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Out Of The Dust

Fr. Paul Barwikowski

Then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7).

The Yahwist tradition (derived from the name of God, Yahweh) differs slightly from the priestly version. First of all, it changes the order. According to priestly tradition, which I wrote about in the previous article, man was created last as the crown of all God’s work. God acted as the master of the house, who prepares delicious dishes and sets the table for his guests; he sits his guests at the table only when everything is ready. He wanted Adam to find the world wonderfully prepared for him. In turn, the Yahwist tradition begins the creative work with man. He is the first of the creatures to be formed. In this way, he emphasizes his greatness and dignity. Other creatures are subordinate to him, created for him, as servants.

The image of creation refers to pottery symbolism. God molds, and shapes man from the earth, just like a craftsman molds a clay vessel. The prophet Jeremiah is very suggestive in this image: This word came to Jeremiah from the LORD: Arise and go down to the potter’s house; there you will hear my word. I went down to the potter’s house and there he was, working at the wheel. Whenever the vessel of clay he was making turned out badly in his hand, he tried again, making another vessel of whatever sort he pleased. Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do to you, house of Israel, as this potter has done?-oracle of the LORD. Indeed, like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, house of Israel. (Jeremiah 18:1-6).

In turn, Isaiah points to the complete dependence of the created work on its creator: Your perversity is as though the potter were taken to be the clay: As though what is made should say of its maker, “He did not make me!” Or the vessel should say of the potter, “He does not understand.” (Isaiah 29:16).

The earth (Hebrew “adama”), from which God creates man, means matter. Man is not outside matter, he was formed from it; therefore, it is fragile, weak, and mortal. The Creator will remind him of this after the first sin in paradise: For you are dust, and to dust you shall return! (Genesis 3:19). Despite its fragility, it has a divine breath, a divine spirit: then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7). 

The image of blowing life into the nostrils refers to the observation that living beings are characterized by breathing. For this reason, the Hebrew word “nefesh” first meant neck and throat, then breath and life, and finally soul and person, a living being.

Thanks to God’s breath, man is not only a living being, but he has self-awareness, the ability to know himself, to control himself, creative freedom, and the power of introspection and intuition. There is this common “breath” between God and man, which is called conscience, spirituality, and inner life in the highest sense of the word.

Man is not outside
matter, he was
from it

What This Means For Us

Man is therefore a complex being, a mixture of poverty and wealth, nothing and everything. On one hand, it has an affinity with matter, with things. He is not an angel, he has a body and the ability to make choices, also sinful ones, far from God’s thought. Due to earthly gravity, people often follow base sensual instincts and succumb to the limitations of human corporeality. On the other hand, he has a great, almost divine indestructible dignity, inscribed in his interior thanks to the Creator’s given Spirit. Thanks to it, he can create timeless culture and works, a civilization of love and life, and strive for eternity. The Psalmist, noticing this contradiction in man, exclaims in astonishment: What is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him rule over the works of your hands, put all things at his feet (Psalm 8:5-7).

For Further Reading On This Topic

In His Image

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Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the…

Out Of The Dust

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Then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.…

In The World Not Of It

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Each of us has a desire for knowledge, truth, and love. Nothing in the world will make a man full of truth and love. And that is why St. Thomas…
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