[nextpage title=”made to work” ]In this and the next two posts, I want to focus special attention on particular aspects of the second creation story of Genesis, which occurs in chapters 2 and 3. I want to hone in on particular characteristics of the state in which God made humanity and the way sin distorted or set about destroying that state. I also want to explore how the gospel of Jesus Christ restores that state – sometimes, I think, in surprising ways. Because the gospel of Jesus Christ is at its heart a story whose meaning depends on a context. The story of Jesus is the climax of the story of God’s salvation for humanity, and that salvation implies some questions: saved from what? Saved to what? The Bible depicts God’s salvation of humanity as both restorative and progressive. There is an original state that we have lost because of our sin. When God saves us, he restores something of that original state. But actually, he does something else, too. He moves us beyond that original state into new territory. At the risk of getting ahead of myself somewhat, God’s plan for humanity was never static. He never intended to create us as dolls in some kind of cosmic doll-house, set us up in a particular position, and then leave us there. What we’ll see over the next three posts on Genesis 2-3 is that there are hints that God had plans for Adam and Eve, plans to educate them, to mature and perfect them, to expand their territory. But sin got in the way and threatened to abort that mission.
If you want to read the whole story, you can find it here. Read chapters 2 and 3.
Part 1: Created for work and for the earth
Genesis 2 tells us that humanity were created for work, and that the earth and humanity were created for each other. These are actually two sides of the same coin, and each side helps us understand the other. Let’s begin by taking a close look at Genesis 2:5.
Now no shrub of the field yet existed in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no human to work the ground.
The picture in Genesis 2 is a little different than that in Genesis 1. In the beginning, the earth was a barren, dusty wasteland. There were certainly no cultivated plants, but there were not even wilderness plants – shrubs of the field and herbs of the field. The two words here are mostly associated with plants one would experience in the wilderness. One can potentially get food from them, but they do not actively give us that food like fruit trees do. So not even wild shrubs are on the earth. Why is that? Because the conditions were not yet right. First, God had not yet caused it to rain. There was, however, a mist that went up from the earth to water the ground, so there was some moisture. The most important condition, however, was that there was no human to work the ground.
This is an important detail not to be passed up in our mad dash to reconcile every detail of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. In Genesis 2, the fullness of creation was awaiting a necessary precondition: the presence of humanity to work the ground and to protect it. Humanity was made to fill a lack, to pursue a purpose. This purpose is closely connected to the earth. We were made for the earth, and we were made for work.
These two facts really turn out to be one fact once we examine them closely. Work, in the primitive environment of Genesis 2, is tantamount to cultivating and caring for the earth. It’s not until civilization brings the division of labor that we start to see work whose connection to the earth is less obvious. In Genesis 2, there is no work other than earth-related work. And interestingly, even though earth-related work seems to be the work that is most closely connected to sustenance and therefore to survival, unlike today, the work God set the man to doing is not ultimately about survival. Rather, it is about obedience to God’s created purpose:
(15) The LORD God took the man and set him in the garden of Eden to work it and to keep it. (16) And the LORD God commanded the man saying, “From the fruit of any tree of the garden you may eat,
The man’s material needs had already been provided for when God put him in the garden of Eden and set him to work. The garden had already been planted and there were already trees of every kind that were pleasant to look at and that produced food that was good to eat. The reason for man’s work in the beginning was not survival. It was joyful obedience. So what we see is that man was made for work and he was made to work the earth, to care for it, to learn about it, and to improve it (this is what cultivation is). At the same time, the earth was made for man. It was made to provide for his needs and to bring him joy.[/nextpage]
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Part 2: The pain of work and our estrangement from the earth
Sin, however, has turned work into a struggle for survival, and it has estranged us from the earth for which we were made. This is the what the bulk of the curse in Genesis 3 is about.
(3:17) And to the man he said, “Because you listened to the voice of your wife, and you ate from the tree about which I commanded you saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’, cursed is the ground when you work it, and in pain you will eat from it all the days of your life. (18) Thorns and thistles it will produce for you, and you will eat from the shrub of the field. (19) By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread until you return to the ground, for from it you were taken. For you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
Sin changes work from being about joyful obedience to being about survival. There are a number of ways to analyze the sin of Adam and Eve, but one way we can reduce it is to say that it was their decision to rely upon themselves rather than upon God. They thought they knew better than God. The curse God pronounces on the man in 3:17-19 brings that presumption to its logical conclusion: if you desire to be independent of me, then you will also have to gain your sustenance from the ground independent of me. No longer will you and the earth work in perfect symbiosis. Rather you will struggle with each other. The relationship is characterized by pain or grief.
Work, then, is transformed by our assertion of our independence from God from a pursuit of joyful obedience to created purpose into a struggle for survival, and a vain struggle at that. Because God says in 3:19, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread until you return to the ground, for from it you were taken. For you are dust, and to dust you will return.” We will struggle for enough to eat all the days of our life until we finally succumb to the slow march of death that started the moment we were born. No joy, but pain. No purpose, but futility.
Now the fact is that God has never left us entirely to our own devices. This is the real meaning behind Genesis 3:21. He has sent rain on the just and the unjust. He has given us wisdom about plants and animals, helping us see how to improve our lives so we can have enough to eat, and even have pleasant things to eat. Nevertheless, the substance of the curse of verses 17-19 are still an accurate description of our current relationship to our work and to the earth.
Work, perhaps now more than ever, is often a meaningless drudgery. We work for years in a job we don’t like, doing things that don’t matter to us personally, making things for people we don’t know or processing paperwork or computer data that goes off someplace to do something we don’t know about or really care about, just so that we can make enough money to buy food we didn’t grow and we don’t know where it came from, so that we can live to see another day of working in our meaningless job. Particularly in today’s complex society and economy, we have replaced the sweat of our brow with the angst of being a disposable cog in a machine we don’t comprehend.
In some ways this is even worse than the futility of the sweat of our brow, because more often than not we do not see the end result of our work, the good purpose of our work. We are often disconnected from the nuts and bolts of reality. This is why a brief walk outside can be such a relief from the stress of an office job, why we feel more connected to the world and to ourselves when we work with the earth when we interact with animals. Purpose in our work and presence within reality are interconnected, so that our purposelessness in work is rightly associated with our estrangement from the earth in Genesis 3:17-19. I’m not saying we all have to be farmers. What I’m saying is that whatever our work is, we live in a world where work is predominately about survival rather than about pursuing God’s created purpose for our lives, and because of this we find ourselves estranged from the earth, from presence within reality. We run from the futility of our lives by living in fantasy worlds, either in plans for the future that may never come to fruition because of circumstances outside our control, or in other lives lived vicariously through television, movies, or books. We become disconnected from reality, which is the same, I am arguing, as Adam’s estrangement from the earth in Genesis 3:17-19.[/nextpage]
[nextpage title=”redemption of work”]
Part 3: The redemption of our work in Jesus, our renewed connection to creation
But here’s the good news: we don’t have to live in Genesis 3:17-19, because in Christ the redemption of creation has begun. Even though we cannot see it with our eyes, we can live right now in a new heavens and new earth. This is a reality where work is no longer simply about survival, but it has once again become about the pursuit of joyful obedience to God’s created purpose, as well as the means whereby God provides for our needs by faith.
How does Jesus do this? What has Jesus done that so completely re-transforms our relationship to our work and to the world? By dying on the cross Jesus accepted the full weight of human guilt. When we identify with Jesus through faith and public confession, we become justified through his death, because when God looks on us he sees Jesus. The curse no longer has to pertain to us. And because God raised Jesus from the dead we have a sure hope that we too will share in that resurrection. Death is not the end for us. We will likely still experience it, but instead of defeating us it will instead become the ultimate purifying experience. If it is true, as Paul tells us, “our momentary light affliction is producing in us an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure and proportion,” or, as Peter tells us, “now for a short time, if necessary, you are distressed by various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more valuable than gold that is passing away, but is tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” – if it is true that our sufferings only produce within us that purest version of ourselves, our most thoroughly human humanity – then how much more will death, that ultimate suffering, the final realization of the curse of Genesis 3, how much more will it purify us?
We are re-connected to the tree of life through Jesus. But we’ve actually moved beyond that primitive connection. We live finite lives, but we do so in view of a promised resurrection and a life everlasting. That finiteness has now become a blessing rather than a curse. The urgency of our lives is no longer one of fear, where we work because we are afraid we may not have enough, but one of love for God and for each other. We work because we were created to work. We don’t lose sight of the fact that we need food to live, but we live in faithful obedience, trusting God to provide for our material needs, the way it was in the Garden.
Reconnecting with “the earth” by reconnecting with God is about courageously and joyfully living in the here and now. And I talked about in a previous post, focusing on the transcendent Jesus does not decrease our awareness of the immediate. Rather, it provides us with the proper perspective to make sense of the immediate and deal with it wisely and in a way that honors God. Having a perspective on life that it is God who is responsible for our survival, not us, takes away a huge part of the stress of life. And when we aren’t stressed out of our minds and fearfully obsessed with impending doom, what we find is that we are actually more present for our friends and family. Fear isolates us (another lesson of Genesis 3). Faith in God brings us together.
Faith doesn’t mean that we don’t have to work. We are still expected to work, but not because Jesus’ redeeming work is unfinished. It is because we were created to work, and in Christ we have been re-created, again for work. In Ephesians 2:10, Paul reaffirms the principle that we were created to work and reinterprets it in light of Jesus:
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand so that we might walk in them”
In an ideal setting, the first man had a job to do. You do too, but in Christ you can now do that job with joyful obedience to your real boss, God, rather than in response to the threat of termination or poverty. And you can know that whatever you are doing in your job, it is of lasting importance because God put you there for a reason (unless you’re doing something illegal or immoral, in which case: stop it!).[/nextpage]