It is a common assumption that God created the first humans to be immortal; the primordial couple were made to live eternally, but this changed after they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. However, a closer look at the meaning of the Hebrew language shows that this understanding of original immortality is imprecise. Instead, God creates humanity to be mortal, and human mortality (and, eventually, death) only becomes an active problem after the expulsion from Eden.
The Hebrew of Genesis 2:7 employs poetry and metaphor to expresses the fact that God included mortality in the creation of humanity: “The Lord God formed the human from the dust (עפר; afar) from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being.” That the human is formed from dust should give us pause because dust, due to its delicacy and granularity, is not a formable material. Most often in Scripture, it is clay (חמר; chomer), not dust, that God uses to form things (cf. Isa 45:9; 64:8; Jer 18:4-6). The oddity of the divine use of dust in Genesis 2:7 focuses the reader’s attention on the creative material and implies that “dust” has a deeper meaning than simply soot from the soil.
In ancient Israelite thought, “dust” is a symbol for mortality. Job asks God if he can expect imminent death with the question, “Will you return me to the dust (עפר; afar)?” (Job 10:9; cf. 34:15); the psalmist notes that people “die and return to their dust (עפר; afar)” (Ps 104:29); and Ecclesiastes states, “All are from the dust (עפר; afar), and to dust (עפר; afar) all return” (3:20; cf. 12:7). Qohelet’s assertion echoes Genesis itself, in which God introduces a ramification for Adam’s disobedience: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat food, until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust (עפר; afar), and to dust you shall return” (3:19).
Insofar as dust expresses mortality, it is clear that God, in forming from dust, creates humanity with the ability to die. Despite their capacity for death, while Adam and Eve are in Eden they can live forever by eating from the Tree of Life. Once the two are expelled, however, God appoints cherubim to “guard the way to the Tree of Life” (Gen 3:24) so that humanity no longer has access to eternal life and, therefore, will eventually die. It is this post-Edenic problem of death that Paul says has been reversed in the death and resurrection of Jesus: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Messiah all will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22).