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It symbolises the careful administration of the mystical ethereal vapours of anaesthesia. My speciality of anaesthesia is steeped in this history. Without pushing the imagery too far, the biblical words for breath: ruach (and its synonym neshamah) in the old testament (OT) and pneuma in the new testament (NT), have a similar mystical ethereal quality to them. They have been variously (and at times interchangeably) translated as breath, wind, and spirit, which speak of the mysterious, unpredictable, invisible dynamic power of God. 1 The close relationship of these translations is borne out in our common uses of these words today in theological circles. In theological literature, the very term Breath of God is often taken to mean the Spirit of God. In academic circles, study of the third person of the Trinity is typically called Pneumatology.
When asked to write on The Breath of God for this journal, there were three immediate biblical passages that sprang to my attention. The first of course is in book of beginnings, the biblical account of God’s creative role in our primeval history (Genesis Ch. 2). Next was the dialogue between God and the prophet Ezekiel regarding the ‘valley of dry bones’ (Ezekiel Ch. 37) and the final one is the coming of the Spirit of God upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost (Acts Ch. 2). Any word study of scripture will find many more references to the words ruach (OT: 389 times) and pneuma (NT: 379 times) 2 which could be incorporated a study of the Breath of God, but for the purpose of brevity and for context of this journal, I propose to limit myself to these three texts and where possible, draw some association to the church today. Finally, I propose to tentatively wade into the ambiguous arena of the ‘mortality vs immortality of the soul’, not because I claim to be an expert on the topic but because I believe our understanding of this issue is not unimportant for us as Christian physicians / dentists, particularly as we seek to work within a surging tide of dementia in our Western communities.
The Breath Of God: In The Beginning (Genesis 2)
In the second verse of the Bible, ruach Elohim, which in this context is best translated, the Spirit of God “was hovering over the surface of the waters” (Genesis 1:2) 3 Right at the beginning, God is present and is going to be the pro-generator of all that follows. In the very next chapter, The LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath (neshamah) of life; and man became a living being (nepes) 4,5 (Genesis 2:7).
Although cast in anthropomorphic terms, the living being is assembled from the lifeless body by the divine breath of God. 6 It is as if man’s body had been completely formed but lifeless. It had to become a living being: the breathing mechanism activated, the heart needed to beat; the blood to circulate and all metabolic functions take their place but there’s a problem: only life can generate life. 7 In this account we see God, the Divine Life, generating human life through his divine breath. Without God’s breath, without God’s Spirit, there could be no life.
Elsewhere in the creation narrative, God speaks his word and life is created, but it is only into man that God directly breathed in the breath of life. It is this unique relationship between God himself and our individual life that speaks to our understanding of the sanctity of life and which underpins our attitude to the ‘Ends of Life’ issues that we as Christian clinicians hold dearly and must defend in a secular world that sees no such connection.
The Breath Of God: Can These Bones Live? (Ezekiel 37)
The context for this prophet narrative is a nation in exile. Israel had been carried off in exile to Babylon in 597BC because of their unfaithfulness. The valley was probably the remnants of an army slain in battle but it was more than a scene of death; it was a metaphor for the nation of Israel. Exile was not just their military defeat or removal from their homeland, exile was their death. Israel, previously known as God’s people, had been declared by him as “not my people” (Hosea 1:9). In the same way that these dry bones were beyond hope for life, Israel’s situation was hopeless. They were powerless to alter their situation. What was required was a miraculous intervention, a re-creation by of God. Into this situation, God asks the prophet the question: “can these bones live?” (vs 3).
Much can be said of this restoration narrative. It is divided into two distinct phases which according to Hals, deliberately mirrors the original creation narrative of Genesis 2. 8 In the first phase, the scattered bones come together and are reconstructed to form a body (vs 4-8). From the dust of the valley, these scattered bones come together. They are joined with other body parts and covered with skin, “but there was no ‘ruach’ (breath) in them” (vs 8). These forms are yet to be given life for without God’s Spirit, there could be no life. 9 In the second phase of the narrative, these forms are given breath and life (vs 9-10).
Ruach occurs ten times in the first fourteen verses of this chapter. In the second phase of the narrative, the prophet is instructed to call forth the ruach (wind) of the four compass points (ends of the earth). This motif again picks up the same mysterious invisible mighty power of God of the Genesis 2 account. 10 Seitz 11 in his commentary interprets the four winds as the Spirit of God and in this sense, the reference to the spirit refers to the presence and activity of God; this is what brings life back into these bodies. Again the direct relationship between God and the life of the individual is reiterated and the foundation for our theology of the sanctity of life strengthened.
The Breath Of God: The Day Of Pentecost (Acts 2)
Luke’s description of the coming of the Spirit of God upon the disciples in Acts 2 does not follow the exact same pattern of our first two texts, however the parallels are striking. According to Luke, Jesus’ last words to his disciples before he ascended into heaven were that they were to remain in Jerusalem until they received God’s promised gift, the Holy Spirit, God’s power from on high (Luke 14:48; Acts 1:5-8). What follows in chapter 2 is the Spirit, God’s empowering presence falls on the believers and the church is born. There were three phenomena that accompanied this heavenly deposit affirming its supernatural origin: there was a noise “that sounded like a mighty wind, there was an image that looked fire and there were languages that were not ordinary but in some way ‘other’”. 12 Bruce states that the wind symbolises the coming of the Spirit of God believing it draws in the Ezekiel account mentioned above. 13 He also believes Jesus draws on this Ezekiel passage when he says to Nicodemus, “the wind blows where it pleases, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). 14 What is clear from Luke’s account in Acts 2 is that the Spirit had come with power and that there was now a new community of believers which were now born of the Spirit and their actions that followed, demonstrated their new life.
One Last Breath Of God: It Started With The First Easter Sunday
Each of the four accounts of the Gospel of Jesus Christ end with a record of the resurrection of Jesus. By this miracle, God affirms Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah, the Son of God and demonstrates Jesus’ power over sin and death. While there is no specific or detailed account of how this miraculous event took place, I wish to draw on the words of a worship song we sang in church this week. It goes like this:
Then came the morning
that sealed the promise
Your buried body began to breathe
Out of the silence the roaring
Lion declared the grave has no claim on me
Jesus, yours is the victory
Praise the One who sets me free
Death has lost its grip on me
You have broken every chain
There’s salvation in Your name
My living hope.
For me this song encompasses all that I want to leave you with. Although there is no biblical chapter and verse for the process by which God breathed new life into Jesus’ crucified body, the fact remains that it is a historical fact that Jesus was resurrected to be the first born from the dead. It was a creative miracle not unlike the breath of life having been breathed into original man in Genesis 2 and also into those dry bones of Ezekiel 37. And because he lives, we will live also. This is the great hope of the Christian church. The apostle Paul gives an extended teaching on the resurrection of the dead in 1 Corinthian 15 and it is well worth a read to complete our understanding of the Breath of God in our lives:
“The first man, Adam, became a living person. But the last Adam – that is Christ – is a life giving Spirit. What came first is the natural body, then the spiritual body comes later” (vs 46).
“There is an order to the resurrection: Christ was raised as the firstborn of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back” (vs23).
“When our dying bodies will be transformed into bodies that will never die… death is swallowed up in victory” (vs 54).
“But thanks be to God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” (vs 56).
Dr Rhys Morgan did his anaesthetic training in Brisbane and the UK. He became a staff anaesthetist and subsequently a VMO at the Princess Alexandra Hospital. In 1990, Dr Morgan entered private practice. In 2001 Dr Morgan completed a theology degree. He has mission experience in Thailand and China and supports Christian outreach in India.
Back to issue: Breath of Life
1. John Goldingay, Was the Holy Spirit Active in the Old Testament Times? What was new New About the Christian Experience of God? Ex Auditu 12 (1996): 14-28 (15). 2. The Illustrated Bible Dictionary Vol 3 Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester 1980. (p. 1,478)
3. Victor P Hamilton. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17. (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s, 1990), pp114.
4. The Hebrew words ruach and neshamah are both often translated breath in the OT. Ruach was the more frequent word used (389 times in OT) and can be associated with God, man, animals and even false gods. It is the word used when speaking of the more forceful expression of the wind / breath. Neshamah on the other hand (used 25 times in OT) is only applied to Yahweh and to man depicting the close relationship between God and this divinely created life of man. 5. The Hebrew word nepes is often translated ‘soul’. 6. “The Mortal Soul in Ancient Israel and Pauline Christianity: Ramifications for Modern Medicine.” James L. Wright. Journal of Religion and Health, Vol.50, No.2 (June2011) pp.447-451.
7. The Genesis Record: A Scientific and Devotional Commentary on the Book of Beginnings. Henry M. Morris (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976) pp 86.
8. Ronald M. Hals, Ezekiel. (The Forms of Old Testament Literature 19; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdermans, 1984), 269-70.
9. Christopher R. Seitz, “Ezekiel 37:1-14”, Interpretation, 46 / No.1 Jan 1992, p 53-56 (55).
10. Cf The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. (John 3:8).
11. Jaqueline Grey. “Acts of the Spirit: Ezekiel 37 in the Light of Contemporary Speech-Act Theory,” Journal Biblical and Pneumatological Research, Jan 1 2009, 69-82 (77).
12. John Stott. The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today – New Testament Commentary; Inter-Varsity Press, Nottingham1990. (p 62)
13. F.F. Bruce, The Books of the Acts – Revised. The New International Commentary of the New Testament (Eerdermans: Grand Rapids. Michigan, 1988). p 50. 14. Ibid.