Translation is a fascinating art. Sometimes, a word’s translation results in a flourish of new connotations. Other times, the translation dampens the explosive significance of a foreign word’s meaning. In A Boundless God: The Spirit according to the Old Testament, Jack Levison sets out to explore the “reservoir of meaning” contained in the Hebrew word rûaḥ, often translated as “spirit” in English (1). With the semantic unpacking of rûaḥ, Levison establishes a foundation to “understand the spirit through the Jewish Scriptures” (7) and not solely through the New Testament. The exploration is presented in eight accessible chapters that utilize detailed retellings of biblical narratives to harness how rûaḥ comes and rests upon subjects, how it is poured out and passed on, and how it fills, cleanses, and guides biblical characters in various situations.
Levison compares the high frequency, and thus presumed significance, of the word rûaḥ to other fundamental Hebrew words—for example, berākâ (“blessing”) and šabbāṯ (“sabbath”)—utilizing two creative graphs (2 and 4). Here, it is peculiar that Levison does not compare rûaḥ to other body-related words, such as nep̱eš (“life-force”), that, similar to rûaḥ, concerns breath, vivification, and the relationship to the divine. Nevertheless, Levison argues that rûaḥ has been neglected in scholarship and sets out on his exploration following a brief overview of the historical events portrayed in the Hebrew Bible (9–10).
Each chapter opens with a list of suggested Bible verses that engage the theme discussed in the individual chapters. The first suggested text concerns creation, where rûaḥ is a mighty wind that vivifies the world (Gen 1–3). Levison, however, argues that rûaḥ is not mere wind, but God’s supernatural breath, which always involves more dimensions than air in movement. For example, rûaḥ can simultaneously be both wind and a divine “font of wisdom” (23), but also “breath, wind, and the source of national restoration” (31–32). According to Levison, several facets of human life are thus infused in rûaḥ.
The rûaḥ frequently comes upon the charismatic leaders in Judges, and several pages are dedicated to these ferocious characters. The rûaḥ makes the judges capable of doing violent deeds in harsh situations, but Levison argues that this violence should be interpreted in light of charismatic persons’ “reestablishing fragmented communal solidarity” (38). In this sense, the violence is just a last resort, exercised in the shadow of oppression. Other and more permanent political leaders, such as Saul and David, are also empowered by a God-given rûaḥ, but Levison notices a difference in how the rûaḥ is conceived between Judges and later texts. For example, in 1–2 Chronicles, the rûaḥ “inspires only speech—political, prophetic, priestly speech” (51), which innovatively differs from the rûaḥ of violent action that comes upon the judges. Levison also identifies innovations or developments in conceptions of how rûaḥ equips characters in prophetic literature—for example, the “champion of the oppressed” in Isaiah (70).
Rûaḥ moves between people, passing from one person to the next. Using Moses and Joshua as examples, Levison argues that a rûaḥ is only transferred in relationships of “loyalty, learning, and trust” (88). The movement of rûaḥ can also take a liquid form, as it can be poured out as a blessing of fertility, salvation, and prophecy by God (92). Again, Levison highlights biblical nuances since some texts present the prophetic rûaḥ to be poured out over everyone (Joel), whereas other texts limit the outpouring to a select few (Zech).
Halfway through the book, Levison touches on differentiating between conceptions of rûaḥ in the Hebrew Bible and the conceptions of spirit found in the New Testament. In the Hebrew Bible, the rûaḥ that fills people can have various qualities. For example, the story of Joseph presents a filling rûaḥ that concerns “lifelong learning—what might be called inspired learning” (108, italics original), which is different from the filling spirit of the Book of Acts that suddenly rushes upon people and endows them instantaneously with spiritual gifts. In the Hebrew Bible, the rûaḥ can thus be a person’s predisposition for mastering specific skills over time.
Before concluding that the Jewish Scriptures are “indispensable” for “a full and rich experience of the spirit” (164), Levison utilizes examples from the prophetic literature to show how the rûaḥ cleanses people from sin, and how rûaḥ occasionally is conceptualized as a person, not simply a power (Hag 2:4–5; Isa 63:7–14).
A Boundless God is an easy-to-follow, neatly structured, and systematic investigation of rûaḥ in the Hebrew Bible. Many enlightening facets of the spirit are presented in the book, and it concerns an area of tricky biblical semantics that has been discussed for decades. The semantic discussion concerns the meaning(s) of biblical words and is kept to a minimum by Levison. However, it still lurks beneath the surface. Levison frequently argues that rûaḥ contains a fusion of meanings that transcends dichotomies between divine and human, sacred and profane, and so on., and that the word has “much broader shoulders” than any English translation can communicate (2). This transcendence of meanings can lead to the conclusion that all connotations of rûaḥ, such as wind, divine breath, and empowering spirit, create a concept of rûaḥ that is present in every occurrence of the word. However, this process of turning words into omnipresent concepts was once labeled an “illegitimate totality transfer” by biblical scholar James Barr (The Semantics of Biblical Language, Oxford University Press, 1961) because one should avoid transforming individual words into comprehensive (theological) concepts. Levison rightly accentuates nuances of rûaḥ, but the reader might be left with a sense that rûaḥ contains a divine aspect in all its occurrences. And this might not be the case (e.g., the four winds in Zech 6:5)
The minimal engagement with the issue of biblical semantics does not take away from Levison’s creative contribution to the study of rûaḥ. With poetic language, Levison adds his valuable voice to a growing group of scholars who have turned to spirit phenomena in the Hebrew Bible.
Søren Lorenzen is a research associate in Old Testament studies at Bonn University.
Date Of Review:
February 25, 2023
Jack Levison (PhD, Duke University) is W. J. A. Power Professor of Old Testament Interpretation and Biblical Hebrew at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, Texas.
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