From a biblical-theological perspective, “work” in the context of Genesis 2 may have a somewhat more specific sense, but the covenant of works has not yet been instituted. Certainly Adam was to cultivate the garden and to guard it as God’s prophet, priest, and king—a calling which Adam failed to fulfill thus plunging himself and us into sin and death but it seems fair to see it as the analogue to God’s figurative working and resting.Sin made work more difficult and, according to the writer of Ecclesiastes [2:23], even vanity, but it did not wipe out its goodness and necessity (Eccl 3:22).
For whatever reason, I only knew vaguely about Mike Rowe, the host of several television shows, but I ran across his video and audio podcasts online and it has been enlightening. Rowe, an opera singer and actor, among other things, is a big fan of blue-collar work. He has a foundation dedicated to helping people get to work. I mention Rowe because yesterday, on the way home from the office, I heard a local talk show host (Mike Slater) reciting joblessness statistics and discussing Gov. Brown’s proposed “guaranteed annual income” of $30,000. I do not find anything about a California proposal but it is an idea that is being mooted in Switzerland and Canada. As Slater explained it this guarantee would apply even to those who are able-bodied but unwilling to work. If true, we should object on several grounds but let us focus here on the morality and inherent goodness of work.
I admit that I am biased toward work and that I am a product of my generation. My parents and grandparents lived through the Great Depression. As a their child and grandchild, their experience was mediated to me. Further, since I was born and raised on the Great Plains, where work is both necessary and highly valued, I grew up assuming the value of work. I started working throwing papers for the Omaha World Herald in sixth grade. Before that I sold seeds and TV Guide subscriptions door-to-door. At 14 I washed dishes at Sunnybrook Restaurant, in Lincoln. In high school I was a lifeguard, taught swimming, and (for two days) delivered flowers after school. Through college I worked full-time some years and two part-time jobs.
I understand that the American economy is changing quickly but this is why I appreciate Rowe. There will always been a need for plumbers, carpenters, painters, electricians, HVAC, and other tradesmen. These are good and important jobs that tend to be wrongly denigrated in our shift to a high-tech (STEM) economy. Computer programmers need food, electricity (!), and toilets.
I am not an economist so I do not know what to make of the various claims about the future of manufacturing jobs in the USA. I will leave that to others and I sympathize with those Millennials who have come of age during the Obama economy. It might be tempting for them to think that unemployment (ignore the U3 figure the Bureau of Labor Statistics U6 number is much more reflective of reality) has always been this high and that the economy has always been stagnant. It has not. It need not be. We may hope that things will improve in future.
More importantly, being in favor of work is not merely a cultural or generational bias. Work is a creational good. The first time the noun for “work” (מלאכה) appears in Scripture it is ascribed to Yahweh Elohim in Genesis 2:2: “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done” (Gen 2:2). The first time rest (שׁבת) appears in Scripture it is attributed to Yahweh Elohim. Of course, both of these are figures of speech. The God who spoke into all things neither literally rests nor works. We learn in Exodus 20:8 that Scripture speaks this way to establish a creational pattern for us, his image bearers.
As part of the creational pattern, God instituted work for us, his image bearers, to do. “Yahweh Elohim took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it (עבד) and keep it” (Gen 2:15). This was before the fall. Sometimes this command has been called the “cultural mandate.” Regardless of whether “cultural mandate” is the perfect way to characterize this command what we must not miss is that work was instituted by God, for humans, before sin corrupted us or affected the world around us (Gen 3:17–19).