Fine particles of matter, light enough to be raised and borne easily by currents of air. Strong winds passing over dry desert regions, common to Bible lands, often produce violent dust storms that are considered by some to be more dreadful than storms encountered at sea. Volcanic eruptions, fires, and agricultural activities are among common causes of mineral dust. Vegetable matter produces dust in the form of pollen, molds, plant fiber, and seed parts. Animals also indirectly produce dust, resulting from dried dung, fine hair, and bacteria. The most common Biblical word for dust is the Hebrew ʽa·pharʹ, which may also denote “dry earth” and “clay mortar.”—Ge 26:15; Le 14:41, 42.
Although some may consider dust to be a nuisance, it is a provision of the Creator that is essential to mankind’s existence and comfort. It is an important factor in the condensation of moisture in the form of rain, fog, or mist, which are vital to plant growth. Moreover, without the light-scattering property of atmospheric dust, the eyes of earth’s creatures would be exposed to the unbearable glare of the sun’s direct rays, and the familiar phenomenon of dusk and beautifully colored sunsets would cease to occur.
The Creator used “dust from the ground” when he formed the first man (Ge 2:7; 1Co 15:47, 48), and when Adam was sentenced for disobeying God’s law, Jehovah decreed: “To dust you will return.” (Ge 3:19) God also pronounced a curse of great prophetic significance when saying to the serpent in Eden: “Upon your belly you will go and dust is what you will eat [or, bite] all the days of your life.”—Ge 3:14.
Frailty, Mortality, and Lowliness. In view of man’s fall from perfection, dust is sometimes used figuratively for mankind’s frailty. God shows mercy to those fearing him, “remembering that we are dust.” (Ps 103:13, 14; Ge 18:27) It is also symbolic of the mortality of humans, for at death “back to their dust they go.” (Ps 104:29; Ec 3:19, 20; 12:1, 7) Since man returns to the dust at death, the grave is sometimes figuratively called “the dust.” (Ps 22:29; 30:9) The dust of the ground can denote a lowly condition. Jehovah is “a Raiser of a lowly one from the dust.”—1Sa 2:8; Ps 113:7.
Representing Numerousness. In the Scriptures the numerousness of people or the inability of humans to state their number is indicated by comparing them to dust particles. Thus, God promised Abram (Abraham): “I will constitute your seed like the dust particles of the earth.” (Ge 13:14, 16) Jehovah also made a similar promise to Jacob. (Ge 28:10, 13, 14) Concerning the Israelites during their wilderness trek, Balaam asked: “Who has numbered the dust particles of Jacob, and who has counted the fourth part of Israel?” (Nu 23:10) Jehovah had greatly increased Abraham’s offspring through Isaac and Jacob. Jehovah’s bountiful provision of quail for his covenant people in the wilderness is indicated by the statement that “he proceeded to make sustenance rain upon them just like dust, even winged flying creatures just like the sand grains of the seas.”—Ps 78:27; Ex 16:11-18; Nu 11:31, 32.
Use in God’s Judgment of Nations. Because of the nations’ relative insignificance from God’s standpoint, he accounts them “as the film of dust on the scales.” (Isa 40:15) Jehovah’s fear-inspiring power was manifested in connection with his blows against one such nation, Egypt. When the third blow was to begin, in keeping with God’s command to Moses, “Aaron stretched out his hand with his rod and struck the dust of the earth, and the gnats came to be on man and beast.” When this occurred throughout Egypt, the magic-practicing priests, unable to duplicate this miracle, had to admit: “It is the finger of God!”—Ex 8:16-19.
The Israelites, too, were told that if they failed to keep God’s commandments, they could expect various maledictions, one of these being drought, for it was stated: “Jehovah will give powder and dust as the rain of your land. From the heavens it will come down upon you until you have been annihilated.”—De 28:15, 24.
Symbolic of Lamentation and Debasement. To symbolize their mournful lamentation over Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians in 607 B.C.E., the older men of the city are represented as sitting on the earth in silence, having “brought up dust upon their head.” (La 2:10) Many years earlier, through Isaiah, Jehovah prophetically called upon Babylon to come down off her throne, saying: “Come down and sit down in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon. Sit down on the earth where there is no throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans.” (Isa 47:1) Babylon was reduced to this low state in 539 B.C.E., at her conquest by the Medes and Persians. And, because of the destruction of symbolic Babylon the Great, ship captains, voyagers, sailors, and all those making a living by the sea are depicted as throwing dust upon their heads and bemoaning her devastation.—Re 18:17-19.
Other Uses. Dust is also Scripturally linked with repentance. When Job made a retraction for talking without understanding in arguing his case before God, he said: “I do repent in dust and ashes.”—Job 42:1, 3, 6.
Causing foes to “lick the dust” means vanquishing them, effecting their complete subjection. (Ps 72:9; Mic 7:16, 17) Tossing dust into the air or throwing it at a person was a way of registering strong disapproval of him. It is a custom in parts of Asia to demand justice against a criminal by throwing dust on him. Unjustifiably enraged by certain words of Paul, a crowd in Jerusalem showed their animosity toward him by “tossing dust into the air.” Through their emotional demonstration and their words, they made their disapproval of Paul clear to the military commander. (Ac 22:22-24) Similarly, Shimei manifested disapproval of David’s kingship by “walking abreast of him that he might call down evil; and he kept throwing stones while abreast of him, and he threw a lot of dust.”—2Sa 16:5-13.
Jesus Christ instructed his disciples that when anyone failed to receive them or listen to their words, they were to shake or wipe the dust off their feet upon leaving that house or that city. This practice served “for a witness against them,” implying that Jesus’ followers were peacefully departing and leaving that house or that city to the consequences that would come from God.—Mt 10:11-15; Lu 9:5; 10:10-12; Ac 13:50, 51.