God is close and present to us in every breath we take.
I don’t read the Genesis creation accounts as history or as scientific descriptions. I regard them as myths. But when I use the word myth, the word does not mean for me something that is untrue. A myth does not provide a scientifically factual account. Instead it provides an insight into the truth by means of a story. That’s why myths are such potent vehicles of revelation.
Genesis 2:4b-3:24 provides the second of Genesis’ two creation accounts. In contrast to the majestic poetry of Genesis 1, Genesis 2-3 provides a more homely tale, but a tale laced with some powerful insights into the nature of humanity. Let me highlight one.
Near the beginning of the account, we encounter this description of the creation of human beings: …then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. [Genesis 2:7]
This statement does not envision God snapping his fingers and creating human beings out of thin air. This is not a creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). God forms human beings out of the existing dust of the earth. The language suggests the work of a potter shaping a clay image. The image remains inert until God breathes the breath of life into it. Then the material image becomes a living being.
This sentence reveals a fundamental component of the Hebrew mindset that runs through all of the Old Testament and even into the New Testament. Human beings are fundamentally material bodies animated by the breath of life. This breath of life comes from God as a gift. Our lives are always a gift, whether in this life or in the life of the resurrection to come.
This mindset does not deny that human beings are a part of the natural, material world. They have material bodies just like the rest of the living creatures on the earth. And therefore they are subject to the many natural forces that drive the material world of nature.
What keeps them alive is their incessant breathing. They breathe air in and they breathe air out. When human beings exhale their last breath and do not take a new one, they die. This is real fact.
Human Beings as Integrated Persons
Two things move me about this account. First, it suggests an understanding of human beings not as bifurcated persons, but as integrated beings in which body and spirit combine to make a whole person. We have a bodily dimension to our lives, but we also have a spiritual dimension. The two cannot be easily separated. They are intertwined. This means our bodies contribute to our identity as individuals just as much as do our psyches. Truly we are psychosomatic beings.
This contrasts sharply with the understanding of human nature that we inherit from Greco-Roman philosophy. For the Greek philosophers it was a pervasive belief that human beings consist of a divine, immortal soul imprisoned in a material, mortal body. The two are in constant tension, for the soul is the source of a human’s higher nature and the body the source of his or her lower nature.
This conflictive dualism runs as well through human culture and social relations. It has shaped our common attitudes about gender relations, the value of various occupations, and our bodily activities.
For myself, I find the Hebrew concept of human beings a healthier one. Yes, it can see body and spirit in conflict at times, but it does not see the solution as an eternal divorce between body and spirit, but rather their integration in a transforming union. The culmination of this vision is to be found in the Christian understanding of incarnation. The incarnation of Christ foresees the ultimate destiny of all human beings. As the ancient Orthodox fathers put it, “God became a human being so that human beings might become divine.”
God Present in Our Breath
There is a second reason why the Genesis account moves me. It identifies the life-giving force in human beings as the “breath of life” breathed into them by God. The Hebrew word for breath here is nishmat. We find it sometimes in parallel with the Hebrew word for spirit or wind, which is ruach. Both refer to something invisible that is life-giving, powerful, and ultimately beyond human control.
That power comes from God and as the thought of the Bible evolves it is named as the Spirit of God. The Spirit does many things in the thought world of the Bible, but one important function is to breathe the gift of life as we incessantly breathe in and out.
We find another expression of this insight in Psalm 104, where the psalmist expresses awe at the wisdom of God’s creative work as found in all living creatures. The psalmist says:
These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground. [Psalm 104:27-30]
All this suggests to me that the presence of God is always with us, though invisible, every time we take a breath. It is through the air we breathe in and breathe out that the Lord breathes the spark of life into our material bodies, and we live. We may feel God is absent from our lives. We may long constantly for a vivid sense of God’s presence with us, when all along God is as close to us as God can be every time we take a breath.
This suggests, says the Franciscan writer Richard Rohr, why many prayer practices, especially in the contemplative prayer traditions, place so much emphasis on how we breathe. He writes, “When considered in this way, God is suddenly as available and accessible as the very thing we all do constantly–breathe…And isn’t it wonderful that breath, wind, spirit, and air are precisely nothing–and yet everything.”*
* Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2015. Page 26.