There are three passages in the Old Testament that employ the verbs “to work” (‘bd) and “to keep” (šmr) as a pair of correlating words. Reflecting on these passages can help us see the role that redemption plays in our daily “working” and “keeping.”
Genesis 2, which talks about God placing Adam in the Garden of Eden, states that his duties as a farmer in the garden were “to work” and “to keep”:
The LORD God took the man
and put him in the garden of Eden
to work (‘bd) it and keep (šmr) it.
(Genesis 2:15 ESV)
Genesis 3, which describes the Fall and its immediate effect on the life of humanity, states that the man who was driven out of the garden would continue “to work.” However, the duty “to keep” would now rest in the hands of the cherubs in the garden:
…the LORD God sent him out from the Garden of Eden
to work (‘bd) the ground from which he was taken…
and at the east of the Garden of Eden
he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword…
to guard (šmr) the way to the tree of life.
(Genesis 3:23-24 ESV)
Genesis also foretells that work will now be set in the conditions of barrenness and agony (Genesis 3:17-19; cf. Genesis 4:12; Exodus 1:13; 5:18). As a result, humans will cry out for relief from the painful toil of their hands (Genesis 5:29). Scarcity has become an unmistakable reality for our oikonomia outside of the garden.
The toiling man receives amazing news, however, when God announces that he will once again employ humanity in in the garden. Moreover, the call “to keep” – the prerogative which was given to the cherubs – will once again be restored to humanity. The only difference is that this time, the garden will be made portable and sojourn with the man through the wilderness. In order to farm in this portable garden, the man must assume a new title; “priest”:
And you and your sons with you
shall guard (šmr) your priesthood…
and you shall serve (‘bd).
(Numbers 18:7a ESV)
Every time the priest entered this sanctuary – God’s oikos – the cherubs that once guarded the garden receded into mere panels and embroidery on the façade. The man once again assumed his guardianship, and his redemption meant that his duty was also redeemed. His labor in the garden was now met with yield – the manna – which was more a fruit of God’s freely given grace than of humanity’s sweat, even as the journey through the wilderness had to continue.
Seen in this light, the instituting of the priesthood in ancient Israel was a reinstallation of man as the gardener in the oikos of God. In other words, it was through priestly living that humans became the true farmers in God’s oikos. What Adam missed in the garden was that his call as a farmer had been his priesthood right from the beginning.
Though this is a minute detail, it seems worthwhile to observe that the correlative word-pair in this meta-narrative opens with the sequence “work-keep” (Genesis 2:15) and closes with “keep-work” (Numbers 18:7). The former represents the first prerogative of the man in the garden, while the latter represents that of the redeemed man returned to the garden:
“keep” (Genesis 2:15)
“keep” (Numbers 18:7)
While the two are present in both instances, “to keep” is perhaps prioritized for humanity in the fallen world, who experiences the bitterness of knowing both bounty and scarcity – the economy of good and evil.
Work alone cannot describe economic activity in the Old Testament. Instead, “to work” and “to keep” must be considered together. Adam failed to be God’s farmer, but the founding of Israel’s priesthood restored the ability to show the world how to work and keep.
Today, this restoration is not limited to a temple made by hands. All believers live as priests in God’s great cosmic oikos. Through our redemption, God has brought “working” and “keeping” back together in all of our daily lives.
This article is adapted from a reflection delivered at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s faculty retreat on Aug. 28, 2013, during the session “Economic Flourishing and the Gospel,” as part of Gordon-Conwell’s Oikonomia Network program.