Chapter 1 – Creation Out of Matter
– Dust of the Earth
– Earth and Water
– Fire, Wind, Water, Dust, Air and Darkness
Chapter 2 – Creation Out of the Word
– On the Dialog Between Matter and the Creator
– Matter and Spirit
In the spectacular end of the creation of the world, man was created in the continuum of infinity, which the Creator wisely kept to the end.11 Inspired by Don ... This was creation out of the word: “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’” (Genesis 1: 2), and creation out of matter: “the lord God formed man from the dust of the earth” (Genesis 2: 7).
In the extent between word and matter, between reality and metaphor, in the six days of creation during which the raw materials were created ex nihilo and the creatures created ex materia, a fascinating picture is revealed of the primary materials from which the world and man were created.
This paper focuses on describing the raw materials from which man in relation to biblical, interpretive, mystical, and mythical sources, and to ancient traditions of the Middle-Eastern cultures that relate to and resonate biblical texts. The paper will not deal with historical chronology of interpretation, but with sources relevant to the theme of this journal: “Raw Material”.
Two major aspects will be discussed in the creation of man, not in the order of their appearance in the first two chapters of Genesis:
A. With reference to the creation out of matter in Chapter 2 – the question as to the raw materials from which man was created will be discussed. Did man was only created as dirt from the earth were other materials involved in his creation?
B. With reference to the creation out of the word in Chapter 1 – I will reflect on the dialogue between the creator and matter and between matter and the creator in man’s creation, as an idea resonant of manmade creation.
Chapter 1 – Creation Out of Matter
Dust of the Earth
“The lord God formed man from the dust of the earth” (Genesis 2: 7).
His name, Adam, derives from the place of his creation and is reminiscent of the name of the raw material from which he was created, adama (earth), and of his creation as dust of the earth, as Midrash Bereshit Rabbah says: “Rabbi Huna said, dirt male, earth female”;22 Midrash Bereshit ... “all phenomena on earth, be they inert vegetable matter or animals, are composed of male and female parts”.33 Rabbeinu Bahya, ... The male and female were contained in a single body in man’s creation, as it is told later in the creation story that, “This is the record of Adam’s line. When God created man […] male and female He created them. And when they were created, He blessed them and called them Man” (Genesis 5: 1-2). And thus said Rabbi Yirmiyah Ben Elazar: “Said R’ Yirmiyah ben Elazar: In the hour when the Holy One created the first human, He created him [as] an androgynous, as it is said, ‘male and female He created them’”.44 Midrash Bereshit ...
The Aggada (legend) literature expands on these two raw materials and, in describing the creation of man, tells of the creation of the army of heaven, the angels, as a process of acquiescence and collaboration between the Creator and his servants.
“Because the angels agreed that man be created, the Lord said to Gabriel: Go and fetch dust from the four corners of the world and I shall make a man from it […] Gabriel went to collect dust from the land and the land pushed him back and did not allow him to take dust from it. Gabriel said to it: Land, why don’t you listen to the word of your Lord who founded you on water without props and without pillars? The land answered: I am destined to become a curse and be cursed for man, and if the Lord himself does not take dust from me, no one else will ever take it. When the Lord God saw thus […] he stretched his hand and took from the dust and created man […]”.55 The Chronicles of ...
Hypotheses about the material origin of man troubled Christians, too, who did not know Hebrew and could not read the text in the original language, and their interpretation is like that found in Jewish legend. According to the Slavonic Enoch book, which is based on an original Greek version, Adam’s name (in Latin letters) is derived from the initials of the names of the four winds: Anatole, Dysis, Arctos, Mesembria (East, West, North, South, respectively) and his body is shaped from dust collected from the four winds of heaven.66 Book of Slavonic ...
The Muslims say that the angels, Mikha’il, Isra’il, and Azrail, brought dust from four corners of the earth, and from what they collected, Allah formed man’s body; but for creating his head and heart, Allah chose dust from Mecca, from the place where the holy Kaaba was later erected. Mecca is the navel of the earth in the eyes of Muslims, like the mountain of Moriah for the Hebrews and Delphi for the Greeks”.77 Robert Graves and ...
Earth and water
In the descriptions of the creation of man extracted from the prophetic literature in the Bible and from interpretive, mystical, mythical and philosophical sources, as well as from later Midrashic sources, it is believed that two materials were involved in forming the matter from which man was created: earth and water. Support for this can also be found in ancient traditions of Middle Eastern cultures that relate to texts by which the Bible has been influenced. All these maintain that God creates human beings from “matter”, which is earth mixed with water, like the “material” (Hebrew: material=clay) used for the craft of pottery, which is the art of making ceramic vessels and one of the oldest crafts of man. The quality of the mud,88 The word tin in ... the river silt that has always existed in nature, which is the material from which the earliest pottery was made, its plastic properties that allow it to be kneaded, and its finishing into a vessel by firing it, have made it the material from which an act of creation can arise.
According to the views of the peoples of the Ancient Middle East, the gods created humans from earthen clay. Egyptian, Biblical and Indian legends of the ancient world, telling of the beginnings of creation, mention a mixture of earth and water as raw materials for the creation of man, while the motifs appearing in them are different from one another and influenced by the unique characteristics of each culture. What is common to all of them is stories of a primordial matter, the birth of the gods and finally the creation of man. In these cultures, creation was essentially shaped by an immense struggle between the gods and constitutes a chapter in the rich narrative of their histories.99 Shlomo Avramski, ...
The myth of the creation of man from dust, clay, or ash is very common. Ancient Egyptian sources describe how the god Khnum created, or the god Ptah, created man on the potter’s wheel; in Babylon, the goddess Aruru or the god Ea kneaded a human figure out of clay from the field; and in Greek mythology it is said that Prometheus used red clay to create man.1010 Robert Graves and ...
The anthology of the Ancient Middle East, In Those Distant Days, a book by Shin Shifra and Jacob Klein, in the chapter “Gods as Humans”, on the creation of man according to a Sumerian myth preserved from the ancient Babylonian period, quotes a text called “Enki and Ninmah” that describes how Enki, the god of wisdom and sweet groundwater, conceived the creation of man and even took charge of the work, in which Nammu, “the primeval mother,” and two “womb goddesses”, participated creating a human figure from the clay.
“After Enki alone, the creator of all image, thought up
That (creation) idea,
He told his mother, Nammu: ‘Mother, the creature you named? – it will exist!
Charge (it) with the suffering of the gods!
(You) will knead the heart of clay that is on the Apsu,
And the two ‘womb goddesses’ will mold clay (in their palms).
After that you will make a figure image…’”1111 Shin Shifra and ...
The authors emphasize that this myth is the oldest testimony to the traditions that prevailed in the ancient world about the creation of man and is an authentic Sumerian creation.
Examining Greek-Roman literature and comparing it to the contemporaneous literature of the sages of the Mishna and the Talmud, shows that they resonate a commentary that refers to the same material elements regarding the making of man in the act of creation. In the literature of the Sages, it is said that man was created from a mixture of water and dust, as evidenced by the verse preceding it (Genesis 2 :6): “but a flow would well up from the ground and water the whole surface of the earth”. According to Greek mythology, Prometheus formed humans from water and earth, and the Roman poet Ovid versed: “(Prometheus) made him from god’s seed, or the Earth […] mixed with river water and made an image of the gods who rule all things”.1212 Ovid, The ...
A beautiful description appears in Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, according to which God did not use plain dust, but chose pure dust to make man as the crown of creation. God acted as a woman mixing flour with water and allotting a portion of the dough for the Challah offering. The same is true in the creation of man; first, God raised vapor to wet the earth, then he used a small portio of it to create man, who then became the world’s first Challah offering.1313 Midrash Bereshit ...
This idea would appear in various forms in the interpretation and philosophy of subsequent generations, reaching down to commentators of modern times. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the forefathers of nineteenth-century neo-orthodoxy, writes in his commentary on the book of Genesis, in the chapter that discusses the question of materiality in the creation of man, on the function of water and earth as the raw materials for man’s creation, given their role in the creation of the entire plant and animal kingdoms. He describes the process of combining these two materials to prepare the material from which man will be created, and he emphasizes the passive status of the earth in that creation, unlike its active role in the creation of other creatures.
“Here we read: ‘the lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being’, which means: the Creator of the world who makes order seeks to purify and elevate his world; therefore he created man as dust of the earth and blew into his nose the breath of life; thus man became a living soul. In the creation of all other creatures, he says: ‘Let the earth bring forth every kind of living creature’. The earth was active in their creation, as it was active in the creation of plants; and it gave rise to their lives, as it gave rise to their bodies […] not so in the creation of man. The earth was passive in his creation – even in the creation of his body. Its activity for the creation of man ended before his creation. From the time the earth was created, it watered itself all the time to prepare the material for the choicest of creatures. With the preparation of the excellent material, it completed all its function. It created the material for man’s body, and it was the last and most excellent of her actions”.1414 Rabbi Samson ...
In his commentary on the book of Genesis, From Adam to Noah,1515 M. D. Cassuto, ... M. D. Cassuto, a commentator who also wrote critique of the Bible and the literature of the ancient Middle East, referred to the material from which man was created. He relies on the text in Job 33: 6: “I too was nipped from clay”, and adds that the verb nipped (karatz, קרץ) designates the same in Akkadian, too. Cassuto relies on the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh,1616 The Mesopotamian ... which is probably the earliest known story ever written, and quotes from the Assyrian edition of the plot (Plate A, p. 2, lines 34-35) the description of the goddess Aruru who “washed her hands, nipped clay, threw it to the ground, the hero Ankudu was built”.
In his remarks, Cassuto explains that the prophets and poets, as was their way, did not refrain from accepting expressions taken as they are from the trove of ancient tradition and using them as poetic depictions. The Torah, in its own way, does not specify the details of creation, nor does it mention the hands of God. Therefore, instead of the word matter (clay), related to the concept of the potter’s work on the wheel, it prefers the synonymous dust.
The parallel words dust and matter appear a few more times in the book of Job, highlighting the affinity between the two terms: “those who dwell in houses of clay, whose origin is dust” (Job 4: 19); “Consider that You fashioned me like clay; Will You then turn me back into dust?” (10: 9); “Your remembrances are like unto ashes, your bodies to bodies of clay” (13: 12); “Should he pile up silver like dust, lay up clothing like dirt” (27: 16); “He regarded me as clay, I have become like dust and ashes” (30: 19).
Cassuto points out at the conclusion of his remarks that there are some who maintain there the word dust here is but a late addition, saying that this opinion is not true; he relies of the analogies of the rest of the Genesis story, about the original sin and the punishment that followed: “By the sweat of your brow Shall you get bread to eat, Until you return to the ground— For from it you were taken. For dust you are, And to dust you shall return“ (Genesis., 13: 19), to the above-mentioned verses from the book of Job. He further adds that syntactically, “dust” is a direct object of matter, and the addition “of earth” indicates where the dust was taken from.
To summarize this chapter that deals with the creation of man from earth and water, I shall quote a beautiful image, of the potter’s work as metaphor for God’s governance of the creation, which can be found in the hymn for Kippur Day that has been included in the worship traditions from the 12th century onwards: “Like the clay in the hand of the potter He expands it at will and contracts it at will So are we in Your hand, O Preserver of kindness”. The hymn’s anonymous author compares God to a creating artist, who controls matter and pours life into it, relying on God’s words through his prophet Jeremiah: “Just like clay in the hands of the potter, so are you in My hands, O House of Israel!” (Jeremiah 18: 6).
Fire, Wind, Water, Dust, Air and Darkness
We saw that according to ancient Hebrew myths, God first raised a vapor to wet the earth, then used a handful of it to create man. In other ancient Hebrew mythical sources, a different version appears: “On the sixth day of creation, by God’s commandment, the earth gave birth to man […] fire, water, air and darkness fused in the earth’s womb and gave birth to living creatures”.1717 Philo of ...
And in Zohar, which is a mystical source, a different formulated a different formula is given, according to which man was made of four elements and they are fire, wind, water, and dust: “Know that the Creator, blessed be He, created man and created him in His image and form and made him from four distinct things, from fire from wind from water from dust, as it is said ‘The earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water‘ (Genesis 1: 2), these are the four things mentioned, as it was interpreted: There is a place in the far seaside cities where they call fire tohu, which is the first element, and bohu and darkness are water and dust, and whence do we know that darkness is dust? It was said ‘and its very name is covered with darkness‘ (Ecclesiastes 6: 4), and it was said that this is a lump of dust. And the wind is a real wind”.1818 Yeshaya Tishbi, ...
A similar tradition appears in Syrian Aramaic sources, whereby the angels saw God’s right hand spread over the world and saw how he was taking earthly dust – a mere grain – from the entire earth, as well as a drop of water from all the water in the world, and a little wind from all the air, and a little heat from all the fire in the world, and putting these four weak elements together in the palm of his hand, and he thus created man.1919 The Cave of Troves: ...
Chapter 2 – Creation Out of the Word
On the Dialog Between Matter and the Creator
“And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1: 26)
The question arises here – about the puzzling plural “us” in the verse. With whom does God share the act of the creation of man?
Legend puts the term “let us make” as a metaphorical dialogue between God and the Torah, and according to another tradition between God and the angels. The Torah was, according to legend, eternal and preceded the material creation, later to be given at the Mount Sinai event. The Midrash says that the Lord told the Torah “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. The Torah replied: “Sovereign of all the worlds! The man whom Thou wouldst create will be limited in days and full of anger; and he will come into the power of sin. Unless Thou wilt be long-suffering with him, it would be well for him not to have come into the world. The Holy One, blessed be He, rejoined: And is it for nought that I am called ‘slow to anger’ and ‘abounding in love’? He began to collect the dust of the first man from the four corners of the world; red, black, white, and pale green, (which) refers to the body. Why (did He gather man’s dust) from the four corners of the world? Thus spake the Holy One, blessed be He: If a man should come from the east to the west, or from the west to the east, and his time comes to depart from the world, then the earth shall not say, The dust of thy body is not mine, return to the place whence thou wast created. But (this circumstance) teaches thee that in every place where a man goes or comes, and his end approaches when he must depart from the world, thence is the dust of his body, and there it returns to the dust”.2020 Pirkei DeRabbi ...
The Ramban, Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, who was one of the great scholars of Spain in the 13th century, opens his commentary on this verse by saying that the materials for creating man were taken from the foundations of the first day, the only day that saw creation ex nihilo. The rest of the days, according to him, received their materials from these foundations for the creation of their contents. The word “us” he interprets as the harmony of a joint creation by God and earth.
In his commentary on the verse: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1: 1), he writes of the materials created from nothing: “The Holy One, blessed be He, created all of the creations from absolute nothingness. And we have no other expression in the Holy Tongue for bringing out something from nothing than “bara”. And none of all that which was made – ‘under the sun’ or above – existed [directly] from nothing. Rather, He brought out a very fine element from complete nothingness; it has no substance, but it is the energy that can create, that is able to accept a form and to go from the potential to the actual. And this is the first material [and] is called hyle by the Greeks. And after hyle, He didn’t create anything, but [rather] formed and made [the creations]; since it is from it that He brought everything forth and clothed the forms and refined them”. This concept serves as a basis for Ramban’s interpretation of the sharing between God and earth in the creation of man in Genesis 1: 26: “A [separate] proclamation was designated for the creation of man, because of his stature – since his nature is not like the nature of animals and beasts that He created in the proclamation that precedes it. And the correct simple meaning of the word, ‘let us make‘ is that which you have already been shown, to know that God created something from nothing on the first day alone, and afterwards He formed and made [everything] from the fundamental element […] [and] with man He said, “let us make.” That is to say, I and the earth – that was mentioned – let us make man: the earth will bring forth the body from the elements […] As it is written (Genesis 2:7), ‘And the Lord, God, formed man, dust from the earth’”.
In the Zohar, the creation of man is described as a work shared by water, heaven, earth and God, divided between matter and spirit, between the body created by the first three, and the giving of the spirit of life by God:
“When the Lord created the world, everything was water, and from water the whole world was planted. And the Lord made three artisans, which will do their craft in this world, and these are: heaven and earth and water, and by them everything in this world was created. He summoned the three of them and each of them [he commanded] to draw out the creatures that the world needs. He summoned the water and told it: you will take out the earth beneath you, and you will pool together in one place. And the water did as he commended, as it is written: ‘the waters shall be drawn together’. He said to the earth: You will draw out creatures from you, beasts and animals and the like. Immediately it did so, as it is written: ‘And the Lord said, Let the earth bring forth every kind of living creature’. He summoned the heaven and said to them: You will differentiate between water and water. And it did, as it is written: “And God made the expanse’. Then he summoned the earth. He told it: Take out grass and pastures and fields and trees. Immediately what it says: ‘The earth brought forth vegetation: seed-bearing plants’. He summoned also the heavens and told them: You will have lights to illuminate the earth, and it says: ‘and they serve as lights in the expanse of the sky’. He also summoned the water. He told it: You will bring out vermin and fish and poultry and the like, and it is written: ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures’. And by these three, the entire act of creation is done, each and every kind. When Friday came, all were ready to create as in the rest of the days. The Lord told them: none of you can do this creation alone like all other creatures that have hitherto been formed, but all of you will connect together and you and I will create man; for you cannot do make him alone, but the body belong to the three of you and the soul will be mine. Therefore, the Lord summoned them and said to them: ‘We will make a man‘, I and you, I [will] make the soul and you the body. And so it is that the body came from the three, who mastered the art of creation, and the soul came from God, who took part in it with them”.2121 Yeshaya Tishbi, ...
Following the Ramban and Zohar citations, I shall say that the secret of human creation is a dialogue and attentiveness of the creator to the material as actively present. The beginning of creation is in an idea that strives for perfection, and when it descends into matter, a compromise is required based on mutual attentiveness. This fundamental feature is the point of departure of the description, not necessarily of creation itself, but rather of its formation, or more precisely, of the dialectic that led to its birth. This feature may have been created in an act of Genesis, in collaboration between the God-Creator and the material-creator.
Matter and Spirit
“He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (Genesis 2: 7)
M. D. Cassuto interprets: “After he created the golem he made him capable of breathing air, a definite sign of life, and thus the golem became a living soul, a living object. This, too, is probably a traditional concept. (Historian) Berossus the Babylonian (who lived in the third century BC) tells that from the divine blood mixed with the earth’s clay, humans and animals capable of breathing air were created, and the Egyptians, in their habit, would draw, next to the god Khnum sitting before the wheel and creating human beings, his spouse Heqet who serves to the noses the new creatures the sign of life […] in Isaiah 42: 5, it is said about the creation of the world: Who gave breath to the people upon it (the earth), and in Job 33: 2: The spirit of God formed me; The breath of Shaddai sustains me”.2222 M. D. Cassuto, ...
As a metaphor for man-made creation, I would like to borrow from “He blew into his nostrils the breath of life” to the glass-blower’s work, who creates by blowing air from his body and spirit into the raw material, giving it meaning. It is a craft that has a long tradition of making and although it is also made in fire, it is different in character from the ancient pottery craft we mentioned in the creation of the body. A beautiful description of this is found in the Midrash Rabbah on the book of Genesis: […] “A pottery vessel is created from the water and finished in the fire, and glassware are created from the fire and finished in the fire”.2323 Midrash Bereshit ... It is a work carried out in matter, fire and wind, literally. The glass blower removes the glass from the melting furnace when it is liquid and glowingly hot, blowing into it through the pipe linking him to the raw material, giving it “life”.
Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenistic-Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria in the first century AD, writes about creation in God’s likeness, and claims that the mind, not the body, is the image, and he stresses that the matter is a receptacle for the spirit. He bases his view on the Ideas populating Plato’s world. “For it is written that after everything else man, as said, was created by the likeness and image of God […] But do not let anyone assume that this likeness relates to bodily shape: for God has no human form. And the human body has no divine form. The likeness is about the mind, the soul’s leader“.2424 Philo of ...
Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon), one of the great sages of Spain in the 12th century, who was influenced by Aristotle’s teaching about the composition of the universe and was not included in Philo’s philosophical school, explains in The Guide for the Perplexed that the meaning of the words “likeness and image” is the divine intellect, an attribute given in the order of creation only to man. And thus he says: “Because of the divine intellect which adheres to it, it is said of man that he is in the image of God and his likeness, not that God […] is a body, so that he has a frame […] and because of this intellectual attainment it is said about him: ‘in the image of God He created him’ (Genesis 1: 27) […] and in his words “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1: 26), the reference is to the form of the kind, which is the intellectual attainment, and not the mold or outline” (Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed, Part One, Chapter I [Hebrew]).
At the end of his life, and upon the return of man to the earth from which he was created, the spirit separates from matter.
On the fragility of human life, we read as a metaphorical parable, in the words an Israeli hymn written, according to the accepted assumption in research today, in the 5th-6h centuries AD for Yom Kippur: “We come from dust, and return to dust. We labor by our lives for bread, we are like broken shards, like dry grass, and like a withered flower; like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that passes, like dust that scatters, like a fleeting dream” (from the Unetaneh Tokef prayer).
And Koheleth says: “And the dust returns to the ground as it was, And the life breath returns to God Who bestowed it” (Ecclesiastes 12: 7).
Finally, the eternal question of man’s resurrection after fulfilling his destiny and returning to the primal material, is wonderfully worded by poet Yehuda Amichai: “Who will rise and say to the dust: from man you are and to man you shall return”.2525 Robert Alter (ed.), ...