Genesis 2:7 reads “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.” (NIV)
John Walton discusses this passage in the new counterpoints book Four Views on the Historical Adam.
The traditional interpretation sees the passage as “describing a material process of special creation characterized by discontinuity with any previously existing creature.” (92) But Walton says “there are limits to how far this concept should be taken.” He continues,
“One of the difficulties with this way of thinking is that dust is characteristically resistant to being molded. If a sculpting process is being used, clay would be a much more likely ingredient to use (cf. Job 4:19; 10:9; 33:6, homer). Another is that if the dust was only to be transformed, it has nothing to say about the material process and, in fact, plays no role at all.
“The verb yaṣar, however, need not be thought of as suggesting a sculpting process. We only need to look at the verb’s range of usage to see that it does not require a material context. Especially noteworthy is Zechariah 12:1: ‘The Lord, who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms [yaṣar] the human spirit within a person….” Here Zechariah is speaking specifically about the creation narrative and sees the ‘forming’ as pertaining to the spirit rather than the body and thus not referring to material origins.
“The same concept is represented in Egyptian reliefs where Khnum, the craftsman creator deity, is shown shaping a human on the potter’s wheel (here it is clay, not dust). The context of the relief and the text that accompany it, however, make it clear that it is not the material formation of the human that is conveyed, but the shaping of the pharaoh to be pharaoh. He is being designed for a role. This imagery pertains to the function he is destined to have and not to the process by which he was created as a material individual. One could say that his ‘royal spirit’ is being formed to highlight similarity to Zechariah 12. In Egyptian thinking this is not referring merely to his training or preparation; rather, it is an indication of his election and sponsorship by the gods who have ordained his for his task. It reflects his high calling and his exalted status.
“Returning to the role of ‘dust’ in Genesis 2, we can reasonably deduce from the passage itself that dust carries an archetypal rather than a material significance. Genesis 3:19 explains this significance (in case we might have failed to grasp it in 2:7) when it states, ‘Dust you are and to dust you will return.’ Dust refers to mortality, and everyone is formed from dust. Psalm 103:14 substantiates this as the psalmist says that the Lord ‘knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.’ This verse uses the same vocabulary as Genesis 2:7 and indicates that humankind (archetypally) is formed from dust. In fact then, it would not be a distortion to say that each of us formed from dust (that is, we are all frail and mortal).
“The conclusion of this line of reasoning is that being formed from dust does not refer to the material origins of any of us, nor does the fact that we are formed from dust preclude that we were born of a woman by a natural process. Following that line of reasoning back, we could also suggest that Adam being formed from dust does not preclude him being born of a woman. In other words, the statement in Genesis 2:7 is not essentially a statement about material discontinuity. It is a statement about our nature. The New Testament confirms this when it contrasts the archetype human as being from the ‘dust of the earth’ while Jesus as an archetype is ‘of heave’ (1 Cor. 15:47). Thus I conclude that being formed from dust plays an archetypal role in the context, with a debatable inference regarding material origins or discontinuity. If the text is not addressing material origins or asserting material discontinuity, there is no biblical claim being made about the mechanics or process of material human origins.” (92-93)