I have always had a fascination with words, languages, wordplays and puns. So it probably wouldn’t surprise you if I told you that I would often say “humus beings” rather than “human beings.” Little did I know the significance of this so-called wordplay until I attended a sustainability seminar led by an Old Testament scholar. I was just trying to be funny.
Genesis 2:7 states: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” The Hebrew word for man is adam, and adam is related to the Hebrew word for ground or earth, adamah. Adam literally means the “ground man” — the man who was made from the ground.
English gets the word human from the Latin with a similar etymology as the name Adam in Hebrew. In Latin, homo means man, humanus means human, and humus means ground. It should be easy to see the relationship between the concepts of “man” and “ground,” even if we don’t hold these original meanings as literal anymore. Nevertheless, it is interesting to think about these historical relationships and speculate on how they might give us a fuller sense of our own creation. Following this train of thought, in English, like in Hebrew, a human is a “ground man” or an “earth man.”
Why should this interest us? First, humus is the part of the land that sustains life. According to Webster, humus is “a brown or black variable material resulting from partial decomposition of plant or animal matter and forming the organic portion of soil.” Humus is full of nutrients that have developed from decaying forms of life. These nutrients are the spawning ground for new life. Humus is teeming with life. It is a microcosm of the cycles of death and life that are abundant in nature.
Secondly, God made humans from this humus. God “breathed the breath of life” into this fecund dirt. I have an image of God holding in his hand some of this dirt, this humus, this substance teeming with life and death, and breathing into it her breath of life. I realize that this is an anthropomorphic view of God, but it gives me an intimate image of the relationship between the creator, the earth or nature, and the created. It admonishes me to remember my intimate connection with the earth and God’s creation.
In teaching about spirituality, my main focus in the past has been our creation in the image and likeness of God, as defined in Genesis 1:26. So many of us forget this image-ness in ourselves, and deny it in others. It is good to be reminded that we are all made in God’s image.
Now, however, I have another focus for teaching about spirituality: our God-given connection to the earth, and to nature. It is a more holistic view of who we truly are. Unfortunately, Western culture has desecrated God’s good creation, and we are now suffering the consequences. It is time that we rediscover our connectedness to nature and to the earth. It is time to reclaim our God likeness and become true humus beings.
Don Clymer is an assistant professor in the language and literature department at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. He is also a writer, spiritual director and leader of intercultural programs in Guatemala and Mexico. He blogs at Klymer Klatsch, where this originally appeared.