“Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise the LORD!” Psalm 150:6
At 23 weeks Baby Chris’s ears are fully functioning and he may startle from loud noises. He is gaining strength as well – Mom might even be able to see the outline of his hands and feet as he pushes against her stomach, stretching his muscles and changing position. Although he has been breathing amniotic fluid in the womb, blood vessels and lung cells are continuing to develop so he will be ready to breathe air from the moment he’s born. Surfactant is forming to help keep his alveoli open after birth so his lungs will not collapse and stick together.
If we wanted to measure life by the number of our breaths, young children take about 44 breaths per minute. An adult at rest breathes about 16 times per minute, 960 breaths an hour, and so on. A person who lives to age 80, will take about 672,768,000 breaths in his lifetime. “Saving our breath” is so important we learn to administer the Heimlich Technique when someone is choking and CPR to breathe for cardiac and accident victims until first responders arrive. We ask our government to protect our air quality; we steer clear of toxic fumes, discourage smoking, get pneumonia shots and allergy tests, all to have healthy air for our lungs to breathe. Deep breathing alters the PH of blood, reduces blood pressure, aids in pain management, helps to relax our brain, and while we are asleep, breathing is an involuntary reflex.
The “breath of God” is a metaphor for God as the life-giving source of creative animation: Scripture is our authority because it is “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Job testifies that ice is frozen by the breath of God (Job 37:10). The channels of the sea and the heavenly host (stars and planets) were made by the breath of God (Psalm 18:15; 33:6). God is not an impotent idol made by human hands, but the One True God who gives “life and breath” to all humans (Acts 17:25); and when “breath departs,” they die (Psalm 146:4).
The “breath of God” is a metaphor for life: Throughout the Old and New Testaments, “breath of God” and “breath of life” are used as metaphors for life in general. When pro-life Christians engage abortion supporters, those who identify as Christian will sometimes try to undermine the scientific fact that human life begins at fertilization, by appealing to the “Jewish Scriptures” and the “Jewish understanding” that life begins at first breath. These are usually people who would never use Scripture as a reliable source for any other reason, except to try to disprove a Christian pro-life position. It is true that Genesis 2:7 says that “God breathed life” into the dust that became Adam – but the prototype human is surely not a good example for when life begins through natural human procreation. Believing that is the same as believing that God is still mixing up mud in the womb to form each new person.
A second volley points out the reanimation of dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:10). Should we take a prophet’s vision of animated adult skeletons as “Biblical” proof that life begins at “first breath?” Or what about John’s vision of the resuscitation of the two slain witnesses in Revelation 11:11? Should we expect that because they stood up “when the breath of life entered them,” it means that babies who are breathing amniotic fluid in the womb aren’t alive until we add outside oxygen; or that all dead people can be revived by administering oxygen?
All such attempts to use wooden literalism to pierce holes through the Biblical theme that human life begins at fertilization fail to take into account the call stories of the prophets, John the Baptizer (Luke 1:5-25), and the Apostle Paul (Galatians 1:17); they omit the multiple references to God creating life in the womb (not after birth) (ex. Psalm 139:13-16); and the pre-birth destiny stories like Isaac (Genesis 18:10), the twins Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:23) and King David (Psalm 22:10); and the distinctive destinies of the elect of God (Jeremiah 29:11; Ephesians 1:4-11; 2:10; 2 Timothy 1:9).
The poet Maya Angelou once said, “Life is not measured by how many breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” Surely one such moment was experienced by the apostles when Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit onto them, animating their spirits (John 20:22); and another when a believer - submerged in the waters of baptism - emerges to that first breath of new life in Christ. Then there is the singular moment when a mother and father have their breath stolen by their crying newborn’s first gulp of air.