Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




 “The Clay We Are”

Sunday, September 23, 2007



Genesis 2: 4b-15

Dean Snyder

Rev. Dean Snyder


There is a word – a verb – in the Hebrew language that is not easily translated into English. It is the word Yatsar – which is really a noun used as a verb. As a noun Yatsar means “potter.” A Yatsar is a potter. When it is used as a verb it means whatever a potter does.


The interesting thing to me this morning is that in the second Genesis account of creation – the one found in chapter 2 of Genesis, when it describes God creating A-dam – the Hebrew word for “humanity”—when it describes God making humanity from the dust of the earth, the word it uses is Yatsar. Whatever a potter does to clay God did with the dust of the earth to shape and form and make A-dam – humanity.


The creation accounts in Genesis get a lot of attention, in part because we are in the habit of starting to read a book in the beginning. Chronologically the creation accounts in Genesis do not come first. Chronologically there are earlier creation stories in the Psalms.  


The creation stories probably belong to Israel’s wisdom period – the time during the late reign of David and the reign of his son Solomon, when Israel was affluent and people who had spent most of their time on survival began to ask philosophical question and began to explore literature and science.


The real beginning of the biblical story is the Exodus. All of the material before the Exodus, the story of Abraham and his descendents, is written as prolegomena to the Exodus and all that comes after is shaped by the assumptions of the Exodus – that the God whom the Israelites came to know in their liberation from slavery is a God of justice – a God on the side of the enslaved and impoverished and oppressed.


It is only later that the Israelites come to the conclusion that this God is also the one who created the heavens and the earth…and that at the heart of creation is a God of justice on the side of the enslaved, the stranger, the marginalized.


It is out of the intellectual wrestling with this insight that the creation stories emerge, and some editor eventually decided that since they are creation stories they ought to be in the beginning of the book.


The prophet Jeremiah most dramatically introduced the idea that God is a potter, but the metaphor is found throughout the Bible at various places – it keeps reappearing. And by using the verb Yatsar the writers of Genesis 2 make it a part of the story of the creation of humanity.  We are what we are – you and me – because God took the dust of the earth and wedged it and opened it, and weighed and measured it, and with God’s own hands shaped it and formed it into A-dam – you and me – and breathed into A-dam the breath of life.


The question Israel is trying to answer is the question: “What are we?” A-dam at this point has no gender. A-dam is not yet a proper name; it is the Hebrew word for “a human being.” The question is “How are we to understand ourselves? What is a human being? What is our nature? What are we made of? What is our identity? What – if anything – makes us special? How do we know when we are being what we are supposed to be? Who am I?”


These are the kinds of questions Israel is trying to answer in the creation accounts. Given what we have learned about God being a God of justice in our experience of the Exodus when God liberated us from oppression, how do we understand ourselves as human being?


I’d like us to pay attention to several details of the Genesis 2 creation story.


First, we are clay. We are the dust of the earth. The Hebrew word is adamah. A-dam is adamah.


There is no other element that we are made of. We belong to the earth. We are one with the earth. We are clay. The story assumes this.


And notice that all of us is dust. There is no part of us that is somehow superior to other parts. Different philosophical schools have assumed that there is one part of us that is superior to the rest of us and that defines our humanity and that makes us superior to the animals, and the rest of the earth for that matter.


For the ancient Greeks it was the mind. It was our intellect and our ability to think that elevated us above the rest of the earth. Socrates equated the mind and the soul and taught in his Apology: “All I do is go about urging you, young and old, not to care for your bodies but for the protection of your souls.” (Plato “Apology” 30B) For the ancient Greeks – ideas, thought, reason and logic was not earth-bound.


For the Greeks the mind was not part of the earth but our means of escaping the earth.


For the Romans it was the heart. For the Romans the soul was located in the human heart. That’s where the word romantic comes from. For the Romans it was love and affection and emotion that elevated human beings from the earth.


Israel teaches that we are nothing but dust – our minds are made of clay and our hearts are made of clay. There is no part of us that is superior to the other. There is no part of us, not the mind, not the heart, that will save us from the rest of us. There is no part of us that is inferior or that will damn us. We are dust – all of us.


Which is to say that every part of us is earthbound and limited and fallible. Our minds are fallible. Our thinking and logic is subject to errors and mistakes. Our hearts are fallible. Love can be distorted like everything else. We cannot fully trust our hearts either. Our bodies and instincts and physical urges and impulses are fallible.


We – every part of us – are dust. We are clay...our hearts and minds too. We are dust and to dust we shall return.


We are dust and clay that is Yatsared by God. What Karin has been and is doing to the dust and moisture – to the clay she is working with – God, the God of the Exodus, does to our bodies, hearts, minds, and communities.  


We are dust and clay but we are dust and clay that is the work of God’s hands…not just our minds or hearts but all of us.


We are intended. We are meant to be. And we are intentional created for the purpose of justice – the kind of justice the Israelites discovered in their liberation in the Exodus form slavery.


We are intentionally shaped – body, mind and heart – as human beings for the purpose of justice.


All the parts of us are intentional. All the parts of us connect us to the earth. All the parts of us connect us to the divine purpose of our existence.


It is fascinating to me that in the creation accounts in Genesis, all the rest of creation is created by the Word of God. God speaks and it is. But when it comes to the creation of you and me, the image changes radically. Now God’s gets God’s own hands dirty in the dust and mud and clay of the earth.


Every part of us is clay, but we are clay intentionally shaped by the God who loves justice.


Not just our minds, not just our hearts, not just our bodies but all that we are.


And, while in the story, it is a once and done thing, the deeper meaning is that God continues to Yatsar us – to wedge, and open, and shape and form...God continues to do to us what Karin is doing to the clay she is working with.


We are dust, we are clay, and we are fallible. We cannot not be self-critical. There is no part of ourselves we can trust more than another. We are not saved by our body, mind or heart. We are saved by the hands of God shaping us for the sake of the justice.