When God created the heavens and the earth, the Spirit of God was “hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2). So, right at the very beginning of the story, we find the Spirit. Even without knowing anything else about the Spirit, then, you can figure out that it’s probably rather important. After all, the Spirit is the second character introduced in the story of the Bible, right after God himself.
So you keep reading, expecting to find out more about this Spirit and why he’s so important. By the end of chapter one, you’re a little confused. Nothing else about the Spirit. Not even a footnote.
What happened to the Spirit?
Well, it’s just one chapter, maybe he’ll come up again in a bit. Then you finish chapters two, three, four, five, and you’re starting to get a little frustrated. You thought this Spirit was important. Yet you’ve gone all the way through the stories about creation, the fall, and right on up to the flood with no mention of the Spirit. As a matter of fact, you could read through the rest of Genesis and only find two more explicit references to the Spirit (Gen. 6:3; 41:38). Reading through the rest of the Pentateuch, you’ll run into less than ten more.
Maybe the Spirit isn’t that important after all.
Drawing that conclusion would be a tragic mistake. Although we don’t see a lot of specific references to the Spirit in the creation story, that doesn’t mean he’s not there. As a matter of fact, if we press a little harder, we’ll see that the creation account is filled with subtle signs of the Spirit, little footprints that, followed carefully, will help us see that the creation story is all about the Spirit.
Three Signs of the Spirit at Creation
1. The Holy Spirit as Life
Throughout the Bible, the Spirit is that which makes creation live. This is true for creation as a whole, which only comes into being as God sends his Spirit in the act of creation (Ps. 33:6; 104:30), and it’s even more clear for humans who only live insofar as they have the Spirit of the God in them (Job 33:4). To have the “breath” (i.e. Spirit) of God in your nostrils is to be a living being, which is why it’s particularly bad to have the Spirit/breath leave you (Job 27:3; Ps 104:29; Ecc 12:7).
The Spirit is life.
So, even though Genesis 1 is silent on the specific role of the Spirit in creation, it really isn’t much of a stretch to say that the Spirit who hovered over the waters at the beginning of creation is the Spirit who brings life to God’s creation. And that’s exactly what we see in the next chapter when God breathed into Adam “the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7), a clear allusion to the Spirit of God creating life in the people of God.
At the beginning of the story, the Spirit is the one who makes God’s creation live.
2. The Holy Spirit as Presence
The Old Testament also associates the Spirit with God’s presence in the world. “Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (Ps. 139:7). Answer: nowhere. Where the Spirit is, God is. And that covers pretty much everywhere.
David affirms the same thing when he worries that because of his sin God will take the Spirit from him and remove him from God’s presence (Ps. 51:11). To be cut off from the Spirit simply is to be removed from the presence of God himself.
This becomes even more clear in the New Testament where the gift of the Spirit is presented as such tremendously good news specifically because it means that God himself has come to dwell with his people and manifest his presence in them again (1 Cor 3:16; 2 Cor 3:17; 6:16; Eph 2:22).
And what do we see in the beginning of the story? God’s presence. God is clearly present to creation as he shapes and molds it for his purposes. And he is present with his people in Garden, speaking with them and walking among them (Gen 2-3). And, in our series on the image of God, I argued that being made in the image of God is all about God manifesting his presence in creation through his people. You can actually tell the whole story of creation through the lens of God creating a place in which to manifest his presence and a people through whom he would do so. And, if God’s presence is about the Spirit, then the creation story is filled with the Spirit.
At the beginning of the story, the Spirit is the one who makes God present in creation through his people.
3. The Holy Spirit as Empowerment
The image of God brings us to the third way in which the Spirit must be present at the beginning of this story. Most of the references to the Spirit in the Old Testament have to do with the Spirit coming on people to empower them for some task given them by God. Thus, for example, the Spirit equipped artists to create things for the tabernacle (Exod. 31:1-5), appointed people to judge Israel (Judges 3:10), and anointed prophets to speak the words of God (Num 24:2). The concept is pretty simple: if God gives you a task, he will also empower you by the Spirit to accomplish task.
In Genesis 1-2, God gave his people a task: image bearers. It seems reasonable to conclude, then, that God would not leave his people unable to accomplish that task. No, God is faithful. He empowers his people for the tasks he gives them. So, when God breathed the Spirit into Adam and made him to be a living being, he also empowered him for his unique vocation in the world.
At the beginning of the story, the Spirit is the one who empowers God’s people to serve as his image bearers in the world.
We live in a Spirit-inflated world. In other words, God’s creation only lives insofar as it has received life from the Spirit of God. Everywhere you see life, you see the Spirit at work.
And this is particularly true for God’s people. God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life, “inflating” him with God’s presence and God’s power to accomplish God’s purposes in the world. That’s what it means to be human. Consequently, we can’t really have an adequate understanding of what it means to be human without the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. We are Spirit-inflated people.
This post is part of our series “A New Take on an Old Story,” telling the story of the Spirit through the Old Testament as a way of understanding why Christmas is such good news. Follow along!
About Marc Cortez
Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.