DUST: aphar. Masculine noun. (Strong’s 6083).
Sounds like: a-far
Dust is prolific in our lives. It is everywhere. It clings to our tvs, our baseboards, our cupboards, and our Bibles (when they sit unopened on our shelves).
Dust, of course, was no stranger to ancient Israel. It’s been a constant thing throughout history… we’ve never learned to conquer it. For that reason, it’s a perfect metaphor for life and mortality. In its first induction in the Bible, dust was listed as the prime element of human creation. We were formed out of dust:
Then YHWH God formed the man of dust [aphar] from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living person.
Our body is earth bound, but YHWH breathed life into humanity. Without God-breath, we are just dust and water fused together. But it is God within us that makes us living people.
Just having God-breath within us, however, doesn’t redeem us. Breath is a gift YHWH bestowed on every living thing. It is choosing to honour God and follow Him that elevates us beyond being just dust at the time of our death.
“Dust to dust” was an image that the Biblical writers used frequently. It put a spotlight on our mortality, beginning with the story of Eve and Adam and their disobedience in the Garden. After the fall, Adam received his fate:
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, because from it you were taken.
For you are dust [aphar], and to dust [aphar] you shall return.”
From Grave bound to Garden bound
Humans were created from the dust… and at the end of their days they would go back to dust. Abraham recognized this concept with his own mortality:
And Abraham replied, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am only dust and ashes [aphar wa-epher].”
King Solomon spent a great deal of time contemplating his mortality in the book Ecclesiastes, in which he said this:
…All go to the same place. All came from the dust [min hey-aphar] and all return to the dust [el hey-aphar].
But Elihu, the young advisor to Job, was more optimistic:
[Elihu:] “Therefore, listen to me, you men of understanding.
Far be it from God to do evil, and from the Almighty to do wrong. For He repays a person for his work, and lets things happen in correspondence to a man’s behaviour.
God certainly will not act wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice.
Who gave Him authority over the earth? And who has placed the whole world on Him?
If He were determined to do so, if He were to gather His spirit and His breath to Himself, humanity would perish together, and mankind would return to dust [aphar].”
Yes, if God was determined to do so, He would return us to dust. But He had a different plan… a plan of goodness and justice. He gave breath to each living thing, not to take it away when our bodies failed. He would find a way to let us live beyond the grave which constantly threatened to swallow us whole.
Adam was cursed to return to the ground, but YHWH set out to change the story. He would come up with a plan for redemption. He would send a Saviour (the new Adam) to offer a way out of the dusty grave and into His Presence, back in the Garden.
But this would take time, and the collective story of the Bible outlined the history of humanity, from grave bound to Garden bound.
Descendants like Dust
Dust, of course, is a prevalent thing. It’s all over the planet. It’s all over my house. Everywhere I look… dust, dust, dust. It’s hard to avoid it. I live on a red dirt road, famous in Prince Edward Island, and on a dry day all the cars kick up the dust and it gets everywhere. It’s the perfect metaphor for excess, and YHWH used it in his promises to the Patriarchs. To Abram He said:
[YHWH:] “Now raise your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward, and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see I will give to you and to your descendants forever. I will make your descendants as plentiful as the dust of the earth [ka-a’phar ha-aretz], so that if anyone can count the dust [et a’phar] of the earth, then your descendants could also be counted.”
In one of Jacob’s dreams, YHWH said:
“I am YHWH, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will also be like the dust of the earth [ka-a’phar ha-aretz], and you will spread out to the west and to the east, and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”
King Solomon recognized this promise through his kingship:
2 Chronicles 1:9
[Solomon:] “Now, YHWH God, Your promise to my father David is fulfilled, for You have made me king over a people as numerous as the dust of the earth [ka-a’phar ha-aretz].”
Humans are like little specks of dust, but each of us have meaning in God’s eyes. We are His family, as numerous as the stars and as prevalent as dust. But we are more than dust; we have God’s breath and Spirit within us. We are not empty shells; we are truly alive.
Dust with no life is exactly what it is… a useless nuisance. It is a reminder of destruction and the breaking down of things. More ominous, it is a reminder of our impending death.
With this in mind, the image of “licking dust” meant devouring our own fate. The dust, the grave, the ground has been connected to our mortality. It’s where we go when we have no hope. So licking dust, was like ingesting death.
The only one commissioned by God to eat dust, was the Adversarial image of the snake in the Garden of Eden.
Then YHWH God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this, cursed are you more than all the livestock, and more than any animal of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust [w-aphar] you shall eat all the days of your life;
And I will make enemies of you and the woman, and of your offspring and her Descendant; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heel.”
God’s Adversary (ha-Satan) was cursed to eat the dust of the ground. He was the devourer of the World, and he was inevitably linked to death, the grave (Sheol), and destruction.
This first curse made licking dust a grand insult. In the Psalm 72, the writer gave the following blessing to Solomon:
[To Solomon:] May the righteous flourish in his [Solomon’s] days, as well as an abundance of peace, until the moon is no more.
May he also rule from sea to sea, and from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth.
May the nomads of the desert bow before him, and his enemies lick the dust [aphar].
The prophet Isaiah spoke of redemption to the followers of YHWH. And for those who did not follow YHWH, they would lick the dust from the feet of believers:
This is what the Lord YHWH says:
“Behold, I will lift up My hand to the nations and set up My flag to the peoples; and they will bring your sons in their arms, and your daughters will be carried on their shoulders.
Kings will be your guardians, and their princesses your nurses. They will bow down to you with their faces to the ground and lick the dust [wa-a’phar] from your feet.
And you will know that I am YHWH; those who hopefully wait for Me will not be put to shame.”
The Prophet Micah also used the insult to describe the nations who had turned their backs to YHWH:
Nations will see and be ashamed of all their might. They will put their hand on their mouth, their ears will be deaf.
They will lick up dust [aphar] like a snake, like reptiles of the earth.
They will come trembling out of their fortresses; to YHWH our God they will come in trepidation, and they will be afraid of You.
Who is a God like You, who pardons wrongdoing and passes over a rebellious act of the remnant of His possession? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy.
He will again take pity on us; He will trample on our wrongdoings. Yes, You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.”
Micah provided hope. YHWH delighted in mercy; He would destroy our sins and cast them into the depths. He would save us!
Wallowing in the Dust
Death, of course, was always one breath away. Who has not experienced grief at some point in their lives? Expressions of grief were often outwardly physical in ancient Israel and Judah. Symbolically pouring dust on your head was an expression of grief. It made you face mortality.
When Job’s friends saw the state of their friend they mourned greatly:
When they looked from a distance and did not recognize him, they raised their voices and wept. And each of them tore his robe, and they threw dust [aphar] over their heads toward the sky. Then they sat down on the ground with him [Job] for seven days and seven nights, with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great.
Grief over the destruction of cities also initiated similar response. Ezekiel noted that the sailors would lament the loss of Tyre:
“All who handle the oar, the seamen and all the sailors of the sea will come down from their ships; they will stand on the land, and they will make their voice heard over you and cry out bitterly. They will throw dust on their heads, they will wallow in ashes.
Also they will shave themselves bald for you and put on sackcloth; and they will weep for you in bitterness of soul with bitter mourning.
Moreover, in their wailing they will take up a song of mourning for you and sing a song of mourning over you.”
When Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, Jeremiah wrote a lament:
The elders of the daughter of Zion sit on the ground and are silent. They have thrown dust [aphar] on their heads; they have put on sackcloth.
The virgins of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground.
My eyes fail because of tears, my spirit is greatly troubled; my heart is poured out on the earth because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, when little ones and infants languish in the streets of the city.
John, in writing his Revelation, reached back into the Tanakh and reflected on Ezekiel’s lament of Tyre and Jeremiah’s lament of Jerusalem. Ultimately Babylon, who symbolically represented all the enemies of YHWH, would be defeated. The grief over Babylon’s destruction would be great for those who relied on themselves and not YHWH:
[Regarding the destruction of Babylon:] And every shipmaster and every passenger and sailor, and all who make their living by the sea, stood at a distance, and were crying out as they saw the smoke of her burning, saying, ‘What city is like the great city?’ And they threw dust on their heads and were crying out, weeping and mourning, saying, ‘Woe, woe, the great city, in which all who had ships at sea became rich from her prosperity, for in one hour she has been laid waste!’
Even followers of YHWH experienced grief (just as followers of YHWH do today). Joshua, when faced with an impossible battled, cried out to YHWH:
Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell to the ground on his face before the ark of YHWH until the evening, both he and the elders of Israel; and they put dust [aphar] on their heads. And Joshua said, “Oh, Lord YHWH! Why did You ever bring this people across the Jordan, only to hand us over to the Amorites, to eliminate us? If only we had been willing to live beyond the Jordan! O Lord, what can I say since Israel has turned their back before their enemies? For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear about it, and they will surround us and eliminate our name from the earth. And what will You do for Your great name?”
So YHWH said to Joshua, “Stand up! Why is it that you have fallen on your face?”
God had a good point. Why do we become overwhelmed, when we know that God is in control? Why do we grieve so much, when we know the end of the story? Why do we fall down in the dust of death, when we ought to rise up and live?
It is human to grieve. I know it only too well. But we cannot, and should not, wallow in the dust.
YHWH Raises us up from the Dust
Wallowing in dust is not meant to be the actions of YHWH’s followers, but it is a very human response. We can’t rise up on our own… we need YHWH to lift us up, and help us stand.
The Psalmist called to God to lift us out of the dust:
[Sons of Korah:] Wake Yourself up, why do You sleep, Lord? Awake, do not reject us forever.
Why do You hide Your face and forget our affliction and oppression? For our souls have sunk down into the dust [leh-aphar]; our bodies cling to the earth.
Rise up, be our help, and redeem us because of Your mercy.
Hannah did not question YHWH’s intent. She had great faith that He would lift us up, out of the dust:
1 Samuel 2:6-8
[Hannah:] “YHWH puts to death and makes alive; He brings down to Sheol and brings up.
YHWH makes poor and rich; He humbles, He also exalts.
He raises the poor from the dust [meh-qim meh-aphar dal], He lifts the needy from the garbage heap to seat them with nobles, and He gives them a seat of honour as an inheritance.
For the pillars of the earth are YHWH’s, and He set the world on them.”
The writer of the 113th Psalm appears to have taken direct inspiration from Hannah’s song:
Who is like YHWH our God, who is enthroned on high, who looks far down to the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust [meh-qimi meh-aphar dal], He lifts the needy from the garbage heap, to seat them with noblemen, with the noblemen of His people.
He has the infertile woman live in the house as a joyful mother of children. Praise YHWH!
This Psalmist not only quoted Hannah, but also gave a nod to her (the infertile woman who has a son), with the last line of the poem.
We are not meant to lie in the dust; we are meant to rise up and live rich lives, like the joyful children of God that we are.
Job and Dust
Grief, destruction and death were words very familiar to Job. He lost his children, his property, his dignity, and his health. The overwhelming disaster that had befallen upon his life challenged his relationship with God. Job struggled with trusting in YHWH’s divine plan. He had a hard time rising up from dust, from the depths of despair:
Job 7:4-5, 20-21
[Job:] “When I lie down, I say, ‘When shall I arise?’ But the night continues, and I am continually tossing until dawn.
My flesh is clothed with maggots and a crust of dirt [aphar], my skin hardens and oozes.…
…“Have I sinned? What have I done to You, Watcher of mankind?
Why have You made me Your target, so that I am a burden to myself?
Why then do You not forgive my wrongdoing and take away my guilt?
For now I will lie down in the dust [leh-aphar]; and You will search for me, but I will no longer exist.”
But Job did not just lay down and die; at the very least he had the strength to question God:
“Your hands fashioned and made me altogether, yet would You destroy me? Remember that You have made me as clay; yet would You turn me into dust [aphar] again?”
Job wondered why there was hope for a tree, but not for him:
Job 14:7-14a, 18-19
“For there is hope for a tree, when it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and its shoots will not fail.
Though its roots grow old in the ground, and its stump dies in the
dry soil dust [u-veh-aphar], at the scent of water it will flourish and produce sprigs like a plant.
But a man dies and lies prostrate. A person passes away, and where is he?
As water evaporates from the sea, and a river becomes parched and dried up, so a man lies down and does not rise. Until the heavens no longer exist, he will not awake nor be woken from his sleep.
Oh that You would hide me in Sheol, that You would conceal me until Your wrath returns to You, that You would set a limit for me and remember me!
If a man dies, will he live again?”…
…“But the falling mountain crumbles away, and the rock moves from its place. Water wears away stones, its torrents wash away the dust [aphar] of the earth; so You destroy a man’s hope..”
Job was asking all the right questions: “If a man dies, will he live again?” But he lacked faith that the answer might be “yes”. All he could see in front of him was the grave (Sheol):
“If I hope for Sheol as my home, I make my bed in the darkness; if I call to the grave, ‘You are my father’; to the maggot, ‘my mother and my sister’; where then is my hope? And who looks at my hope?
Will it go down with me to Sheol? Shall we together go down into the dust [aphar]?”
Finally Job recognized that YHWH had control. YHWH would place His feet above the dust and redeem His people… and Job would come face to face with His Salvation. He would see God:
“Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were recorded in a book! That with an iron stylus and lead they were engraved in the rock forever!
Yet as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last, He will take His stand on the
earth dust [aphar]. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I will see God!”
Although he knew YHWH was his Redeemer and he would see God when his days were done, he still struggled with grief:
“And now my soul is poured out within me; days of misery have seized me. At night it pierces my bones within me, and my gnawing pains do not rest. By a great force my garment is distorted; but ties me up like the collar of my coat.
He has thrown me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes [aphar wa-epher]. I cry out to You for help, but You do not answer me.”
But YHWH did answer Job… and for four chapters (Job 38-41) we read YHWH’s great words of power, dominion, and majesty. By the end of God’s words, Job was utterly convinced of YHWH’s dominion over death:
Then Job answered YHWH and said,
“I know that You can do all things, and that no plan is impossible for You. ‘Who is this who conceals advice without knowledge?’
Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I do not know. ‘Please listen, and I will speak; I will ask You, and You instruct me.’
I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You; therefore I retract, and I repent, sitting on dust and ashes [aphar wa-epher].”
Job didn’t turn to dust and blow away; he didn’t tear his clothes and dump ashes on his head. Instead he sat on top of dust and ashes and repented to God.
King David also had a similar experience to Job. He suffered in many ways. He lost an infant son, he was always under threat of war, and his own son (Absalom) wanted to depose him, kill him, and take kingship for himself. But David consistently trusted YHWH:
[David:] To You, YHWH, I called, and to the Lord I pleaded for compassion:
“What gain is there in my blood, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust [aphar] praise You? Will it declare Your faithfulness?
Hear, YHWH, and be gracious to me; YHWH, be my helper.”
You have turned my mourning into dancing for me; You have untied my sackcloth and encircled me with joy, that my soul may sing praise to You and not be silent.
YHWH my God, I will give thanks to You forever.”
Dust & Spirit
The suffering soul clung to mortality (see Psalm 119:25), but the Word of YHWH, the living, breathing, word, would raises us up from the dust. It would revive our soul and bring us closer to the Life-giving Father.
Our bodies will decay, but the Spirit of the followers of YHWH will live! It will return to YHWH and live with Him in His high Garden Kingdom:
For man goes to his eternal home while the mourners move around in the street. Remember your Creator before the silver cord is broken and the golden bowl is crushed, the pitcher by the spring is shattered and the wheel at the cistern is crushed; then the dust [hey-aphar] will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.
This concept of perishing without breath but living through the Spirit may be best described by the following Psalm:
They all wait for You to give them their food in due season. You give to them, they gather it up; You open Your hand, they are satisfied with good.
You hide Your face, they are terrified; You take away their breath, they perish and return to their dust [a’pharam].
You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; and You renew the face of the ground.
May the glory of YHWH endure forever.
Our bodies may turn to dust, but we are created and renewed with the Spirit. The prophet Isaiah expressed great hope in YHWH’s reviving of the Spirit:
Isaiah 26:4-5, 19
“Trust in YHWH forever, for in Yah-YHWH, we have an everlasting Rock.
For He has brought low those who dwell on high, the unassailable city; He lays it low, He lays it low to the ground, He casts it to the dust [aphar]…
…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 departed spirits.
This is the Good News! This is the redemption promised from the beginning. The grave cannot hold us down.
Shake yourself from the dust [meh-aphar], rise up, captive Jerusalem; release yourself from the chains around your neck, captive daughter of Zion.
For this is what YHWH says: “You were sold for nothing, and you will be redeemed without money.”
In the penultimate chapter of Isaiah, he painted a picture of YHWH’s grand and beautiful plan of human redemption:
Isaiah 65:17-19, 23-25
“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things will not be remembered or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem for rejoicing and her people for gladness.
I will also rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in My people; and there will no longer be heard in her the voice of weeping and the sound of crying….
…They will not labour in vain, or give birth to children for disaster; for they are the descendants of those blessed by YHWH, and their descendants with them.
It will also come to pass that before they call, I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will listen.
The wolf and the lamb will graze together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox; and dust [aphar] will be the serpent’s food. They will do no evil or harm on all My holy mountain,” says YHWH.
Writing in the Dust
Isaiah’s picture of heaven… no tears, no sorrow, no uselessness, no death, no evil, no harm …is the image of hope we are to hold onto. God would send a Saviour to redeem us and bring His Kingdom to us.
Yeshsua (Jesus), whose name literally means Salvation, spoke often about the YHWH’s Kingdom:
Whatever city you enter and they receive you, eat what is served to you; and heal those in it who are sick, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whatever city you enter and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your city which clings to our feet we wipe off in protest against you; yet be sure of this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’
Those who rejected the word of YHWH rejected His kingdom. They would not enter. They would be like dust, wiped off the feet. They would go back to the ground from which they came.
The story of Yeshua and dust, which is probably most familiar to people, was His reaction to the Pharisees who were trying to condemn a woman. It was the only instance where Yeshua was described as writing something down. But He did not write in a scroll; He wrote in the dust of the ground:
They [the scribes and the Pharisees] said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?”
Now they were saying this to test Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground.
When they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.
This story has been contested by many scholars as a later addition to the Biblical text, but it’s an eloquent story worth contemplating. Many have associated this narrative about Yeshua writing in the dust of the earth with a prophetic poem found in Jeremiah:
O YHWH, the hope of Israel, all who abandon You will be put to shame. All who turn away will be written in the dust [the earth: ba-aretz], for they have abandoned YHWH, the fountain of living water.
Heal me, O YHWH, and I will be healed; save me, and I will be saved, for You are my praise.
Yeshua writing in the dust, in the presence of the Pharisees, was an indirect insult. The Pharisees were like those who turned away and abandoned YHWH, just as Jeremiah had prophesied centuries earlier.
The prophetic words of Daniel made it very clear: the dust of the earth (the grave) would not hold God’s followers down. Our names are not written in dust, they are written in the Book of Life:
“Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the Book, will be rescued. And 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. And those who have insight will shine like the glow of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
We can be written in the Book of Life, or we can be written in the dust of the earth. The choice is ours. If we’re written in the Book, we will rise up out of the dust.
Yeshua, out of the Dust
Yeshua’s death and resurrection was a test of mortality. Dust was always connected with death. The grave was always waiting. Psalm 22 has often been seen as a foreshadowing of the Messiah’s test on the cross:
Psalm 22:12-15, 27-31
Many bulls have surrounded me; strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me. They open their mouths wide at me, as a ravening and roaring lion.
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; My heart is like wax; it is melted within me.
My strength is dried up like a piece of pottery, and my tongue clings to my jaws; and You lay me in the dust [weh-la-a’phar] of death…
…All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to YHWH, and all the families of the nations will worship before You. For the kingdom is YHWH’s and He rules over the nations.
All the prosperous of the earth will eat and worship, all those who go down to the dust [aphar] will kneel before Him, even he who cannot keep his soul alive.
A posterity will serve Him; it will be told of the Lord to the coming generation. They will come and will declare His righteousness to a people who will be born, that He has performed it.
Yeshua was laid in the dust of death. He was laid in the grave, but He did not stay there. He performed His mission… what He set out to do, He did. He conquered death, nullified our sin, and paid the price to bring us Home to the Father’s Kingdom. Like prodigal sons and daughters, we will be welcomed Home personally by the Father, where we will celebrate life in His Presence.
Paul understood this. We are not just dust, we are also Spirit. For those who follow YHWH, our soul bears both:
1 Corinthians 15:47-49
The first man is from the dust of the earth; the second man is from heaven. As is the earthy one, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly one, so also are those who are heavenly. Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly.
We are to be YHWH’s image bearers. We are His reflection on this planet. It brings to mind the image of a sunlit window… the rays fall through the panes of glass and the dust is highlighted, like little fairies dancing on faint wisps of air. We are not to reflect dust which has no power over where it lands, but we are to reflect the light of YHWH streaming through the window-pane… illuminating God’s Presence around us.
We are heavenly creatures, bound to the earth by our bodies, but set free in the light and the mercy of YHWH’s love. We are not meant for the grave, we are meant to live in the presence of our Creator. What a glorious day that will be.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him.
As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our wrongdoings from us.
Just as a father has compassion on his children, so YHWH has compassion on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows our form; He is mindful that we are dust [aphar].
As for man, his days are like grass; like a flower of the field, so he flourishes. When the wind has passed over it, it is no more, and its place no longer knows about it.
But the mercy of YHWH is from everlasting to everlasting for those who fear Him, and His justice to the children’s children to those who keep His covenant and remember His precepts, so as to do them.
YHWH has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all.
Bless YHWH, you His angels, mighty in strength, who perform His word, obeying the voice of His word! Bless YHWH, all you His angels, you who serve Him, doing His will. Bless YHWH, all you works of His, in all places of His dominion.
Bless YHWH, my soul!
Open up the Bible, and read the beautiful story of human redemption. It’s YOUR story! Dust off the cover and dive in!
Next week: Revisiting BREAD