Genesis 2:15, we read, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” There is a failed concept out there that thinks work only became necessary after the Fall of chapter 3. However, that’s simply not the case. For one, Genesis 3 doesn’t use any word for work but instead describes the brutal nature of humankind’s work moving forward. In Genesis 3:17-19, God doesn’t curse man with work. He doesn’t curse Adam but rather the ground:
“…cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
The word in Genesis 2:15 is avad, meaning to work, labor, or to serve. It first appears in the same context in Genesis 2:5. The next time it’s used is when God kicked Adam and Eve out of Eden. “Therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken” (Genesis 3:23). It is still used in the same way as before the Fall. Adam was still going to have to work the ground for his livelihood. However, due to his eyes opening and claiming Good and Evil for themselves, life in this world would be full of struggles, and things would not work out as intended. Humanity’s efforts would be resisted by uncooperative nature, necessitating additional work for humanity to achieve its intended outcomes.
Now, of course, we can all see this reality in our own lives. Sometimes it’s our own hands that we have to labor against. Interestingly, in Genesis 2 and 3, work is only meant for the “ground.” Its meaning is more like “earth.” Adam’s name comes from the same word; He was a worker of the ground. The same scenario plays out with Adam’s son, Cain. Cain was a worker of the ground (Genesis 4:2), he fails at temptation, and the ground is cursed because of him (4:12).
However, the next time “work” appears, something is different. “Twelve years they had served Chedorlaomer, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled” (Genesis 14:4). Instead of humanity working the ground for themselves, they are now working for someone else. It is not coincidental that in the next chapter, avad shows up again when God warns Abram that his descendants will be “servants” (avad) for 400 years in a land not their own (Genesis 15:13).
Earlier in Genesis, we can see something else that looks the same. God creates Eve as the other missing half needed for humanity to be “good” (Genesis 2:18). The story falls apart quickly as humanity still wrestles with the existential crisis. By chapter 4, a brother kills his younger brother because of his insecurity and envy. As a result, the ground (Earth) cursed Cain (not God or anyone else) – “now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand” (Genesis 4:11). There’s this transaction that happens: Cain takes Abel’s blood – Earth takes the blood from Cain – Earth curses Cain because of it. I’d love to get distracted by this, but notice the relationship the Earth had with Humanity has changed now. Instead of giving to humanity, it has to absorb its malevolence.
A few verses later in Genesis 4:19, Lamech, who is portrayed as the full evolution of Cain, “took two wives.” Two chapters later, Genesis 6:1-2 says, “When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose.” Men were “taking” women as if they were on a shelf in Walmart. Women were no longer humans but animals and objects for men’s benefit.
Humankind had begun working people instead of the Earth entrusted by God. This is still true today. We work people for our gain and security. Through our words, looks, actions, and the lack thereof, we view people not as co-humans but as objects to be gained for ourselves or removed as threats to our existence.
This principle can be seen in everything where humans interact. One of my most recommended books is Leadership & Self-Deception. The basic premise is that we all like to be in a “box” of self-justification; when we do, we automatically turn people into objects that are either beneficial to us or a threat. The challenge, then, is to get out of the box to properly and effectively relate and work with others. A favorite book (not as much recommended) is The Scapegoat by René Girard. His main theory that builds from is memetic theory: that we humans mime each other. We copy others, and we want what they have while protecting what we have from other people taking and copying. This leads to tribalism to channel personal and communal angst outwards onto another entity, like a god…or a political group.
Back in the Bible, Exodus picks up on avad where Genesis leaves off. Abraham’s descendants have been avad‘ed for 400 years. As God is calling Moses, He offers this sign, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain” (Exodus 3:12). This time avad is used for us being God’s “workers.” This word, avad, will become a word for “worship” by the end of Exodus: avodah.
God, in some sense, takes mankind’s messed up hierarchical order and inhuman social contracts and inserts Himself into it. By God being a part of the equation, He can act as a clear framework and figurehead to keep humanity on track and prevent them from destroying themselves, as well as a conduit for people’s shame and guilt. A proper relationship and posture as being a creature rather than the Creator prevents us from becoming fake gods over other people.
Later in Israel’s early formative history, they were once ruled by “judges.” However, as a people, this was not what they thought was best. So, they told their priest and last judge, Samuel, “Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5b). Samuel, in vexation, didn’t know how to respond. God did: after a bit of context, God told Samuel, “Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” (8:9).
Samuel called the people together and said,
“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
– 1 Samuel 8:11-18
Without hesitation or thought, the people demanded back, “No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (19-20).
We all want someone or something else, just not us, to fight our battles for us and take care of the things we don’t want to tend to. I think it’s part of the reason we make trade-offs for people who take care of some existential problem by also bringing in another problem that oppresses us. At least in such an arrangement, we have someone else to blame for the turmoil of our life. What’s happening is that we conveniently hide our shame and fear inside the dysfunction and abuse of the other. But I’ll get lost in a rabbit hole here if I don’t stop.
The point of this post is this: a good majority of us have this deep-rooted belief in people being not persons but objects. We perceive them as threats to our existence or a means to an end so we can finally feel like a whole human ourselves. Living in such an orientation ensures we will move through life disoriented. There will always be areas we feel insecure and afraid even to approach. There is only one way to break this: stop, lower the defenses and put down the hatchets, own our shame and fear, and do the hard work to untrain ourselves in the way we’ve been living. We must get out of the “box” and stop self-justifying ourselves even when others won’t. It is hard work, but it’s worth it.