Work is a fundamental aspect of human existence in biblical and secular contexts. This post explores biblical examples of work, examining individuals, family units, clans, and societies. Supported by scripture and relevant secular literature, such examples shed light on the nature of work and its implications for contemporary society. The topic presented is one I find particularly interesting. My first doctorate was a DTh, or doctorate in theology, where I wrote about the early Genesis story associated with Eve and compared it with the Pandora legend.
Adam and Eve
In the book of Genesis, the account of Adam and Eve presents an initial biblical example of work. They were tasked with tending to and cultivating the land in the Garden of Eden, with scripture saying that they were to “work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15, New International Version). This narrative emphasizes the inherent value of work and the responsibility to steward and nurture the environment. Phipps (1988) provided an interesting commentary documenting the differences between both Eve and Pandora. More recently, Maurice and Bibring (2022) have explored the same topic. Yet, unlike the earlier studies, the current approach has moved more towards “exploited labor” (Maurice & Bibring, 2022, p. 173) in documenting people’s work.
The requirement for Adam and Eve to leave the garden is often looked upon by many as the fall (Milton, 1895). Yet, I see it as an opportunity. In my thesis, I looked at the choice made by Eve. Before Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, neither she nor Adam understood sin or wrongdoing. Without such understanding, the original idea of humanity is more one of animals. The presumption of how Eve was treated is unfortunately premised on the idea that she would be able to know not to disobey God before eating from the Tree of Knowledge.
As such, I see the choice presented as one of free will and one they were required to make. The garden provided a means for Adam and Eve to discover hard work and a path toward individual growth. Yet the choice needed to be something they made. By choosing as she did, Eve has delivered us from a world where we would never seek to be more than we were. It is a world where we are not indeed stewards but merely cogs in a machine. Becoming human requires knowledge of sin and wrongdoing (Maurice & Bibring, 2022).
Secular literature supports this premise, highlighting the importance of individuals’ engagement with their surroundings and the benefits of environmental care for personal and communal well-being (Goodwin & Kraft, 2022). By fulfilling their responsibilities, Adam and Eve exemplify the significance of work to contribute to the world around them (White & Kirkpatrick, 2020).
The story of Joseph in Genesis illustrates the transformative power of work (Smith, 2019). Despite being sold into slavery, Joseph demonstrated diligence and dedication in his various roles, ultimately becoming a trusted administrator in Egypt. Throughout his career, he managed resources, developed strategic plans, and effectively prepared for widespread famine. Researchers, including Ming et al. (Ming et al., 2021), acknowledge Joseph’s qualities. Joseph’s rise to prominence inspires individuals navigating challenging circumstances, highlighting the importance of perseverance and dedication in the face of adversity.
His example of self-sacrifice in freeing the Hebrews and leading the Israelites out of Egypt provides an example of work in a leadership context. Moses fulfilled a role guiding the nation, mediating between God and the people, and establishing laws and systems for maintaining order and justice. Yet, in the end, he was not allowed to enter the city he had successfully taken people to. Muzira et al. (2020) recognize Moses in analyzing the concept of servant leadership, and relate it to modern business management practice. Exploring the early biblical story, we can also acknowledge Moses’ leadership abilities and the importance of effective societal governance. His work exemplifies principles of strategic decision-making, conflict resolution, and establishing social structures. As a result, Moses serves as a model for leaders today, illustrating the significance of ethical leadership and community-building efforts.
Paul the Apostle
The apostle Paul’s missionary work and teachings hold relevance in understanding work in a broader context. Paul was pivotal in spreading Christianity and establishing early Christian communities through preaching, teaching, and letter-writing (Dahl, 2021). We may also acknowledge Paul’s missionary work as an exemplification of effective communication, perseverance, and community-building (Prothro, 2022). In addition, his letters, such as those which instruct us in a reading of the New Testament, provide insights into ethical work practices, interpersonal relationships, and the integration of faith and work.
The book of Ecclesiastes, attributed to King Solomon, presents profound reflections on various aspects of life, including work, wealth, and the pursuit of meaning. While primarily known for its philosophical and existential themes, Ecclesiastes also contains insights that can be viewed as an economic treatise. Importantly, Ecclesiastes acknowledges the inherent value of work and labor. The book emphasizes the importance of perseverance and the rewards of diligent effort. A passage I particularly like says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10, New International Version). This perspective aligns with economic principles highlighting the significance of human capital, productivity, and the correlation between effort and rewards.
One of the central themes in Ecclesiastes is the vanity and transitory nature of wealth and material possessions. I find this aligns closely with many Stoic authors, including Marcus Aurelius. The author’s observations on the pursuit of wealth and its ultimate emptiness provide valuable insights into the economic concept of diminishing marginal utility. Ecclesiastes asserts that wealth accumulation, while not inherently evil, does not offer lasting satisfaction or meaning. Such a reflection echoes the economic notion that pursuing material possessions alone may not lead to true well-being or happiness.
By closely reading Ecclesiastes, we may recognize the inequalities and injustices in the world. The Old Testament work acknowledges that wealth and success are not always attainable through personal effort and skill alone. The book provides the observation that “the race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favour to the learned” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). This perspective resonates with economic discussions on income distribution, social mobility, and the role of external factors in economic outcomes. As such, I think it is a valuable work to read when considering economic geography and the plight of people worldwide.
Equally, this book emphasizes the value of wisdom and prudent decision-making. In reading it, we can understand the significance of making informed choices, considering long-term consequences, and exercising discernment in economic endeavours. This perspective with economic literature highlights the role of rational decision-making, risk management, and informed judgment in economic activities (Geest, 2021).
While primarily regarded as a philosophical and existential work, Ecclesiastes offers insights that can be interpreted through an economic lens, providing a unique perspective on economic principles and human behaviour. Its reflections on work, wealth, inequalities, and wisdom demonstrate the multifaceted nature of work in individuals, family units, clans, and societies, emphasizing its intrinsic value, the importance of stewardship, the transformative power of dedication, the significance of leadership, and the integration of faith and work (Geest, 2021). By considering Ecclesiastes as an economic treatise and exploring biblical examples such as Adam and Eve, Joseph, Moses, and Paul, along with the affirmation of such principles in relevant secular literature, we gain a comprehensive understanding of the purpose of work and its implications for contemporary contexts, including effective leadership, strategic planning, environmental care, and community development.
Dahl, N. A. (2021). The Apostle Paul Guides the Early Church. Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Geest, P. van. (2021). The Relationship between Economics and Theology as Scientific Disciplines through the Ages. In Morality in the Marketplace (pp. 7–28). Brill. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004501706_003
Goodwin, E., & Kraft, K. (2022). Mental health and spiritual well-being in humanitarian crises: The role of faith communities providing spiritual and psychosocial support during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of International Humanitarian Action, 7(1), 21. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41018-022-00127-w
Maurice, L., & Bibring, T. (2022). Gender, Creation Myths and their Reception in Western Civilization: Prometheus, Pandora, Adam and Eve. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Milton, J. (1895). John Milton Paradise Lost. Blackie & Son, Limited.
Ming, D., Purwoko, P. S., Wahyuni, S., & Suharto, D. (2021). Transformational Leadership of Nehemia in Spirituality, Integrity, and Visioner to the Contemporary Leaders. European Journal of Theology and Philosophy, 1(6), Article 6. https://doi.org/10.24018/theology.2021.1.6.38
Muzira, D. R., Muzira, R., & Min, D. (2020). The concept of servant leadership in business management. East African Journal of Education and Social Sciences (EAJESS), 1(1), 24–32.
Phipps, W. E. (1988). Eve and Pandora Contrasted. Theology Today, 45(1), 34–48. https://doi.org/10.1177/004057368804500104
Prothro, J. B. (2022). The Apostle Paul and His Letters: An Introduction. CUA Press.
Smith, M. (2019). Joseph: Authentic Leadership Forged in the Crucible. Journal of Biblical Perspectives in Leadership, 9(1), 286–303.
White, D., & Kirkpatrick, N. (2020). The Role of Biblical Theology in Teaching a Christian Worldview on Business. Christian Business Academy Review, 15. https://www.cbfa-cbar.org/index.php/cbar/article/view/536
[Image: The garden of Eden with the fall of man. (Genesis 3:4), Peter Paul Rubens, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons]