You are Dust (Genesis 3:19)
“for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19, ESV)
The noun used for “dust” (“aphar”) here is fascinating to me. It not only means dust (as most of us know it), but also clay, earth, mud, ashes, mortar, powder, or rubbish. That word has 110 occurrences in the text, and if you will click on that link to see how else it is used in the Bible, I think you’ll find that it generally refers to “the stuff of earth.”
In fact, “aphar” is the same noun used in Genesis 2:7—“then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”
I always think of this word when I encounter rabid literalists who attempt to force believers into extreme interpretative choices. When arguing for a 24-hour, six-day creation, for example, they suggest that Hebrew usage of a word like "yom" (which means "day") reduces to a bifurcation fallacy: “Is Moses, and by extension, God, trying to deceive us by not telling us the truth about the length of the "days?"
While I don’t have an issue with God's ability to produce a literal, six-day creation, I do have an issue with how this argument is constructed. As someone who spends a lot of time in modes of classical logic and rhetoric, a manipulative, illogical, unstable approach to exegesis drives me nuts. Note carefully the implication being made here. This writer is suggesting that if Moses (or God) chose to utilize figurative language, this would indicate a failure of character. The writer is equivocating metaphorical language with a lying heart.
And yet, in this same book of the Bible, we find "aphar" used metaphorically by Moses and by God. God tells us that Adam is dust and that to dust he will return. If metaphorical language indicates a weakness of God’s character, then Adam (present tense) must be only a pile of physical dust—which we know (from other verses) that he is not.
So does the same accusation used for "yom" apply to "aphar"? Should we also ask: “Is Moses, and by extension, God, trying to deceive us by not telling us the truth about Adam being dust? No. Adam must be literal dust, or else the character of God and Moses is false.” Of course not. Instead, we trust that whether God is speaking by metaphor or by declaration, his heart is good and his words are true.
As willing as I am to believe that God created the universe in six literal days, I refuse to be sucked into the contemporary Charybdis of nervous, strained methods of interpretation. I’m weary of cultural leaders who maneuver naïve believers by either/or fallacies because they are dead set on winning earthly battles.
Increasingly, I am starting to wonder if Christian scientists without formal literary training should be entrusted with Biblical exegesis any more than Christian literary scholars should be entrusted with brain surgery. A humble grandmother with no formal education, a woman who has walked in daily submission to God for decades, seems to have a better shot at handling the word of God accurately than an overconfident empiricist determined to humanism with humanism. A lack of exposure to proper interpretative methods, exacerbated by the pride of materialistic qualifications, has such a toxic impact on Biblical understanding. It imparts hubris without depth and causes the itch for earthly dominance to contort the words of God.
This morning I was reading Luke 3-4, and I was moved by the way Jesus engaged with the crowds. After refusing the honor of men during the temptations of Satan, he then refused the honor of his hometown in such an extreme way that his own people tried to throw him off of a cliff!
Luke tells us that Christ was full of the Holy Spirit—he didn’t let the urgency of the issues of humans determine his course of action. He was so in sync with the Father and the Spirit, he listened only to this guidance.
I think there is great wisdom to be learned here in interpreting the Scriptures. Instead of frantically asking what we need to prove to the crowds, we can sit before the Bible and say, “What will you have me do?”
With this posture, we find in those glorious six days of Creation, a God who expresses the nuances of his sovereignty (as we learned Tuesday). He declares his abilities to innovate, to separate, to order, to determine, and to fill.
Then we find this sovereignty extended into a God who speaks like a poet while describing the fall of humanity—you are dust, and to dust you are going to return. You haven’t chosen to rise above the rubble (the material world) from which I made you. You have chosen to be no more than the beasts.
This is what he says before he uses the skins of beasts (which would have required the first visible death--showing Adam what it really meant to be “dust”) to clothe them. This act would have simultaneously taught Adam what his sin cost and foreshadowed the death of the Lamb.
How many times have I sinned against God and found that without him I am dust? Though God has proven his ability to create, to separate, to order, to determine, and to fill, I have chosen my own way instead. By defying the great Current of the universe, I have obliterated my own potential.
If you are familiar with what remains of a human after cremation, you know that human ashes aren’t just dust but also bits of bone and teeth--fragments disturbingly indicative of the life that has gone.
When I think of my own sin, and when I think of Adam’s--when I think of God’s proclamation here in Genesis 3--I think of this image. I think of Lot’s wife turning to look back at Sodom and turning to salt--a self-imposed incineration that says to the God who wants to commune with us, “I will not conform to your eternal flow of life. I choose to be an animal. I choose to be the aphar—the rubble of earth.”
That is the telos of sin. That is the end of autonomy.