In a post-Darwin world where the theory of evolution has become so central to the modern view of life and history, even many Christians (especially in the West) take for granted that humans are descended from animals and share a common ancestor with apes like chimpanzees. Thus, such Christians see biblical statements about God creating mankind directly out of the dust and distinct from the animals as symbolic, idiomatic, or otherwise non-literal. But is this a fair and accurate way to read the text? Did God literally make mankind out of the dust of the earth?
Genesis and man’s creation from dust
The famous creation account in Genesis 1-2 includes the claim that God made man from the dust of the earth and breathed life into him.
Genesis 2:7, “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,”
This vivid explanation doesn’t sound like a mere idiom. It is a rather precise description of God’s actions in creating man by forming him from dust and then breathing life into the form. The author draws on these facts again later in the story:
Genesis 3:19 “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
When a man dies, his body literally decays into dirt. This text seems to parallel this literal return to dirt with a literal origin from the dirt. This seems to be the author’s actual view of man’s origin. One would have to take the whole narrative as entirely symbolic to get around it (which some, of course, do), but the phrase itself about man being formed from dust is not a mere cultural idiom. Within the story of Genesis 2, it functions as a literal description of God’s creation of man.
The Rest of the Old Testament
You see this kind of language frequently repeated in the Psalms. We were made from dust, we are dust, and we return to dust (Psalm 90:3, Psalm 103:14, Psalm 30:9, etc.). We live on borrowed breath from our maker. Solomon likewise wrote:
Ecclesiastes 3:20, “All are from the dust, and to dust all return.”
And he further elaborated in the climax of the book:
Ecclesiastes 12:7, “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.”
We are but dust living on borrowed breath from God. The book of Job frequently appeals to this reality, saying things like:
Job 34:14-15, “If he [God] should set his heart to it and gather to himself his spirit and his breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust.”
Man is mere dust given life by the breath of the Lord. If God were to take back His breath, we would once more be dirt. We read again and again that:
Job 33:4 “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”
Even the distinctive human traits like intellectual wisdom and understanding that raise us above the beasts (Job 35:10-11) are not something in which we can boast, for they too are lent to us through the borrowed breath of God:
Job 32:8, “But it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand.”
The Old Testament scriptures consistently invoke our origins from dust and breath to explain who we are. They appeal to our return to dust at death as a humbling warning. The Hebrews Scriptures treat this history of man’s beginning as a genuine fact.
The New Testament on men from dust
Some might argue that all of this Old Testament language is symbolic. After all, Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Psalms are all very poetical books, right? So, if we also take Genesis 1-3 to be a sort of epic poem of creation and fall rather than a literal story, couldn’t we say that man being created from dust is a mere symbol? Couldn’t man have actually evolved from apes or had some other scientifically and culturally satisfying origin? The New Testament, however, doesn’t leave us that option. It treats man’s creation from dust as a literal, historical fact. For example, Paul writes:
1 Corinthians 15:47. “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.”
The “second man” here is Jesus, who literally came down from heaven. Thus, Paul regards Adam’s creation from dust to be as historically accurate as the incarnation of Jesus! We can’t allegorize Jesus’ coming down from heaven and remain a Christian. Thus, neither should we allegorize Adam’s having been created from dust. For Paul, both of these events really happened.
This also seems to be what James is referencing in the admittedly difficult verse in James 4:5 about God jealously desiring to take back the “spirit” he has put in man, a word that can also mean “breath.” It seems, just like in Job 34:14-15, that this passage in James is reminding his readers that God can (and perhaps, in His wrath, even in a real sense wants to) take back his breath and reduce us to dust. Yet, He is patient with and compassionate toward us, and we ought to be toward one another. This appears to be James’ point, and it hinges on the literal reality that man is dust and breath. Indeed, it is worth noting that the only other use of the word “spirit” in James’ letter is to say that the body without the spirit is dead (James 2:26), thus, the “spirit” in view here is what keeps our bodies alive, i.e., the breath of God.
We see this likewise in some of the earliest Christian writings outside the New Testament:
1 Clement 21:9, “his breath is in us, and when he so desires, he will take it away”
This is also echoed in the language in both Testaments about man as a work of clay formed by God like a potter (Isaiah 64:8, 45:9; Romans 9:20-21, etc.) Likewise, both Jesus (Matthew 19:3-8, etc.) and Paul (Ephesians 5:31, 1 Corinthians 11:8, etc.) appeal to the related story from Genesis about how Eve was formed after Adam from one of Adam’s ribs, in each case treating it as a real historical event with profound implications on marriage, sexuality, and gender roles. The Biblical authors, and Jesus Himself, uniformly testify that these creation events really did happen.
The consistent testimony of scripture is that God really did form mankind from the dirt as a direct, special creation separate from the animals and breathed life into our clay forms.
According to wide biblical testimony that crosses genres and testaments, man was formed directly from God out of dust and breath. This ought to humble us and define for us who we are as His workmanship, dependent on Him every moment of every day for the life that we live. It also ought to lead us as Christians to reject the Darwinian claim that man is merely one of the latest arrivals on an unbroken chain of common descent and is simply another animal.
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