Work from the Beginning: Genesis 3

By David Williamson, part four of a series.

We are now somewhere in the middle of a deadly world-wide virus – a pandemic. As I read Genesis 3, I am aware that Genesis 3 introduces a deadly virus into the high view of work introduced in Genesis 1 and 2. Unfortunately, much of what people experience in their work, “reality now” is like a deadly virus.

Why do we work? Is it a necessary evil? Why is work often a burden to be endured, survived, rather than fulfilling? Why do we say TGIF and not TGIM? Can there still be purpose for my work, other than providing for our basic sustenance? How do I understand the burden, and the problems, experienced with work in the context of the divine purpose presented in Genesis 1 and 2? Where does the painful part of work come from?

The glorious gift of work is threatened by the temptation to free work from God’s authority and transcend the limitations of humanness. The man and woman, while co-workers, are always subordinate to God. They share God’s authority and privilege, but are always responsible to God as the ultimate authority, and a faithful, trusting relationship with God is to be their primary relationship. We, the recipients, want to manage the gift – and the giver.

The guest worker wants to shed the “image” or “likeness” of God and establish his/her self as a co-equal, not just a partner. The human workers were not to eliminate the hierarchy, take on self-appointed authority and modify or even deny the relationship by second-guessing the creator’s intent, purpose, heart and position. Rather than being God-dependent and God-focused, they wanted to be self-sufficient and self-focused.

This suggests that work involves the establishment of an authority structure. Consider Colossians 3:22 and 4:1, and Ephesians 6:5-9, where first-century Christians were called to respect established hierarchical relationships, recognizing that God calls forth an ordered life in place of the chaotic. The creature is not to take the creator’s, nor the community’s, authority into his/her own hands. When that happens, disaster follows, and a rude awakening takes place. The ideal is replaced by “reality now.”

From the moment Adam breaks his trusting relationship to God’s authority, work is absolutely tarnished. It is as though a giant viral pandemic threatens to destroy the whole program. A fatal flaw permeates the basic enterprise of work, so that it becomes “labor,” “struggle,” by the “sweat of the brow” (Genesis 3:18-19).

Caution: It is not that work itself becomes intrinsically evil, but the way in which work is done, woven together with anxiety, often painful exertion, apathy and conflict. Good work becomes difficult work, often seemingly meaningless or purposeless, a means of marginal survival rather than fulfilling God’s glorious purpose. When this happens, it seems that work has lost its joy, value and meaning. Though the essential original goodness in work was never removed or destroyed, we are prone to labor in vain. Far too many experience work in this way. Workers often experience their work as a “necessary evil” they have to endure in order to have a vacation, downtime, relief, or rest.

The good ground (adamah), which God used to form us now takes on elements that interfere, and makes it more difficult to till and develop. The work of co-operating with God in the dominion and production of the land is now by the “sweat of the brow.” The natural world is not always cooperative. Thorns and thistles grow out of the soil. Neither work nor childbirth are cursed (as you will notice in Chapter 4) but both profoundly affected.

We notice in Chapter 3, the following behaviors or attitudes. Limits are called into question (Genesis 3:1-2 and 5-6). There is an attempt to transcend human boundaries (3:5-6), trust breaks down (3:6 and 8), there is a disregard of legitimate authority (3:4-5), a denial or transgression of relationships, hiding form God and from others and even from ourselves (3:8-10), playing the blame game while offering excuse after excuse, avoiding full responsibility for one’s own behavior (3:8-13) Pride undermined the trusting subordinate relationship with God, and our parallel relationship with the human partner – the co-worker. The serpent or snake, a creature over which we were to have dominion, now rises up against us. All relationships have been damaged.

Yet, God’s redemptive love and provision are still evident. The earth still produces good things, humans continue to benefit from the product and even the process of working the land. We are still called to be co-workers, to see and participate in God’s good purposes, for the land and for our labor. God’s work and God’s way of working is still in place. In the midst of this fallen world, we are still called to see, receive and participate in God’s original plan.

In Genesis 3:21, God makes provision for our fallenness. God takes the initiative and comes to our aid. God does the work of a garment-maker for Adam and Eve, and still calls us to be co-workers. That is never lost. Now more than ever we are dependent on God for our survival and for our thriving, as we continue to stumble toward life as God intends – which includes working with God in the managing, stewarding and developing of the natural world. God places the cherubim and a sword to remind us that we cannot transcend the boundary between creature and creator.

Work is not a necessary evil, but it often is a challenge, experienced as considerably less than God intended. Genesis 3 is reality now, yet God is still God. God’s original purpose, the joy of work, is distorted. It is not something we endure, but it can also be something we receive and enjoy, for God/s glory and our joy. A necessary good, not a necessary evil. So, yes, “Thank God for Monday” as well as for Friday.

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