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Genesis 2: Towards a Theology of Work

Here are some thoughts on how Genesis 2 lays down the foundations of a theology of work: “Man” is created in God’s image. Content for this is provided through a comparison of the description of man in Genesis 1-2 with that of God. So, for example, God is portrayed as the supreme King, declaring his [...]

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Here are some thoughts on how Genesis 2 lays down the foundations of a theology of work:

  1. “Man” is created in God’s image. Content for this is provided through a comparison of the description of man in Genesis 1-2 with that of God. So, for example, God is portrayed as the supreme King, declaring his royal fiats. Accordingly, to be created in God’s image involves ruling LIKE God. In Genesis 1 the creation process involves the conquest of chaos. Accordingly, to be in God’s image involves conquering (subduing) LIKE God. So again in Genesis 1 God works purposefully and rests after completing and being satisfied with his work. Accordingly, to be in God’s image involves some understanding of man as a Godlike worker.
  2. We have to nuance the way in which our work images that of God. God enters his rest after completing his work. It would be a mistake, however, to read Genesis 2 as indicating that pre-Fall man must first work, then rest. Rather, the very language of God putting man in the Garden (Genesis 2:15) carries the idea of God causing man to rest in the Garden, that is, to enter his rest. In other words, the pre-Fall state involves the merging of labour and the enjoyment of rest. The man is resting in the presence of God even as he works. Here we might reflect that though God himself rests upon completion of his work of creation this does not mean the cessation of God’s work of providence which is not antithetical to his enjoyment of never-ceasing rest.
  3. Many commentators have rightly noted that the words rendered “work (it)” and “take care (of it)” involves a deliberate combination of terms particularly used with reference to priestly service in the Tabernacle. The underlying point is that the Garden is in actual fact a mountain sanctuary (the rivers flowing down from it to water the four corners of the Earth; cf. Ezek 28:11ff), the “Temple” of God. It is the place where man lives in the presence of God and the two terms used in Genesis 2:15, in priestly contexts, are rendered “minister and guard.” Again, just as the Garden is the Temple of God so man is put in the Garden to serve as God’s priest. We associate a number of functions with priests but the most fundamental idea of all is that of one privileged to enter the presence of God. Because God is the Great King ruling in his Garden-Palace complex (the word for “temple” and “palace” in the OT is the same) man is privileged to access the royal presence, hence the foundations of royal priesthood. It should also be noted that in the ancient world it was central to the function of a priest to GUARD the temple sanctuary of whatever god or gods he was serving.
  4. The imagery of Genesis 2, as I understand it, involves the following broad notion. In Genesis 1 God’s work addresses the initial “chaos” condition described at Genesis 1:2, bringing form and fullness where there is lack of form and emptiness. In Genesis 2 man’s work addresses the parallel “chaos” condition described at 2:5-6. This condition prevails while there is “no man to work the ground.” Clearly, the fact that verse 15 uses priestly terms does not obviate the fact that the underlying imagery is that of cultivating the land. However, the thought is that it is as man works the ground in the Garden that he fulfils the Genesis 1:28 mandate. The thought is that as man performs his priestly work form and fullness will increasingly characterise that which was previously deemed to be in a chaos condition outside the Garden.
  5. Human work in its pre-Fall state mirrors God’s work in that it too seeks the conquest of chaos so that the whole earth will throb with created vitality and life and especially people who reflect and radiate the glory of God.
  6. If we are to be “more than conquerors” in our work it will only be because we succeed in GUARDING the Garden, ensuring that the place of God’s presence is undefiled. To live in God’ presence involves living in tune with God’s will. Although, as those created in God’s image, people were like God, they were radically different in one key respect – the knowledge of good and evil. In the ancient world the supreme court of appeal was the king himself. As the supreme ruler God is also the ultimate judge. After each day of creation God the King assesses his own work and judges it. Of course, as Creator, he alone knows whether what he has done meets his creation purpose or not. We read that God is perfectly satisfied with what he has done. It satisfies his purpose perfectly. BUT we as mere creatures are in no position to judge what is ultimately good or ultimately evil since we would need to have the mind of God himself to do this. For us to arrogate to ourselves the right to determine what is good and what is evil is a monstrous thing. What arrogance! Of course, when we succeed in illegitimately becoming like God in this respect (making absolute judgments; Gen 3:22) then we necessarily defile the presence of God because our wills now clash with God’s perfect will and purpose.
  7. Central to the story of redemption is the notion of a return to the Garden and although this will only be consummated when our Lord returns we recognise that we already pre-experience many aspects of that final reality (inaugurated eschatology). The redemption of work involves the notion that I can live in the presence of God and enjoy the rest of God in the whole of my life, including when I am working, whatever form this may take. No matter how menial or pointless human work might appear to be from a human perspective the individual who finds himself or herself so engaged derives meaning from the knowledge that he or she does this in the presence of God. We are more than conquerors because nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Of course, because our theology understands that salvation is not just about the redemption of souls but the creation of a new heavens and a new earth, involving significant continuity with reality as currently experienced, we have a wholistic understanding of work and ministry. To the extent the Lord allows we do want to work in a way that involves God-honouring and Godlike conquest, work that “attacks” the expressions of chaos in our world and seeks to overcome it. Central to this is the vision of a world filled with people who image God, who always live in and hallow his presence and reflect and radiate his glory. Work that contributes to the expansion and development of the people of God, the building of “the great nation”, has particular importance.

Posted June 5, 2013

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