You could tell me that your eight-year-old granddaughter is cute, smart and generous. Or you could show me her photo looking disappointed that she’s forbidden to fill a second drawer with Keurig coffee pods in preparation for your three-day visit. Stories help us get to know others better than lists of character traits do.
The story of God’s Spirit—powerful, mysterious, creative, inspiring—begins in the second verse of the Bible. Because Hebrew (Old Testament) uses the word spirit also translated wind or breath (the same is true of the Greek [New Testament] spirit; John 3:8; 2 Tim 3:16), several interpretations are possible—and faithful to the original: “the Spirit of God moved” (KJV), “a wind from God swept” (NRSV), or “God’s breath hovered” (Gen 1:2).
Some Bible scholars tell us we need not choose between these versions: each interpretation tells us more about God’s personal, life-giving Spirit. In Genesis the spirit creates (Gen 1:2), is an evening breeze (3:8), wrestles (as God) with humans (6:3), gives life and breath to humans and animals (6:17; 7:15, 22), is wind (8:1) and is human wisdom recognized by Pharaoh as God’s spirit (41:38).
As the story unfolds, God’s people keep learning to know the Spirit, suggests Jack Levison, author of the prize-winning A Boundless God: The Spirit According to the Old Testament, an author to whom I’m indebted for much of what follows. Israel grows to know the powerful Spirit (more often powerful than holy in the Old Testament according to my late mentor, Elmer Martens) not as an agent for violence but as peacemaker.
Some of the earliest reports of Israel’s experience with the Spirit of the Lord is found in Judges (roughly 1200 BCE). The book of Judges reports an increasingly chaotic cycle: the people’s disobedience, foreign oppression assumed to be God’s judgment, Israel’s cries for help, God sending a Spirit-inspired deliverer and restored peace. God delivers through human judges. The spirit of the Lord is upon Caleb (3:10; Israel’s first judge) and Jephthah (11:29); clothes himself with Gideon (6:34) and breaks out mightily on Samson (14:6, 19; 15:14). The Spirit-inspired judge’s priority is to reestablish solidarity within the scattered, fragmented people (6:34; 11:29; 13:25).
Though community solidarity and peace characterize faithful Israel, the deliverance of the judges is marked by violence. Caleb judges and goes out to war (3:10). Gideon gathers Israel’s troops to defeat Midian not once but twice (6:35; 7:24). Jephthah renews Israel’s covenant with the Lord (11:11), but when the Spirit of the Lord is upon him, Jephthah makes the hasty vow that results in the sacrifice of his daughter (11:29-30). Then Jephthah the warrior inflicts a massive defeat on the enemy (11:33). The spirit of the Lord breaks out (rushes) on Samson in power before he tears a lion to pieces (14:6), kills 30 men of Ashkelon (14:19) and kills a thousand men with a donkey’s jawbone (15:14).
Despite the mayhem, violence and death, the Spirit offers another way for the judges. After Gideon summons 32,000 troops, the Lord furloughs all but 300 and instructs Gideon to wave torches, break jars and shout—the enemy self-destructs (7:19-21). Each time the spirit of the Lord breaks out on him, Samson might have preserved his Nazarite vow which prohibits contact with dead bodies. Wasn’t the Spirit stirring Samson to avoid the family burial grounds (13:25; 16:31), to escape from a lion (14:6) and Philistines (15:14-15) and to avoid murderous rage (14:19)?
Inexperienced as Israel’s leaders are with the Spirit’s power, they misread the signs that the Spirit provides. The Spirit offers alternatives that might lead to peace. Unfamiliar with the Spirit, the judges mistakenly use their newfound powers to wreak violent vengeance on their foes.
The Spirit’s intervention
Let’s compare the early stories of Israel’s response to the Spirit in Judges with a book written to guide God’s people after the exile, 1-2 Chronicles (written centuries later than the time of Judges in 500 BCE or later). There, the four experiences with the Spirit feature peace as the fruit of the Spirit’s intervention.
In his Believers Church Bible Commentary, Gus Konkel suggests we read 1-2 Chronicles as instructions for returned exiles worshiping and living under foreign imperial rule. These stories about the powerful Spirit are found in books that focus on detail and order regarding worship. Long lists itemize the members of the “worship team” (1 Chronicles 23-26), including priests, assistants for sacrifice, singers and ushers. The “charismatic” rough-and-tumble of Judges is replaced by orderly Temple worship in 1-2 Chronicles.
In the first story, the Spirit clothes Amasai, chief of the Thirty (David’s private army), when he defects from the king’s forces in Benjamin and Judah. Clothed by the Spirit, Amasai declares loyalty to David’s kingdom, abandoning the ruling house of Saul. Three times he declares peace upon David. Levison notes the political dimension of Amasai’s poetry: “Politics is the natural habitat of the Spirit.” Amasai “votes” for David, essentially declaring, “Long live the king!”
In a second story the Spirit of God is on the prophet Azariah who promises that the Lord would reward the king’s worship renewal with peace (2 Chronicles 15:1-7). Levison calls Azariah’s speech “a classic combination of inspiration, tradition and politics.” The story concludes: “There was no more war until the 35th year of the reign of Asa” (2 Chronicles 15:19).
Later King Jehoshaphat faces an overwhelming military alliance that is defeated by self-annihilation reminiscent of the story of Gideon (Judges 7; 2 Chronicles 20:22-23)—after the choir and the priests of Judah and Jerusalem lead the army toward the enemy by singing and praising the Lord. This strategy is prompted by Jahaziel who, inspired by the Spirit, declares that Judah need not fear because they will see the victory of the Lord (20:13-17). The story concludes that the fear of the Lord came upon Judah’s enemies and Jehoshaphat’s kingdom was quiet because God gave him rest (20:29-30).
In the last story, the Spirit of God clothes itself with Zechariah the priest to warn King Joash that Judah’s transgressions will result in loss of peace (2 Chronicles 24:17-22). The king orders Zechariah’s execution. Jesus recalls the faithful Zechariah in his disputes with Jerusalem’s rulers (Matthew 23:35; Luke 11:51). Peace is forfeited when the rulers choose violence instead.
What we can learn
As God’s people grow to know the Spirit of God, they peacefully address the political powers instead of seeking power to violently wreak vengeance. I want to learn these lessons from Israel’s experience:
- The Spirit, like wind and breath, gives life, inspires and moves mysteriously. God’s Spirit is creative and powerful.
- Like God’s Old Testament people, we need to learn from our experience of the Spirit. The Spirit never inspires God’s people to depend on human violence.
- The Spirit is a spirit of order, praise and peace.
- The Spirit is “dressed up” in God’s people. Spirit-filled and Spirit-fueled, God’s people fearlessly proclaim truth publicly and politically. The Spirit guides political leaders to find the way of peace.
God’s people must learn to yield their impulses to the way of the Spirit. As they learn to know the Spirit, they reject violent expressions of power to pursue God’s shalom—creation order leading to peace.
Lynn Jost is professor of Old Testament and director of the Center for Anabaptist Studies at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary.