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Holman Bible Dictionary


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Air coming out of or into the body of a living being. Two Hebrew terms are translated, “breath.” Generally neshamah is used in a milder manner to refer to the fact of breath in all forms of life. It is concerned with the physiological concept of breath with a primary emphasis on breath as a principle of life. By contrast, ruach refers more to the force of breath in the extreme experiences of life, judgment, and death. At times it is intensified by the idea of a blast of breath. It thus contains the expanded meanings, wind and spirit. Ruach refers more to the psychological idea of breath by relating it to one's own will or purpose. This is in keeping with its primary meaning of spirit, which either refers to the inner force of a person or the essential nature of God.

The term neshamah is often used with reference to God's breath. It identifies God as the source of life ( Genesis 2:7; Job 27:3; Job 33:4; Daniel 5:23 ).

God is also the sovereign of life. He gave breath to humans initially in creation (Genesis 2:7 ), but He also takes breath away eventually at death (Genesis 7:22; Job 34:14 ). God has the power to restore life to the dead if He wishes to do so (Ezekiel 37:9 ). He controls nature and the weather by His breath (Job 37:9-10 ). More important is the impact of God's breath on national life, for He can breathe anger and judgment on threatening enemies bringing festive joy to God's people (Isaiah 30:33; compare Job 41:21 ).

Neshamah is used several times to refer to human breath. It identifies breath as fragile during the times of God's wrath and in natural calamities ( Isaiah 2:21-22 ). Breath can become weak (Daniel 10:17 ); it is limited (Genesis 7:22; 1 Kings 17:17 ). Breath may be taken from a person, thus the experience of death (Joshua 11:11 ).

Breath (neshamah ) refers to all living creatures. Those who breathe are expected to be responsive to God by offering Him praise (Psalm 150:6 ). Ultimately, they are responsible to God because He has the right to demand that they be put to death (Deuteronomy 20:16; Joshua 10:40 ).

Ruach describes the more intensified aspects of breath. It refers to God providing human life in the same manner as neshamah ( Genesis 6:17 ). By breathing out speech, He created the heavens (Psalm 33:6 ). His breath also sustains life (Job 12:10; Psalm 104:29 ). By His breath He even restores life (Ezekiel 37:5-10 ). Repeatedly in Ezekiel 37:5-10 the term ruach occurs in word plays on its meanings as breaths wind, and spirit. It is used to affirm the possibility of giving life to the dry bones.

In a unique way, ruach is used to demonstrate how God monitors life. Breath is regarded as a sign of life ( Genesis 7:15 ). It is also an indication that God is always watching our lives (Job 9:18 ). This became frustrating to Job because he wanted to be free from the pressure of knowing that God knew everything about him. God even knew the strained relationship between Job and his wife who came to detest Job's breath (Job 19:17 ).

Ruach describes God as threatening judgment. God breathed judgment on David's enemies ( 2 Samuel 22:14-18 ). As a rule, God's judgment was breathed through the experience of natural calamities (Psalm 18:15 ), expressing His anger (Isaiah 11:4; Job 4:9 ).

The New Testament contains a few references to breath as the life principle which God gives (Acts 17:25 ) and as the mighty wind at Pentecost (Acts 2:2 ). Acts 9:1 uses breath to express Saul's anger as a breathing of threats against the early Christians. In John 20:22 Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit upon His disciples. While the word pneuma parallels ruach in the Old Testament in its multiple meanings, it is translated primarily as spirit or Holy Spirit. In Revelation 13:15 it refers to the power to breathe life into the image of the beast. See Spirit; Life .

Donald R. Potts

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Breath'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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Breath of Life