How do we understand the nature and work of the Holy Spirit? If this is a subject that has escaped your attention in the past then you are not alone. When Paul arrived in Ephesus he met some disciples and asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit when they were baptized. Their answer might well be reflective of the answer some would give in the church today, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit,” they said.
Commonly, we might hear of the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity and as the agent by which the Godhead works in the world, especially in the transformation of human lives. Perhaps part of the difficulty in understanding the nature and work of the Holy Spirit lies in what might appear to be a dislocation between the Old and New Testaments.
It is in the New Testament that we read of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost and of the Holy Spirit suddenly acting in people’s lives (e.g. Acts 19 where Paul lays hands on the disciples who had never heard of the Holy Spirit and “the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied”).
When we turn to the Old Testament (i.e. Hebrew Scripture) we see various roles for the Spirit, including the Spirit’s involvement in creation (Genesis 1:2), in giving and taking life (Genesis 2:7 and Isaiah 40:7), in giving wisdom (Proverbs 8), in empowering people for special tasks (Judges 6:24) and with special skills (Exodus 31:1-7), and in bringing righteousness (Psalm 143:10). This list is not exhaustive but covers some of the major attributes of the Spirit that we can identify from the Old Testament.
One important aspect of understanding the Holy Spirit is the association of gendered language with our descriptions. In the New Testament, the issue of gendered language is largely moot because the Greek word that we usually translate as “Spirit” (i.e. pneuma) is neuter. In the Old Testament and in the Aramaic targums, the issue is a bit more complex. In Aramaic, the word commonly translated as “Spirit” (i.e. ruah) is feminine. But, in Hebrew, which constitutes the largest part of the Old Testament, the word ruah can be either masculine or feminine. The associated gender can be deduced if there is a verb or adjective associated with the noun ruah because verbs and adjectives are gendered in Hebrew. For example, in Genesis 1:2 where we read about the Spirit of God hovering over the water, the Hebrew noun rendered as Spirit could be either masculine or feminine but the verb rendered as “hover” is seen to be feminine singular. Thus, a feminine language category is associated with the Spirit here. Indeed, the huge majority of cases in the Old Testament in which the Hebrew word ruah is seen to mean “Spirit” (confusingly, it could also be translated as “wind” or “breath”), and in which there is a verb or adjective to provide a clue as to the gender, the associated gender is feminine. It seems that the authors of Hebrew Scripture associated feminine language categories with their understanding of the Holy Spirit.
This association of the feminine with the person of the Spirit may be helpful to us in understanding how both men and women can be said to be “created in the image of God”. Similarly, this feminine association helps us understand how wisdom (Sophia) is personified (e.g. Proverbs 8:12-31) and joined to the Godhead.
In some early branches of Christianity, the notion of the Spirit as feminine (at least in terms of language categories) has a long history. In the early monophysite branch of Christianity now often called “Syriac Christianity” this association was especially strong. Church writings in Syriac Aramaic refer to the Spirit (ruha, related to the Hebrew, ruah) as “she” and the noun is grammatically feminine. This association is seen in writings through around 400 AD when the word ruha starts to be described as “he”, despite the grammatical difficulties that this imposes on the language.
In our conversations, we also spoke of the anchoress, Julian of Norwich, who lived in the 1300s and whose writings describing visions of the divine survive to this day. She wrote in gender categories that clearly suggest a feminine understanding of certain aspects of the Godhead, including a feminine conception of the Spirit.
Islamic interpreters generally consider the Holy Spirit (Arabic: ruhul qudus) to be another name for the archangel Gabriel, signifying its role as an agent of revelation. In Sura 2.97, the Qur’an states that Gabriel delivered the Word of God (Allah) to the Prophet Muhammad. When Holy Spirit appears to Mary (Sura 19), the Spirit is described in masculine terms.
Embracing a more multifaceted understanding of the Holy Spirit may help us in more completely embracing God.