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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
What is the meaning of the statement: “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Gen. 1:2)?*
This is the first time the Spirit of God is mentioned in the Bible, and it is mentioned in the context of creation. It is difficult to know the significance of the statement you quoted because it is not immediately clarified. To understand it we have only the language and its context. I will examine both.
1. The Spirit [Heb. ruakh, “wind,” “breath”] of God: Although some have interpreted the phrase “the Spirit of God” here as “the wind of God” or as “a mighty wind,” there is no valid reason for rejecting the traditional rendering. In the Old Testament the Hebrew phrase always means “the Spirit of God.” In Psalm 104:30 the presence of the Spirit during creation is described in personal terms as “your Spirit,” sent by God to operate in the natural world. The Bible does not say much about the role of the Spirit in the divine act of creation. Psalm 104:30 identifies the Spirit as God’s instrument for creation, and for the renewal and preservation of creation. We also know that “by the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath [ruakh, “wind,” “spirit,” “breath”] of His mouth” (Ps. 33:6; cf. Job 26:13). In this case God creates through the “word” and the “breath/Spirit.” The New Testament identifies the “word” with Christ as the incarnated Word of God (John 1:1-3). Since they are all involved in creation, and creation is a prerogative of God, they are by nature divine.
2. The verb “to hover” (Heb. rakhaph): The verb rakhaph has been translated by some as “to brood,” implying that the world was a kind of cosmic egg being hatched by the Spirit. This was based on ancient mythological ideas. But the verb does not at all mean “to brood.” It could mean “to tremble” (Jer. 23:9) or “to hover” (Deut. 32:11). In Deuteronomy 32:11 it is used to describe the rapid movement of the eagle as it flies to catch its young that are learning to fly. It conveys the idea of rapid and constant back-and-forth movement. Here it indicates that the Spirit is active within creation itself. It is usually stated in Genesis 1 that God is the transcendental Creator, but the active presence of the Spirit within creation speaks also about an immanent God.
3. The Spirit and creation: As we look at the immediate and larger biblical context of our passage, we can safely affirm several things. First, since the Spirit of God in Genesis is the same Spirit revealed in the rest of the Scripture, what is said about Him in other places could be helpful in understanding His role in creation. We know that the Spirit enables people by, among other things, developing their potential for the performance of specific tasks. He is directly involved in creation by preserving and developing its potential.
Second, we can also affirm the obvious: namely, that the Spirit was present on the planet before it was organized as a human habitat. So we can safely indicate that the work of the Spirit is related to the work of creation described in what follows in the text. In other words, the Spirit of God is introduced early in the narrative to indicate that His activity is preparative for the work of God during the creation week.
Third, God created the raw materials with a potential that only He could preserve and develop (e.g., Gen. 1:11, 24). The potential of creation does not actualize itself, as theistic evolution suggests. The Word actualizes it in accordance with divine intention.
With these comments in mind, allow me a suggestion: The presence of the Spirit within creation—His constant activity/motion expressed by the verb “to hover”—is the means by which the potential of finite creation was preserved and will be activated in combination with the creative Word of God. The Word of God and the Spirit of God worked together in a mysterious way to bring our world into existence.
*Texts are from the New International Version.