationship between humankind and the divine. In primitive mythology, this cosmic wind possessed a life-creating power, and a god could beget a son by his breath. The divine breath also inspired poets and granted ecstatic speech to prophets.


In all of these reflections, wind remained an impersonal, natural force. When we come to the Judeo-Christian understanding, however, the concept and terms retain their dynamic characteristics, but rise from cosmic power to personal being.


Old Testament

In the Old Testament, the primary meaning of the word ruah is wind. There is the slight breeze (Psalm 78:39 ), the storm wind (Isaiah 32:2 ), the whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11 ), and the scorching wind (Psalm 11:6 NRSV). Winds from the mountains and sea to the north and west brought rain and storm ( 1 Kings 18:43-45 ; see Exodus 10:19 ; Ezekiel 1:4 ); those coming from the deserts of the south and east could at times be balmy but more often would sear the land and dry up the vegetation (Genesis 41:6 ; Job 37:1-2 ). Coming from different directions, wind was identified with those directions, referring to the four corners or quarters of the earth or of heaven (Jeremiah 49:36 ; Ezekiel 37:9 ).


The wind is also breath in humans as the breath of life (Genesis 6:17 ). The entry of breath gives life (Ezekiel 37:5-7 ); and, when it is taken away, the person dies (Psalm 104:29 ). The breath which brings death when it is withdrawn is identified as God's breath (Job 34:14-15 ). This same breath of the Almighty is the spirit of wisdom and understanding in a person (Job 32:8 NRSV). When ruah is used of the will, intellect, and emotions, or related to God, the meaning often expands from the wind to spirit ( Isaiah 40:13 ). Thus Psalm 51:1 uses ruah three times when referring to the steadfast, willing, and broken spirit of the psalmist and once when speaking of God's Holy Spirit ( Psalm 51:10-12 ,Psalms 51:10-12,51:17 ). Sometimes opinions differ whether the meaning is best served by translating the word as “wind” (breath) or “spirit” when it is specifically designated the ruah of God. Thus NRSV translates Genesis 1:2 , “a wind from God,” to mean that a wind was moving over the primordial waters; other translations speak of God's Spirit hovering there.


What is the Hebrew term for spirit?

 The word spirit is rendered as רוּחַ (ruach) in Hebrew-language parts of the Old Testament. In its Aramaic parts, the term is rûacḥ. The Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, translates the word as πνεῦμα (pneuma – "breath").


What does Ruach Elohim mean? 

The “Ruach Elohim" which moves over the Deep may therefore mean the "wind/breath of God" (the storm-wind is God's breath in Psalms 18:15 and elsewhere, and the wind of God returns in the Flood story as the means by which God restores the earth), or God's "spirit", a concept which is somewhat vague in Hebrew bible, or …

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