A journey into the Genesis creation account [1]: part four

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This article is the fourth part of a series on the Genesis creation account. Here are parts one, two and three.

…and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Gen. 1:2). [2]

Ruach, the Hebrew word for spirit can also denote the wind. That Moses would use a term that can refer both to the wind and a personal entity is not surprising. Ancient Near Eastern people were familiar with the wind as a primordial force. The winds of Babylonian mythology embodied the forces of violence and anarchy. [3] They announced humanity’s enslavement and symbolized terror and ill fortune.

There is every reason to believe that the Israelites were also familiar with this idea.

The Great Theologian was keenly aware of the necessity of providing for a people that was about to face the greatest challenge of its history, an accurate portrait of the primal force that animated the universe. And it had nothing to do with violence, destruction, or war.

In this passage, ruach denotes peace, serenity, and tranquility. Far from being an anonymous and destructive power, this “wind” is a source of reassurance. Whenever ruach is linked to Elohim, as is the case here, it is no longer just the wind. It evokes a person. It is the ruach Elohim, the Spirit of God.

By pairing these two words, the Torah states that the universe is no longer the unfathomable, infinite, and chaotic cosmos that made humans feel puny and insignificant. At the pinpoint origin of the universe, there is personhood. There is reason, heart, and compassion. Right at the outset of this great text, the author proclaims that there is no longer any justification to fear the primordial forces in the universe.

The image of the Spirit “hovering” will seem disconcerting to some. Older readers may remember that in the exquisitely entertaining 1996 movie, Independence Day, starring Will Smith, a massive spaceship measuring about 24 km in diameter is seen hovering above Washington, D.C.

The presence of this alien craft ominously hanging in mid-air above the White House does not bode well. At the end of the requisite countdown, a massive door opens in the ship’s underside, and a massive energy beam erupts, destroying everything and everyone in its path.

So for some, this hovering Spirit may evoke an ominous threat. For others, the notion of something hovering is just too vague to be meaningful.

For starters, the Hebrew verb, rachaph, has no negative connotations at all. Even though it is used only three times in the Old Testament (Gen 1:2; Deut 32:11, and Jer 23:9), the image of the eagle that “hovers over its young” in Deuteronomy 32:11 makes it clear that the use of this verb is not intended to describe some evil power brooding over the yet-unformed universe. Rachaph is inserted here to project an image of warmth, intimacy, and care.

Imagine parents who bring their newborn baby over to the house for the first time, and who literally “hover” over their child: observing, listening, marvelling, ready to offer their very lives to protect this most vulnerable of all creatures.

The power that governs the universe is not hostile to humanity. It is not bent on its destruction. The Spirit of God loves and cares for the world. Ruach Elohim represent a loud proclamation from the very heart of God: “Take heart! You are not alone!” Evil, fate, and chance do not ultimately define reality. The force that regulates the universe is both powerful and personal. The Spirit of God watches over the world.

Genesis 1:2 also proclaims that the Spirit is active. The Spirit is not some cloaked and uncaring entity that can only be found through elaborate rituals and sacrifices. This Spirit announces the coming action of a God who has a benevolent intent for all.

The author offers his audience what men and women need above all else: hope.

Viktor Frankle, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Vienna, spent three years in Auschwitz and other Nazi prisons. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote about the necessity of having hope to survive the horrendous conditions prisoners experienced in the concentration camps.

When such hope would evaporate, he notes, survival became nearly impossible: “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future—his future—was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.”[4]

In most cases, it is not our problems as such that do us in. A person does not just give up on a spouse on a whim. When a man and a woman walk away from their marriage, it is often because they have given up hope that things can change.

The conviction that the Spirit of God hovers over creation and is intensely concerned about our lives will create a profound sense of hope, for it is the assurance that the One who is at the origin and in control of the universe is a person who loves and cares for every single one of us.


[1] For a more detailed discussion of the creation narrative and its theological implications, see Pierre Gilbert, Demons, Lies & Shadows: A Plea for a Return to Text and Reason (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 2008).

[2] Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture references are from the New International Version (2011).

[3] See Enuma Elish, Tablet 4, and Atrahasis, Tablet II.

[4] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, rev. ed. (New York, NY: Pocket Books, 1963 [1959]), 117.

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