For contemporary humanity the meaning and character of work have been divorced from religion, being largely shaped by secular ideologies associated with Marxism and capitalism. This is radically different from the biblical concept of work, which is laden with theological significance. The expenditure of physical and mental energy to produce sustenance and culture, the activity that engages most of humanity's population and time (Augustine), has a profoundly religious inspiration and direction in both Testaments. The biblical evidence indicates that human beings must be guided by God's will in their work. Without this guidance, work will ultimately be useless.
The Old Testament. Creation. All human work is based on the analogy of God's work in creating the natural world as classically described in Genesis 1-2. God is depicted as effortlessly expending energy to create a world of exquisite beauty from nothing. Material, temporal, and spatial reality are made in a sequence of six days. The text climaxes with a poetic depiction of the creation of humanity, made in the image and likeness of God ( Gen 1:27 ). This poetic climax, as well as God's survey of his completed creation ( 1:31 ), captures something of the ecstatic joy in the Creator's mind evoked by the splendor of his work. On the seventh day, God rests from his work, celebrating his accomplishments.
In this creation text human beings are given a mandate to work, which is intimately related to their identity as the image of God ( Gen 1:26 ). As image bearers, the human race is to work by ruling and serving the creation. As God has shown his transcendence to the created order through his work, human beings replicate the divine likeness by having dominion over the creation ( Gen 1:26-28 ). Work has therefore an extremely wide scope, but the theological point is central: human beings are called to imitatio dei (imitation of God) through work. It is not to be drudgery but glory. The assumption, of course, is that work will be done in response to the divine will.
Whereas the first creation narrative presents a comprehensive vision of God's activity, the second ( 2:4-25 ) focuses on the creation of humanity, God's supreme work. The Creator is depicted as a potter and a builder crafting the human race. A poetic climax also concludes this account, when woman is created ( Gen 2:23 ). One of the prime tasks God gives Adam and Eve is the cultivation of the earth and the classification of the species of wildlife ( Genesis 2:5 Genesis 2:15 Genesis 2:20 ).
The creation texts confer a sanctity on work. God is involved in work, being its raison d'etre. Human beings have the responsibility and privilege of virtually replicating the works of God. The human race co-creates and co-rules with God as it replenishes the earth and exercises dominion over the universe. This attitude is fundamentally different from that found in the ancient Near East. In creation texts associated with Israel's neighbors, the divine work is not something to be admired, as creation emerged from either a struggle between the gods (Mesopotamia) or an act of defilement (Egypt but cf. the Memphite theology). Work was regarded as a dreary burden. In fact, the gods made the human race as slaves to provide relief from the labor of running the universe (Mesopotamia). Although human beings are regarded as the divine image in some Egyptian texts, they are essentially "the cattle of the god" (Merikare).
The Fall. Sin transformed human work. The judgment of God affects the material world: Adam's efforts to extract a living from it is met by its resistance and his sweat ( Gen 3:17-19 ). The perspective of humanity has also been altered. The first couple's eyes have been opened to the reality of evil ( Gen 3:7 ) and closed to the reality of God's works and God's will. That is why they attempt to hide in creation from the Creator; it also explains how their firstborn son, Cain, can destroy God's climactic work, the image of God in the face of his brother ( Gen 4:8 ).
In the subsequent chapters of Genesis some scholars detect a critique of the first builders of civilization. This analysis is false. Both Cain and Abel have dominion over the earth as farmer and shepherd respectively. God does not prefer one occupation to another; the issue is obedience. Furthermore, the descendants of Cain may be known for their accomplishments in the field of human endeavor agriculture, metallurgy, music, and art but that is all they are known for. They have lost themselves in their work, having defined themselves by their achievements. The Cainite genealogy concludes with the dark portrait of Lamech singing his "song of the sword" ( Gen 4:23-24 ). Early technological skills developed without reference to God produce instruments of death (cf. Isa 2:4 ). In the absence of the knowledge of God's works, human effort is directed toward death instead of life.
The main predeluvian human activity is social violence ( Genesis 6:11 Genesis 6:13 ). The creation that had been declared repeatedly "good" at the beginning is now full of corruption and strife. That which once evoked ecstatic joy in the heart of God now wounds him with grief ( Gen 6:6 ).
At the same time, the Sethite genealogy (chap. 5) concludes with Noah, who is chosen by God to use human effort for the divine purpose. This work must have seemed absurd to his contemporaries, but it provided redemption for creation. Human work, placed not at the service of self but at the service of God, saves. Noah the humble, obedient servant of God contrasts sharply with the heroic warriors of that time.
After the flood, human beings are again given dominion over their natural environment, but the effects of the fall into sin remain. Noah becomes intoxicated with the products of his viticulture, which leads to sexual sin. As a result, slavery is imposed as a curse on the descendants of Ham. The human race uses its capacities and energies to build a huge tower a monument to human pride and ambition ( Gen 11:1-9 ). Babel human work at the service of self becomes a symbol for chaos and judgment as God sends linguistic confusion to thwart this collective, autonomous venture.
The Patriarchs. God's gracious work in calling Abraham occurs against the backdrop of the failure of human work to achieve salvation ( Gen 12:1-3 ). Abraham and Sarah represent the beginning of God's new saving work in history, designed to bring a blessing on the entire universe through their seed. Abraham's work is simply to believe and obey, to accept as gifts the new relationship with God as well as the promises of land and descendants. Instead of building a tower to heaven, Abraham and his family are constantly building altars, thereby demonstrating God's dominion over the new land ( Gen 12:7-8 ; 21:33 ; 26:25 ; 28:18 ).
Egypt. The story of Joseph (Gen. 37-50) describes Israel's entry into Egypt. Devoted to God, Joseph is blessed in everything he does, whether living at home, serving in slavery, or working in prison. This blessing eventually elevates him to the top administrative position in Egypt whereby he is able to use his skill to save not only the Egyptians but many peoples from natural disaster. Joseph is certainly a paradigm for a person who is devoted to God. Primarily a servant of God, he has success in various "callings."
After a significant period of time, the Israelites are oppressed by the Egyptians (Exod. 1-3), who teach them the harsh meaning of slavery as they are forced to build earthly cities for the Pharaoh. Work has been transformed into something demonic, as Israel groans under the backbreaking burden of manual labor. No human effort can provide relief. In such an oppressive situation, Israel experiences liberation through the works of God alone.
Sinai. At Mount Sinai Israel becomes a nation and is given a constitution and law (Exod. 19-24). The divine intent expressed in the Law demonstrates Israel's attitude toward work. Slaves were to be treated with respect and Israelite slaves were to be freed every seven years ( Exodus 21:1-11 Exodus 21:26-27 ). Runaway slaves would be given refuge ( Deut 23:15-16 ). Property would return to its original owner every fifty years ( Lev 25:8-13 ). The poor were not to be overlooked in the increase of wealth ( Deut 24:17-22 ). Wages were to paid equitably and promptly ( Deut 24:14-15 ). Interest was not to be charged on loans made to Israelites ( Exod 22:25 ; Deut 23:19-20 ). Moreover, collateral for loans had to be returned to poverty-stricken individuals at the end of the day, if this meant deprivation of clothing during the cool night ( Exod 22:26-27 ).
The major presuppositions for this concern are found in the Decalogue. Exodus states that the Sabbath command is based on the pattern of divine work and rest in Genesis ( Exod 20:8-11 ). The Israelites are thus to image God in their alternation of work and rest. The parallel command in the Decalogue of Deuteronomy gives a different reason for the observance of the seventh day ( Deut 5:12-15 ). Israel is to observe the Sabbath by specifically remembering the oppressive Egyptian experience where she was "worked to death." The stress is more on rest as redemption from the tyranny of work. As God delivered Israel from labor with his redemptive work, Israel is to do the same for those who live in her borders every week. Even animals and the land are to experience rest from work.
Sabbatical cycles are not only weekly but yearly. The seventh year is to be a time of rest for the land and release of Israelite slaves ( Exod 23:10-12 ). A cycle of seven sabbatical years ends in the year of Jubilee, not only a time of rest and liberty, but a time of debt cancellation and the return of property to its original owners ( Lev 25 ). The divine will clearly places a limit on work, which can easily become harsh and oppressive in a fallen world. While human achievement is important, it must serve the divine purpose. Israel is to be reminded constantly that God is the Lord of people, time, land, and work. When Israel places work under divine lordship, human beings again begin to exercise dominion of the creation as God intended for them.
The results of work are clearly brought within the religious sphere. The law of the tithe is a recognition that the strength to work comes from God alone, as do the rewards of working the land. Moreover, it is also a recognition that the fruits of work must be shared with the less fortunate, particularly the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan ( Deut 14:22-29 ; 26:12-15 ).
Israel constructs a tabernacle for the divine presence, to bring as it were, heaven to earth (Exod. 25-40). This symbol of God at the center of life is crucial for human work. When Israel is on the verge of entering the promised land, she is reminded through the Shema ( Deut 6:4-9 ) to keep God at the center of her existence in all that she does. God's love is not only to be placed between the eyes (i.e., to dominate vision); it is also to be placed on the hands (i.e., to motivate action). The options for possible vocations are unlimited, given these theological principles.
The gift of the land will mean many blessings to the nation, but primarily they will be the ability to build houses, plant vineyards, plow fields, and mine for ore. With God at the center, the work of Israel's hands will overflow with blessing. As well as the blessing, however, there is also the constant danger to idolize the results of work, prosperity, and consequently assume that human strength alone or the fertility gods of the pagan neighbors are responsible for the abundance ( Deut 8:17 ; 32:15 ). This view is fatal for if the doxological center is lost, all of Israel's work will be futile: all their hard work would do you no good, because their land will not produce crops and the trees will not bear their fruit ( Lev 26:20 ; Deut 28:33 ).
Conquest and Kingdom. The promised land is recognized as God's gift to Israel, yet she must work for it. If the nation does not cooperate with God in taking the land, death in the wilderness is the result (Num. 13-14). A generation later, the conquest of Jericho is a dramatic example of trust in God's work (Josh. 6-7). The city is taken on the Sabbath, when Israel encircles it seven times. The walls of the city come crashing down as a result of the divine action. Israel fights but God also fights for her. The entire conquest is a result of God working for Israel ( Joshua 11:22 ). She takes cities that she did not build, vineyards that she did not plant, fields that she did not plow ( Joshua 24:13 ). Israel's response is to use the gift as God's steward. Israel is like a new Adam and Eve entering the paradisical garden.
Psalms. The community at worship also has a vision of human work. Humanity is assigned the task of work by the Creator ( 104:23 ). This means taking God-like dominion over the natural order (8). But work that is done without a focus on God is like building a house in vain or guarding a city uselessly ( 127:1-2 ). The strength of the strong and mighty is useless without trust in Yahweh ( 20:7-8 ; 33:16-19 ; 147:10-11 ). Given the transience and impermanence of human life, God must be implored to make any human achievement last ( Psalms 90:12 Psalms 90:16-17 ).
Wisdom Literature. The primary presupposition of the Wisdom books is that God has made the world according to a certain pattern. Work and the attitude toward work are important themes. Laziness leads to poverty and even death ( Prov 10:4 ; 21:25 ). Diligence, on the other hand, results in life ( Prov 13:4 ; 12:11 ). The life of crime, a shortcut to prosperity, is condemned as moral suicide ( Prov 1:9-20 ; 16:8 ). In everything it is to be remembered that it is the Lord's blessing that produces true wealth; hard work cannot make a person any richer ( Prov 10:22 ).
While Proverbs presents a positive perspective on work, Ecclesiastes has a more negative outlook. As a result of God's curse on human life, it is virtually impossible to detect God's work. Therefore human work can be characterized as toil. Death introduces an element of futility into human life, even making work seem useless ( 2:18-20 ). What can be gained from work if death erases one's accomplishments ( 3:9 )? In spite of all our work, there is nothing we can take with us. We labor trying to take the wind, and what do we get? Grief ( 5:15 ). It is also observed that envy and greed supply the motivation for the work of many ( 4:4 ; 6:7 ). If one has a more noble religious inspiration, there can be a certain amount of pleasure: "nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun" ( 8:15 ).
The Prophets. The prophets possessed great social consciousness. The consequences of selfishness and idolatry are always human oppression, as the powerless become trampled in the mad stampede for wealth. Amos describes the affluent in his days as crushing the poor ( 2:7 ), and anxiously waiting for the Sabbath to finish so that they can overcharge their poor customers ( 8:5 ). Micah ( 2:2 ) characterizes the rich as seizing fields and homes whenever they want. But God is not a passive onlooker. The prophets announce his judgment, his "strange work" in history ( Isa 28:21 ). As a result all human effort and work without him as the focus ends up being wasted.
After the exile, the Israelites who returned soon forgot the importance of God. They became preoccupied with their own work and neglected the building of the temple. Consequently their labors suffered ( Hag 1:2-11 ), as they were not able to provide for themselves (cf. Mal 3:6-12 ). After the completion of the temple, Israel became prosperous until the religious focus was lost again (Malachi).
This vision of God's work at the center of human life, and the blessing of human work that results, is magnificently illustrated in the prophets' eschatological vision. At the end of time the temple will be the focus of life as all the nations will travel to Jerusalem. There they will be instructed from Yahweh's Torah and the consequence will be the transformation of human work. Instruments one used for destructive purposes such as war will be changed into ones used for productive purposes like agriculture ( Isa 2:1-4 ; Micah 4:1-6 ). There will be universal shalom and the river of God's life will flow from the temple and heal all the nations ( Eze 47 ).
This clearly indicates that the important point in the Old Testament about work is not a particular vocation; any human work is a life-enhancing blessing when it is controlled by God.
The New Testament. John the Baptist was sent to prepare the way for Jesus. In light of God's coming great work to judge and to save, John called people to repentance. This meant that everyone had to change his or her action in the light of the imminent divine action. Those whose professions were notorious for graft and extortion were not told to leave their Jobs, but to change their behavior ( Luke 3:12-14 ). The problem was not with the profession but with the human heart.
Jesus is equipped for his work with the power of the Holy Spirit. As the new Adam he is also tested by Satan, where the issues of allegiance and work are repeatedly stressed ( Matt 4:1-11 ). Will Jesus use his power to make bread from stones in order to satisfy his own hunger? Will he push God to the test to be recognized as his unique messenger? Will he seek power illegitimately to accomplish his mission? The answers are negative. Jesus will only do his Father's will. As such, Jesus, the new Adam the divine image restored sets the standard for any human activity. Work must be done in obedience to God's will. If it is not, it becomes quickly corrupted by selfishness (v. 3), the desire for human recognition (v. 6), and power (vv. 8-9).
In order for human beings to be restored to their rightful place as masters of the universe instead of its prisoners, individuals must trust in Jesus Christ, God's work, and not in themselves. Some must leave their professions to become apostles ( Mark 1:14-20 ; 2:13-17 ). All must abandon an old mode of existence in which the divine will was not central. This means a totally new attitude toward work. All labor must be motivated by love of God and neighbor. Only then will human work be free from anxiety, idolatry, laziness, and lethargy.
Human existence is fraught with anxiety as a result of the competitive struggle to make a living. The disciples of Jesus are to learn from the created order: birds do not have storehouses and grass does not toil, yet God lavishly provides for such creatures not made in his image! Consequently how much more should disciples work without anxiety, knowing that their loving Father will provide also for them. But this means a radical reorienting of priorities. The focus must be placed on doing God's will above everything else ( Matt 6:33 ). Martha in her frantic preoccupation with domestic preparations has lost the focus; her sister, Mary, has not ( Luke 10:38-42 ).
If anxiety characterizes much of human work, so does idolatry. Work and its products become the end and not the means. Jesus condemns this in unequivocal terms with such statements as, "You cannot serve both God and Money" ( Matt 6:24 ). This means that if one's work inhibits one from doing the will of God, it must go it is an idol. Prospective disciples who use their work as an excuse for following Christ are condemned ( Luke 14:15-24 ). Moreover, others who ignore the demands of Christ while accumulating possessions are rich fools. They, too, are doomed ( Luke 12:13-21 ).
Laziness and lethargy are also possible responses to work. Jesus' parable of the talents implies that refusal to use one's gifts and talents for God is an unacceptable response to his grace ( Matt 25:14-30 ). Discipleship is implied to be a work in itself. Those who abandon Jesus have started plowing and then have looked back ( Luke 9:62 ); they have begun to build a tower and not been able to finish ( Luke 14:28-30 ). Industry, diligence, and foresight are required.
Jesus announces his message of salvation in terms drawn from the work-a-day world. A sower begins to plant seed ( Matt 13:1-9 ). A merchant discovers a valuable pearl ( Matt 13:45-46 ). A woman mixes yeast with a bushel of flour ( Matt 13:33 ). Fishermen cast out their nets and draw them in ( Matt 13:47-50 ). But most important, God has a Job for everyone to do: he is in the business of hiring the unemployed even at the last hour! Yet everyone is paid the same wage. To be hired is grace, to work is grace, the wage is grace ( Matt 20:1-16 ). The labor of the law is a back-breaking burden as opposed to the work that Jesus offers ( Matt 11:28-30 ).
The work that is required of the disciples is to do the will of God. If Jesus did divine works, his disciples can do the same as long as they rely on their master ( John 14:12 ; 15:5 ). They begin to do these works in the Book of Acts when the church is born. As Jesus was baptized by the Spirit and sent forth as the new Adam, the church is similarly immersed and called forth as a new humanity to do the works of God. Pentecost reverses the curse of Babel. There, as people sang the praises of their own achievements in defiance of God, they could not understand one another as God sent linguistic confusion, which ultimately destroyed their work. At Pentecost, as the Holy Spirit descends, all linguistic barriers are broken down as people hear the mighty works of God in their own languages ( Acts 2:11 ). The result is the building of the city of God, a new society whose members meet each other's material as well as spiritual needs ( Acts 2:43-47 ). Or, to use a different metaphor, this new community is understood to be the actual body of Christ whose function is to do the will of its head (Christ) on the earth through the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12-14). As the different body parts work together in harmony, love is demonstrated and the greatest work of God is accomplished ( 1 Cor 13 ).
The dynamic of love for God and each other shapes the church's perspective on its members' occupations and social positions. Everything is evaluated in terms of God's actions in Christ. Criminal behavior is totally unacceptable. Former thieves must start working in order to earn an honest living and help the poor ( Eph 4:28 ). Similarly, laziness is inadmissible for a Christian ( 1 Thess 4:11-12 ; 2 Thess 3:6-13 ). All employees must serve God in their Jobs, not just their human employers; and the latter must serve God in the way they treat their employees ( Eph 6:5-9 ). Slaves and their masters can even be called "brothers" in Christ ( Gal 3:28 ; Phl 15-16 ). The new relationship with each other transforms perceptions of occupations and motives for work. Believers can even be said to be slaves, whose tools are the wash basin and towel ( John 13 ). Hostility and alienation between labor and management are dealt a death blow with the cross ( Eph 2:16 ). Human beings are being restored to the divine image in order to exercise dominion over the creation ( Eph 4:23-24 ). Since death has been defeated, no work is done in vain ( 1 Cor 15:58 ).
The New Testament concludes with an unparalleled vision of God alive and active in history, bringing the historical process to consummation. In the Book of Revelation God's deeds are repeatedly celebrated. The cheap imitations of the satanic anti-Trinity (Satan, the beast, and the false prophet) are deceptive and destructive. Babylon, the creation of the latter, where people marked by the image of the beast work for selfish profit, perishes from the earth ( Rev 18 ). Jerusalem, the creation of God, where people work for their Redeemer and Savior, lasts for eternity. A return to Eden has finally been accomplished, where the new Adams and Eves, crowned with glory and honor, are restored finally to their rightful positions as kings and queens of the new creation, God's resplendent images, who will exercise dominion through service and love ( 22:1-5 ).
Stephen G. Dempster
Bibliography. J.-M. Aubert, Theology Digest 30 (1980): 7-11; B. Birch, What Does the Lord Require? The Old Testament Call to Social Witness; J. Ellul, Cross Currents 35 (1985): 43-48; G. Goosen, A Theology of Work; H.-C. Hahn and F. Thiele, NIDNTT3:1147-59; G. Mendenhall, Biblical Archaeologist Reader, pp. 3-24; J. Murray, Principles of Conduct; E. Nash, Modern Churchman29 (1986): 23-27; I. G. Nicol, Scottish Journal of Theology 33 (1980): 361-73; R. T. Osborn, Quarterly Review5 (1985): 28-43; J. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament; G. von Rad, Wisdom in Israel; H. C. Shank, WTJ37 (1974): 57-73; J. H. Stek, Calvin Theological Journal 13 (1978): 133-65; V. Westhelle, Word and World 6 (1986): 194-206; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel; H. W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament; M. H. Woudstra, New Perspectives on the Old Testament, pp. 88-103; C. J. H. Wright, An Eye for an Eye: The Place of Old Testament Ethics Today.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Work'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".