2:17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
There are two immediate questions:
- What is meant by “my Spirit?”
- Does the prophet Joel really mean ALL flesh? And if he does, what does that imply?
Some longer reflections:
The first question sounds easier than it really is.
Some of this deceptive easiness comes from a few centuries of English translation sitting on top of seventeen centuries of trinitarian theology. I am glad for English translations of the Bible, and I think that trinitarian theology has allowed Christianity to make useful contributions to the ways that people of faith (or even faiths) talk about God, but as soon as a translator and and editor capitalize “Spirit” there seems to be little left to think about.
When the topic on the table is the “Spirit” there is always more to think about.
To begin with, the word is not capitalized in Greek. This is not a surprise, since ancient Greek didn’t use capitalization that way contemporary English does.
But the interesting trouble starts with the word itself. The word in Greek is pneuma, and it has come to mean “Spirit.” But it really means “wind.” Or it really means “breath.” And only after it means both of those things does it mean “Spirit.” For instance, in the Greek translation of Genesis 1, the pneuma of God hovers over the waters, which means that wind stirred by God roughs up the surface of the ocean, and this wind could easily be the breath of God, blowing across the chaos that would become Creation. And as such, this wind, this breath, this activity of God could be God’s “Spirit.”
But pneuma (which translates the Hebrew word ruach here and elsewhere) is more interesting than that.
When God begins to create in Genesis 1, God creates by speaking. Speaking requires breathing, so the pneuma/ruach of God is involved in more than disturbing the surface of the universal waters. The breath of God that disturbs the watery chaos also creates order and safety as God continues to breath and speak and create. And centuries later when the gospel-writer, John, begins the story of Jesus with a reference to the Word (logos) that was in the beginning, that was with God, that WAS God, this extends and develops the breathing and speaking of God even further. This time this breathed and spoken Word becomes flesh, living among us.
It is more interesting even than that.
This is not the only time that pneuma and body are linked. In Genesis 2 God forms a human being out of soil (which is the stuff of life), but the Mudguy (which is roughly what “Adam” means in Hebrew) lies inert on the ground until God blows pneuma/ruach into its nose. This linking of breath and body initiates the cycle of breathing, of receiving the gift of life and then sharing that gift with the world. Breathing carries responsibilities: life must be shared.
In the book of the prophet Ezekiel there is another story of breath going into inert bodies, only this time there are a great many bodies, and they are corpses that have been slain. The prophet speaks to the dry bones (an activity that requires the prophet to breathe), and they link themselves back together. The prophets speaks to the muscles and tendons and skin and they cover the bones.
But the bodies are still corpses.
The prophet then speaks to the pneuma/ruach and the breath comes back into the bodies and they live and dream and hope again.
Who are these slain?
There are many candidates in the long history of the Jewish people. Probably by the time Ezekiel’s breathed words were written into Scripture the people of God had connected the corpses to many who had been killed by enemies intent on killing Jewish hope. I think that the corpses, lying lost and abandoned in an unknown valley far away are the Jews of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom who were lost when the Assyrians hauled them into Exile, never to return. Jewish hope (especially as breathed into being in Isaiah) waits for these lost sisters and brothers to return and imagines God searching for them in every corner of the world until they are found and brought home.
Ezekiel breathes the same hope. And he also waits.
So the pneuma/ruach animated the first Mudguy. It also creates the ability (and responsibility) to share life as a result of every breath taken by every person ever to live. The pneuma/ruach also brought life and dreams and hope to generations of Jews who felt themselves “clean cut off” with their hopes dead.
The pneuma/ruach does even more than all of that.
Paul, in Romans 8, notes that the pneuma of God also brought Jesus back from death. He was animated just like Mudguy, just like the lost exiles, just like anyone whose hope had died.
And Paul says that this pneuma is breathed also into us.
Paul is remembering Genesis 2. The breath of God gives life, to Jesus and to us, and with that life comes the responsibility to shared life in return. This time, though, the breath is not just ordinary air. This time it is the breath of resurrection, of life even out of death.
And the storyteller in Luke quotes Joel, who promises that this life-giving pneuma/ruach is breathed into all flesh.
Think what that means.
This gift is not limited to those who are the right kind of Christian, no matter how many times Christian partisans reject other Christians. The gift is not even limited only to Christians, at least not if we are to take the Bible seriously.
It says “ALL flesh.”
But that means that we have to imagine that, somehow, this gift is shared even with people who do not count themselves among the community of faith.
ALL flesh. Every. Body. Everybody.
That idea will take a little getting used to. We generally like to think that We (whoever “we” are, this time) have a monopoly on receiving and dispensing God’s gifts. Or if not a monopoly, at least we hold one of the franchises that allows us to do this sort of thing.
The storyteller says “all flesh.” Everybody.
So, a task for the week:
Look and listen for times when the breath of life, the pneuma/ruach of God, is breathed into you, into your community, into people who were sucking air.
And a second task:
Look especially for those occasions when this breathing is done by people who have no particular use for God, or at least have no use for your own particular community of faith. And give thanks to God for the gift.