Payment given for services rendered. The semantic field of this term is usually found in economic contexts, where payment means some type of monetary compensation. During earlier periods payments would be made as a result of barter arrangements, where goods (cattle, food, etc.) would be given in exchange for work ( Gen 30:32 ; 38:16-17 ). As culture evolved the use of standardized forms and weights of metals such as gold and silver were substituted for goods because of convenience and efficiency. It was not until the Persian period that coins came into common use as currency. The price for service was usually set in advance as a result of an agreement between the employer and employee. The time allotted for work could be as short as a day ( Deut 24:15 ) or as long as a year ( Isa 16:14 ).
The Old Testament. The first explicit mention of the term for wage in the Bible occurs in a theological context. After humanity's rebellion against God and the consequent catastrophic judgments of the fall, the deluge, and Babel, God calls Abram to be the bearer of salvation for the world. A threefold promise is made to him, ensuring a relationship with God, descendants, and land. Abram obeys the divine call, leaving Mesopotamia for Canaan, but requires a sign that the promise is to be fulfilled. His aged wife is still childless, the land is occupied, and consequently the relationship with God is threatened. In Genesis 15 God gives the sign by formally ratifying a covenant with Abram guaranteeing both descendants and land. The text is introduced by a formal announcement declaring that there is no need for doubt or fear since God himself will be Abram's shield of protection and his "very large wage" (sakar [r;k'f]). The oracle stresses that the ultimate reward of the righteous is a relationship with the Lord, a reward acquired through faith and obedience. The final proof for Abram that this relationship is a reality happens when Isaac is born and a plot of burial ground is secured for Sarah's body ( Gen 23 ).
If the Abram story stresses the goodness of God in rewarding faith and obedience, the ensuing narrative demonstrates what it is like for Israel to serve a hard taskmaster. Jacob has his wages changed ten times by a deceitful Laban, who simply wishes to exploit his son-in-law (Gen. 28-31). This "Mesopotamian exile" is a prelude to Israel's oppressive sojourn in Egypt, where a tyrannical Pharaoh pays her the "wages" of a slave (Exod. 1-3). In both situations God overrules these despots and Israel makes an exodus from each location laden with wealth and riches ( Gen 30:43 ; Exod 12:35-36 ).
When Israel is formally constituted as a nation at Sinai, some of the laws given to her are specifically concerned with wages. In Israelite society the wage-earning class was small, placed on the social scale somewhere between land owners and slaves. Consequently, hired laborers could be classed with the personae miserabiles, the widow, orphan, and stranger. Working for wages was often the only way members of this class could support themselves. But they could be easily exploited, and were totally dependent on a daily wage. It was required, therefore, that hired servants receive a wage promptly. If this did not happen, they could have recourse to God, who was passionately concerned about such matters, and it would be reckoned as a sin against the employer ( Deut 24:15, ; cf. Exod 22:14 ). Moreover, the law intended to prevent the Israelite legal system from corruption. Judges had to be persons of integrity. They were not only to refuse to take unjust wages or "bribes" but to hate them ( Exod 18:21 ). Other wages were regarded as unjust by virtue of the way they were acquired (e.g., through prostitution) and therefore could not be offered to the sanctuary ( Deut 23:19 ).
The narrative of the conquest relates God's reward to his people, fulfilling the promise of the gift of land. Israel thrives and is prosperous in the land, but there is the constant temptation to assume that the fertility deities of the Canaanites are the ones responsible for making the land productive and the population numerous. Hosea's verdict at a later time is true also of the period of the judges: "She has not acknowledged I was the one who gave her the grain, the new wine and oil, who lavished on her the silver and gold" ( 2:8 ). Consequently idolatry is common, which results in material gain becoming the paramount concern of the people, especially the leaders. The moral nadir of this period occurs when Eli is high priest and his sons exploit their position to gratify their material and sensual lusts (1 Sam. 1-2). Samuel's birth means the dawn of a new era in which God will intervene to bring justice, one consequence being that the wealthy will be humbled to the status of hired servants in order to earn a few scraps of food ( 1 Sam 2:5 ). The Elide priesthood is judged harshly, but the new order evolves slowly. Even the new leader, Samuel, has sons who are more concerned with material gain than justice ( 1 Sam 8:3 ). One of the few bright moments during the dark days of the judges is reflected in the story of Ruth, a Moabite widow, who faithfully determines to help her widowed Israelite mother-in-law. She merits the blessing of Boaz, who believes that Yahweh is a good God, who will fully pay her wages ( Ruth 2:12 ).
The experience of kingship is generally negative for Israel. The kings become harsh taskmasters whose reign results in oppressive taxes ( 1 Sam 8:11-18, ; cf. 1 Kings 12:1-17 ) and the exploitation of workers ( Jer 22:13 ). Few are the rulers who, like Josiah, protected the powerless from the powerful; the majority are like his son, whose life was obsessed with making a profit through oppression and extortion ( Jer 22:16-17 ). Forced labor of the corvée becomes a characteristic of oppressive regimes, as does the exploitation of the personae miserabiles. Such economic oppression is accompanied by idolatry.
The prophets relate how an idolatrous society quickly became corrupt, as the focus was placed on material gain rather than on a relationship with Yahweh and neighbor. Children, who were regarded as God's reward to his people ( Psalm 127:3 ), could be offered up as sacrifices to a nature god ( Micah 6:7 ). Amos criticizes the merchants who use dishonest measures to increase their wages, and who cannot wait for the Sabbath to end in order to resume their exploitive businesses ( 8:5-6 ). Micah laments that Judah's "leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money" ( 3:11 ). A century later the situation is more critical. "From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain" ( Jer 6:13 ; 8:10 ). The moral consequence is hideous as justice is perverted and people are treated like commodities, especially the personae miserabiles. Judah suffers the same fate as her sister, the northern kingdom of Israel, had experienced a few centuries earlier. The Assyrians laid Israel waste as the prophets predicted, and the Babylonians destroyed Judah, demonstrating clearly the principle that the wages for serving a false god are quite different than those obtained from serving Yahweh. Instead of having land, the people live in exile; instead of numerous descendants, the population has been decimated. And the razed temple demonstrates what has happened to the relationship with Yahweh. To use the metaphor of marriage, the people have been divorced from their Divine Husband ( Isa 50:1 ). In exile the people can be described simply as dead ( Eze 37 ).
It is during the exile that Israel hears a new word of hope. She is going to be liberated by a foreign king who will work for Yahweh without a wage ( Isa 45:13 ). Israel is called to believe that Yahweh is for her even in the midst of judgment. In fact, the time of her hard service of judgment is over; she has paid double for all her sins ( Isa 40:2 ). She can now come to Yahweh and purchase milk and wine without paying a fee ( Isa 55:1 ). God is depicted as a shepherd leading his sheep home to Judah from Babylon; the prophet switches the metaphor to describe God as a strong liberator who brings wages to distribute to his people: the wages of grace and salvation ( Isa 40:10-11 ; 62:11 ). This is a word of life from death ( Eze 37 ) and means not only a return to the land, but an increase in population (Isa. 54) and a restoration of the relationship with the Lord ( Isa 49:14-16 ; 62:3-5 ).
During the times of blessing and judgment on Israel, the wisdom tradition contributed its perspective on the issues of wages and reward. Proverbs repeatedly condemns the pursuit of profit for its own sake and stresses the inextricable relation between actions and consequences. A theme in Ecclesiastes is that there is no profit to be made in anything in life ( 1:3 ; Ecclesiastes 2:11 Ecclesiastes 2:13 ; 3:9 ; 5:15 ); yet, in contrast to Grecian thought, Ecclesiastes encourages faith instead of moral licence. But the Book of Job is the book that deals principally with the issue of wages or rewards: Satan's accusation against Job is that he serves God for "a good wage" ( 1:9-11 ). It is because Job has been so richly blessed that he serves God, says Satan. But an important message of the book is that Lord himself is the believer's reward. Job eventually learns this in his vision of God (38-42).
Toward the end of the Old Testament period, when Israel returned to the land, the people again lost the divine focus as they became preoccupied with material comforts. They were more concerned with their own work than the temple and earned wages only to put them in torn purses ( Hag 1:6 ). They began to question God's goodness: "It is futile to serve God. What did we gain by carrying out his requirements?" ( Mal 3:14 ). It is on such a bleak note that the Old Testament ends.
The New Testament. The stress on wages and rewards is an important religious concern in the Judaism of Jesus' time. It forms the background to the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus emphasizes that those for whom religion is an external form already have their reward, while the true disciple will receive in secret a wage from God ( Matthew 6:1-4 Matthew 6:5-6 Matthew 6:16-18 ; 5:12 5:46 ). When Jesus commissions the twelve disciples to preach throughout Israel, they are urged not to take money with them; it is expected that they will be paid by those to whom they minister, for "the worker is worth his keep" ( Matt 10:10 ). In some of his parables Jesus instructed his disciples to be diligent about their calling since a day of judgment would reward the righteous as well as recompense the unrighteous ( Matt 24:45-51 ; Matthew 25:14-30 Matthew 25:31-46 ).
But overshadowing all of this is Jesus' announcement of the gospel. The poor are richly rewarded because they can now be members of God's kingdom even though they have no money. God's incredible grace is lavished on all who are mired in spiritual debt. The parable of the unforgiving servant demonstrates that all are deeply in debt to God; all debts that human beings owe to each other are trivial in comparison. Consequently God's act of forgiveness should stimulate believers to forgive each other ( Matt 18:21-35 ). The parable of the workers in the vineyard shows that God is in the business of hiring employees until the very end of the working day. The fact that all receive the same wage teaches that it is a privilege even to work for God. The payment is not calculated on the basis of performance but is purely gracious ( Matt 20:1-16 ).
In the epistles Paul stresses the importance of wages. Practically, he argues that those who minister the gospel are entitled to a monetary payment, just as people are paid for work done in the secular sphere ( 1 Cor 9:7 ). He himself received similar support on occasion ( 2 Cor 11:8 ). Teaching elders in the churches are to be paid since "the worker deserves his wages" ( 1 Tim 5:17-18 ). Moreover, the gospel affects the working lives of all those who embrace it. Slaves must primarily work for their Lord, not their human master, since it is he who will pay them the wage that really matters ( Col 3:22-25 ); masters need to remember that unpaid wages scream out to God for justice ( James 5:4 ). On the judgment day all will appear before the throne of Christ to receive "final payment" ( Rom 2:6-8 ; cf. 1 Cor 3:8 ; 2 Cor 5:10 ; Rev 20:11-15 ).
This practical and sober teaching is balanced by exhilarating good news. There is a radical difference in the human condition apart from and in Christ. Satan is a hard taskmaster, doling out the wages of death for sin ( Rom 6:23 ), but God is a loving Father who lavishes believers with the gifts of life and adoption and promises an infinitely rich inheritance all things! ( 1 Cor 3:22-23 ; Eph 1:5-12 ). God is immeasurably rich in mercy ( Eph 2:4 )! As proof he has offered up Christ as a payment for humanity's sins, and given believers a downpayment of their gracious wage to come in the presence of the Holy Spirit who takes up residence within them ( 2 Cor 1:22 ; 5:5 ; Eph 1:14 ). They now await the time of the full payment of the Spirit without measure, when they will enter the glorious liberty of the children of God ( Rom 8:21 ), experience the beatific vision, and partake of the divine nature ( Rev 22:4 ), God himself being their exceeding great reward ( Gen 15:1 ). All previous experience of the Lord will be regarded as so much hearsay. Until then, believers are encouraged with the promise that "no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" ( 1 Cor 2:9 ).
Stephen G. Dempster
Bibliography. P. Barrios, IDB, 4:795; O. Becker, NIDNTT, 3:144-45; P. Bottger, NIDNTT, 3:134-36; M. Dandamaev, ABD, 6:58-65; P. Davies, IDB, 4:71-77; G. Goosen, The Theology of Work; D. E. Gowan, Int41 (1987): 341-53; N. K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh; H. Hamburger, IDB, 4:423-35; B. Malina, Int41 (1987): 354-67; I. Mendelsohn, BASOR143 (1956): 17-22; H. Preisker and E. Wurthwein, TDNT, 4:695-728; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Social Institutions; H. E. von Waldrow, CBQ32 (1970): 182-204; C. Wiener, Dictionary of Biblical Theology, pp. 505-8; C. H. J. Wright, God's People in God's Land: Family, Land and Property in the Old Testament.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Wages'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".