Has the Holy Spirit ever taken on human form?

 

Francesco Albani, “The Baptism of Christ” (detail). The Holy Spirit appeared in material form, as a dove, at Christ’s baptism. But has the Holy Spirit ever appeared in human form?

Q. I know God and Jesus have taken human form before, and I was wondering, has the Holy Spirit ever done so? I don’t remember any passages where He does, but are there any?

(This is the second part of a question whose first part is answered in this post.)

I’m not aware of any biblical passages that describe the Holy Spirit taking on human form quite the way Jesus did in his incarnation, or the way God the Father did on several occasions in the Old Testament when He appeared as the “angel of the LORD” (that is, “the angel of Yahweh”). In some of those episodes, the so-called “angel” is identified directly with Yahweh. For example, after the angel of the LORD’s very first appearance in the Old Testament, to Hagar, we read that she “gave this name to Yahweh who had spoken to her: ‘You are the God who sees me.’”

However, there are at least a couple of places in the Bible where the Holy Spirit appears in material form. Luke tells us in his gospel that when Jesus was baptized, “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove.” And Luke tells us in Acts that “what seemed to be tongues of fire” came to rest on each of the disciples as they were filled with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

Beyond this, there are three very intriguing occasions in the Old Testament when the Holy Spirit is said to put on the body of an existing human being as if it were clothing, in order to speak and act on earth.

Before I discuss these places, I need to say a word about Hebrew grammar so that I can quote from the original language without being misunderstood. The word for “Spirit” in Hebrew is feminine. This doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, is a woman (biologically female), any more than the masculine pronouns that are used conventionally in Hebrew and Greek (and typically in English) for the first person of the Trinity, whom Jesus taught us to call “Father,” mean that this person is a man (biologically male). Rather, “Spirit” in Hebrew is feminine because it’s the same word as “wind,” and natural forces (sun, fire, wind, etc.) are conventionally feminine in Hebrew. But the Holy Spirit is a person, not a thing, and so the Spirit should definitely be given a personal pronoun, not an impersonal one (“it”). For this reason, when translating directly from the Hebrew, I say “she,” “her,” and “herself” for the Spirit.

Now here are the places in the Bible where the Holy Spirit is said to put on the body of an existing human being.

First, in the book of Judges, after God called Gideon to deliver the ancient Israelites from Midianite domination, “the Spirit of the Lord came on Gideon” and he gathered an army to fight. The Hebrew text says literally, “The Spirit of Yahweh clothed herself with Gideon.” The text is saying that the Spirit put on Gideon as if he were a garment, in order to be the one who was really acting to bring victory and liberation in this situation.

The next episode took place when David was living in Ziklag after he’d had to flee from Saul. Some men from the tribes of Benjamin and Judah came to him there and offered to join him. David couldn’t be sure whether they were sincere or whether they were trying to trick him and turn him over to Saul. So he told them, “if you have come to betray me . . . may the God of our ancestors see it and judge you!” In response to this challenge, which really amounted to a curse if the men were insincere, “the Spirit came on Amasai,” who would become one of David’s most trusted commanders, and he made an impassioned poetic protest of their loyalty and sincerity:

“We are yours, David!
We are with you, son of Jesse!
Success, success to you,
and success to those who help you,
for your God will help you.”

Once again, the Hebrew text reads literally, “The Spirit clothed herself with Amasai.”

Finally, some centuries later in the kingdom of Judah, when the formerly godly king Joash began to worship idols, “the Spirit of God came on Zechariah son of Jehoiada the priest” and he warned the people that they would not prosper because they had forsaken Yahweh. In this instance as well, the Hebrew text says that “the Spirit of Elohim clothed herself with Zechariah.”

So although the Holy Spirit has apparently never taken on human form in the sense of appearing on earth as if human, on three occasions the Spirit has put on the body of an existing human being as if it were clothing, in order to speak and act to bring deliverance, affirmation, or judgment in a situation.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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