This the latest in a series of articles sharing insights from a joint curricular development initiative of the ON, the Theology of Work Project and three ON schools (Asbury, Assemblies of God and Western).
Only two professors we talked with were teaching Old Testament courses as such, but discussion of OT texts and themes also came up frequently in our other discussions. Part of these discussions dealt with broad themes in the OT. Other discussions examined the implications of particular books and passages in more depth. This is the first of two articles with insights on teaching faith and work in the OT gleaned from our curricular workshops; this one deals with some of the broad OT themes, and the next one will deal with some particular texts.
“In the beginning…”
Because Genesis lays foundations for so much that follows, it is not surprising that this is often where discussion started. The most common contemporary approach for developing a theology of work is built around the themes of Creation, Fall, Redemption and New Creation. The first two categories usually lean heavily on the exegesis of Genesis chapters 1, 2 and 3.
Our discussions just skimmed over a few of the work-related themes that these chapters invite us to explore, including:
- God as worker
- Human beings made in the “image” and “likeness” of God
- Work and gender
- How we value work in the domestic economy and work in the public economy when we consider our whole life’s work, paid and unpaid
- Creation care and cultivation
- What does “fruitfulness” include?
- The rhythm of work and rest
- Freedom, responsibility and limits in our work
- Valuing aesthetic, domestic, voluntary and business work
- The impact of the fall on work
Countless volumes have already been written about these chapters, but even these short conversations made plain there is still so much more to be explored and explained.
Moving beyond the first three chapters of Genesis, our discussions connected with many other OT texts and themes. Among these broader OT perspectives, two emerged that seem especially interesting as a starting point for thinking about teaching modules.
Contradictory Messages or Fruitful Tension?
If Genesis 1 and 2 seem to offer a very positive view of the value and meaning of work, how do we deal with the much more mixed messages we find in other parts of the OT? For example, the seemingly conflicting messages we find in Ecclesiastes 2:
“My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labour.” (2:10)
“I hated life, because the work that was done under the sun was grievous to me.” (2:17)
The faith at work movement is often criticised for developing a middle-class, white-collar theology of work that doesn’t speak to the struggles of many blue-collar workers and those who don’t have paid work, nor to the way western culture connects identity and worth to professional roles. Ecclesiastes offers a great hermeneutical challenge for students who would prefer the Bible to say just one thing straight up and down about work. We talked about how assignments might deal with this by holding a class debate or writing a sermon for people who struggle in their work.
Promised Land v. Sojourners or Exiles
Discussions highlighted how the OT describes the vocation and mission of the people of God being lived out in two quite different ways. There is work in the promised land, where God’s people are the dominant culture and their values shape that culture. And there is work as part of a foreign minority, living either as sojourners without a home of their own or as exiles from the promised land, in nations where the dominant culture is shaped by devotion to other gods.
In the promised land, the collections of laws found in the books of the Pentateuch include clear instructions from God to promote good relationships, good work, morality in the marketplace and to counter corruption and injustice (see for example Exodus 20:1-17 and 21:1-23:9, Leviticus 19:9-37 and 25:1-55 and Deuteronomy and Work). The Wisdom literature (e.g. Proverbs) expands on this with a lot of references to work and marketplace issues. Then in the historical and prophetic books we find recurring stories of whistleblowers God raises up to speak truth to power by naming injustices and immorality and calling God’s people to repent and mend their ways. They have been constituted as a distinctive “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6) to be a people whose behaviour in the marketplace as well as the tabernacle and temple is shaped by the character of the God they worship.
The people of God end up in foreign lands at various points. Sometimes this happens by choice; for example, Abraham and Jacob and his sons, at different times, move to Egypt to combat famine. Naomi’s family move to Moab for the same reason. At other times, God’s people are not migrants but captives, taken into exile as the result of conquest. These are the experiences that lie behind the stories of Joseph in Egypt, Daniel and his friends in Babylon, Esther in Persia and Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon.
For someone like me, from New Zealand, understanding the experience of the people of God in exile has long been very important for shaping our participation in the mission of God in a context of increasing secularization and pluralism. But now I also hear these voices raised in North America.
This picture of God at work in partnership with his people in so many different contexts, through the rise and fall of numerous empires, and over such a long period, would seem to be very timely and reassuring for a generation living in the midst of disorienting cultural upheaval and the confusion and anxiety that accompanies this. Our work, which often seems so mundane and insignificant, takes on new meaning when we see it as our participation in the work of God that is played out on such a grand scale in the Old Testament.
I welcome any feedback or suggestions for additional content.