Labour ( Work ) as Blessing: A Biblical Perspective
Dr. K. B. Georgekutty
An initial problem- what constitutes human labour? The Oxford dictionary defines labour as a physical or mental work, also as such work considered as supplying the needs of the community. Work is a general term, usable in a variety of contexts. Work can refer to any physical and/or mental activities, which transform natural materials into a more useful form, improve human knowledge and understanding of the world, and /or provide or distribute goods to others. Work differs from labour because of its specific broader connotation and wider application. Labour differs from work in often being limited to purposive, necessary expenditure of effort, usually of fatiguing or onerous nature.
Pope John Paul II defines work as ´´activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances; it means any human activity that can and must be recognized as work in the midst of many activities of which he is predisposed by his nature, by virtue of humanity itself´´. For him work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be termed as work. Only human beings are capable of work occupying their existence on earth. Since work is specifically human property, it is therefore a uniting factor for humanity. Labour can be better defined as physical work under taken by men and women for supplying the needs of the community to sustain life.
Bible and Labour
In the Hebrew Bible we encounter two contrasting perspectives on labour. On the one hand labour is presented as a divine mandate, which is stewardship to be exercised and a creative act to be performed (Gen.2: 15). On the other hand it is depicted as a punishment for sin, painful, drudgery, and a heavy burden (Gen. 3:17-19).Ivan Engnell in his article entitled “Arbete” suggests that the Hebrew Bible’s attitude to work is entirely negative. He argues that according to Genesis, it is not a question of Adam working in the garden of Eden, rather he lives there as a more or less divine being with a cultic responsibility but free from work. Labour is therefore the result of an imposed curse, which becomes an activity, after sin entered in to the humanity. According to Engnell, the same low status of work would be seen in the other books of the Hebrew Bible. Nowhere is the support for the thought that the work might be a natural order instituted by God. Work is something, which is the lot of slaves. For the free human being it is something evil which is theologically motivated by the story of the fall.
Goran Agrell says that work projected in Genesis 2:4b-3: 24 is two fold. First work was a divine creation and is positive. But after the disobedience it is necessary for human beings to work for their living and work is harsh and weary and involves suffering. He says this dual perspective runs throughout the Bible.
The Hebrew Scriptures open up with the striking description of Yahweh forming and fashioning the world with hands as a human being (Gen.2: 7). Jeremiah compares Yahweh’s work in creation with that of a vinedresser, who digs the soil, throws away the stones and plants the vine (2:21; 5:10; cf. Isa. 5:1-7). The God of the Hebrews is not reluctant to work with hands, and that constitutes the distinctive feature of Yahweh. Yahweh by labouring gives labour a value far above what it enjoyed in the Ancient West Asian religions, where the task of human beings is to be the servants of gods.
Since the Hebrew Bible is the product of an agricultural community, and its God is a worker, it is not surprising to note that the Hebrews had a great esteem for labour, at least in their early traditions. The Hebrews accepted work as being natural and willed by God. For them it is a divine institution and blessing (Gen.2: 15).
The fact that the promised land was given to them by Yahweh, proves why they expressed pride and joy in having land to cultivate after their sojourn in Egypt. Right from the beginning Yahweh laid rules for the cultivation of the land (Lev. 25:3-4). The Sabbath is instituted for the welfare of the dependant class in the society (Ex. 20:8-10; Deut. 5: 12-14). This positive approach to labour can be traced from their history. Noah, Abraham, Isaac were farmers. David was a shepherd (I Sam. 6:11). Amos was one of the shepherds of Tekoa (Amos. 1:1). Gideon (Judg.6: 11), Saul (incidentally continued to plough even after he was made king), and Elisha (I Kings. 19:19-21) received Yahweh’s commission while they were in .
There are two special aspects we look into as a way of unfolding the divine concept of labour as Blessing namely: Creation and Hebrew Sabbath.
Labour in the context of Creation: God’s original purpose for human being is expressed in the Hebrew Bible in a two-fold manner in creation. These are stewardship of production and preservation in the Garden of Eden. It is made clear with the divine commission “to till it and keep it”. (Gen. 2:15). That it was God’s purpose for them, in part at least, even before their creation, is evidenced by God’s prior settlement that, there was no one to till the ground (2:5,6). However this exalted divine purpose in the dignity of human labour finds its highest expression in God’s commission involving the responsibility to ‘subdue and to have dominion over the created natural order’ (1:28). Hence the human being was challenged to employ, under Gods guidance and blessings, all aspects of his/her personality (the physical 2:15; intellectual 2:19-20; social 2: 18-24; and procreative 1:28).
The writer of the passage had a perspective of a peasant. For the writer God is like a potter. The text is important in the sense it is formulated in a way, which communicates human state. There is a vocation (v.15) for all human beings disregarding sex, cast and colour. The human creature is to care for and tend the garden. The word pair, “till and keep”, may suggest the role of a gardener or a shepherd. In either case, labour belongs to the garden. Labour is good, surely to enhance the life in garden. From the beginning, the human creature is called, given vocation, and expected to share in God’s labour. The community of man and woman is also perceived within the perspective of work. Man and woman are a community since they are working harmoniously together (Gen.2: 18).
The identification of disobedience with a reversal of the created order is not a historical statement but a theological one, Says, Jerome T. Walsh. He continues, “narratively the story deals with origins; but on a deeper level, every hearer identifies with this “man and his woman” not fitially but personally. The sin depicted is not simply the first sin, it is all human sin; it is my sin. And I who hear the tale am forced to acknowledge that my sin too has cosmic dimensions; my sin too is an attack on creation and an establishment of moral chaos.”
The relative unproductiveness of the land in comparison with human beings expectations and ideals is here regarded as the permanent effect of a curse. Earning the livelihood, which was the task of the head of the family, was toilsome. For an average Hebrew family man or woman this barrenness of the land was indigestible and must be the result of a divine curse. The laborious work of a husbandman is referred to in Sirach (7:15). The plight of women was doubly toilsome. They had to take part in the toilsome labour of the daily living. Same time they had to bear children and care for them. But that is not the prevailing feeling of the Hebrew Bible. Agriculture to the Hebrews was a divine institution, but the same time a hard and heavy reality. Sociological out look of the Hebrew family and family religions are reflected in the text. Despite the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex. 3:18; Numb.13: 27; Deut. 8:7-9, etc.), Israel had never been a rich land; there was hardly any agricultural surplus and there were few other natural resources.
Labour in the context of Sabbath: Sabbath is instituted as a divine provision for all labourers. The one-day rest derives its total significance after the six days of labour (Ex. 20:8,9).
Six days you shall labour and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to YHWH your God; in it you shall not do work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maid servant, or your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the sojourner within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were servant in the land of Egypt, and YHWH your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an out stretched arm; therefore YHWH your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day (Deut.5: 13-15; cf. Ex. 23:12).
The Sabbath law in Exodus has a social motive that is an institutional protection for the weakest of society. This social motive has been connected to liberation from Egypt, a symbol of toil, hard labour and slavery, in Deuteronomy. Further, the law provided room not only for rest, but also for the reward of a labourer; ‘You shall not with hold the wages of poor and needy labourers’ (Deut.24: 14; Lev. 19:13; Jer. 22:13).
Six days of a week have been juxtaposed and were on an equal footing with the seventh day; therefore both sides have been assigned their own justification, honour and destiny. Both are complementary and equally important. Six days of the week gained content and dignity through “labour”. Daily human labour had been given the religious dimension, dignity and reward as rest on the seventh day. Seventh day is not a day fasting and misfortune but a day of rest and benison. It was not a day on which no labour of importance are to be performed for the fear that they will fail, but a day in which human beings rises above the need for the hard labour for his or her livelihood. Hence they receive a dignified status. It was this high regard of labour that is projected in Jewish Sabbath, in contradiction to Babylonian Sabbath, made it unique. Dignity of labour is affirmed in Deut. 5:14-15. The same humane concern prompted the law “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when it tread out the corn (Deut. 25:4).”
By keeping the Sabbath commandment, the Israelites had to recall their origin: “I am Yahweh your God, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The liberating God of the Exodus is the starting point. Liberation from house of bondage doesn’t mean liberation from labour as such. The hard reality of labour will continue on the fields of highlands of Palestine. But it means that they will provide rest to the slaves who are under their control. Thus Sabbath becomes a symbol of the status of freedom, which has been offered by Yahweh.
Sabbath prohibited that which was naturally been permitted on all other days through a divine intervention. It places in the cycle of life a room for freedom from the tyranny and oppression of unrelenting human labour, drivenness, and the increasing pressure of unceasing labour. It teaches the necessity of striving for something higher than daily life. It distinguishes between holy and profane and educated human beings toward conscious self-restraint. It elevates the entire creation as a single cosmos and human beings should honour it as the creation of a single hand for dignity.
To the question what was required of keeping the Sabbath, three things are necessary says, Patrick D Miller. 1/ On a regular basis, members of the community are set aside the normal routines and work to gain rest and refreshment. More than that they have to see that such rest is made available to all, particularly those who might not normally have the freedom to relax from work. 2/ Worship and divine service are the aspects of Sabbath. 3/ On this day the community is supposed to recall the redeeming work of God.
In the rabbinic legislation the concern to feed animals supersedes the Sabbath prohibitions. The basic supposition behind this principle, says L. Nemoy, “danger to life takes precedence over the sanctity of Sabbath and anyone who violates the Sabbath on account of danger of life is free of punishment.”
Sabbath was given to humanity as a gift for human existence, “for the purpose of blessing labour”. It belongs to the providential work of God in providing for the continuity of life. Jesus, when he was confronted by Pharisees on the issue of Sabbath, replied, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath”(Mark 2:27). Karl Barth in his Church Dogmatics asserted that on this day we are to celebrate, rejoice and be free to the glory of God.
As per the Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy, labour is not an undesirable thing. Neither it had been set apart for a class of ill favoured in the society. Rather it is a requirement that there should be labour for “six days” in a week. Just as it was commanded to abstain from labour on the Sabbath, it was equally important to labour during the rest of the days. “Rest” will be applicable and necessary only to those who labour. This legislation has lot of implication to the labour class of the present day society, particularly to the Dalits in India, who were deprived of their right to “rest”.
As we have noted Bible presents labour as a creative blessing of God to humanity. God of creation appears as a potter. God not only works with hands, but also institute it as a divine predicament. God intends human beings to share in God’s labour.Labour is instituted by God from creation. Human beings were put in the garden to “till” and “keep.” Hence labour was intrinsic surely to enhance the life in garden.The identification of disobedience with a reversal of the created order is not a historical statement but a theological one. Creation narrative deals with origins; but on a deeper level, every hearer identifies with this “man and his woman” not filially but personally. The disobedience depicted is not simply the disobedience of first human beings rather it is the disobedience of all humanity.
Sabbath legislation in Deuteronomy is humanitarian in its outlook. Six days of a week have been juxtaposed and were on an equal footing with the seventh day; therefore both sides have been assigned their own justification, honour and destiny. Both are complementary and equally important. Six days of the week gained content and dignity through “labour”. Sabbath prohibited that which was naturally been permitted on all other days through a divine intervention. Daily human labour had been given the religious dimension, dignity and reward as rest on the seventh day.