From the sovereign LORD of the universe we move our consideration to the being created in his image – humanity. Whereas God can best be described as “The Independent One,” humans are first described in such a way as to highlight their dependence upon him. In his account of man’s creation, Moses said “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” (Genesis 2:7).
The pagan creation myths tended to focus on violent conflict. Moses speaks of creation as a benevolent, artistic act. God takes the elements with which he has molded the other parts of his universe, and he carefully produces just one more work of art. Then the creator of all life breathes life into his ultimate creation. We can only truly understand who we are by beginning with the reality of our total dependence upon God for life and existence.
Formed From Dust
There are three statements in Genesis 2:7 that, together, make up a pretty good summary of this dependence we have on God. First, Adam was made up of the dust from the ground. It does not say simply that Adam’s body was made from the dust. There is no dualism here. God did not create two things: Adam’s body and his spirit.
“The Bible teaches us to view the nature of man as a unity, and not
as a duality, consisting of two different elements, each of which move
along parallel lines but do not really unite to form a single organism. …
it is not the soul but man that sins; it is not the body but man that dies;
and it is not merely the soul, but man, body and soul, that is redeemed
The being created was Adam before he was ever animated by the breath from God’s nostrils. After his sin, God reminded Adam that “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” (Genesis 3:19). God did not say “your body is dust, but you are something else.” He did not say, “your body will return to the dust, but you will go somewhere else.”
The very name “Adam” spoke of the dependence human beings have on the elements from which this planet is made. He is (‘adam), and he was taken out of the (‘adamah— ground). Later in Genesis we will learn that humans have the potential to be something more, but even that is a miracle of God’s grace. Eternal life was never an entitlement. As first created, humans were just as dependent upon God for life as any of the other creatures God made.
In fact it was also “out of the ground (‘adamah) the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens” (Genesis 2:19). Both “man and all creatures of the earth were equally formed out of the dust of the ground … (so) … he and all the creatures of the earth have been regarded by God as mortal beings composed of dust of the ground and the breath of life.”2
Awareness of this fact of dependence upon the divine for life leads to a certain humility. Abraham, for example, could say “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). He did not flatter himself by imagining that he was something in God’s eyes. He admitted his utter dependence upon the sovereign Lord.
Job appeals to God on the basis of his dependence on Him: “Remember that you have made me like clay; and will you return me to the dust?” (Job 10:9). Job pleads for his life, and at the same time acknowledging that God is the one who gave this life to him – so God is capable of undoing it. Job recognized that he had no innate quality that would prevent God from ending his existence.
Solomon philosophized over this fact that we are just as dependent upon God as all the other creatures as well.
For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20).
His point was that it made no sense for a man to waste his life on hard work if in the end it would make no eternal difference. Only in a world where God holds out a promise does anything matter. Without him, life is meaningless. We are just like the animals.
That would be a rather bleak idea if we knew nothing more than Genesis 2:7. Indeed, our complete dependence upon God is a scary truth. But it is a truth that is foundational. We have to understand our “in Adam” identity before we can grasp with gratitude our “in Christ” hope.
The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Corinthians 15:47-49)
The gospel promises that human beings who are in Christ will one day bear his image. That includes immortality. However, that promise is conditional. It only applies to those who are “in Christ.” Also, it will only be experienced after his return, and the resurrection of the righteous.
There have always been those who insist that, in spite of Genesis 2:7 and 1 Corinthians 15, we already have immortality. To do so blurs the distinction which Paul saw so clearly between the creation and the restoration. It also ignores the fact that we are made of mortal, perishable, corruptible dust.
Given Life by God
The second major statement about the nature of humanity in Genesis 2:7 is the fact that God breathed into Adam’s nostrils, the breath of life. As previously stated, Adam was already Adam when God formed him from the dust. Whatever the breath of life was, it did not impart Adam’s personality or personhood. It was not some separate “soul” which took up residence in the body, but could have easily done without it. The phrase nishmat chayim is rendered literally “a breath of lives.” It refers to the animation of something that is at first lifeless. That same phrase is found in Genesis 7:22 referring to the animals and men who died in Noah’s flood: “Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died.”
So, the phrase itself does not imply any kind of “immortal soul” that would survive death. Instead, it implies the same thing that the dust did: humans are dependent upon God for life. The breath remains God’s breath, and he can take it back whenever he wishes.
Life is a gift from God. It was true of the animals. It is true of human beings as well. There is a difference between Adam and the animals he named, but that difference is not that Adam has some kind of “get out of death free card.” The first lesson we learn about ourselves is a humbling one: we depend upon God for life.
That breath that God gave Adam that day was simply the ability to breathe. This is seen in uses of the term neshamah elsewhere in scripture. Moses told the Israelites when they conquer the promised land to save alive nothing that breathes (Deut. 20:16). In other words, no survivors. Joshua obeyed and “devoted to destruction all that breathed” (Joshua 10:40; 11:11,14). If neshamah implied some kind of immortal soul, those statements would be contradictions.
The prophet tells us to “Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?”3 It is much more important to regard the Independent One from whom the breath came. Human beings may be mighty or wise, but remove their breath, and they are again reduced to dust. They have great potential for advancement, but they are still dependent upon their creator for their next breath.
The process by which God gave breath to Adam on the day of his creation continues to be carried on by God for human beings today. God is the one who “created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it.”4 He continues to give life, we continue to receive it.
Spirit (ruach) is just another name for that life-breath. It too, is the same animating breath that gives life to the animals.5 As for the animals, when God takes “away their breath, they die and return to their dust” (Psalm 104:29). As for humanity, “When his breath departs he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish” (Psalm 146:4). This all important gift from God — without which we could not exist — is a reminder that we are completely dependent on him.
The good news that we will pursue in later chapters is that God plans to resurrect those who are destined for eternal life. But until that day of resurrection at Christ’s second coming, our fate at death is the same as that of the lost. The most common description of this fate in the Bible is sleep. This metaphor “suggests an instructive parallel in which death is likened to falling asleep at night, the intermediate state to the hours of unconscious rest, and the resurrection to the experience of awakening to a new day.”6
A Composite Unity
The result of this creation process described in Genesis 2:7 is a being who is made up of the stuff of earth, infused with life from heaven. The Bible does not place the accent on one or the other of these facts, but insists on both. The result of creation is a composite unity. As Moses put it, “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.” Adam was not given a “soul,” he became one.
“Notice that the Bible presents man as a unitary being. While
discussing man’s spirit, soul, and body, the Scripture places
the emphasis upon man as a complete person. It is man –
the complete being – who was created, who fell into sin, who
can be saved, who dies, who will be raised again, and who will
This composite unity must remain together in order to be alive. The real human being is not one or the other, but “a combination of body and soul or spirit.”8 If you separate the dust from the life, you no longer have a living creature. This also is a gentle reminder of our ultimate dependence upon God for life. Since sin came into God’s creation, mortality has been everyone’s condition, and death has ended every life. If not for the promise of a redeemer, and a future resurrection, that would be the end of our story.
Human beings are created beings, and, as such, we have an affinity with all other creatures, and the rest of the cosmos that God created. Realizing this should instill in us a desire to preserve and protect the environment, and guard the universe from abuse. This is the most fundamental fact about ourselves in scripture (that we are created beings). From this fact flows the second most fundamental fact (that we are responsible to creation). We explore that responsibility in the next chapter.
1 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1949), 192. quoted in Freeman Barton, Heaven, Hell and Hades (Lenox Mass:Henceforth … Publications, 1990), 16.
2 George Wisbrock, Mortal By Design. (Chicago Ridge IL: by author, 2003), 13.
3 Isaiah 2:22.
4 Isaiah 42:5.
5 Genesis 7:22 speaks of the breath of the spirit of life (nishmat-ruach chayim) referring to the animating breath in all the men and animals that died in the flood.
6 Clarence H. Hewitt, Faith For Today. (Boston: The Warren Press, 1941), 106.
7 David A. Dean, Resurrection Hope. (Charlotte: ACGC, 1992), 40.
8 James A Nichols, Jr., Christian Doctrines (Nutley NJ: Craig Press, 1970, 119.