Genesis 1:2: Which rendering is more correct, “Spirit of God” or “Mighty Wind of God” ?qqqqqqqqq

What is the meaning of  וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים of Genesis 1:2?  Older translations[1] read, “Spirit of God”  (rûah °élöhîm) while newer translations seem to prefer “a wind of God,” or a “mighty wind . . . ”

Both readings are plausible.[2] The term רוּח (rûah) connotes a moving power that is both mysteriously intangible and unseen; hence, “mighty wind” is an apt metaphor. When read in this context, °élöhîm is used not as a noun but rather as a descriptive adjective connoting a sense of that which is “powerful” and “awesome.”[3] Accordingly, this translation suggests that God utilized a mighty tempest in the primal design of the earth.

The Septuagint  translates רוּחַ (rûah = spirit) as πνεῦμα  (pneuma), which has basically the same meaning in Greek as it does in Hebrew.  For the visionaries of the 8th century B.C.E.,  the rûah of God is the driving force (elan vital)  that seeks to liberate, heal, remake, and transform communities into spiritual centers of social justice; rûah is the life-breath and life-principle that points us toward the most profound dimension of human experience.

The prophets of ancient Israel envisioned a society that would be shaped and formed by God’s Holy Spirit—not just in places of worship, but in the cities and streets (cf. Isa. 32:15-20; 44:3); a nation governed by God’s Spirit is powerful and enduring; this  alone will constitute the spiritual strength of Israel (Zec. 4:6).

Johann Peter Lange (1802-1884) is partial to the older translation, “The breath is the life-unity and life-motion of the physical creature; the wind is the unity and life-motion of the earth; the spirit is the unity and life-motion of the life proper to which it belongs; ‘the spirit of God’ is the unity and life-motion of the creative divine activity. It is not a ‘wind of God’ to which the language here primarily relates.”[4] However, it seems that both translations are equally worthy of consideration.

[1] The NRSV translation has its antecedents in Targum Onkelos, TB Hagigah 12a, Rashbam, Bechor Shor, Saadia and Ibn Ezra’s commentary.

[2] As noted in the Vulgate and Rashi. However, the Targum Neofiti prefers: ורוח דרחמין “the Spirit of Mercy.” For other Christian interpretations, cf. Augustine, Confessions 13:4; Ambrose FC 42:32-33; Jerome, Homilies 10.

[3] Other examples of this kind of usage in the Tanakh include the Hittites speaking of Abraham as a נְשִׂיא אֱלֹהִים “mighty prince” (Gen. 23:6), Leah’s description of her struggle as נַפְתּוּלֵי אֱלֹהִים: “mighty wrestlings” (Gen. 30:8), or קֹלֹת אֱלֹהִים “the mighty thunderings” of the Sinai theophany (Exod. 9:28).

[4] J. P. Lange, P. Schaff, T. Lewis and A. Gosman, Genesis, or, the First Book of Moses—Together with a General Theological and Homiletical Introduction to the Old Testament, 5th rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner, 1884), 164.

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