“There is no Islamic, Christian, or Jewish way of breathing. There is no American, African, or Asian way of breathing. There is no rich or poor way of breathing. The playing field is utterly leveled.” - Richard Rohr
An interesting quirk about the ancient Hebrew and Greek languages in which the earliest manuscripts of the scriptures were written is that, in both of them, the word for “spirit” and “breath” are synonyms. In Hebrew, it’s רוּחַ (ruach) and in Greek, it’s πνεῦμα (pneuma)—both are translated either “spirit” or “breath”. You simply have to choose, from the context, which word is appropriate.
For example, let’s say you come across Genesis 1:2, where it says,
“And the earth was a formless chaos; and darkness was on the face of the abyss. And the ruach of God hovered over the surface of the waters.”
When you see that word ruach, you just have to decide.... is it spirit or is it breath? Now, of course you can see why most translators would choose “spirit.” And that makes the most sense. It is the Spirit of God, present in creation, hovering over the chaotic void of pimeval existence, about to bring life and harmony forth from nothingness. But in the Hebrew mindset, maybe it’s a false dichotomy to assume that “breath” is necessarily the wrong choice. Perhaps this Spirit is a kind of breath after all—the breath of God about to fill the lungs of creation. (Indeed, in the very next chapter, God actually breathes into a pile of dust to create a human being).
Fast forward to the New Testament, in John 20, when Jesus is standing before the disciples after the resurrection:
“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘receive Holy πνεῦμα (pneuma).’”
Well, of course that’s going to be translated “The Holy Spirit” (even if you have to insert the definite article on your own). After all, we know from the rest of the book of John that the Spirit of God has been promised to the disciples and now they’re receiving her.... but what’s with the breathing?
Jesus breathes on them.
So, quite literally speaking, it’s a breath the disciples are receiving. Jesus breathes Holy Breath on his disciples—that same breath that filled the lungs of creation is going to fill the lungs of the disciples of Jesus who, until now, are without life. As the Apostle Paul would later put it, “When you were dead in your sins... God made you alive with Christ” (Colossians 2:13). The Holy Spirit is the breath of creation, the breath of salvation, and it is Spirit that fills our lungs whenever we breathe.
No wonder so many mystics and contemplative practices are so preoccupied with breathing. No wonder a deep breath can calm our souls. No wonder it has been said, “God is closer than your next breath.”
God’s presence isn’t dissimilar to breathing. We can so easily forget about it, not even realizing it’s happening, but if it were to be taken from us, we would cease to be. Focusing on your breathing isn’t just new age, hippy dippy yoga stuff (no offense to all my yogis out there!). It’s a spiritual practice that, when oriented to God, can center us and give us new life to be sent out as the Father sent Jesus (John:21). Focusing on our breathing can become a way of focusing on God, not because breath is God but because God is Spirit, God is breath.
In his book, The Naked Now, Richard Rohr points out that the name of God in the Old Testament, the Tetragrammaton, the word most often translated as LORD (all caps) in your bibles, is actually unspeakable. The four Hebrew consonants יהוה (“yod hey vav hey” or Yahweh), according to Rohr, “was not spoken at all, but breathed.”
“Many are convinced that its correct pronunciation is an attempt to replicate and imitate the sound of inhalation and exhalation. The one thing we do every moment of our lives is therefore to speak the name of God.... When considered in this way, God is suddenly as available and accessible as the very thing we all do constantly—breathe.”
God is everywhere and God is in everyone. That means God is in you, whether you know it or not; whether you are awake to it or not; whether you like it or not! My prayer for you is that you may find peace in knowing this, and that your lungs will be filled anew with the Holy Spirit, the breath of God that creates harmony from chaos and life from death.
It is unfortunate that the false claim that the divine name YHWH has something to do with breathing continues to get traction. What precisely is its appeal when it has no linguistic basis and corresponds to nothing that any ancient author says about the divine name?
It's a speculation substantiated not so much linguistically as theologically. The Spirit as breath is indeed substantiated throughout the history of biblical interpretation, however, so I wouldn't go so far as to call its application to YHVH a "false claim." But you do you.
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