Christian theologians like to use sophisticated words like “transcendence” and “immanence” when talking about the fact that God is other than the world yet continually active in it, but the ancient Jewish writers of Scripture, in talking about the same things, painted word pictures.
Word pictures are much cooler than sophisticated words. Much cooler.
The first word picture we encounter is in Genesis 1:2—“Now the earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the face of the deep, and the wind/Spirit of God brooded over the face of the waters.” (My translation)
First translation note, totally off the subject: “formless and empty” get the job done, but the Hebrew is toehoo wah boehoo. Just say that a couple of times—it’s fun, isn’t it? There is no way to translate these words that are as much fun as toehoo wah boehoo, so can we all just agree to stick with the Hebrew words and skip the boring English ones? Thank you.
Second translation note, totally on point: the Hebrew word ruach (hard ch as in ck, but deeper in your throat, like you’re clearing some…never mind) can be translated as wind, spirit, or even breath. Most English translations use Spirit of God, although the NRSV uses “wind of God.” I think both senses are intended here. If we go with wind for a second, we have the image of a wild, fierce wind blowing over the face of a wild, fierce ocean of water. Water is both necessary to life and a danger to it. You can drink it and live, or you can drown in it and die. The first humans lived near streams, lakes, and rivers, yet suffered through dangerous and damaging floods. Efforts to tame water to use it are fraught with danger, because dams burst and levees are breached. Water gives life; water kills. The two abide together, and we must accept both.
Same with wind. We need air to live, and we need the air to move in order to live, but the movement of that air can bring refreshment or destruction. A cool breeze is welcomed break from the heat; a tornado can drop suddenly from the sky and destroy whole towns. Wind brings life; wind kills. The two abide together, and we must accept both.
So this wind/spirit/life/death force blows over the face of the waters, the other life/death force. Before life can appear, they must be contained and controlled, and that is what happens with the water as the firmament is created to separate the waters above from those below and as the waters on the earth are gathered together so that dry land can appear. But the life/death tension still exists; chaos lurks in the deep, ready to reassert itself.
But what of the wind, how is it controlled? We area told that the ruach of God blows over the face of the waters. Third translation note: most translations say that it was moving, but the sense of the Hebrew is that it was hovering, which is stationary movement—again, one of those paradoxical tensions. This word is rarely used in the Bible, but one of those places is Deuteronomy 32:11—“As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions….” This is why I used the word “brood” in my translation, not in the sense of pondering something but rather of a mother bird taking care of its young, setting on the eggs to keep them warm and protected until they hatch, then watching over them while they are young and vulnerable.
This is where the other sense of ruach comes into play, for it is the Spirit of God that broods over creation, pushing and containing the life/death forces so that life can emerge and keeping chaos at bay so that life can flourish.
This is how we experience life, is it not? Our lives are full of the tension between life and death, order and chaos. The moment we are born we begin our march toward death, and it is in death that life is renewed—the food for every living thing is something that once was alive, whether it be animal, fruit or vegetable. The two things, life and death, which seems at odds with each other, are actually wrapped up in each other. Death is not an intrusion into life but rather an integral part of it. There is no life without death, nor death without life. Similarly, we spend our lives trying to create order out of chaos. Sometimes our lives seem very ordered—everything is running smoothly, there is peace, there is contentment, there is satisfaction; and sometimes it seems that the dam has broken and our lives are complete chaos. These two extremes are actually kind of rare; most of the time we are somewhere in between. But through it all, there is the Spirit of God hovering in stationary movement, brooding, caring, protecting. He brings order to our lives, and on those occasions when the chaos breaks through, he is the wind who blows in and contains the waters.