“But now, O LORD, You are our Father; We are the clay, and You our potter; And all of us are the work of Your hand.” Isaiah 64:8 (New American Standard Bible)
The clay and potter analogy is used many times in the Bible concerning God’s creation of us. Meriam-Webster’s definition of an analogy is “a comparison of two otherwise unlike things based on resemblance of a particular aspect.” Some Christian critics think that since there are so many analogies in the Bible that makes it just a set of “stories.” Jesus spoke often in parables. Why use these forms of communication when could simply say in this Bible verse of Isaiah – “God made Man”? I believe the reason is that analogies in the Bible are not like analogies on a standardized test or an IQ test. These analogies are purely intellectual ones with the test maker assessing vocabulary and knowledge of
subordinate and superordinate categories. The Bible does not use analogies as a pure intellectual exercise or to show off the creativity of the writers. They have a deeper meaning to help us understand our relationship to God.
First, as I like to do, let’s start with some basic science. This is not because I am trying to use science to “prove” the existence of God. It is because God is not only the original artist, but He is also the original scientist. Well, referring to God as a “scientist” shortchanges Him- He created all the science around us. Wikipedia defines clay as “Clay is a type of fine-grained natural soil material containing clay minerals. Clays develop plasticity when wet, due to a molecular film of water surrounding clay particles, but become hard and brittle and non-plastic upon drying of firing… Clay is the oldest known ceramic material. . .Clay is a very common substance. Shale, formed largely from clay, is the most common sedimentary rock . . . The defining mechanical property of clay is its plasticity when wet and its ability to harden when dried or fired.”
On the internet, one can even find the process for making clay from one’s own yard.
According to Wheel & Clay website, there are 4 types of clay: 1) Earthenware – used for brick, outdoor pottery for plants, and museum pieces 2) Stoneware- used for cooking, baking, storing liquids, 3) Porcelain- used for fine china, arts, as well as toilets and bathtubs, and 4) Ball clay- used for floor and
wall tiles, plates, and has a white finish after firing.
Now that a very brief discussion of the properties and use of clay has been given, we can see why this analogy is used so often. It is much more profound that the Meriam-Webster purely academic definition. First, clay is common, everywhere, part of soil or dirt. Now people often say soil is what is in the ground whereas dirt is what one gets on their clothes and body when working the land. But this dirt is still soil. The Soil Science Society defines dirt as “displaced soil.” I say this to set up how wrong it is to call someone “dirt” as an insult. Dictionary.com has as its second definition of dirt as “something or someone vile, mean, or worthless.” Yet God formed us from soil. Thus, to call someone dirt as an insult is wrong because soil is sacred, a part of God’s creation. It is yet another example how we denigrate God’s creation simply because it is “commonplace.”
To create clay, soil needs to be mixed with water. Water is the life force for all living things. When scientist look on other planets such as Mars, they look for signs of water present or past because where
there is water there is the possibility of life. This is not assumed to just be for Earth but the entire universe. When wet, clay develops plasticity, which means it can be formed. It can be formed in wide range of shapes, sizes, and colors- just like us humans. Now one must learn to be a potter as the formation
process is not automatic. The specific characteristics of the clay might resist being formed exactly as the potter wishes. This is much more so with humans who God is trying to shape into our best shelves, but we resist. Much more than the clay because God has given us free will.
The final step is to harden the clay into what the potter wishes it to be. This is done by heat, by fire- another basic element of the world. Because we have free will, we may not form in the way God has intended us to be. Our day-to-day actions and thoughts influence how we “harden”- for goodness or for
evil. Sinfulness, a universal trait, can lead us to the wrong formation. It is only with our acceptance and obedience to God that He can form us into the best that we can be. We must, in short, be willing to be molded. Now, the road to harden in the correct way is not easy for us. We must suffer through trials
and tribulations – our own fire – to develop into the form we are meant to be. This “hardening” is not because God is vengeful or wants to harm us, it is a necessary process for us to become the beautiful vases, bowls, or figures that God meant for us to be.
What are we “meant” to be? Well, as described above there are broadly four types of clay. They are used for different purposes. We humans are different for a reason. God knows we need all different sorts of people to make the world function. We all have intersecting and collaborative abilities, that if used together would make the world a better place. Variety also adds joy and makes all our lives more interesting. Thus, we are not all the same clay. There is no wrong in admitting our differences, it is only wrong when we say that one person or type of person is better than another. It is also wrong to say that one spiritual gift (e.g., being good at math) is more important than another spiritual gift (e.g., being able to sing). God loves us all equally and made these differences, so they are holy. In 1 Corinthians 12 (English Standard Version), it states, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, through many, are one body, so it is with Christ” Thus, the type of clay
determines its range of best uses, so are we like clay to God, with Him choosing to form us in different ways depending upon our raw materials.
Both soil and water are plentiful. This sacredness is thus not hard to find, not only at the top of the highest mountain or remote exotic location, but right here for all of us in our everyday world.
Although there are many references to clay in the Bible, I want to end with discussion on the Book of Jeremiah 18: 1-11 (New Revised Standard Version)
The word that come to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words. So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel,
as seemed good to Him. Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? Says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will
pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment, I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight,
not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”
The potter is attempting to produce a work of art. In the process, a flaw occurs in the process. It is not going to turn out as the artist intended. Thus, the artist breaks down his or her creation to rebuild it according to the plan. At our birth, we are designed from a certain “clay” for a specific purpose. But note that making a clay object is a process, a painstaking one at that. Our lives are a process, at any time of which we can become malformed through our sin or become more of our fully formed beautiful selves though following God. Sometimes the potter needs to make a simple correction, not involving
starting all over again. Thus, are the course corrections we need probably every day, every week, every month, every year, and every decade of our lives. Each type of clay has different specific properties and thus it is an interaction between the clay and the potter that will determine the best product. We may be born with a holy plan, but we are not robots, we have free will. As stated in this passage as well as many others in the Bible, although God is sovereign, He can change His mind. He is willing to work with us. He wants to work with us because He loves us. There is no such thing as a perfect piece of clay but that does not mean that the final product cannot be a beautiful work of art, be it the type that goes in a museum or on one’s kitchen table.
Clay, made of common materials of soil and water, can be made into something of practical value and/or beauty. The basic building parts of a human body are mundane but look what they can develop into with gifts given to us by God. God is an artist AND a loving parent trying to make, with our collaboration and willingness, us into a someone special, of beauty beyond the simplistic notions of humans. He makes us from the “everyday” elements, ones we take for granted because we think if something is plentiful, it cannot thus also be valuable.
Beauty and wonder are everywhere because God is everywhere. `