Hebrew Word: Aphar (Dust from the earth)

Posted by on Feb 25, 2023

The scientists said to God, “We can create man, as you did”. God said, “Really? Can you create a man from the dust of the earth?” They said, “Yes, we can. We have genetic engineering, cloning, artificial intelligence to imitate and duplicate life”. “Let Me see it!”, said God. They took dust from the earth and … “No, no. Not from My dust”, said God.

Genetic engineering; the scientists are playing "God"

Genetic engineering, cloning, and artificial intelligence: the scientists are playing “God”.

While we are waiting for the scientists to create their own dust, in the following short Hebrew study we will explore the Hebraic meaning of the word for “dust” from the earth.

And Yehovah Elohim formed the man out of dust from the earth and breathed into his nostrils breath of lives. And the man became a living being. (Gen 2:7)

When we read that YHVH formed the man out of dust from the earth, the inevitable comes to mind: the Creator formed a clay figurine of man and then breathed into his nostrils. But this is not the way to understand this verse, since the Hebrew languages allows an alternative interpretation, which may make more sense to the critical reader.

In the following Hebrew study, we would like to posit another way to look at this verse.

Elohim created man in His image: male and female He created them. But do we know how the first man and woman were created? The Creator first created man from the dust of the earth and then from his rib He created the woman.

The simple meaning of the verse is that here the Torah informs us that the man and woman were both created on the sixth day, but it does not explain how they were created other than they were created from the dust of the earth.

In the above verse of creation of the first human, the Hebrew word for “dust” is עָפָר aphar. It is derived from the primitive verb עָפַר aphar, which means either to cast dust or perhaps rather to pulverize, i.e., to make into a powder. Hence, the noun עָפָר aphar means dust, powdered earth, dirt, ashes (Num 19:17), mortar (Lev 14:42), or rubbish (Neh 4:2). 

As a verb aphar is used only in 2Sa 16:13, which makes the recovering of its meaning more difficult. The ambiguity of a Hebrew word in such cases comes from the expression whose meaning cannot be determined immediately from its context. When a word has been used in only one place, it is difficult to derive its meaning from a single use of it, as opposed to when a word is used in many different contexts. We read in 2 Samuel where this word is used once as a verb and then as a noun,

So David and his men went by the way; and Shimei went along on the hill-side over against him, and cursed as he went, and threw stones at him, and cast dust. (2Sa 16:13 JPS)

The phrase “cast dust” in JPS reads in Hebrew,

וְעִפַּר בֶּעָפָר

ve’iphar be’aphar

literally, “and dusted with/in/within dust”.

Grammar note: It is the custom for Scripture to repeat a word twice (in this case its forms of a verb and noun) in order to reinforce what the verb expresses. Therefore, we derive from the context that Shimei was cursing David throwing stones and dust (from the earth) at him.

In Hebrew, the process of creation of life in Gen 2:7 is as this: the Creator formed man from עָפָר aphar, the dust of the earth, and נָפַח naphach, breathed the breath of life, חַיִּים נִשְׁמַת nish’mat chayim (lit. lives), and חַיָּה נֶפֶשׁ nephesh chayah, a breathing creature, or an animated living being was created. For more insight into the matter of creating, refer to the article Mystery of Origin of Life – Time of Reckoning Ministry from the series The Origin.

Man was formed from dust עָפָר aphar, which is a metaphor for the finest dust of the matter. And into his nostril a breath of life was breathed, by which he became a living being, soul. Hence, the nature of man consists of a material substance, body (that came from the dust of the earth, and immaterial: soul (that came from breath of the Creator).

The old saying, “The language of the Torah is like the language of man”, takes precedent when such a matter as scientific facts in the Bible is discussed. What this saying means is that the Scripture speaks the language the man can understand. And indeed, we can imagine how perplexed Mosheh would have been, if the Creator had used the scientific language we use today. Perhaps, he was no more perplexed than we are today when we read that the man was created from the dirt of the earth. It is by way of illustration that such a complex matter as the creation of man was revealed to Mosheh, and we will use the same method of illustration to explain it below.

Example. No Scriptural verse can lose its literal meaning. A plant is planted in a pot. As the plant grows, the roots also grow. Overtime the roots take over the whole pot until the dirt vanishes without a trace. Where did the dirt go? In the plant, the plant has absorbed the entire dirt that was in the pot and synthesized it in the form of minerals, vitamins (from Latin vita, “life”), enzymes, etc.: substances essential to nutrition and maintenance of life.

The animals and humans eat the plants and absorb these substances. Additionally, humans eat the plant-eating animals and further digest the nutrients the animals have received from the plants. At death the flesh of the animals and humans decompose in the earth, and the minerals return to where they have come from: the dust of the earth. The circle of life is thus closed only in order to resume in the next life circle.

Hence, we see that the saying “Man is what he eats” is not without a deep meaning. He eats the dust of the earth and returns to the earth as dust, from which he has come from.

By the sweat of your face, you are to eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken. For from dust you are taken and to dust you return. (Gen 3:19)

So, what actually is עָפָר aphar, the dust of the earth, from which man was created? Aphar is the solid homogeneous inorganic substances occurring in nature and having a definite chemical composition.

The dust of the earth is merely the substratum of fine particles in the earth from which YHVH formed man and from which he came into existence. The metaphoric meaning of “dust of the earth” now becomes clear, and the meaning of עָפָר aphar is not difficult to perceive. “Dust of the earth” is a metaphor for minerals.

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May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days!


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