Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. Genesis 2:7 NASB
Dust – Now we come to the remarkable phrase, “dust of the ground.” The Hebrew is apar min ha’adamah. Apar is the common noun for dust, loose dirt or debris. It occurs in many passages in the Tanakh describing everything from the substance used to fill Abraham’s wells to the dust and ashes thrown on the head as a sign of mourning. It is an entirely common noun. So, why is it so special here?
Ronald Allen (in TWOT) provides two important insights. First, dust is a reminder of God’s sovereignty. Man is nothing but dust except for God. He is divinely-fashioned-nothing-special stuff. Dust demonstrates Man’s essential insignificance apart from God.
Allen also points out that the ubiquity of dust reminds us of the ubiquity of God’s grace and covenant. In fact, the deliberate connection between “dust of the ground” and “sands of the seashore/ stars in the sky” shows us that God’s promise involves innumerable descendents from the beginning. God has all humanity in mind in the creation of the first Man.
Finally, employing a substance as common (and annoying) as dust serves a polemic purpose. Man comes from what is otherwise quite useless. He does not arise from something spiritually special or physically unique. He is not the encapsulation of a divine essence housed in a physical body. Nor is he simply the further development of physical reorganization. He is nothing special – and at the same time – everything unique. He is himself a bridge between the ordinary and the extraordinary, between the created universe and the animating breath of God. Unlike the competing mythologies of origin, the Hebrew view does not put Man on a divine pedestal nor does it relegate him to slave-slime. Man is not made to be slave to the gods. He is not an after-thought. Yet He is not a god himself, nor even a demi-god. He is the intersection of divine purpose, divine breath, divine design and the most common, most abundant, most profane “stuff” of the world. In this position, both humility and thankfulness are his appropriate responses. Man has no worth apart from God, but God values him immensely – and that is more than enough for Man to desire to be all that his Creator intended him to be.
Who would have imagined that such a common material like dust would carry such important theological significance? This insight emphasizes once more how crucial it is to read the text in its own background, in this case, in the background of a tribe coming out of pagan Egypt. Genesis is a story that answers the questions, “Who are we and where did we come from?” Since we believers are grafted into this history, these questions are our questions. Set aside your Greek science and enter into tribal history. Know your beginnings – and your purposes – in the story of beginnings.
Topical Index: dust, apar, Genesis 2:7