One difficulty pastors cite when trying to help people integrate faith and work is a lack of robust theology. We’ve selected five books to paint a comprehensive, Biblical, Christian view of work: Genesis, Exodus, Nehemiah, Matthew and Revelation.They answer the questions: What is the role of everyday work in God’s story for humanity? How should we go about our work? Is “church work” or ministry the only sacred work? Does God call people to other types of work? If you’re beefing up on your theology as it relates to work, we suggest studying these five books of the Bible for a crash course. We’re starting at the beginning with Genesis.
The book of Genesis forms the underpinnings for the theology of work. It tells us the story of God’s creation—the first act of “work”—which serves as a prototype for all work that follows. We also learn about human work as it was ordained by God. Because Genesis is full of myth-debunking wisdom, we’re dedicating a whole post to this one book. We’ll boil down the other four books in future posts. Here are 8 key lessons we learn about work from Genesis 1-11.
Lesson 1: The material, earthly world is no less important or significant than the “spiritual” world.
In Genesis, there is no sharp distinction between the material and the spiritual. The “wind of God” or ruah in Genesis 1:2 is simultaneously “breath,” “spirit,” and “wind.” “The heavens and the earth” are not two separate realms, but a Hebrew merism meaning “the universe” in the same way that the English merism “kith and kin” means “relatives.”
- Gen.1:2 (NRSV) “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”‘
- Gen.2:1 (NRSV) “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.”
The material world we live in—and the work that we do here—has significance. It is here, in the materiality of the world, where we strive to live out the kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven.
Lesson 2: God did work. Since we are created in God’s image, we too have been created to work.
It is not in our nature to be satisfied with things as they are, to receive provision for our needs without working, to endure idleness for long or to toil in a system of uncreative regimentation.
Gen.1:28 (NRSV) “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’”
Gen.2:15 (NRSV) “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”
God chose humanity to work alongside him to actualize the universe’s potential. In fact, to be co-creators and stewards is God’s first command to us. This blessing was given before the fall—work was not originated as a curse.
One note about dominion. Dominion is not the authority to work against God’s creation, but to work for it. “Subdue” (kavash) applies to cultivation (farming), domestication (shepherding), even mining…making use of all the economic and cultural potential associated with the concept of ‘land,’ (R. Chisholm, From Exegesis to Exposition: A Practical Guide to Using Biblical Hebrew, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998, 46.) Therefore, dominion is not a license to abuse, but to care for, with the same love that God displayed in the act of creation.
Lesson 3: Don’t overlook beauty and imagination.
God didn’t do shoddy work. God’s work was “a delight to the eyes (Gen.3:6).” People, made in the image of God, possess inherent beauty.
Interestingly, the kingdom of God in Revelation is described in terms of its beauty.
Rev.21:11 (NRSV) “It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal.”
Another overlooked aspect of creation is God’s imagination, which gave way to a diversity of life.
Since creativity and beauty are reflected in God’s work, it’s important that we don’t undervalue professions that cultivate these gifts.
Lesson 4: We should work within the limits God set for us.
Limits include Sabbath rest, which reminds us that life is not defined only by our work or productivity. The command to rest also causes us to pause and acknowledge our own limitations, and consequently, our dependence on God’s provision.
Gen.2:3 (NRSV) “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.”
Lesson 5: God can provide for our needs through our work.
God provided the raw materials, and then placed Adam and Eve in the garden to cultivate and enjoy its abundance. However, because we live in a fallen world, work does not always produce fruit—crops may fail, or resources can be plundered by oppressive means—God’s original intentions were disrupted.
Gen.1:29–30 (NRSV) “God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’”
Lesson 6: Work happens in relationship with others.
God worked in relationship. As image bearers, we also work in relationship.
Gen.1:26 (NRSV) “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image…'”
God created Adam and Eve as partners and co-laborers. While Genesis has been used in the past to suggest that women have an inferior position, the word “helper” [ezer in Hebrew] is used elsewhere in the Old Testament as a reference to God himself. For example, as in Psalm 54:4: “God is my helper [ezer].” God is clearly not a subordinate.
Gen.2:18 (NRSV) “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.'”
We also notice that God, in relationship to people, delegates authority. Ideally, our work relationships will be marked with trust, respect and growth.
Gen.2:19 (NRSV) “So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.”
Lesson 7: We work within a fallen creation.
The fall resulted in fractured relationships and toilsome work. However, we still see that God can provide (Gen.3:21) and people can attain a measure of prosperity (Gen.4:3-4). Men and women must still be fruitful, must still multiply, must still govern. But now, a second layer of work must also be accomplished: the work of healing, repairing and restoring the things that go wrong and the evils that are committed.
Lesson 8: There is temptation to sin as we work.
Two forms of evil confront us daily. The first is natural evil, the physical conditions on Earth that are hostile to the life God intended for us. The second is moral evil, when people act in ways that are not in line with God’s ways or intent. When we act in agreement with evil, we tarnish creation, distance ourselves from God, and mar the relationships we have with other people.
What do you think? What work-related lessons have you gleaned from Genesis?
This post is part of the Theology of Work Project’s summer blog series. The series is especially for pastors and leaders who are helping Christians to apply faith in their everyday work.