Earth, clay, dust

Definition and association

  • The word ‘earth’ is used to refer to the world but also to the dry land of the world as distinct from the seas
  • Clay is sticky earth that can be molded when wet and baked to retain a chosen form
  • Dust refers to earth or other matter in fine particle form.
The three substances have related but subtly different significance in the Bible:
  • Earth is usually associated with creation and the support of life
  • Clay features in metaphors for God’s sovereignty over human existence
  • Dust often serves as a symbolic reminder of mortality. 

Creation narrative

The Bible begins with the story of God creating the heavens and the earth. This takes place over the course of seven ‘days’. On the third day of creation, God separated the dry land from the waters (see Genesis 1:9-10). On the fourth, he spoke plant life into being:
The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind.’                                 Genesis 1:12 ESVUK     
On the sixth day, God created humankind Genesis 1:26-27. The parallel account in Genesis 2:1-9 (which emphasises different aspects of the narrative) is more specific: 
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. ESVUK Genesis 2:7    
The first male was named ‘Adam’, a play on the ancient Hebrew ‘ha adamah’, the noun for ‘ground’ or ‘earth’.

Mortality and suffering

In Genesis 3:1-24, Eve and then Adam disobeyed God by eating fruit they were commanded not to eat. One of the consequences was that, from now on, they would have to work hard to produce food for themselves from the ground. Another was human mortality:
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 ESVUK     
One of the writers of the Psalms laments that his soul ‘clings to the dust’ and implores God to restore him Psalms 119:25. In the midst of his suffering, Job questions the purpose of God in fashioning him like clay only to return him to dust Job 10:8-9. The Anglican funeral service echoes this idea by seeing the whole human lifecycle as running from ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’.


The Bible is full of hints that the ‘return to dust’ which happens at death is a temporary state:

God as a ‘potter’

God sends the prophet Jeremiah to the house of a potter at work. The potter re-moulds a spoiled clay vessel into another shape - an analogy for God’s sovereignty over Israel (see Jeremiah 18:1-10. Isaiah draws on a similar image:
But now, O LORD, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.                  Isaiah 64:8  ESVUK     
In another place, he likens the act of questioning God to the idea of clay questioning the potter Isaiah 45:9.
Paul picks up this Old Testament theme in his (New Testament) letters. In Romans 9:19-23 he refers to Isaiah 45:9 to emphasise the folly of ‘answering back’ to God. In 2 Corinthians 4:7 he describes himself and those serving the church with him as ‘jars of clay’ containing treasure. He presents the comparison as a basis for humility and dependence on God. 

Earth, clay, dust in the ministry of Jesus

  • In John 9:5-7 Jesus heals a blind man by spitting on the ground to make mud which he then places on the man’s eyes. The man is able to see once he obeys Jesus’ instruction to wash the mud away at a certain pool
  • When the scribes and Pharisees try to catch Jesus out in the case of a woman caught in adultery, he seems to evade their questioning by bending down and writing in the dust with his finger John 8:3-11 (the account doesn’t mention what he wrote!)
  • In a number of Jesus’ parables he uses the analogy of the soil to represent the willingness of people to receive his ‘seed’, the word of God. An example is Matthew 13:1-8 and Matthew 13:18-23, the Parable of the Sower.

Earth, clay, dust in literature

  • In Hesiod’s ancient Greek poem Works and Days (c.700 BCE) Zeus commands Hephaestus to mold the first woman (Pandora) out of earth. She is created with ‘a shameful mind and deceitful nature’ as a punishment on mankind for stealing fire from Prometheus.
  • The speaker in Andrew Marvell’s metaphysical poem To His Coy Mistress (c.1650s) includes dust among the images by which he reminds the women he loves of their mortality:
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.     
  • William Blake compares soft- and hard-hearted notions of love via a conversation between a clod of clay and a pebble, in The Clod and the Pebble, part of his 1794 collection Songs of Innocence and Experience
  • In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the Count and his vampire companions sleep and travel in boxes of earth. They are also able to access closed spaces by taking the form of ‘elemental dust’. When killed they disintegrate to dust almost instantly, ‘as though the death that should have come centuries agone had at last assert himself and say at once and loud ‘I am here!’’.

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