I suspect I’m not the only believer who gets hung up on my lack of knowledge about the Holy Spirit.
I imagine this is because most of the Bible studies I participated in growing up both in and outside of church focused on those two. Sure, the Holy Spirit came up – I’ve always known the Spirit is a guide and a counselor, that it intercedes on our behalf, and that we ought not grieve it – but those mentions of the Spirit made it seem more a tool or a holy form of “gut instinct” than a fully divine member of the Christian Trinity.
As a way to address this lack, then, I decided to start studying the Holy Spirit (as it appears in the New Testament, and also as we can theologically understand its presence in the Old, which is a whole kettle of fish for another day). And that desire led me to a verse in Genesis that I’ve read many times, but this time lingered over:
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters (1:2).
There are a few bits of interesting language work at play here. The word for “Spirit of God” is Ruach Elohim. “Ruach” can mean wind, but it can also mean “breath” or “spirit,” and those are the terms that seem to be at work. Additionally, the term translated in this verse as “hovering” means, essentially, “brooding” in the sense that a chicken might brood over her eggs. Ellicott’s Commentary puts it beautifully, describing this “hovering” as “a gentle and loving energy, which tenderly and gradually, with fostering care, called forth the latent possibilities of a nascent world.”
One of the reasons I’ve always struggled with the study of the Spirit is that it seems so amorphous and nebulous: by the nature of its being, the Spirit is much less accessible in some ways than Jesus – who was fully man and fully God – or than God the Father, who nonetheless communicates with His people in the Old Testament conversationally.
But I love this verse for two reasons in particular.
I love it because of the inherent dynamic creativity it attributes to the Spirit. In the very next verse the creation work begins, but there is a sense of so much beautiful potential here: the deep breath before a symphony, the energy about to be unleashed. It is the business of the Spirit to linger over what is unformed, what is empty, what is not yet, and to make it something new and beautiful. I’m a writer, and so this means a lot to me, to think of a part of the Godhead as so fundamentally creative and joyful. Never forget that we are a people made to create: we paint and we draw and we write and tell stories. And those things, I believe deeply, are acts done in the image of God as much as anything else.
Secondly, I like the tenderness attributed to the Spirit here. I hate that the verb was translated as “hovering” because to me that isn’t a very active verb; it implies waiting and a sort of passive existing. But the original language implies that what the Spirit does here is purposeful, that the Spirit is deliberately lingering over the waters and fostering growth. It’s a gentle act, a loving one – not impersonal nor distant at all. Even at the earliest moments, God cares so deeply for creation.
This passage reminds me that God is if nothing else a God of great intimacy, and to see that care reflected not just in the Son and in the Father, but in the Spirit also, is really comforting to me. As I set forward on this study, it’s a wonderful starting point for me to realize how much the Spirit is also tied up in everything I hold dear, that the loving gentleness and dynamic creativity we glimpse in Genesis endures and now exists in us, too.