In Genesis, after God creates Adam (literally “the man”), he gives him work to do:
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." (Genesis 2:15)
Note that this is before Adam and Eve’s sin of eating from the wrong tree. The Fall made work harder, but it didn’t create the work. In fact, God gives Adam two jobs: not only is he to be caretaker of the Garden of Eden, but he’s also the namer of the animals.
Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. (Genesis 2:19–20a)
This work, however, doesn’t seem to have a practical purpose. God had already provided for him through the Garden, as he makes clear from the instructions to eat from the trees that God had already planted. As for the names of the animals, in Genesis 1, God has shown himself to be pretty adept at language, speaking the very universe into existence. Surely he could have thought up names for pigs and horses on his own. Considering God’s omnipotence and omnipresence, he’s probably not delegating tasks to Adam that he’s too busy to address.
So what was this all about, then?
Adam was doing the work of God.
What is the Work of God?
When we hear the phrase “doing the work of God,” we usually mean some kind of church activity: preaching the Gospel, serving the poor, teaching Sunday School. Occasionally we mean some kind of good deed, above and beyond the call of service, that we know will go unnoticed and unappreciated. Rarely, if ever, do we consider “the work of God” to be a mundane task like tending a garden or naming our pets.
If we believe that God created the world, and we believe that he is still active and involved in the daily management of the world, then we must recognize that the “work of God” includes far more than church work or good deeds. Just think of the different activites involved in the six days of Creation recorded in Genesis 1:
- Day 1: Quantum mechanics
- Day 2: Hydraulic engineering
- Day 3: Geology and agriculture
- Day 4: Astrophysics
- Day 5: Zoology and ornithology
- Day 6: Animal husbandry and anthropology
And let’s not forget project management to keep it all in order!
Further, God’s work didn’t end with the sixth day of creation. The Biblical view of God portrays him as intimately involved with the day-to-day activities of the world. The Psalsm frequently describe God’s close management of “mundane” happenings. Take, for example, Psalm 104:
You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart. (Ps. 104:14–15)
Even wild animals are shepherded by God:
You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the beasts of the forest creep about.
The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God. (Ps. 104:20–21)
In the New Testament, we learn that the divine nature of Jesus includes this close engagement with the world:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15–20)
Borrowing a term from government, literally everything that you can imagine falls under God’s portfolio. He’s responsible for everything, both its creation and its regular maintenance. He’s even in charge of reconciling all things to himself, taking care of the usual “work of God” that we think of when using that term.
Our Stewardship of God’s Work
What was the point, then, of the work given to Adam by God?
We need to go a bit further back in the story, to the passage that I probably should have cited first. At the end of the sixth day of Creation, God creates human beings:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26–27)
The work of Adam and Eve is rooted in their identity as God’s image-bearers in creation. While this directive to “have dominion” has sometimes been criticized for justifying mankid’s abuse of the natural world, it ought to be understood as the gift of stewardship over God’s Creation. Adam and Eve take care of the garden given to them by God; they name the animals created by God. These two activities form the pattern that our work: following God’s lead to maintain and even extend what he has put into motion.
For another example of this, consider the signs of God’s blessing in Psalm 104: wine, oil, and bread. Gifts of the natural world, yes, but without the human work of fermenting, pressing, grinding, mixing, and baking, they would remain just grapes, olives, and grain. The manna in the desert demonstrated that God was prefectly capable of feeding his people without much effort on their part, yet he has invited us to participate in his work with him, creating possibilities for much greater blessings. Manna, I’m sure, was very nutritious and tasty. Somehow, though, I doubt it compares well to a meal of good wine, olive oil, and freshly baked bread.