Have you, like me, thought the Fourth Commandment was only about keeping the seventh-day Sabbath holy? Then join my excitement and discover it is about living for God every day. Not only has the meaning of the Sabbath day been lost,1 but the Christian purpose for working has been distorted. The Sabbath, blessed by God and made for us, prepares us to do our work of blessing others during the rest of the week.
The base for understanding the Sabbath is the Genesis narrative of God’s creative activity. Remarkably, Genesis begins and ends with characteristic works of God: He is Creator and Saviour. Creation is clearly the work of God alone. The concluding Joseph story in Genesis seems an exciting rags-to-riches thriller, but God is powerfully presented as the sole source of Joseph’s success. Seven times the narrator declares that God blessed Joseph the slave and made him successful (Gen 39:2-5, 21-23). Seven times Joseph himself declared that God directed his life so he could save his family and the Egyptians (Gen 45:5-8, 50:19-25). Genesis begins with God the Creator and ends with God the Saviour.
And the rest of Genesis? You’ve guessed it: human work. The golden thread that connects all the brilliant character stories in Genesis is God’s desire that humans work with Him. Like its great counterpart at the end of the Bible, Revelation, Genesis has Hebrew narrative’s classic chiastic structure, beginning and ending with God’s work, and centring on Abraham’s test to give his work to God (chapter 22)2.
When humans refused to accept God’s sovereignty and ate the forbidden fruit their work was cursed. This was not the pronouncement of an angry God. Even before God uttered the first curse (women bearing children in pain; men working hard to make the ground fruitful), Genesis shows that humans could not work successfully without God. Brittle fig leaves are singularly ineffective material to clothe nakedness and the choice of style, a “loincloth” (which in the Hebrew means merely a belt), almost useless for the purpose. God had to step in and make durable shirts from animal skins (Gen 3:21).
After sin’s entry Genesis portrays a series of five curse situations resulting from humans trying to work without God: on the couple’s work; on the ground because of Cain’s sin; the destruction of violent human work in the Flood; Noah’s curse of slavery (hard work), exemplified by Nimrod the great achiever, and founder of Babel (Gen 10:9,10); and finally, termination of work on the Tower of Babel. The Tower builders aspired to make a great name for themselves, and to reach heaven, showing “the spread of sin in Gen 3-11 is on an ascending scale”.3 Yet this story focuses on human work more than sin or worship. Thus the greatest sin is to have pride in one’s own work, accomplishment, and through it to aspire to “reach heaven”.
Into this bleak march of sin and curse, the call of Abram (Gen 12:1-3) bursts with seven blessings.4 In fact, the word blessing occurs in Genesis a total of 88 times, more than in any other book in the Bible.5 Blessing is the “signature tune” of Genesis,6 and the core concept in God’s plan for both human work and worship. God promised to give Abram a great name; he did not have to strive for it. The central blessing of Abram’s call (the fourth) is expressed in Hebrew as a command: “Be a blessing!” All God’s benefits, of course, are blessings. Abram, prototype of God’s people, was called to “come out” of the struggling, striving, Babel approach to work to receive God’s blessings and to live as a blessing to others.
Like us, the patriarchs struggled to understand how to work with God in blessing. All too often they tried to give God a helping hand. Abraham used Hagar to “help” God. Isaac thought he could bless the son of his choice, regardless of God’s choice. Jacob even thought he could deceive to make God’s plan work out, and then spent 20 years working hard trying to achieve success on his own. But at the centre of the Genesis chiasm are the stories of Abraham’s obedience to God’s incomprehensible call to sacrifice Isaac (apparently dooming all God’s promises and giving up his entire life’s work) and his devoted preparations for Sarah’s funeral. Adam failed God’s obedience test but Abraham remained true and obedient to God. After Abraham gave up Isaac (his life work) God assured him that the promised blessings were sure.
Genesis teaches that:
1. God’s work enfolds us; He is our Creator and our Saviour.
2. God shared the gift of work with humans so they could bless creation by serving and guarding it. Abraham was called out of the work-and-achievement-focused, pride-riddled Babel culture to return to the creation mandate to “be a blessing”.
3. Human work performed without God is doomed, as shown in the pre-Abraham stories.
4. Human work has the dangerous potential to be the source of the greatest human sin: self-centred pride. Even the patriarchs, attempting to give God a helping hand, caused delayed blessing and relationship distress.
5. Humans must recognise that all worthwhile achievements are due to the blessing of God. Abraham and Joseph acknowledged this, but the other patriarchs struggled to understand.
"Like us, the patriarchs struggled to understand how to work with God in blessing. All too often they tried to give God a helping hand."
When the early Christian church accepted Greek dualism (the idea that the physical body was separate from, and inferior to, the supposedly eternally-living soul) ordinary everyday work was downgraded and regarded as punishment for sin (Gen 3:16-19). Luther and Calvin, however, realised humans were given work even while in Eden (Gen 1:26-28, 2:5, 15). Luther suggested everyday work was our calling from God, our “vocation”. Our original calling was working with God to serve and guard this created world (Gen 2:15). Sadly, Christians slowly discarded the working-with-God aspect of calling and vocation came to mean getting a good, well-paid job and achieving “success”. Competition and achievement became the motivating factors in work, with resulting stress and anxiety.
Contemporary Christian theologians have upgraded work from its lowly “punishment for sin” status and consider humans are co-creators7 with God to bring this world to perfection, to transform it so Jesus Christ can return and claim His kingdom. 8 Significantly, the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and mainline Protestantism on work are now virtually the same.9 The Bible, however, does not teach that human effort will perfect the world before Jesus comes, but that God will do so after the millennium.
The Fourth Commandment is a mandate for total commitment of all our time to God and the blessings that follow its observance. During the six days we work with God to share His blessings (physical, mental, spiritual, social) with others. The seventh-day Sabbath not only regularly reminds us of God’s creative and redeeming work (Ex 20:8-12, Deut 5:12-15) and how dependant we are on Him, but renews our strength so that we can be a blessing to others. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
Dr Elizabeth Ostring is currently a volunteer pastor for It Is Written Oceania and assistant pastor at Royal Oak Church, NZ.
- See Sigve Tonstad. The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2009).
- Elizabeth Ostring, Be a Blessing: the Theology of Work in the Narrative of Genesis. Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock, 2016, p 141-161).
- William Dumbrell. Covenant and Creation: A Theology of Old Testament Covenants. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009, p 62.
- Umberto Cassuto. Commentary on the Book of Genesis Part Two From Noah to Abraham. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1964, p 312.
- Christopher Wright Mitchell. The Meaning of BRK “to Bless” in the Old Testament. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1987, p185. Wenham. Genesis 1-15. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987, p 275.
- John Scullion. Genesis—a Commentary for Students, Teachers, and Preachers. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992, p 102.
- Pope John-Paul-II. Laborem Exercens. Vatican, 1981.
- Miroslav Volf. Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001.
- Timothy Keller. Every Good Endeavor. London: Dutton, Penguin, 2012, p 257.