The Creation Narratives and the Original Unity of Work and Worship (Reviewing “Work,” Part 1)

A few weeks ago, I reported in on my failure to attend #Acton U and to blog about talks there which centered around the book Work: Theological Foundations and Practical Implications.

While I can’t go back in time and travel to Grand Rapids for the conviviality and thoughtful reflection and beautiful views of the river and amazing quantity of men in clerical collars that I missed, I am happy to report that I’ve now been able to listen to many of the talks, and am beginning a series of posts which will review the book.

Why a series? Maybe I’m writing a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one, but I feel that since each chapter of the book takes on a different aspect of Biblical, systematic, and pastoral theology with a considerable degree of academic rigor, it’s worth lingering on each topic.

With just a couple of exceptions (I’ll keep you in suspense about which chapters until I get there), I really liked the book. From the beginning of my involvement with the movement, I’ve popped up occasionally expressing a fear (one I share with the “no work” movement, apparently) that we are all mouthing pious platitudes meant to make us docile workers for the Man. The answer to that charge lies not in mouthing platitudes back, but in digging deeply into specific questions and seeing if the answers found there show that we have hold of something deeper than propaganda. On that score, this book largely delivers.

Sadly, it has no authors of color and only one female author, who wrote the afterword. There are places where I think engaging this recognized “pale and male” problem of the faith and work movement would have made a stronger book, and we’ll talk about those when I get there, too. (Suspense drives clicks, folks. 🙂 )

But I’ve taken up too much time in this post already not talking about John Bergsma’s essay on work in Genesis, so without further ado, to the Old Testament we go. “Labor is one red thread we can trace through the Bible to explore the message of salvation,” Bergsma said in his talk on the subject of this chapter.

In both talk and essay, Bergsma compares the theology of work in other Ancient Near Eastern cultures’ creation myths – where the gods essentially want to get out of work and try to get humans to do it – with the Christian  presentation of God as one who “himself works, thus setting an example for humankind who bear his image” (13). The second creation story in particular (Genesis 2) points to Adam’s role as a priest “of Yahweh’s sanctuary in Eden” (18) through his work. (Listening to the talk was fun on this point, as Bergsma made stick figures to illustrate how Adam fulfilled the roles of prophet, priest, and king in the garden: “His face shines with a filial shine…he’s happy because he’s a son of God…that’s a good piece of spiritual theology…we’ll put a scepter in his right hand, which would also necessitate me giving him fingers.”)

Bergsma then describes what happened to work after the Fall: with this “unity of work and worship” broken, “restoring the priesthood of humankind and the priestly nature of their labor becomes a theme in the subsequent narrative of sacred history” (18). Noah is identified as a new Adam figure who “experiences the flood as an act of re-creation” (19), plants successful vines, and offers a priestly sacrifice which is acceptable to God….but then that story goes off the rails.

So, Bergsma traces ideas of work through the rest of the Pentateuch, explaining the ways in which the covenant made at Sinai makes Israel “a community of kings who are priests” (21, where he introduces the parallel with 1 Peter 2:9). But it’s an imperfect solution. There’s a little matter of a golden calf, for one thing. The “reintegration of work and worship for the people of God is not realized historically in the rest of the Old Testament” (22). Only in the New Testament will humans, through the mediation of Jesus, be restored to their priestly status which makes work worship.

Does Bergsma make his case? I think so. I am not an Old Testament scholar, but I happened to be reading this book at the same time as I was reading Sandra Richter’s The Epic of Edenwhich has no particular faith and work ax to grind and ends up saying many of the same things.

I was struck by several things as I listened and read. One was that we emphasize the covenant of the Old Testament frequently, but we don’t always emphasize its content. The restoration of Israel to priestly status through the covenant has important implications for work – along with the change of the use of עֲבֹדָה, ‘ăḇōḏā (faith and work folks may be more used to seeing this transliterated as avodah) halfway through Exodus from referring to the slave work commanded by Pharoah to referring to worship performed in the tabernacle. (Bergsma doesn’t, but I might go so far as to say that work done in slavery to any master, whether that master is one human person or some systemic evil, is never worship, and that one of the faith and work movement’s goals should be to free all people everywhere from that kind of slavery.)

Secondly, I was struck by the implications that moral, economic, and “cultic” regulations are all mashed up together in Leviticus and we have spent a lot of time since trying to separate them and maybe if we seek a grand unified faith and work theory we shouldn’t – and that has implications for other cultural discussions as well. I’m going to be chewing on that for a while (although I really like Richter’s answer to the conundrum.)

Thirdly, Bergsma made an offhand comment in the talk that Eve was a type (in the typological sense) of the temple and Adam a type of the priest. Bergsma is a good Catholic, but I’m not, and as a female Episcopal priest I’m particularly interested in that statement, especially in view of his contention in most of the chapter and talk that Jesus’s work on the cross restores us all to priestly status. (More on that when we get to the chapter on Luther.)

Finally, mainline me was happy to hear all of this framed in the talk as a description of the ministry of all the baptized. On that point, I agree with good Catholics. 🙂

Overall, this chapter was well worth reading. I’ll be back shortly as we continue our trip through faith and work in the Bible.

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