The modern concept of work has little in common with that of Genesis. In contemporary society our whole identity is too often tied up with "what we do", our employment. The fruit of this identification of work with employment and identity is that we have marginalised the unemployed. They are the outcasts.
The biblical story of creation. fall and redemption provides a useful framework in which to look at work.
The creation narrative is highly subversive(Hasel 1974; Walsh 1992; Wenham 1987). It undermined ancient near Eastern worldviews and continues to subvert contemporary ideas about work:
- Work is a necessary means to an end (i.e. leisure and wealth)
- Work is a necessary evil
- Work is the earning of a wage
The first thing to note is that work is not a product of the fall. It is a part of the creation order. This undermines any notion that work is a necessary evil. God works and expects his creatures to work as well. Melakah, the ordinary word for human work (Wenham 1987: 35), is used to describe the activity of God: God works. This is in refreshing contrast to Greek gods who spent their time eating and drinking.
For the Greeks and Romans work was "unleisure" (Vanderkloet 1980: 21). From a biblical perspective work is positive not negative. It is part of what it means to be image bearers of God. Imaging God involves work. Thus, work can, in and of itself, bring fulfilment, it is not a means to the end of pleasure. To be human is to work (Dow 1987:13). This is in stark contrast to the Babylonian creation stories.
In the sixth tablet of the Enuma Elish humans are created so that gods do not have to work (Walton 1989 :22)
Blood will I compose, bring a skeleton into being,
Produce a lowly, primitive creature, "Man" shall be his name: I will create lullu-amelu - an earthly, "puppet"-man.
To him be charged the service that the gods may then have rest...
(Enuma Elish VI.5 in Winton Thomas (1958:12))
In Atrahasis some deities become tired of their work and rebel: "The gods' solution is to create [humans] to do the work" (Walton 1989: 21). Work is seen as a punishment; in the biblical narratives work is a privilege and a divine commission.
For the Greeks to be a manual labourer was to be considered part slave; freedom to pursue leisure was the only worthwhile life. In Gen 2: we have God creating humans out of the earth presumably as a potter with his hands! Here God vindicates manual labour.
What is often supposed to be the so-called second creation story places the creation of humanity in the context of work. There was no-one to work the ground, so God created humanity (2:5-7). Work (abad) in this context takes on a stewardship function. Work is important so that the garden can be cultivated. This echoes the supposed Priestly creation story where part of the human task of imaging God is to subdue the earth and rule over the living creatures(Cf Hall 1986;1990)
Work is integral to the human task of stewardship, hence work is not merely for humans to eat and feed others (pace Houston1980:162), or to earn a wage. It is part and parcel of developing and continuing the task of creation began by God.
We can concur with William Tyndale:
There is no work better than another to please God: to pour water, to wash dishes, to be a souter (cobbler) or an apostle, all is one; to wash dishes, and to preach is all one, as touching the deed, to please God.
Work is deformed by the fall. Its direction has been changed. Instead of meaningful work we can expect toil. The boa constrictor of toil has swallowed the warthog of work. Abad becomes itstsabon.
Itstsabon used only 3 times in the scriptures: twice in Gen 3 the other in Gen 5:29. It has been translated as sorrow, pain and toil. As a result of the fall, childbearing and work become a painful toil.
The work in developing the garden and producing food to eat is hampered by thistles and thorns. The mandate to fill the earth and subdue it is not rescinded it just becomes that much harder.
Genesis 1-4 can only hint at the redemption of work: the warthog of work can now swallow the boa constrictor of toil - thanks only to the redemptive power of the cross and resurrection. Work and rest go hand in hand. It is this aspect that can help redeem work. Work without rest results in workaholism; rest without work results in laziness. The jubilee legislation and the decalogue are rooted in these creational aspects of work and then rest and are designed to bring a measure of redemption to work.
The punishments that come as the result of human sin i.e. infertile ground, that leads to toil, and banishment are standard curses, the remedy for which is obedience (cf Lev 26; Deut 28).
Many jobs are boring, repetitive and tedious, these jobs - if technology for instance were done responsibly before God - could be transformed. It is an obedient use of appropriate and responsible technology (Monsma 1986) that could relieve the frustration and tedium from jobs. If businesses and factories were run in obedience to biblical norms then jobs could be redeemed. Unfortunately for many employment is little short of slavery.
We can catch glimpses of redeemed jobs this side of the eschaton. We can, however, look forward to the toil that resulted from the fall being undone at the consummation. The thorns and thistles will be no more: there will be a whole transformation of the creation(Gowan 1986: ch 4).
There will be work in the new earth, it will however be work that is meaningful and not frustrating or tedious.
Graham Dow "What place does work have in God's purpose" Holy Trinity Papers (1987)
Donald E. Gowan Eschatology in the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986)
Douglas J Hall Imaging God: Dominion as Stewardship (Friendship/ Eerdmans, 1986)
Douglas J Hall The Steward: A Biblical Symbol Come of Age (Friendship/ Eerdmans, 1990)
Gerhard Hasel "The polemic nature of the Genesis cosmology" Evangelical Quarterly vol 46 (1974) pp 81-102
James M. Houston I Believe in the Creator (Eerdmans, 1980)
Stephen Monsma (Editor) Responsible Technology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986)
D. Winton Thomas (ed.) Documents from Old Testament Times (London: Nelson, 1958)
Edward Vanderkloet "Why work anyway?" in Labour of Love: Essays on Work (Wedge, 1980)
Brian J. Walsh Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time (Regius, 1992)
John H Walton Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context (Regency/ Zondervan, 1989)
Gordon J. Wenham Genesis 1-15 (WBC) (Word, 1987)