After the fall Adam’s work is a struggle. A painful, thorny, sweaty work. As sons in our father’s image and likeness we share in this curse. We labor. We toil. We grind. And very rarely does the product match the input. Thorns and thistles sprout up where we planted grapes and olives and wheat. Because work now bears a curse we long for the day when we can rest. How often do we hear about reaching the great day when we can retire and finally cease working? And yet those who have attained that end often look longingly back on the days of their toilsome tasks. Work, while effected by the curse of sin, is not entirely cursed.
What about before the fall? Did Adam have work in Eden? If so, what was it? And why? What does a consideration of working in Paradise contribute to our understanding of our work now?
“When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up – for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground…The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:5, 15)
In His wisdom God created the world dependent upon man’s working of the ground. The creation could not reach its maturity unless man was there to work. The first thing to note is that from the beginning, even before sin, man created to work.
Now, surely God could’ve made the plants grow and produce fruit without any help from man. So why give Adam work? Could it be that even in Eden, the paradisiac garden of God, that work was good for man even as man was good for work?
Man’s work in Eden was meant to bring fruitfulness, abundant fruitfulness to his realm. This had the self-serving purpose of providing food for him to eat. But his work was not only limited to what he ate. The ratio of fruit that Adam would’ve eaten compared to that which was not must’ve been tremendously low. Adam’s work was not primarily for himself, but for the good, for the fruitfulness of the rest of creation.
In our age we have become increasingly abstracted from our realm. Advances in technology and global trade have diminished the number of farms and farmers required to feed us. Our present economic realities have made it increasingly common to see our labor without connection to fruitfulness. But there remains some truth to this reality. Work that is not just lucrative but is truly good for us is work that is that is productive, that advances God’s creation toward fruitfulness.
While it is true that work has fallen under the curse of sin, it is not true that all work is a curse. We are not closer to Eden when we retire than we are while we work. Nor should it be our goal to escape work. Rather, we ought to pursue labor and toil and work. And if the last things will be as the first things, then even in heaven and the new creation there will be work to do, though then the curse and futility of labor will cease to exist and our work will be our joy and delight: “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.” (Rev. 7:15)
In addition to being placed there to work the garden, Adam is also to keep it. This is commonly the job description of Priests or Levites as they serve in the temple. Upon closer examination the Garden of Eden was a holy place, made so by the Lord’s presence with Adam and Eve. If we pursue this reasoning, Adam is rightly called a priest. As the prototypical priest Adam was to keep the garden by guarding and defending it from any desecrating threat that may appear. Tragically he did not.
Each man has been given his own soul to guard and keep (Proverbs 4:23). Each married man has been given a bride to guard and keep (Ephesians 5:29). And each father has been given a family to guard and keep (Proverbs 22:6). This responsibility may also be extended into congregational life. While the Pastor is specifically tasked with keeping the good deposit entrusted to him (2 Timothy 1:14), this cannot be carried out without the members of the church. Any crack in the armor gives entry to the serpent and his leaven. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1)