If you’ve ever attended a funeral, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” being used at some point in the ceremony. Since many of us aren’t comfortable talking about the liturgy used at funerals, you probably don’t know or haven’t thought much about this phrase. It’s actually an image (although not an exact phrase) that comes up various times in the Bible, which helps us to meditate on our sinful nature and our own mortality. Let’s take a look at where the phrase comes from and what the Bible has to say about it.
What is the Biblical Origin of "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust" Saying?
The exact phrase is actually from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer and is used for burial services. However, the idea of returning to the dust and covering oneself with ashes both appear multiple times in the Bible.
“Returning to dust” is a metaphor for death. God forms Adam from the earth (Genesis 2:7), and after Adam and Eve sin, God tells Adam, “By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made. For you were made from dust to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). So, within the context of Judeo-Christian thought, dust is where humanity came from and where all humanity returns in death.
Covering oneself with ashes or dust was a way of doing penance, humbling oneself before God, usually along with wearing sackcloth (hence the expression “sackcloth and ashes”). Nehemiah 9 describes the people of Israel coming together to confess their sins, “fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads” (Nehemiah 9:1).
When Jonah preached to the city of Nineveh to repent, the king of Nineveh “dressed himself in burlap and sat on a heap of ashes” (Jonah 3:6) and told his subjects to fast and repent of their sins.
In the book of Lamentations, a series of grieving reflections on how God had let destruction come on Israel for its sins, the writer describes Israelites doing penance:
“The elders of the Daughters of Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have sprinkled dust on their heads and put on sackcloth. The young woman of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground” Lamentations 2:10.
In 1 Kings, After King Ahab has a man killed under false pretenses to take his property, the prophet Elijah warns Ahab that he will die for this offense against God (1 Kings 21:17-24). Ahab then “tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly” (1 Kings 21:27). God ended up allowing Ahab to live a little longer because he had humbled himself.
Jesus references this act of penance in Matthew 11, describing the doom that will come to towns that did not repent when they heard his teaching:
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you” (Matthew 11:21-22).
What Does 'Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust' Mean in Job?
Since Job is very much a book about suffering and mourning, it has some powerful references to ashes and dust. After suffering multiple tragedies and being afflicted with painful sores, Job “took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes” (Job 2:8).
Later, his friends come to see him and when they see what a state he’s in, “they began to weep aloud and they tore their robe and sprinkled dust on their heads” (Job 2:12).In this instance, Job and his friends sitting in ashes and covering themselves with dust seems to have more to do with mourning than repentance. The next few chapters focus on Job’s friends trying to convince him he must have done something wrong to deserve this situation, and Job repeatedly denying that he has committed any sin he knows of, telling them are no help (Job 13:4) and are shamelessly attacking him (Job 19:3). We get no indication that Job is doing penance for anything, and his friends don’t describe any action they are doing penance for. Instead, they do it as a means to grieve, both together and individually. Therefore, we must assume that in some cases the covering of ashes and dust was a way to mourn.
The idea of returning to dust also comes up in the book of Job. For example, Job’s friend Elihu reasons that God does not do wrong, and is all-powerful, saying, “If it were his intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath, all humanity would perish together and mankind would return to the dust” (Job 34:14-15).
How Does God Respond to Job?
After Job repeatedly vents at God for his apparent indifference in this situation and describes how he wishes someone could hear his defense of himself (Job 31:35), God does in fact respond. Rather than telling Job exactly why these things have happened and how he got into this situation, God gives Job a wide view of all the things he does as creator and maintainer of the universe, things which Job knows nothing about.
He starts by “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (Job 38:4) and goes on to describe many things he created, from the clouds to the deep sea to the stars (“Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons?”).
After God asks Job if he will accuse him of being unjust, Job admits he is unworthy (Job 40:1-5). God replies, “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you and you shall answer me. Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” (Job: 40:7-8). God describes his wrath against wicked people, challenging Job to see if he has the kind of holy power God has to strike them down (Job 40:9-14) and then describes the mighty animals he has created and rules over.
Note that while God does respond to Job’s claim that he is silent or unjust, he doesn’t go beyond that to describe how Job’s situation came about. Instead, he puts all the emphasis on his wrath against evil and on his sovereign power over all created things.
Our Need for Grief and Repentance
After hearing God’s description of his power and control, Job goes from being angry at God to being repentant: “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted… My ears of have heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:2, 5-6). God informs Job’s friends that they have spoken wrongly about him, but if they make a burnt offering to him and Job prays on their behalf, he will forgive them (42:7-9). Following this, Job’s relatives and friends comfort him (Job 42:10-11), and he regains everything he lost through new wealth and a new family.
It’s interesting to note that the references to ashes and dust shift from mourning to repentance in this last section of Job. He goes from sitting in ashes to grieve, as we saw earlier, to using ashes as a means to repent after God speaks to him. Grieving and repentance are both vital activities for a healthy spiritual life, and it’s perhaps a sign of how righteous Job was that he could do both and didn’t fight back against God when it was clear he needed to repent.
Connection to Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday is the start start of Lent and symbolizes the focusing of the Christian’s heart on repentance and prayer, usually through personal and communal confession.
During Mass (for Catholics) or worship service (for Protestants), the priest or pastor will usually share a sermon that is penitential and reflective in nature. The mood is solemn - many services will have long periods of silence and worshipers will often leave the service in silence.
After all of this, the congregation will be invited to receive the ashes on their foreheads. Usually, as the priest or pastor will dip his finger into the ashes, spread them in a cross pattern on the forehead, and say, “From dust you came and from dust you will return.”
The ashes of this holiday symbolize two main things: death and repentance. “Ashes are equivalent to dust, and human flesh is composed of dust or clay (Genesis 2:7), and when a human corpse decomposes, it returns to dust or ash.” (excerpt from What is Ash Wednesday? by Kelly Givens)
For further reading:
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G. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,200 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
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