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.
7 Verses 4b–7 are one long sentence in Hebrew, containing a protasis (v. 4b), a series of circumstantial clauses (vv. 5–6), and an apodosis (v. 7). This apodosis informs us that God the craftsman formed man from the dust of the ground. The Hebrew uses assonance here: God formed hāʾāḏām … min-hāʾaḏāmá. It is hard to capture this play on sounds in English, but it is something like “God formed earthling from the earth.” The verb for crafted is Heb. yāṣar, which on several occasions explicitly describes the vocation or work of a potter (2 Sam. 17:28; Isa. 29:16; Jer. 18:2, 3, 4, 11), especially when used in participial form (yōṣēr). “Potter,” however, is a suitable translation only when the context clearly points to the fact that the work of formation being described is that of a potter. For example, the verb is used in Isa. 44:12 to describe the work of an ironsmith on metals, and hence the verb would carry a meaning like “forge.” A potter, of course, works with mud or clay (ḥōmer), not dust (ʿāp̄ār). And for instances of yāṣar (“to do the work of a potter”) with clay (ḥōmer) compare Isa. 41:25 and Jer. 18:4, 6. (Job 33:6 has Elihu saying that he was formed from clay, but “form” in this instance is qāraṣ. Similarly Job reminds God that he has made him [ʿāśá] of clay [10:9].) It is taking too much liberty with Heb. ʿāp̄ār to render it “mud” or “clay” so that yāṣar in v. 7 may carry the force of “do the work of a potter.” There are, to be sure, instances where ḥōmer is used in parallelism with ʿāp̄ār (Job 4:19; 10:9; 27:16; 30:19), but such parallelism argues at best for overlap in meaning rather than identity in meaning.
In contrast to 1:26ff., here we are told that mankind was made from something already in existence. The word of God (1:26ff.) is now augmented by the work of God (2:7), a work that includes both formation and animation. “It is as though for the climactic performance the usual act of will was reinforced by an act of divine effort.”
We should note that neither the concept of the deity as craftsman nor the concept of man as coming from earthy material is unique to the Bible. For example, from ancient Egypt we have a picture of the ram-headed god Khnum sitting on his throne before a potter’s wheel, on which he fashions the prince Amenhotep III (ca. 1400 b.c.) and his ka (an alter ego which protected and substained the individual?). Referring to this particular painting, the Egyptologist John Wilson makes the interesting observation that Egypt lacked a specific account of mankind’s creation. The reason for this lack, he argues, “is that there was no firm and final dividing-line between gods and men. Once a creation was started with beings, it could go on, whether the beings were gods, demi-gods, spirits, or men.”16
Mesopotamian literature provides numerous examples of man’s derivation from clay. We have already seen that in Enuma elish man is created from the blood of a god. In the Gilgamesh Epic (a Babylonian deluge story) the nobles of Uruk pester the gods and ask them to create one equal in strength to the oppressive Gilgamesh. The gods then ask Aruru the creator to make a counterpart to Gilgamesh:
Thou, Aruru, didst create [the man];
Create now his double, …
When Aruru heard this,
A double of Anu she conceived within her.
Aruru washed her hands,
Pinched off clay and cast it on the steppe.
[On the step]pe she created valiant Enkidu.
A sister composition to the Gilgamesh Epic is the Atrahasis Epic, another literary tradition about the creation and early history of man. As in Enuma elish, here too man is created to relieve the gods of heavy work. His creation is described as follows:
Wê-ila (a god), who had personality,
They slaughtered in their assembly.
From his flesh and blood
Nintu mixed clay.…
After she had mixed that clay
She summoned the Anunnaki, the great gods.
The Igigi, the great gods,
Spat upon the clay.
Mami opened her mouth
And addressed the great gods,
“You have commanded me a task, I have completed it;
You have slaughtered a god together with his personality.
I have removed your heavy work,
I have imposed your toil on man.”
Nowhere does Gen. 2 imply that dust is to be understood as a metaphor for frailty. Some kind of qualification would have to be added for that nuance to be apparent, as is done, for example, in Gen. 18:27. Gen. 2 simply says that dust was the raw material out of which man was created, as “rib” was the corresponding raw material for the woman. Dust is the womb from which man emerges and the receptacle to which one day he will return (3:19). It defines the beginning and end of his life. True, 3:19 may indicate that man of dust is not an infinite creature, but in so stating, Genesis is not demeaning man.
The dust image appears sporadically throughout the OT and into the NT. Especially interesting for possible connections with Gen. 2:7 are those passages which speak of an exaltation from dust, with the dust representing pre-royal status (1 K. 16:2), poverty (1 Sam. 2:8; Ps. 113:7), and death (Isa. 26:19; Dan. 12:2). To “be raised from the dust” means to be elevated to royal office, to rise above poverty, to find life. Here man is formed from dust to be in control of a garden. Thus, the emphasis on the dust in Gen. 2:7, far from disagreeing with ch. 1, affirms ch. 1’s view of man’s regality. He is raised from the dust to reign.
The remainder of v. 7 supports this interpretation. into his nostrils the deity blows the breath of life. In Lam. 4:20 the people refer to King Zedekiah as “the breath of our nostrils” (though the word for “breath” there is rûaḥ, not nešāmá as here, passages like Isa. 42:5 and Job 27:3 show that nešāmá and rûaḥ are sufficiently related, both meaning “breath”). In ancient Egypt, especially in the cult of Hathor (the divine mother of the king), young princesses appear before the king with several objects in their hands to present to him. As they present these objects they say: “May the Golden One (Hathor) give life to thy nostrils. May the Lady of the Stars unite herself with thee.” In our comments on Gen. 1:26 we suggested that the application of the divine image to “man,” as opposed to the king, represented perhaps both a demythologizing of royal mythology and a democratization of society in Israel. Such would seem to be the case here too. It is man, as representative of subsequent humanity, who receives the divine breath. It is not something only for the elite of society.
Instead of using rûaḥ for “breath” (a word appearing nearly 400 times in the OT), Gen. 2:7 uses nešāmá (25 times in the OT). Unlike rûaḥ, which is applied to God, man, animals, and even false gods, nešāmá is applied only to Yahweh and to man. (The nešāmá of animals is not expressly mentioned except in the oblique reference in 7:22.) Thus 2:7 may employ the less popular word for breath because it is man, and man alone, who is the recipient of the divine breath. Now divinely formed and inspired, he is a living person. Until God breathes into him, man is a lifeless corpse.
As we shall see below, in 1 Cor. 15:45 Paul emphatically identifies “the man” of Gen. 2:7 with Adam. He amplifies the simple LXX egéneto ho ánthrōpos, “the man became …,” into egéneto ho prṓtos ánthrōpos Adam, “The first man Adam became.…” This Pauline use of 2:7 will serve as but one example of the thirty-four uses of ʾāḏām in Gen. 1:5 and how they should be translated. In essence the problem is this: is ʾāḏām to be understood generically (mankind) or is it a proper name? And if in translation we shift from one to another, on what basis do we make the shift?
As a general rule, when ʾāḏām appears without the definite article, we may translate it as a personal name, following the rule that personal names are not normally preceded by the definite article. When it occurs with the definite article (hāʾāḏām), we may translate it as “man.”
That this neat rule does not apply to all of the instances of ʾāḏām is borne out by an examination of some of the modern English translations of the Bible. Thus AV has “Adam” eighteen times and “man” sixteen times in chs. 1–5. RSV has “Adam” eight times and “man” twenty-six times. NEB has “Adam” four times and “man” thirty times. JB has “Adam” six times and “man” twenty-eight times.23 In addition, these modern versions disagree as to the first legitimate appearance of “Adam” as a personal name: 2:19 (AV, also LXX and Vulg.); 2:20 (NIV); 3:17 (RSV); 3:21 (NEB); 4:25 (JB).
Those who embrace the theory of two sources (P [1:1–2:4a and 5:1ff.] and J [2:4b-4:26]) in these five chapters are faced with the interesting use of ʾāḏām by P first in a generic sense (1:26–27), then as a proper name (5:1). If indeed P once existed as a separate document, the shift in meaning of ʾāḏām from 1:26–27 to 5:1 would be decidedly jarring. For why would the author use the same word in back-to-back positions to convey two radically different concepts?
One can argue that this shift in meaning is prepared for by the final editor’s deliberate and skillful placing of J (2:3–4:26), in which a shift in meaning from “man” to “Adam” is already manifest. Or, one can suggest that 1:5 is the product of one hand in which there is a progression in the use of ʾāḏām from mankind to mankind/Adam to Adam. We have observed the progression from the general to the specific in the Creation story of Gen. 1. Perhaps the same movement is in operation in the use of ʾāḏām in these opening chapters of Scripture.
There is no doubt that “Adam” as a personal name has ancient textual support. Old Akkadian and Old Babylonian texts feature names such as A-da-mu, A-dam-u, and ʾÁ-da-mu, while the Ebla texts have produced a reference to A-da-mu, a provincial governor under King Igriš-Ḫolam. In Ugarit one of the titles of El is il ab adm, “El, the father of mankind.”
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).
2:7. Whereas vv. 1:26–27 refer generally to God’s creation of humankind and underscore the distinctive gift of God’s “image” that He granted them, this verse presents a detailed description of the process by which He did so. Two facts here are of significance: (1) the proximity of God to what He was here creating, and (2) the imparting of a “soul” to man from God’s own self. The first point is emphasized in this verse by the use of the verb formed (vay-yiṣer, from yaṣar), which, when not applied to God’s creation of man (cf. Is 49:5; Zch 12:1), is typically employed, especially as a verbal adjective (yoṣer), to describe the role and work of a potter—which, perhaps more so than any other human activity, requires the careful and gentle use of the potter’s own hands. Since God could have created humanity in any other way He chose, such as by simply calling a man into being (as He did for everything else), the question naturally arises, “Why did He create humanity in this way?” And the answer is, “To demonstrate His special care (love) for man and His desire to relate to him in an intimate way.”
As to the second point, concerning the imparting of a soul to man—it is this that constitutes the “image” of God and that allows us, uniquely among God’s living creations, to commune or “relate” to God at a level that transcends material creation. In other words, as far as the evidence of Scripture itself, it was only into humanity that God breathed what derives exclusively from Himself—not simply “breath,” but in fact the soul. Of its 24 occurrences in the OT, this term is applied only to God and people. Hence it describes what humanity and the Creator uniquely share, namely, the capacity for spiritual relationship. That capacity is fulfilled when a person ceases from his or her own attempts to find spiritual “rest” and instead enters that permanent rest provided in Jesus Christ (Heb 4:10).
7. And the Lord God formed man. He now explains what he had before omitted in the creation of man, that his body was taken out of the earth. He had said that he was formed after the image of God. This is incomparably the highest nobility; and, lest men should use it as an occasion of pride, their first origin is placed immediately before them; whence they may learn that this advantage was adventitious; for Moses relates that man had been, in the beginning, dust of the earth. Let foolish men now go and boast of the excellency of their nature! Concerning other animals, it had before been said, Let the earth produce every living creature; but, on the other hand, the body of Adam is formed of clay, and destitute of sense; to the end that no one should exult beyond measure in his flesh. He must be excessively stupid who does not hence learn humility. That which is afterwards added from another quarter, lays us under just so much obligation to God. Nevertheless, he, at the same time, designed to distinguish man by some mark of excellence from brute animals: for these arose out of the earth in a moment; but the peculiar dignity of man is shown in this, that he was gradually formed. For why did not God command him immediately to spring alive out of the earth, unless that, by a special privilege, he might outshine all the creatures which the earth produced?
And breathed into his nostrils. Whatever the greater part of the ancients might think, I do not hesitate to subscribe to the opinion of those who explain this passage of the animal life of man; and thus I expound what they call the vital spirit, by the word breath. Should any one object, that if so, no distinction would be made between man and other living creatures, since here Moses relates only what is common alike to all: I answer, though here mention is made only of the lower faculty of the soul, which imparts breath to the body, and gives it vigour and motion: this does not prevent the human soul from having its proper rank, and therefore it ought to be distinguished from others. Moses first speaks of the breath; he then adds, that a soul was given to man by which he might live, and be endued with sense and motion. Now we know that the powers of the human mind are many and various. Wherefore, there is nothing absurd in supposing that Moses here alludes only to one of them; but omits the intellectual part, of which mention has been made in the first chapter. Three gradations, indeed, are to be noted in the creation of man; that his dead body was formed out of the dust of the earth; that it was endued with a soul, whence it should receive vital motion; and that on this soul God engraved his own image, to which immortality is annexed.
Man became a living soul. I take נפש, (nepesh,) for the very essence of the soul: but the epithet living suits only the present place, and does not embrace generally the powers of the soul. For Moses intended nothing more than to explain the animating of the clayey figure, whereby it came to pass that man began to live. Paul makes an antithesis between this living soul and the quickening spirit which Christ confers upon the faithful, (1 Cor. 15:45,) for no other purpose than to teach us that the state of man was not perfected in the person of Adam; but it is a peculiar benefit conferred by Christ, that we may be renewed to a life which is celestial, whereas before the fall of Adam, man’s life was only earthly, seeing it had no firm and settled constancy.
7. Here the sacred writer supplies a few more particulars about the first pair.
formed—had formed man out of the dust of the ground. Science has proved that the substance of his flesh, sinews, and bones, consists of the very same elements as the soil which forms the crust of the earth and the limestone that lies embedded in its bowels. But from that mean material what an admirable structure has been reared in the human body (Ps 139:14).
the breath of life—literally, of lives, not only animal but spiritual life. If the body is so admirable, how much more the soul with all its varied faculties.
breathed into his nostrils the breath of life—not that the Creator literally performed this act, but respiration being the medium and sign of life, this phrase is used to show that man’s life originated in a different way from his body—being implanted directly by God (Ec 12:7), and hence in the new creation of the soul Christ breathed on His disciples (Jn 20:22).
Ver. 7.—And the Lord God (Jehovah Elohim) formed man of the dust of the ground. Literally, dust from the ground. Here, again, Bleek, Kalisch, and the theologians of their school discover contrariety between this account of man’s creation and that which has been given in the preceding chapter. In that man is represented as having been created by the Divine word, in the Divine image, and male and female simultaneously; whereas in this his creation is exhibited as a painful process of elaboration from the clay by the hand of God, who works it like a potter (asah; LXX., πλάσσω), and, after having first constructed man, by a subsequent operation forms woman. But the first account does not assert that Adam and Eve were created together, and gives no details of the formation of either. These are supplied by the present narrative, which, beginning with the construction of his body from the fine dust of the ground, designedly represents it as an evolution or development of the material universe, and ends by setting it before us as animated by the breath of God, reserving for later treatment the mode of Eve’s production, when the circumstances that led to it have been described. And (the Lord God) breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Literally, the breath of lives. “The formation of man from the dust and the breathing of the breath of life must not be understood in a mechanical sense, as if God first of all constructed a human figure from the dust” (still less does it admit of the idea that man’s physical nature was evolved from the lower animals), “and then, by breathing his breath of life into the clod of earth which he had shaped into the form of a man, made it into a living being. The words are to be understood θεοπρεπῶς. By an act of Divine omnipotence man arose from the dust; and in the same moment in which the dust, by virtue of creative omnipotence, shaped itself into a human form, it was pervaded by the Divine breath of life, and created a living being, so that we cannot say the body was earlier than the soul” (Delitzsch). And man became a living soul. Nephesh chayyah, in ch. 1:21, 30, is employed to designate the lower animals. Describing a being animated by a ψυχή or life principle, it does not necessarily imply that the basis of the life principle in man and the inferior animals is the same. The distinction between the two appears from the difference in the mode of their creations. The beasts arose at the almighty fiat completed beings, every one a nephesh chayyah. “The origin of their soul was coincident with that of their corporeality, and their life was merely the individualisation of the universal life with which all matter was filled at the beginning by the Spirit of God” (Delitzsch). Man received his life from a distinct act of Divine inbreathing; certainly not an inbreathing of atmospheric air, but an inflatus from the Ruach Elohim, or Spirit of God, a communication from the whole personality of the Godhead. In effect man was thereby constituted a nephesh chayyah, like the lower animals; but in him the life principle conferred a personality which was wanting in them. Thus there is no real contradiction, scarcely even an ‘apparent dissonance,” between the two accounts of man’s creation. The second exhibits the foundation of that likeness to God and world-dominion ascribed to him in the first.
7 “Then the Lord God shaped man from the dust of the land.” The focus on man and his relationship to the land in vv 5–6 is but a prelude to man’s (אָדָם) creation from the land (אֲדָמָה). Though אדמה is grammatically the feminine form of אדם, it is doubtful whether there is any etymological connection between the two words. It is sometimes suggested that both terms are derived from אָדֹם “red.” the color of man’s skin and also the earth. This too seems improbable. Certainly, however, there is a play on the two terms אדם and אדמה, to emphasize man’s relationship to the land. He was created from it; his job is to cultivate it (2:5, 15); and on death he returns to it (3:19). “It is his cradle, his home, his grave” (Jacob).
This play on similar sounding words, paronomasia, is a favorite device of Hebrew writers (cf. 2:23), and many other phonetic allusions to ˒ādām “man” have been noted in these chapters. Strus (Nomen-Omen, 114–20) points out that the whole story reverberates with allusions to the word ˒ādām, and to the name of Eve hawwāh, just as the flood story has many puns on Noah’s name. Besides ˒ădāmāh and ˓ēden (Eden), qedem, qidmat (East), tardēmāh (heavy sleep), and môt tāmût (you shall certainly die) seem to make allusion to ˒ādām. The terms ḥayyîm ḥayyāh (life, living, wild animal) audibly resemble the name of Eve. For a discussion of the meaning of האדם and האדמה, see Comment on 1:26 and 2:5.
“Shaped,” יער: The present participle of this verb means “potter” (e.g., Jer 18:2), and it may well be that the image of a potter shaping his clay lies behind this description of man’s creation, even though “dust of the land” is not the normal material a potter works with. Though turning pots may often be a tedious, repetitive work, these are not the overtones of יצר, as a look at the other uses of the word reveals. “Shaping” is an artistic, inventive activity that requires skill and planning (cf. Isa 44:9–10). Usually the verb describes God’s work in creation. God has “shaped” the animals (2:19), Leviathan (Ps 104:26), the dry land (Ps 95:5), the mountains (Amos 4:13), and the future course of history (Isa 22:11, Jer 33:2). Preeminently, God’s shaping skill is seen in the creation of man, whether it be from dust as here or in the womb (Isa 44:2, 24) or in shaping human character to fulfill a particular role (Isa 43:21; 44:21).
“Dust,” עפר: That man was created from the dust is alluded to in many parts of the OT (Job 10:9; Isa 29:16; Ps 90:3; 104:29, etc). The idea is also commonplace outside the OT. The Gilgamesh Epic (1:34) tells how the goddess Aruru created Enkidu from clay. Egyptian monuments portray the god Khnum making man out of clay. The classical myths tell of Prometheus creating the first man from soil and water (Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.82; Juvenal 14:35). It is evident then that Genesis is here taking up a very ancient tradition of the creation of man and is giving these old ideas its own distinctive flavor.
“Blew into his nostrils the breath of life.” Man is more than a God-shaped piece of earth. He has within him the gift of life that was given by God himself. The biblical writer was not alone in the ancient world in rejecting a reductionist view of man which sees him as simply an interesting collection of chemicals and electrical impulses. Other peoples too regarded man as constituted of clay plus a divine element. The Babylonians spoke of man as a mixture of clay and the blood of a god (e.g., A 1:208–50). The Egyptians held that men had souls like the gods (F. Maass, TDOT 1:78). Similarly, Prometheus made man’s body from clay and gave it life with divine sparks (Dillmann, 54–55).
“Blew,” נפח, suggests a good puff such as would revive a fire (Isa 54:16; “Hag 1:9). The closest parallel is Ezek 37:9 where the prophet is told to blow on the recreated bodies to resuscitate them, and then, filled with wind/spirit (רוה), they stood alive. It is the divine inbreathing both here and in Ezek 37 that gives life.
“The breath of life” (נשׁמת חיים) is different from the word for “spirit” (רוח) in Ezekiel. Indeed נשׁמה and רוח sometimes occur in parallel (e.g., Job 27:3; Isa 42:5) suggesting a near synonymity. In fact נשׁמה “breath” is a narrower and rarer term than רוח “wind, spirit.” “Breath,” the ability to breathe, is a key characteristic of animal life as opposed to plant life. The flood destroyed “everything which has the breath of life in its nostrils” (7:22). Frequently, however, “breath” is more restrictive: to have breath is to be human (Josh 11:11; Isa 2:22), though it can of course be used analogically of the breath of God, e.g., 2 Sam 22:16. So when this verse says God blew into man’s nostrils the breath of life, it is affirming that God made him alive by making him breathe.
As a result of this divine inbreathing, man became a “living creature” (נפשׁ חיה). This phrase is used again of the land animals and birds in 2:19; 9:9; and in 1:20 it is also used of sea creatures. The term נפשׁ is one of the most common words in the OT (754 occurrences), and it has a wide range of meaning—“appetite, throat, person, soul, self, corpse,” among others. There have been many attempts to define and interpret the word, and often this particular verse is said to give a special insight into Hebrew psychology. (For discussion see C. Westermann, THWAT 2:71–96; E. Jacob, TDNT 9:618–31; H. W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament [London: SCM, 1974] 10–25; W. H. Schmidt, “Anthropologische Begriffe im AT,” EvT 24  374–88).
It tends to be overlooked in such discussions, however, that this verse says man became a נפשׁ חיה a “living creature,” not merely נפשׁ “creature.” The adjective is significant in the phrase: implicitly this “living creature” is being contrasted with a dead one, e.g., Num 5:2; 6:6, 11. Given the other uses of the phrase נפשׁ חיה in Gen 1, 2, 9, it seems unlikely that 2:7, “man became a living creature,” means any more than the tev rendering “and the man began to live.” By blowing on the inanimate body made from the earth, God made man come alive. It is not man’s possession of “the breath of life” or his status as a “living creature” that differentiates him from the animals (pace T. C. Mitchell, VT 11  186). Animals are described in exactly the same terms. Gen 1:26–28 affirms the uniqueness of man by stating that man alone is made in God’s image and by giving man authority over the animals. There may be a similar suggestion here, in that man alone receives the breath of God directly (cf. 2:7 and 2:19). Man’s authority over the animals is evident in that he is authorized to name them.
 Calvin, J., & King, J. (2010). Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis (Vol. 1, pp. 111–113). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 1, p. 18). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.