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Filled With The Spirit:

Part One- Israelite Literature


John R. Levison

Reviewed by Jim West

Levison's book is a pneumatology. Drawing on Israelite Literature (Part 1), Jewish Literature
(Part 2), and Christian Literature (Part 3), he strives (and for the most part impressively succeeds) to
supplement and enlarge the ground-breaking work of Hermann Gunkel on the subject. His principle
thesis is that 'spirit' should be seen through the lens of 'the filling of the spirit'.
So, in quest of that goal, part one of the present volume carefully examines Israelite literature
describing 'spirit'.
Levison begins each part with an overview of Gunkel's work on the Spirit. That is his launch-
pad. And his description of Gunkel's work is tremendous. One wishes, reading the prescript to Part
One, that at some point or other Levison would pen a monograph on the life and work of Gunkel
himself. Filled with delightful anecdotes and insightful observations, the prescript nicely, yes indeed
very nicely, sets the stage for what follows.
Part One itself then consists of a chapter titled 'Spirit in the Shadow of Death'. L. examines
various Hebrew Bible passages, including several of he Psalms, noting ' ...the psalmist does not want to
die, and the perennial presence of God's holy spirit, the psalmist believes, keeps him from doing so' (p.
31).
But what exactly is 'God's holy spirit'? Is it the third member of the Trinity of Christian
theology? Clearly not, so far as the Hebrew Bible is concerned. Is it nothing more than the sort of
'spirit' we understand when we use the term 'team spirit'? At times Levison almost seems to be heading
in that direction, though he does not ever really arrive.
The second chapter of Part One, 'Wisdom and Spirit Within', is an excellent exposition of Elihu
and Micah and Joseph and Bezalel (among other things) and 'spirit' as the power of God within which
results in wise work or act. In a very engaging bit here, Levison shows how various translations of the
Bible have bungled it when they have rendered the underlying Hebrew 'spirit' terminology, remarking
'The ambiguity of the Hebrew demands a reappraisal of both how to translate and how to interpret these
texts, in which the spirit within an individual is associated with wisdom and knowledge' (p. 39). He
continues, further, to suggest 'When God says “whom I have filled with spirit of wisdom” the emphasis
lies upon the lavishness of this filling much more than upon the initial gift of this spirit' (p. 58). In
sum, when spirit comes, spirit saturates.
As he struggles to describe the indescribable (spirit), Levison wisely observes 'Whether or not
ultimately the spirit was understood as a material presence that filled particularly gifted individuals...
lavish language [is used] because these are not individuals who follow God half-heartedly' (p. 85). In
other words, they have spirit because they wholly obey. Lack of obedience results in lack of spirit.
Chapter three of part one, 'Spirit and New Creation in the Shadow of Death', is, primarily, an
exposition (and a delightful one at that) of Ezekiel's valley of dry bones.
Just as each part opens with a prescript, each closes with a postscript. Here L. observes '… the
spirit is like a dike that holds death at bay' (p. 104). And that, in sum, is what we learn of spirit in the
Hebrew Bible.
Does Levison treat his sources fairly? I would say yes. Does he import anachronistic and
Christian understanding and heap them on top of Hebrew Bible texts? No, he does not. He lets the
text's own voice shine through. Does this mean that he has perfectly explicated the subject? Alas, no.
though his exposition is brilliant it does seem, to me, to have one significant weakness. Levison seems
to believe that words in the Hebrew Bible usually or normally maintain one primary 'meaning' over the
entire course of the text. When he discusses what this or that word 'means' he doesn't take account of
the possibility that said meaning may have changed over the course of Israelite history. Certainly, he
recognizes the fact that context is important, but then he seems to overlook the cultural context which
gave rise to text.
I recognize that this latter quibble is just that, a quibble. His failure to appreciate potential
change in the meaning of words does not, in fact, seriously weaken his argument. But it is a weakness.
Part One of this volume is brilliant. Part Two, on the literature of Judaism, is next.