Music is sound in time.
— Barney Childs from a lecture on music composition
Does God perform work in a certain manner? Are we able to describe God’s work according to the Bible’s presentation of God? If so, does the Bible’s description of God’s work relate to our work?
Key passages in the Old Testament help us answer these important questions.
God’s Work: Creation and Filling
Genesis 1 describes God’s creation of the world as a work of six days. While interpreters disagree about aspects of this text, many will agree that the six days can be divided into two halves. In the first three days, God created spaces by dividing between things and naming the new spaces. In the second three days, God filled those spaces with meaningful content. Interpreters also note a correspondence between the spaces created on the first three days and the content created on the second three days, so that the light created on day one is given content on day four in the creation of the sun, moon and stars. The sky and sea created on day two is given content in the creation of fish and birds on day five. The land created on day three is given content in the creation of land animals and mankind on day six.
The fact that God works in these two arenas is clear elsewhere in Scripture. Israel remembered God as the one who created the earth (creation) and all that is in it (filling). God also emphasized the sacred calendar in the cycle of feasts and sacred space in the construction and arrangement of the tabernacle and temple.
Do we carry on this same model of work of creation and filling, seen primarily in God’s creative work in Genesis 1? Genesis 1 hints at an answer to this question, but scholars are far less certain. We can also demonstrate this point, however, by extrapolating from other texts of the Old Testament that indicate that our character and works ought to be identified with or similar to those of God.
First, one prominent understanding of man’s creation in the image and likeness of God, based on comparative texts from nearby peoples, sees man as the representative of God in the way that a regent (or vice regent) would rule in the place of an absent or incapacitated king. This idea, of course, implies neither God’s absence nor his incapacitation, but it does explain man’s role as the co-laborer with God in the garden of this world. In addition, in God’s blessing of mankind, he charges them with having dominion over his creation. God, in essence, says, “Here is my creation. Now you are in charge of it.” Could we then add to this that the nature of work of having dominion would include the organization of time and space and the filling of that space?
Mankind’s first task was to work the ground of the garden. I could make a personal reflection on gardening, since I have tried, mostly in frustrating failure, to raise my own vegetables in a backyard garden. As I think about the task of gardening, there are many steps in the process. But two things stand out in regard to our discussion here. I must first decide where my garden will go. To do so, I need to consider several factors such as the amount of sunlight that shines on this location, the time of day that the sun shines on that spot, how much wind blows and from what direction it comes, the characteristics of the soil, etc. Once I have made my evaluation and decision about the placement of my garden, I then set limits and divide my garden from what is not garden—namely my grass, or more accurately, my collection of native wild plants that I mow regularly, and which, at their best give the appearance of green grass. I can then name my places, as God does in Genesis 1, “This place I named ‘garden.’ And this place I named ‘lawn.’ And I saw that it was good.”
But after my creation of the space called “garden,” my work is not done. In fact it is just beginning. I must then fill that space with content. So I carefully choose seeds and plants that I want to cultivate in those areas I have designated as the garden. And, importantly, I only cultivate those things in the place I called garden. I don’t broadcast my tomato or squash seeds haphazardly over my whole lawn. Likewise, I don’t collect dandelion seeds from the rest of the area and bring them to my garden. In all of this, I see my work in the garden as very much the same sort of thing that God did in the six days of creation in Genesis 1. I create a space, and then I fill it with content.
Can this teaching be sustained in the rest of scripture? I believe so. Very briefly we see it again and again in the way that God issues instructions to his people. In the Old Testament, God says to his people, “Be holy, for I the Lord am holy.” He instructs his people to walk justly and love mercy—two characteristics that are fundamental to a biblical description of God. In the New Testament we see the same sort of teaching repeatedly used by Jesus. “As I have loved you, so you should love one another.” “As the Father has sent me into the world, so I send you.” Thus the early church could reflect on such things and say, “We love because he first loved us.”
Our duty as Christians follows God’s prior spiritual work and is of the same type as God’s work. Perhaps this is also true in our physical work. Maybe we, like God, create and fill.
Connecting to the Curriculum
God’s work in Genesis is described as two processes of creating spaces and filling spaces. The work of God is then transferred to mankind with his command to Adam and Eve, as his image bearers, to have dominion over the creatures and to work the garden.
I can model this view of work in my syllabus and classroom by demonstrating the two facets of organization and content. I can arrange the time of the semester and fill that time with meaningful content.
Students can likewise demonstrate their understanding of this work by organizing their time during the semester and filling that time with meaningful work for this and other classes. In addition, students can write three brief papers. The first paper would be a biblical text assigned by the professor which the students need to read and reflect on in terms of God’s work of shaping and filling space and time and on the theme of mankind performing work as regents of God. The second paper would contain the student’s reflections on a current application of this theme in regard to space or time either within the church or in a context outside of the church. The third paper would be focused on God’s story of salvation presented throughout the Bible. How does the student see this history of salvation in terms of God’s work of organizing time/space and filling that time/space and man’s corresponding work as God’s regents.
This article is a part of the Faith, Work and Economics Curriculum Project. Come back next week for a new installment.