Dust and Glory
The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Alexander Pope was not being particularly biblical when he wrote, “The chief study of mankind is man.” He was not even being original, for the obligation to “know thyself” was an axiom of Greek thought thousands of years before him. Still, Pope was expressing an obligation felt by most men and women in nearly every age of history. We want to know who or what we are, why we are here, and where we are going.
Unfortunately, it is impossible for us to answer these questions apart from the biblical revelation. The reason is that we see parts of the answer, but only parts, and are therefore constantly distorting the picture. Zoologists, like Desmond Morris, who calls man “the naked ape,” tells us that man is essentially an animal. Karl Marx says that the essence of man is in his labor, what he does. Existentialists tell us that man is essentially volitional. That is, his uniqueness is found in his will. Hugh Hefner tells us that we are sensuous creatures and are therefore to be understood largely in terms of our passions or sexual performance. Common today is the view that man is essentially a machine, a large computer. At the Carnegie Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh there is a research project in which scientists are asking whether there is any essential difference between a human being and a computer. Each of these attempts to define man has elements of truth. But in the final analysis each fails because it is reductionistic. It sees part of the picture, but it lacks a comprehensive view of the whole. Consequently, in this age as in previous ages of human history man is “his own most vexing problem,” as Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us.
What are we to do? The only wise course is to ask who we are from God. When we do that we find that there is no profounder statement of who we are than Genesis 2:7.
Formed from the Dust
The profundity of this verse is that it describes man as a combination of what is low and what is high. On the one hand, he is described as being formed from the dust of the ground—an image of lowness though not of evil, as the Greeks thought, for even the dust is made by God and is good because he made it. On the other hand, man has been breathed into by God—an image of glory. It is man’s unique role to combine both dust and glory.
Dust is one of the most fascinating images of Scripture, and a study of it amply repays the time invested. It is a symbol of that which is of little worth, of low or humble origin. We see this in a number of passages. For instance, when Abraham is pleading with God over Sodom and wishes to emphasize his own littleness to engage in such pleading, he says, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty?” (Gen. 18:27). Or again, Hannah, in praising God for hearing her request for a son, says, “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap” (1 Sam. 2:8; cf. Ps. 113:7). On one occasion God reminds King Baasha of Israel that it was he who lifted him “up from the dust” and made him “leader of my people Israel” (1 Kings 16:2). But because he did not obey or honor God, God removed him and brought him down to the dust again. Dust is used as a symbol of the total defeat of one’s enemies (“the king of Aram had destroyed the rest and made them like the dust at threshing time,” 2 Kings 13:7; cf. Ps. 18:42; 72:9). It is a sign of mourning (“Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the Lord, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads,” Josh. 7:6; cf. Job 2:12; 16:15; Lam. 2:10; 3:29; Ezek. 27:30; Micah 1:10; Rev. 18:19). Job used the word twenty-two times to speak of the littleness of man in his misery. In a classic passage near the end of his book, this suffering saint declares, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5–6).
We repeat that dust is not evil, nor is it nothing. But it is “next to nothing,” as Matthew Henry notes. He adds that man “was not made of gold-dust, powder of pearl, or diamond dust, but common dust, dust of the ground.” In describing man as being formed from the dust Moses undoubtedly wished to stress man’s humble origin and show that he can aspire to glory only by the grace of God, who made him.
There is something else to be noted about dust: it is a symbol of frustration. The greatest example is the frustration of Satan whose curse, related in Genesis 3:14, was in part that “you will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.” This passage does not mean that snakes literally eat dust, nor does it imply that the author of the passage thought so. Dust in the mouth is a figure of defeat and humiliation.
Before his fall Satan was an intelligent and extremely powerful being, chief of all angels. Somewhere along the line—we do not know when or how—this supremely intelligent creature conceived a most unintelligent thought, namely, that he could get along without God. He said, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa. 14:13–14). He rebelled. But God brought him down from the lofty heights of his own sinful imaginations, and instead of finding himself in heaven replacing God he found himself a fugitive in God’s universe. In God’s initial judgment on Satan the fallen cherub had his first taste of dust.
He had another Eden. No doubt, after having suffered God’s instantaneous judgment on himself for his sin, Satan thought that Adam and Eve would experience the same—if only he could get them likewise to rebel against their Creator. So Satan tempted first Eve, then through her, Adam. Satan got them to sin. But instead of the immediate judgment he expected he found God coming graciously to clothe the first man and woman in skins taken from the first animal sacrifices and heard God promising an eventual and full deliverance by him who was to crush the head of Satan (Gen. 3:15).
Satan’s most bitter mouthful of dust was at the cross of Christ when he, who undoubtedly engineered Christ’s death, thinking thereby to strike back at God, found to his dismay that he had unwittingly been instrumental in furthering God’s great plan of redemption. Certainly God was correct when he said, “You will eat dust all the days of your life.” Satan ate dust then. He will always eat it. For even in Isaiah’s great description of earth’s golden age it is said, “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food” (Isa. 65:25).
In his discussion of the frustrations of Satan (and of others who follow in his path of rebellion), Donald Grey Barnhouse refers to a cartoon published in the London Star during World War II. The forces of Germany were at their farthest point of advance. Axis armies were in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains. Rommel’s troops were standing within the borders of Egypt. Rommel boasted that he would be in Cairo in two weeks. But then the Russian power began to stir, and the armies under Montgomery began that victorious march across Egypt that was to result in the total defeat of the German forces in North Africa. This cartoon showed Hitler standing on tiptoe on a heap of skulls, reaching into the sky where his fingers were just barely missing a cloud in the shape of the word “Victory.” The caption said, “It is always just out of reach.” So it is for Satan, and for all who think they can succeed in their rebellion against the true God.
The third truth symbolized by dust is death, which for unbelievers is the ultimate frustration (cf. Eccles. 3:19–21). It appears in Genesis. In the same judgments in which it is said of Satan, “You will eat dust all the days of your life,” it is said of man, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). This thought was often on Job’s mind. He said in his misery, “I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more” (Job 7:21; cf. 17:16; 20:11; 21:26). It is spoken prophetically of Christ: “My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death” (Ps. 22:15; cf. v. 29).
This image speaks of increasing despair: from littleness to frustration to death. But it is not so for believers. Although we are formed from the dust, we remember that it is God who has formed us and who “remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:14). True it is, as the psalm goes on to say, “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone …” (vv. 15–16). But it is also true, as the psalm adds, “From everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children—with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts” (vv. 17–18). The author of Psalm 119 declares, “I am laid low in the dust.” But he adds, “preserve my life according to your word” (v. 25).
The Breath of Life
The reason why it is possible for men to call on God for renewal or even to remember that God remembers their origin is that they are more than dust. They are also spirit, which Genesis 2:7 indicates by saying that after God had formed man from the dust of the ground, he continued his work by breathing “into his nostrils the breath of life.” This is man’s glory.
To appreciate this verse fully we must recognize the close connection between God’s Spirit and the word for “breath.” It comes from the fact that in nearly all ancient languages, particularly Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, the words for spirit and breath are identical. In Latin the word for spirit or breath is spiritus, which has obviously given us our word “spirit.” But spiritus also means breath, as we recognize in many of our Latin derivatives. Spiritus has given us: aspire, conspire, inspire, perspire, and expire. They all refer to different ways of using one’s breath. When men aspire, they take a deep breath and try harder. When they conspire, they put their heads together and breathe in and out with one another. A man is inspired when another man (or God) blows some of his breath into him. A person perspires by breathing out through the skin. When we expire, we breathe out for the last time. We die.
In Greek, the language in which the New Testament is written, the corresponding word is pneuma. It refers to breath also. This word is harder for English-speaking people to pronounce than the Latin word spiritus because of the initial two consonants, pn, so we do not have so many words based on it. Nevertheless, we have pneumatic and pneumonia. The first word refers to any tool that is air operated, like a pneumatic drill. The second refers to a disease of the breath box or lungs.
Finally, just as the Latin and Greek words for “spirit” refer to breath, wind, or air, so also does the Hebrew word. This word is ruach, which you cannot even say properly without exhaling. Ruach! It is the sound of a breath. When we understand this, we have some sense of the poetry of the opening verses of the Bible in which the creative Spirit of God blows over the waters like a troubling wind. No one English version can capture both ideas—the ideas of wind and spirit—but the New English Bible at least suggests the idea of the wind, with a reference to God’s Spirit preserved in a footnote. The New English Bible declares: “In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth, the earth was without form and void, with darkness over the face of the abyss, and a mighty wind that swept over the surface of the waters” (Gen. 1:1–2).
It is this word that occurs in Genesis 2:7 with the implication, readily seen by any Hebrew reader, that man was specially created by God’s breathing some of his own breath into him. Man has a special relationship to God by virtue of the divine spirit. Hence, although like the animals in certain respects, he is also above them and is to excel them in his love of and obedience to the Creator.
We know to our sorrow that man did not excel the animals in fulfilling this high destiny. He rebelled against God and thereby sadly effaced the image of God that had been given to him. Now, though retaining vestiges of that former glory, he is nevertheless thoroughly depraved in the sense that he can do no good acceptable to God, can no longer understand spiritual truth unless aided by the Holy Spirit, and cannot seek the true God against whom he has rebelled. That is why Paul writes of man in his fallen state, saying, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10–12).
Fortunately, this is not the whole story. Although man cannot seek God, God does seek man and even recreates him according to the pattern originally set in Genesis. It is what Jesus spoke about to Nicodemus when he told that leader of Israel, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). Nicodemus did not understand Christ’s meaning. So Jesus explained that the birth he was referring to was a birth from above by means of God’s Spirit: “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (vv. 5–6). Jesus was saying, not that a man must be born again of his mother (which is what Nicodemus first thought), but that he must be born again of God—just as Adam was born of God originally (cf. Luke 3:37). Flesh gives birth to flesh, fallen man to fallen man. But God gives new life now through his Spirit, breathing into us as he once breathed into Adam. Without that necessary rebirth or recreation a person “cannot see the kingdom of God.”
A Living Being
Genesis 2:7 adds one final thought. As a result of God’s forming man from the dust of the ground and breathing some of his own breath into him, man became a “living being.” The phrase translated “a living being” (actually, “living soul”) in Genesis 2:7 is also used in Genesis 1:24 of the animals. But as a result of the particulars of man’s creation given in the second chapter, a distinction is undoubtedly implied. Man is not only alive. He knows he is alive. Even more important, he knows from whom that life has come and of his duties to the God who breathed his own breath into him.
Man also knows that he depends on God for physical life and that he must come to him for spiritual life, as Jesus indicated. Isaiah teaches the physical dependence of man on God in a fascinating verse. It plays on the idea of man’s breath by saying, “Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils. Of what account is he?” (Isa. 2:22). We might paraphrase Isaiah’s command by saying, “Why trust in man who is able to take only one noseful of breath at a time? Trust God, whose breath is inexhaustible.” The breath of God in us may be our glory, but it is still received by us only one breath at a time. We breathe in. We hold our breath. We breathe out. But then we must breathe in again, or die. Nothing could better characterize our utter dependence on God.
And what if God should withhold his breath? Job answers by saying, “If it were his intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath, all mankind would perish together and man would return to the dust” (Job 34:14–15). So does the psalmist: “When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust” (Ps. 104:29).
I give two closing verses. There is a verse in 1 Corinthians that, by its contrast between the first Adam in his littleness and Christ in his greatness, summarizes most of what this study has been saying. Paul writes, “So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’ [a clear reference to our text in Genesis]; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45). What does Paul mean? Simply this: Adam existed by breathing in, and the breath he breathed in was from God. He could not sustain himself. Christ, on the other hand, is the One who breathes out, for he is “life-giving spirit.” We are to live physically and spiritually only as we turn to and are united to him.
The last verse is in the form of a concluding challenge, particularly to any who are not yet Christ’s. It comes from the little-known Book of Ecclesiastes: “Remember him [that is, remember God]—before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Eccles. 12:6–7). It is the preacher’s way of saying “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).
When death comes it is too late. Now, while you still have life, come to him who is able to give eternal life, and find yourself accepted in the Savior.
7 At first glance the description of the creation of humankind is significantly different from that of ch. 1. In ch. 2 the man is made (“fashioned”) “from the dust of the ground” rather than (created) “in the image of God,” as in ch. 1. No two descriptions could be more dissimilar. However, we should not overlook the fact that the topic of the “creation of the man” in ch. 2 is not limited merely to v. 7. In fact, the topic of the creation of the man and the woman is the focus of the entire second chapter. What the author had stated as a simple fact in ch. 1 (human beings, as male and female, were created in God’s likeness) is explained and developed throughout the narrative of ch. 2. We cannot contrast the depiction of the creation of humankind in ch. 1 with only one verse in ch. 2; we must compare it to the narrative in the whole of the chapter.
The first point the author is intent on making is that human beings, though special creatures made in God’s image, are nevertheless creatures, like the other creatures God made. Man did not begin as a “heavenly creature”; he was made of the “dust [ʿāpār] of the ground.” In light of the special attention given to the creation of humankind in ch. 1, the emphasis in ch. 2 on their “creatureliness” is not without importance. The notion that the origin of humankind might somehow be drawn from a divine source is consciously excluded by this narrative. Man’s origin is the dust of the ground.
One can also see in this picture of man’s origin an anticipation of humankind’s destiny after the fall, when they would return to the “dust” (ʿāpār, “soil,” 3:19). In creation man arose out of the dust, but in the fall human beings return to the dust. The author thereby pictures the true nature of the contrast between the work of God and the work of humankind.
Chapter 2 makes a further contribution to our understanding of humankind’s creation in God’s image. This is seen in the author’s depiction of the land and the garden prepared for humankind’s habitation. The description of the garden of Eden deliberately foreshadows the tabernacle as it is described later in the Pentateuch. The garden, like the tabernacle, was the place where humankind could enjoy the fellowship and presence of God.
2:7 / Like a potter, God formed(yatsar)man(’adam)from the dust of the ground(’adamah). There is a wordplay between “man” and “ground.” “Ground” represents red soil (from the root ’-d-m, “red”). Whether it indicates that the man’s skin was copper-colored is difficult to determine. Furthermore, ’adam is particularly hard to translate, for it is used for all humans as well as for the name of the first man. Versions vary widely in rendering ’adam as Adam or man. The kjv renders it Adam eighteen times out of the thirty-four occurrences, but the niv translates it Adam only four times (2:20; 3:17, 20, 21), emphasizing the representative role of the first human. Agreeing with this interpretation, this commentary renders ’adam as “man” until the woman has the name Eve (3:20); then Adam is used. Thereby the representative role of the first man and the first woman is kept in the foreground throughout the narrative.
God then breathed into the man’s nostrils the breath of life, and he became a living being(nepesh khayyah). The latter phrase classifies humans as members of the animal world (2:19), while “breath” establishes that humans continually and uniquely depend on God for their life force (Job 27:3). Whenever God takes the breath away, that person dies (Ps. 104:29–30).
 Boice, J. M. (1998). Genesis: an expositional commentary (pp. 115–121). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Sailhamer, J. H. (2008). Genesis. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis–Leviticus (Revised Edition) (Vol. 1, pp. 74–75). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Hartley, J. E. (2012). Genesis. (W. W. Gasque, R. L. Hubbard Jr., & R. K. Johnston, Eds.) (p. 59). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.