We have become all too familiar with the desperate plea, from Eric Garner to George Floyd, “I can’t breathe.” At the same time, and even more so in the midst of their cries, we recognize “breath” is the gift of the creator God that allows us to be fully creaturely in the world. In biblical testimony, human life begins with the gift of breath:
Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath (nishemah) of life; and the man became a living being (Genesis 2:7).
(The process is endlessly reiterated, as inhaling is the first thing a newborn does.) Breath belongs to God; we do not own our breath and we cannot “hold it”; but we rely on that moment-by-moment gift of God’s goodness. Without that constant gift of breath, the “dust” of Genesis 2:7 can only remain mere dust, and eventually it is “dust to dust.” With that gift of breath from God we receive energy, freedom, power, and imagination. Having the gift of breath permits us to do the things that make us truly and fully human:
With the gift of breath, we can praise:
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God all my life long (Psalm 146:2).
Some translations render “while I have breath”; in verse 4, there is mention of breath (ruah) that departs.* But until breath departs, we are able to praise. Praise is a willing act of acknowledgment of our complete reliance upon the creator who gives breath.
With the gift of breath, we can hope.
So in the classical tradition: “While I breathe, I hope” (dum spiro spero). The phrase is variously attributed to Cicero or even to St. Andrew. It is such creator-given breath that evokes passion for new historical possibility. That passion, moreover, cannot be smothered out, not even by the most vigorous, cruel effort of abuse or even slavery. For that reason, every breathing human person always remains a potentially subversive agent in the world.
With the gift of breath, we can govern.
In the Genesis narrative Joseph who will govern Egypt on behalf of Pharaoh is empowered by God’s breath/spirit (ruah) for the work of governance:
Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find anyone else like this—one in whom is the breath/spirit (ruah) of God?” (Genesis 41:38).
Isaiah anticipated the coming “branch” from Jesse who will govern well:
The breath/spirit (ruah) of the Lord shall rest on him,
the breath/spirit (ruah) of wisdom and understanding,
the breath/spirit (ruah) of counsel and might,
the breath/spirit (ruah) of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:2-3).
Later Isaiah awaits the servant who will be invested with the ruah by God and who thereby is able to bring justice to the nations:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my breath/spirit (ruah) upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations (Isaiah 42:1).
It is all because of the breath/spirit (ruah) of God! Such governance is in contrast to princes who lack the breath/spirit and are unable to offer “help”:
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath (ruah) departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish (Psalm 146:3-4).
With the gift of breath, we can create, that is, engage imagination to generate artistic beauty and splendor:
I have filled him with divine breath/spirit (ruah), with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting and in carving wood, in every kind of craft (Exodus 31:3-4).
He has filled him with divine breath/spirit (ruah), with skill, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft (Exodus 35:31-33).
It is why we recognize that good art work “takes our breath away”! Or as we say, “It is inspired.”
The breath marks the wonder of human vitality to flourish as praise, hope, governance, and artistry! Without looking beyond this set of texts, we are able to see why it is that human persons are “little lower than God” (Psalm 8:5). Even with his singularly “high” view of God, Karl Barth can say of this gift of human imagination:
Imagination, too, belongs no less legitimately in its way to the human possibility of knowing. A man without imagination is more of an invalid than one who lacks a leg. But fortunately each of us is gifted somewhere and somehow with imagination, however starved this gift may be in some or misused by others. In principle each of us is capable of divination and poetry, or at least capable of receiving their products (Church Dogmatics III I 91).
All of this is a gift of God. There is no “breath” that is autonomous. Thus the Psalmist can readily recognize:
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
When you take away their breath (ruah), they die and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit (ruah), they are created;
And you renew the face of the ground (Psalm 104:29-30).
It is worth noting that the double use of “breath” (ruah) occurs in chiastic parallel to “face.”
For the interpreter who desires more textual grist for the exposition of “breath,” we may refer to the neglected words of Elihu in Job 32-37:
But truly it is the spirit (ruah) in a mortal,
the breath (nishemah) of the Almighty that makes for understanding (Job 32:8).
The spirit (ruah) of God has made me,
and the breath (nishemah) of the Almighty gives me life (Job 33:4).
If he should take back his spirit (lev) to himself,
and gather to himself his spirit (ruah) and his breath (nishemah),
all flesh would perish together,
and all mortals return to dust (Job 34:14-15) (author’s translation).
Elihu is unambiguous; the breath on which human persons depend is wholly the gift of God! No human agent has the right to take it away! In this Elihu echoes Job’s own conviction:
In his hand is the life of every living thing (nephesh)
and the breath (ruah) of every human being (Job 12:10).
Given this wonder of breath, we may ask how it is that one loses one’s breath or becomes “short of breath.” What is it that takes our breath away? I will identify four such causes of shortness of breath, but it would be easy to think of more:
Stunning beauty can take one’s breath away, a vista of nature, a work of art, or a piece of music. Such beauty summons us to yield ourselves to what is beyond our control explanation.
As we are learning, pollution can take our breath away. And now with the virus and the resulting industrial slow-down, we are witnessing clean air and the unexpected capacity to breathe freely that had been lost with smog.
Fear can take our breath away as we may be paralyzed and frozen in the face of profound threat.
Violence can take our breath away. This reality is on exhibit in the rampage of violence that is now epidemic among us, the kind of violence that has historically enjoyed social approval.
It turns out a legacy of slavery that placed Black people in an unbearable circumstance inevitably legitimated the persistent and pernicious structural support of racist ideology in institutions throughout our society. Lines were drawn and defended to protect white persons and white property from the reach of the underclass of disadvantaged Black people. In this institutional design, police are caught in a web of racism not of their making in the role assigned them. We all are and have been witnessing the culmination of this long-standing reality for centuries, though some may just be realizing it for the first time in our current days. The desperate cry, “I can’t breathe,” is expressed in a multitude of ways day in and day out by our Black neighbors in every aspect and corner of our cultural life.
When breath is taken away, those deprived of breath lose their capacity for praise, hope, governance, and artistry, that is, the loss of elemental human functions. It falls to police, civil servants, and each one of us to give breath to all, not decide who shall breathe and who shall not, that is, who shall live and who shall not. To take breath away is to assume the role of God. So now we live in a society that is short — in fear, anger, hate, and violence — of breath. The burden of that shortness of breath falls on the most vulnerable in our society, Black people. One does not hear of the choking of even the poorest white, though it may happen and be unreported. We can readily transpose the wisdom of Proverbs from “the poor” to Blacks because both are among the most vulnerable. That wisdom asserts:
He who mocks the poor insults their Maker (Proverbs 17:5).
When anyone is deprived of breath, the God who gives breath is violated.
Now we can see the work that arises for the faithful community in such a breath-denying society. The people of God are a people of the “second wind,” the recovery of breath after the loss of breath. The God who gave the first breath in Genesis is the God who gives a second wind to those who are willing and able to inhale the goodness of God that yields courage, stamina, and steadfastness.
Thus Ezekiel can address Israel in exile with anticipation:
Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath (ruah) to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath (ruah) in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord … Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath (ruah), prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath (ruah): Thus says the Lord God, “Come from the four winds (ruah), O breath (ruah), and breathe (nph) upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude (Ezekiel 37:5-6, 9-10).
A second wind permits those denied breath to stand up again, that is, those in exile may receive homecoming. Now it is the work of the faithful to create policies and practices, institutions and a culture in which the deprived of breath can live and stand on their feet.
After the execution of Jesus, his disciples were hiding in despairing fear. And then, with the doors locked, he came and stood among them (John 20:19):
He said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”When he had said this, he breathed (enephusesen) on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (vv. 21-22).
The church in its fearful hiding, like Israel, is given a second wind. The church is sent to perform the new regime of Jesus. That new regime, surely, means the restoration of full human capacity to those long denied a first breath. It is the work of the church to relay that second wind from Jesus to those most short of breath.
The breath of Jesus is inhaled in the book of Acts as Pentecost:
Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind (pnoe), and it filled the entire house where they were sitting (Acts 2:2).
The rest is history. The book of Acts narrates the way in which this odd community of the second wind “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). It is task of this breathed-on community to do the work of turning our world of racist violence upside down. When it is turned upside down it will be right side up.
The church of the second wind can sing in familiar, albeit somewhat romantic cadence:
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
fill me with life anew,
that I may love what thou dost love,
and do what thou wouldst do (Public Domain).
Less familiarly in another Pentecost hymn, the church can sing:
Keep us fervent in our witness, unswayed by earth’s allure,
Ever grant us zealous fitness, which you alone assure
Come, come, come, Holy Spirit, come ("Gracious Spirit, Heed Our Pleading").
The prophecy of Ezekiel, the breath of Jesus, the rush of the Spirit, and the singing of the church, all pivot on the second wind. It is time now for those who receive the new breath to relay that new capacity to breathe to let those who have too long known, “I can’t breathe.” They may now with joy and freedom live out the new second wind, affirming “I can breathe.” Those who receive the second wind are like the one healed by the apostles:
Jumping up, he stood and began to walk …
All the people saw him walking and praising God (Acts 3:8-9).
NOTE: I have taken the liberty of utilizing two Hebrew words in this exposition, nashemah and ruah; the two words have different nuances but they belong to the same semantic field.
Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.
Church Anew is dedicated to igniting faithful imagination and sustaining inspired innovation by offering transformative learning opportunities for church leaders and faithful people.
As an ecumenical and inclusive ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church, the content of each Church Anew blog represents the voice of the individual writer and does not necessarily reflect the position of Church Anew or St. Andrew Lutheran Church on any specific topic.