Read the previous article on “God’s Gift of Work” below!
Work: A Necessary Evil or a God-Given Good?
Foundational to a biblical view of work is understanding where work is located in the redemptive-historical timeline. Does human work come before or after the Fall? Is work an aspect of our earthly life that God embedded into the original creation, or did he institute work as a punishment for our sin? Even if you know the answers to these questions, asking them in this way helps to underscore the importance of rightly understanding how work relates to creation, sin, and the curse.
The Beginning of Work
Immediately after God created man (Gen 2:7), Scripture tells us that God placed him in the garden to “work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). The Hebrew word translated “keep” in this passage is used in the Old Testament with reference to protecting other people (see 1 Sam 26:13-16; 2 Sam 11:16; 18:12 Ps 121:7). In the context of Genesis, we see that God assigned Adam the crucial task of guarding the garden from intruders. This task would have required attentiveness, planning, and some form of useful employment. The word for “work” is used throughout the Bible to refer to productive labor. Adam was to “work” the garden which would have included tilling, tending to the trees, organization, land- development, and other such productive endeavors. Diligently attending to the garden was the means by which Adam would gain his daily sustenance.
But Genesis 2:7-15 is not the only place we read of human work in the original creation. In the book’s previous chapter, Moses describes humankind’s collective assignment to work. In Genesis 1:26, we read that on the sixth day, God created man in his own image: “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image,after our likeness.” Exactly all that being made in God’s image entails has been a source of debate among theologians for centuries. Certainly, it includes our ability to reason, to feel emotion, to relate to God and other image bearers in an intimate way. But what is often missed in this discussion is that the context of Genesis 1 itself leads us to conclude that being made in the image of God means that God created us to be like him as workers.
God: The Original Worker
Indeed, the Bible opens with the grand truth that God is the original worker: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). The subsequent narrative describes a Creator employing exquisite wisdom and craftsmanship to fashion a world for his creatures. Following the blueprint he had devised in eternity past, God forms, divides, sorts, shapes, and organizes his productivity to occur on specific days. Throughout the entire process, he punctuates his workflow with the satisfaction of a job well done: “And God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:10 ,12, 17, 21, 25). After he placed the crown-jewel of his creation within his new habitat, he stepped back from his completed project and rejoiced in the quality of his craftsmanship: “and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31).
And, lest we think we are reading too much into this narrative by classifying God as the original worker, Moses summarizes this six-day creation event as God’s work from which he rested on the seventh day: “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation” (Gen 2:1-3). This word for work is used throughout the Old Testament to refer to productive human labor (Gen 39:11; Ex 20:9; 36:4; 1 Sam 8:16; Prov 18:9). God truly is the original worker.
To be made in God’s image, therefore, means, at the very least, that we were designed to reflect God by working. Turning back to Genesis 1:26-27, we note that God assigns them the task of exercising dominion—an assignment that will require active labor—immediately after declaring that he will make man in his image: “And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
Exercise Dominion and Subdue the Earth
The word “dominion” here refers to the active exercise of authority over the animals. Not a cruel, harsh authority, but a benevolent authority that makes use of these animals according their nature and function for the benefit of humanity. The Fall disrupted man’s relationship to animals so that there is a fear between them and even violence between us and the animals (Gen 9:5). But even after the Fall a righteous man is distinguished by how he treats his animals (Prov 12:9). Nevertheless, this exercise of dominion over the animals, even prior to the Fall, would have required productive labor, creativity, planning, organization, and a host of other important activities.
Our assignment as image-bearers continues in Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” Our task includes exercising dominion over the earth and subduing it. The word “subdue” refers to God’s intention for his image-bearers to bring the earth under control and make it useful to themselves and other image-bearers. Wayne Grudem develops the implications of this word and its relation to our role as workers:
This expression in God’s original command to Adam and Eve implies that he wanted them to investigate, understand, use, and enjoy the resources of the earth. They were to do this as God’s image-bearers and with thanksgiving to God. This implies that developing and producing more and better goods from the earth is not simply a result of sin or greed or wrongful “materialism,” but something that God planned for human beings to do from the beginning. It is an essential part of how he created us to function.Politics According to the Bible, 269.
Now, I’ve been using that word “work”, but I’ve yet to define it. What do I mean by the word “work?” Work is productive labor for the benefit of others. This definition is drawn from what we see in these passages from Genesis, but it also drawn from all that Scripture says about work. We will explore these other passages in later articles.
The point that we must take home from this brief study is that work is a pre-Fall gift from God. Our design to work came before sin entered the picture and prior to God’s curse upon the creation. The fall and curse disrupted the relationship between man and the creation, and introduced difficulty, frustration, and occasional futility into our work (see Gen 3:14-17). But for those who know the Savior and know the Scriptures, work is to be received as a good gift from God that we can still utilize for his glory, our neighbor’s benefit, and our joy in this sinful, post-fall world. We resist this call to work to our spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical peril.
As we will see in subsequent articles, Christians serve God in any area of legitimate enterprise. The word for “work” in Genesis 2:15 is used universally throughout the Old Testament with reference to serving (or refusing to serve) the Lord (e.g., Deut 11:3; 28:14; Josh 22:5; Judg 2:19). I don’t think this word choice in Genesis and its connection with other uses later in the Old Testament is coincidental. Rather, I take Moses’ word use in Genesis 2:15 as evidence for viewing Adam’s work in the garden—his ploughing, digging, organizing, and otherwise productive labor—as service to the Lord.
The implications of this truth for Christians are massive, especially because some Christians seem to think of serving the Lord exclusively in religious terms: they are serving the Lord when they sing at church or help in the nursery or share the gospel. Yes, these are all areas of service to the Lord. But Scripture teaches that our daily work as farmers, software architects, janitors, grocers, and bankers are, when approached with a heart of faith and thankfulness, a means of true service to God. We will consider this and other life-changing truths in subsequent articles.