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A Theology of Work in Ezra?

By Mark D. Roberts | Thursday, September 3, 2009

Part 3 of series: A Theology of Work in Ezra
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If you’re just now joining this series, let me say that I’m doing some blogging on a theology of work in the biblical books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. This exercise is my first step toward producing a short “commentary” on these books for the Theology of Work Project. (If you missed my explanation of TOWP, you may want to check this post.) I’m looking first at the book of Ezra, then at Nehemiah and Esther, with this question: What does this book teach us about a theology of work? Or, to put it differently: What do we learn from this book about how work relates to God and vice versa?

If you’re is looking for a biblical theology of work, you shouldn’t start with Ezra. Frankly, there is little in this book that speaks directly about work and its relationship to God. Partly this has to do with the genre of Ezra. It is a narrative, an historical narrative that describes, from a theological perspective, what happened in a key time of Israel’s history. The narrative contains nothing in the way of legal texts or prophetic pronouncements, no didactic material of any kind. You won’t find theological ruminations on work in Ezra.

You do find people working, however, and this might provide some grist for the TOWP mill. Primarily, Ezra includes two kinds of work. The first is the “work” of Israel’s sacrificial worship. Other than the giving of gifts for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and travel from Babylon to Jerusalem, the first real work in Ezra is the building of an altar to God, on which sacrifices were then offered to God (Ezra 3:1-6). Prior to this building, a long list of names includes the professions of those who labor in some aspect of the Temple’s activity: priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, and temple servants (Ezra 2, esp. 2:70).

The second kind of work in Ezra is closely related to the first. It involves building, most of all, building (or rebuilding) the Temple in Jerusalem. The first six chapters of Ezra focus on this activity. In fact, the Hebrew verb “to build” (bnh) and its Aramaic cousin (for part of Ezra is written in Aramaic), appear 31 times in Ezra (in the first six chapters, to be exact). No book of the Old Testament utilizes the verb “to build” more frequently than Ezra. It is a book about building. And building is work, hard work.

I don’t what to read between the lines here too creatively, as if Ezra contains some arcane theology of work that can be decoded if we only have the secret decoder ring. This book mainly underscores what is plain elsewhere from Scripture, truths such as: Work is an ordinary part of ordinary life. Work is something for which God has given us the ability. Work can be hard. Work takes organization. Work matters to God. Yet it would be stretching things to say that Ezra teaches these truths. They are more like background assumptions, part of Ezra’s theological worldview.

Ezra does offer a theologically engaging account of the relationship between human work and God’s help. We find this especially in Ezra 5. In context, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem came to a standstill because of opposition to this effort from various opponents (4:24). But God, speaking through his prophets Haggai and Zechariah, helped to get the project going again (5:1-2). Nothing could derail it this time. Thus the temple-building part of Ezra ends with good news:

So the elders of the Jews continued to build and prosper under the preaching of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah, a descendant of Iddo. They finished building the temple according to the command of the God of Israel and the decrees of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes, kings of Persia. (6:14)

What enabled the Temple to be rebuilt following the Exile? To be sure, it took plenty of hard work by the leaders of the Jews and by the expert craftsmen whom they paid to help (3:7). And, of course, it would not have happened apart from the initial decree of Cyrus and the continued support of the Persian rulers. But God’s hand empowered and guided the rebuilding effort, both in raising up Cyrus to do his bidding and in emboldening the leaders of the Jews through the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah.

The book of Ezra, therefore, underscores the value of human labor and leadership. But it also reminds us that, apart from God’s superintendence, human work is ultimately in vain.

Topics: Theology of Work Project |


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