The creation account in Genesis is foundational to the understanding of Biblical anthropology. God is the creator of all that we experience as humans, and we are his creation. While there may be some topics in the Bible that demand that we take into account the possibility of progressive revelation, Biblical anthropology seems to remain constant and consistent throughout the majority of scripture. By correctly understanding our origins, we can also grasp what God is trying to return creation to through the process of redemption, restoration and reconciliation. The Biblical study of eschatology has often gone off course by forgetting this. The Genesis account attests to the fact that what God initially created was declared “very good”. Our theology should always keep in mind that the Biblical narrative tells a story in which the plotline seeks to restore what has been broken. Paradise has been lost, and paradise needs to be restored. The beginning of the book of Genesis and the end of the book of Revelation are in agreement on this issue. What has been lost; access to paradise, God walking with his people, and the tree of life, are all promised to be restored to the earth upon Christ’s return.
The creation account of man recorded in the book of Genesis says that God created humanity from the material of the earth. We are literally earthlings. Scripture attests to the idea that we are created beings formed by God from the earth.
“And the Lord God formed man (adam) of the dust (aphar) of the ground (adam), and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living creature.” (Genesis 2:7)
Here we see that the Hebrew word for man is the same word used to describe the ground. The scripture states that we are aphar or dust. This fact is repeated throughout the Old Testament. God has formed us from the physical material of the earth. As a formed human, we do not have life unless God breathes into us and gives us life. This is a testament to our dependency on God for life and existence. We are not something that was created and then can exist without our creator. Like an infant relies on their mother to be nursed and fed, we cannot exist without the life-giving breath of God. A person who is formed from aphar is a human and has form, but they can be described as a living person or a dead person. The key differentiating factor is whether the person has the breath of God within them. The breath of God animates and gives life but it is not the person themselves. Human beings are aphar or dust, we are not breath or spirit.
The Dust Eater
The Biblical narrative reveals that humanity has an enemy. John writes in the book of Revelation that he is; the great dragon who was thrown down from heaven, the serpent of old, he is called the devil and Satan, and he deceives the whole world. John said when he was thrown down, a group of angels were also thrown down with him. (Revelation 12:9). In the gospel of John, Jesus describes him as “a murderer from the beginning”. Jesus says that Satan “does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44) Here Jesus contrasts himself with Satan. The character of God revealed in Christ is that God speaks the truth and desires life; Satan, on the other hand, speaks lies and desires death. This fundamental truth should be remembered any time the Christian contemplates the words of Satan or God. As the enemy of humanity, Satan’s words are recorded only three times in scripture. Satan speaks to Eve in the Garden, to God about his servant Job, and to Jesus in the desert. In all three of these stories, we see that Satan speaks lies and desires death opposing God who speaks the truth and desires life and obedience. It is no surprise then that we see in Genesis that Satan is spoken of as the aphar eater. He desires to consume and destroy humanity.
“The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, Cursed are you more than all cattle, And more than every beast of the field; On your belly you will go, And dust (aphar) you will eat All the days of your life.” (Genesis 3:14)
In contrast to humanity who is blessed by God, Satan, on the other hand, is cursed for his deception and attempt to undermine God. The result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is death, but that is not Gods desire. The natural consequence of removing yourself from any source of water will result in dehydration and death. In the same way, you are distancing yourself from God, the giver and sustainer of life, which results in death.
God establishes the truth about death in the Genesis account. God tells Adam,
“By the sweat of your face You will eat bread, till you return to the ground,
Because from it you were taken; For you are dust (aphar), And to dust you shall return (aphar).”
Here it might be important to point out what the text does not say. The text does not say that God created Adam as a composite of both aphar and spirit. It does not say that death means our body will return to dust, and we will live on as a spirit being. The spirit or breath in Genesis 2:7 comes from God and returns to God. In the same manner, the text does not say Adam is a composite of body and soul. It does not say death means the body dies, and the immortal soul lives on without the body. Scripture adds the descriptive words ‘living’ and ‘dead’ to the Hebrew word nephesh for this very reason. A nephesh is a living creature and can be described as either dead or alive. Either way, the person or animal is their body. Many Christians will argue that scripture is silent on things because it does not speak of a soul or spirit leaving a body and existing as a conscious self. But this is only an argument from silence if dualist anthropology is presupposed. If we take scripture at what it says, that mankind was made from aphar and we a return to aphar as God says we do, then there is nothing missing in the description of death. God says we are dust and we return to dust. In the same manner, animals are also said to be Gods creation, and their fate of death is the same. Psalm 49:12 declares that the fate of man and beasts are the same, death. Both humans and animals are referred to as nephesh or living creatures, and both have the ruach or breath of life within them.
Coming to grips with our mortality is often a difficult thing to do. We desire to be immortal, to be superhuman, to be more than what we already are. We desire to be free with no contingencies or dependence upon other human beings or God. The world can be a terrifying place red in tooth and claw. To control our anxiety and fear of death, our response is to deny our own identity as mortals. This denial leads to both communal and individual acts of telling lies sanction by society. These lies are built around the idea that we can somehow be heroic enough to transcend death. Put succinctly; we fear our deaths, so we live in denial of our identity by lying to ourselves. This is why the writer of the book of Hebrews says Christ came to free us from Satan who has held us in fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15) Scripture attests that Abraham recognised his identity as a created being, that he was dust, and he would return to the dust. When discussing the fate of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham says,
“Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes.”
In discussing the impending doom of the cities, Abraham confesses that he is but a creature and that God is the creator. His understanding of who God is leads him to the correct understanding of his own identity. This self-realisation and confession is very humbling as Abraham attests. The same confession of identity is found in scripture by Job, the Psalmists, Solomon, Isaiah, and Daniel. Let’s continue to look at how scripture speaks with one voice on this topic.
Dust to Dust- in Job, Psalm’s, Wisdom Literature & Prophets
The book of Job is thought by scholars to be the first book written in the Bible. Most scholars date its writing before Genesis. In the book, Job describes how God has made him from the dust of the ground, and he knows that when he dies, he will return to dust. By preserving his spirit, the breath of life God has given him; God has allowed him to continue to live. Job says,
“‘Your hands fashioned and made me altogether, And would You destroy me?
‘Remember now, that You have made me as clay; And would You turn me into dust (aphar) again?
‘Did You not pour me out like milk And curdle me like cheese;
Clothe me with skin and flesh, And knit me together with bones and sinews?
‘You have granted me life and lovingkindness; And Your care has preserved my spirit.”
Death is a major theme of the book of Job. With what Job endured, you can imagine why he would focus heavily on the topic. The book begins with Satan’s lies and desire for death as we spoke about earlier. God’s desire is for truth and life. The truth that God desires, which is the revelation of Job’s faithfulness, can only be revealed through his testing.
“Where now is my hope? And who regards my hope?
Will it go down with me to Sheol? Shall we together go down into the dust (aphar)?”
Job questions where he can place his hope if his destiny is the grave. Here Job draws the parallel between returning to the dust and going to Sheol. Some Biblical scholars have proposed that the Jewish understanding of Sheol was similar to other cultures idea of a disembodied spiritual underworld. However, Job describes Sheol as something synonymous with returning to the dust. Job recognises his mortality and dependence upon God and is in harmony with God’s declaration that we are aphar, and we will return to aphar.
In the same manner, Job also sees man as a created being that has received the breath of life but does not have the power to retain it. Job does not see humanity as spirit or breath but as aphar. Job says that the spirit or breath that God has given is God’s. This distinction is important. Listen again to how Job describes death.
“If He (God) should determine to do so, If He should gather to Himself His spirit and His breath,
All flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust (aphar).”
Notice Job says that the spirit and breath are God’s possession. They are only man’s as a gift because God has given them. If God removes this gift of the breath of life, all living creatures will die. Job rightly declares all of creations dependency upon God for life. The result of losing the breath of life is returning again to the aphar from which we came. So far, we have seen that both Job and Genesis present similar language and anthropologies of mankind.
The Psalms also present Biblical anthropology that is consistently similar to the previously discussed texts. God’s declaration that we are dust and we return to dust is proclaimed in the songs of the Israelites. The Psalmist says,
For our soul (nephesh) has sunk down into the dust (aphar); Our body cleaves to the earth.
Here we see that the person is a soul or nephesh, and they do not have a soul. The Psalmist identifies personhood with being a living creature, a nephesh. In addition, death is described as a nephesh, an embodied person returning to the dust of the earth. Put in an Aristotelian way, the soul is the body, and the soul returns to the dust from which it came. The Psalmist describes this poetically as cleaving to the earth. The Psalmist does not describe an immortal soul that leaves the body at death but rather the soul, which is the body that dies and returns to dust. Death has continually described this way in the Bible. Again, the Psalms say,
Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were born or You gave birth to the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.
You turn man back into dust (aphar) and say, “Return, O children of men.”
For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it passes by,
Or as a watch in the night. You have swept them away like a flood, they fall asleep;
Here the Psalmist reflects on the origins and creation of mankind. God is the creator and humans are his creation. This correct understanding of both God and man leads to a right understanding of anthropology. Again, the Psalmist declares man is aphar and returns to aphar. In another Psalm we find the writer saying,
“For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust (aphar). As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. When the wind has passed over it, it is no more, and its place acknowledges it no longer. But the lovingkindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him.” (Psalm 103:14-17)
Here we see the Psalmist once again declaring that man is dust. He compares the lifespan of humanity to the grass and a flower. They are all alive for a short time, and then they die. Humans die just like grass and flowers. When they die, they are no longer, but God remains forever.
Biology, the study of Gods natural creation reveals to us that we have much in common with other animals. Humans fall into the category described as mammals. Mammals are defined as warm-blooded vertebrate animals that are distinguished by the possession of hair or fur, the secretion of milk by females for the nourishment of the young, and (typically) the birth of live young. We have much in common with other mammals and yet there is something distinct and different about mankind. Scripture says that the difference is that we are made in the image of God and were charged with ruling Gods creation. We are not different in the fact that we all require blood in our veins and oxygen in our lungs to survive. Like other animals, we have both a birth and a death. The wisdom of the book of Ecclesiastes describes it this way,
“I said to myself concerning the sons of men,
“God has surely tested them in order for them to see that they are but beasts.”
For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same.
As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath (ruach)
and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity.
All go to the same place. All came from the dust (aphar) and all return to the dust (aphar).” (Ecclesiastes 3:18-20)
Here the writer declares that both animals and humankind are made from aphar and return to aphar. All living creatures die. The writer confirms that both humans and animals have the same ruach, the breath of life that God has given creation to sustain its existence. The ruach or breath is not the animal but a gift of God. It is like the gasoline that fills a car for it to run down the road. The gasoline is not the car, it is given to the car and helps the car run, but eventually, it leaves the car.
In the same way, we read that man and animals go to the same place when they die. The Israelites called this place Sheol or the grave. Sheol is described as the complete opposite of continued life or consciousness. The Biblical authors describe Sheol as a place of death and decay. It is a place of inactivity and unconsciousness. In Sheol people are consumed, (Deut 32:22, Job 24:19, Psalm 49:14) destroyed (Job 26:6, Prov 15:11, 27:20), they perish (Num 16:33), they return to dust (Job 17:16), there is decay (Psalm 16:10), it is a place of silence (Psalm 31:17) and it is without activity, planning or wisdom (Eccl 9:10). Finally, the wisdom literature declares that death is the opposite of creation. The writer declares,
“Then the dust (aphar) will return to the earth as it was,
and the spirit (ruach) will return to God who gave it.
Notice how this verse is the reversal of Genesis 2:7. Let’s compare the two verses side by side.
Creation is God forming man from dust (aphar) and breathing into his nostrils the breath of life
Death is when a man will return to the dust (aphar), and the breath returns to God who gave it
Here we see the perfect harmony of scripture and the testimony of Genesis and Ecclesiastes
In full agreement concerning the nature and destiny of mankind. It is the same declaration that God states in Genesis 3:19, that God created mankind out of the dust, and we will return to dust. The spirit or breath of God is a gift to sustain life, and it returns to its giver upon death.
Not only do Israel’s prophets agree with the larger testimony of scripture, but they offer hope for the future. The hope is that those who are made from the dust in God’s image and return to the dust, will not remain in the dust lifeless forever but will rise again to a new life through the resurrecting spirit of God. This hope is beautifully portrayed by the early church as well. Paul tells the church in Roman, “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11) Here is what the prophet Isaiah had to say about this.
“Your dead will live; Their corpses will rise.
You who lie in the dust (aphar), awake and shout for joy,
For your dew is as the dew of the dawn, And the earth will give birth to the dead.”
Isaiah identifies Israel’s dead as corpses, their bodies lie in the dust, and they are lifeless with no hope. But through the resurrecting power of the spirit of God, they will awake from the sleep of death. Just as a woman gives birth to a newborn child, the earth will give birth to the lifeless corpses, and they will be re-animated by the life-giving breath of God. The prophet Daniel also says,
“Many of those who sleep in the dust (aphar) of the ground will awake,
these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.”
The Bible consistently uses the language of death as sleep and resurrection as an awakening. This is not because the lifeless bodies still maintain consciousness, but because like sleep, we will not experience time between death and resurrection. A person who dies lies down and is lifeless; their body looks like it is sleeping. The Old Testament is filled with this language, and both Jesus and Paul also affirm it. Jesus, in speaking of Lazarus death, says that he is metaphorically sleeping. When his hearers take him literally the tells them plainly he is speaking of his death. In the same manner, Paul uses the language of death as sleep, describing those that have died as those who sleep in Christ. It is also worth pointing out that the person is always described as the body that is dead. The Bible never says that a person’s soul or spirit leaves the body and is sleeping somewhere outside their body. The language always associates the person with their dead body. Here we see the same with Daniel. Daniel says that those who sleep in the dust will awaken. Isaiah goes further and tells us he is speaking of the corpses or their dead bodies. When scripture speaks of the dust of dead bodies being resurrected and recreated, it never speaks of a reunion of a body and soul or a body and spirit as in their immaterial consciousness. It always speaks of the person as their body, awakening and rising from the dust.
In summary, we have seen that God created mankind from the dust (aphar) of the earth in his image and likeness and called his creation from the physical matter good. God desires to restore, reconcile and redeem his good creation. God’s plan to do this is to recreate what has died and returned to the dust. Scripture describes the process of life as being formed from the dust and given the breath of life. Death is the absence of this breath and the return to the dust from which we were formed. The resurrection then parallels our initial creation as God once again breathes life into the dead bodies that have returned to the dust. Scripture attests to the fact that we have an enemy, his name is Satan, and he is literally a dust (aphar) eater. Our enemy is the father of lies and desires death over life.
In contrast our creator speaks the truth and desires life for all his creation. Our identity as dust (aphar) is good and something that should be embraced as we are Gods creation. The creation account of Genesis, the ancient story of Job, the Psalms of the people of Israel, the wisdom literature of king Solomon and the testimony of the prophets all bear witness to this truth in their own way. All of these sources stand in agreement concerning the nature and destiny of mankind. We are dust (aphar), and we return to the dust (aphar), but thanks be to God who has the power of life over death and can restore life to the dead through the life-giving power of his spirit (ruach)!