We find much in Exodus that speaks to everyday work. But these instructions and rules take place in a work context that existed over three thousand years ago. Time has not stood still, and our workplaces have changed. Some passages, such as “You shall not murder” (Exod. 20:13), seem to fit today’s context much as they did in Moses’ time. Others, such as “If someone’s ox hurts the ox of another, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide the price of it” (Exod. 21:35), seem less directly applicable to most modern workplaces. How can we honor, obey, and apply God’s word in Exodus without falling into the traps of legalism or misapplication?
To answer these questions, we start with the understanding that this book is a narrative. Just as it helped Israel to locate itself in God’s story, it helps us to find out how we fit into the fuller expression of the narrative that is our Bible today. The purpose and shape of God’s work not only frames our identity as his people, but it also directs the work God has called us to do.
The book of Exodus opens and closes with Israel at work. At the onset, the Israelites are at work for the Egyptians. By the book’s end, they have finished the work of building the tabernacle according to the Lord's instructions (Exod. 40:33). God did not deliver Israel from work. He set Israel free for work. God released them from oppressive work under the ungodly king of Egypt and led them to a new kind of work under his gracious and holy kingship. Although the book’s title in Christian Bibles, “Exodus,” means “the way out,” the forward-leaning orientation of Exodus could legitimately lead us to conclude that the book is really about the way in, for it recounts Israel’s entrance to the Mosaic covenant that will frame their existence, not only in the wilderness wanderings around the Sinai Peninsula but also in their settled life in the Promised Land. The book conveys how Israel ought to understand their God, and how this nation should work and worship in their new land. On all counts, Israel must be mindful of how their life under God would be distinct from and better than life for those who followed the gods of Canaan. Even today, what we do in work flows from why we do it and for whom we are ultimately working. We usually don’t have to look very far in society to find examples of harsh and oppressive work. Certainly, God wants us to find better ways to conduct our business and to treat others. But the way into that new way of acting depends on seeing ourselves as recipients of God’s salvation, knowing what God’s work is, and training ourselves to follow his words.
The book of Exodus begins about four hundred years after the point where Genesis ends. In Genesis, Egypt had been a hospitable place where God providentially elevated Joseph so that he could save the lives of Abraham’s descendants (Gen. 50:20). This accords well with God’s promises to make Abraham into a great nation, to bless him and make him a blessing to others, to make his name great, and to bless all families of the earth through him (Gen. 12:2-3). In the book of Exodus, however, Egypt was an oppressive place where Israel’s growth raised the specter of death. The Egyptians hardly saw Israel as a divine blessing, though they did not want to let go of their slave labor. In the end, Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea cost Pharaoh and his people many lives. In light of God’s promises to Abraham’s chosen family and God’s intentions to bless the nations, the people of God in the book of Exodus are very much in transition. The magnitude of Israel’s numbers indicated God’s favor, yet the next generation of male children faced immediate extinction (Exod. 1:15-16). The nation as a whole was still not in the land God had promised to them.
The entire Pentateuch echoes this theme of partial fulfillment. God’s promises to Abraham of descendants, favored relationship with God, and a land in which to live all express God’s intentions, yet they are all in some state of jeopardy throughout the narrative. Among the five books of the Pentateuch, Exodus in particular takes up the element of relationship with God, both in terms of God’s deliverance of his people from Egypt and the establishment of his covenant with them at Sinai. This is especially significant for how we read the book for insights about our work today. We value the shape and content of this book as we remember that our relationship with God through Jesus Christ flows from what we see here, and it orients all of our life and work around God’s intentions.
To capture Israel’s character as a nation in transition, we outline the book and assess its contribution to the theology of work according to the geographical stages of its journey beginning in Egypt, then at the Red Sea and on the way to Sinai, and finally at Sinai itself.
Israel in Egypt (Exodus 1:1-13:16)Back to Table of Contents
Israel’s mistreatment by the Egyptians provides the background and impetus for their redemption. Pharaoh did not allow them to follow Moses into the wilderness to worship the Lord and thus denied a measure of their religious freedom. But their oppression as workers in the Egyptian economic system is what really gets our attention. God hears the cry of his people and does something about it. But we must remember that the people of Israel do not groan because of work in general, but because of the harshness of their work. In response, God does not deliver them into a life of total rest, but a release from oppressive work.
The Harshness of the Israelites’ Slave Labor in Egypt (Exodus 1:8-14)Back to Table of Contents
The work that the Egyptians forced on the Israelites was evil in motive and cruel in nature. The opening scene presents the land as filled with Israelites who had been fruitful and multiplied. This echoes God’s creational intent (Gen. 1:28; 9:1) as well as his promise to Abraham and his chosen descendants (Gen. 17:6; 35:11; 47:27). As a nation, they were destined to bless the world. Under a previous administration, the Israelites had royal permission to live in the land and to work it. But here the new king of Egypt sensed in their numbers a threat to his national security and thus decided to deal “shrewdly” with them (Exod. 1:10). We are not told whether or not the Israelites were a genuine threat. The emphasis falls on Pharaoh’s destructive fear that led him first to degrade their working environment and then to use infanticide to curb the growth of their population.
Work may be physically and mentally taxing, but that does not make it wrong. What made the situation in Egypt unbearable was not only the slavery but also its extreme harshness. The Egyptian masters worked the Israelites “ruthlessly” (befarekh, Exod. 1:13, 14) and made their lives “bitter” (marar, Exod. 1:14) with “hard” (qasheh , in the sense of “cruel,” Exod. 1:14; 6:9) service. As a result, Israel languished in “misery” and “suffering” (Exod. 3:7) and a “broken spirit” (Exod. 6:9). Work, one of the chief purposes and joys of human existence (Gen. 1:27-31; 2:15), was turned into a misery by the harshness of oppression.
God’s Call to Moses (Exodus 2:11-3:22)Back to Table of Contents
Although Moses was a Hebrew, he was raised in Egypt’s royal family as the grandson of Pharaoh. His revulsion to injustice erupted into a lethal attack on an Egyptian man he found beating a Hebrew worker. This act came to Pharaoh’s attention, so Moses fled for safety and became a shepherd in Midian, a region several hundred miles east of Egypt on the other side of the Sinai Peninsula. We do not know exactly how long he lived there, but during that time he married and had a son. In addition, two important things happened. The king in Egypt died, and the Lord heard the cry of his oppressed people and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exod. 2:23-25). This act of remembering did not mean that God had forgotten about his people. It signaled that he was about to act on their behalf. For that, he would call Moses.
God’s call to Moses came while Moses was at work. The account of how this happened comprises six elements that form a pattern evident in the lives of other leaders and prophets in the Bible. It is therefore instructive for us to examine this call narrative and to consider its implications for us today, especially in the context of our work.
In this interview, Bill Hendricks discusses the significance of giftedness for vocation.First, God confrontedMoses and arrested his attention at the scene of the burning bush (Exod. 3:2-5). A brush fire in the semi-desert is nothing exceptional, but Moses was intrigued by the nature of this particular one. Moses heard his name called and responded, “Here I am” (Exod. 3:4). This is a statement of availability, not location. Second, the Lord introduced himself as the God of the patriarchs and communicated his intent to rescue his people from Egypt and to bring them into the land he had promised to Abraham (Exod. 3:6-9). Third, God commissioned Moses to go to Pharaoh to bring God’s people out of Egypt (Exod. 3:10). Fourth, Moses objected (Exod. 3:11). Although he had just heard a powerful revelation of who was speaking to him in this moment, his immediate concern was, “Who am I?” In response to this, God reassured Moses with a promise of God’s own presence (Exod. 3:12a). Finally, God spoke of a confirming sign(Exod. 3:12b).
These same elements are present in a number of other call narratives in Scripture—for example in the callings of Gideon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and some of Jesus’ disciples. This is not a rigid formula, for many other call narratives in Scripture follow a different pattern. But it does suggest that God’s call often comes via an extended series of encounters that guide a person in God’s way over time.
Notice that these callings are not primarily to priestly or religious work in a congregation. Gideon was a military leader; Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel social critics; and Jesus a king (although not in the traditional sense). In many churches today, the term “call” is limited to religious occupations, but this is not so in Scripture, and certainly not in Exodus. Moses himself was not a priest or religious leader (those were Aaron’s and Miriam’s roles), but a shepherd, statesman, and governor. The Lord's question to Moses, "What is that in your hand?" (Exod. 4:2) repurposes Moses' ordinary tool of sheep-keeping for uses he would never have imagined possible (Exod. 4:3-5).
God’s Work of Redemption for Israel (Exodus 5:1-6:28)
In the book of Exodus, God is the essential worker. The nature and intent of that divine work set the agenda for Moses’ work and through him, the work of God’s people. God’s initial call to Moses included an explanation of God’s work. This drove Moses to speak in the name of the Lord to Pharaoh saying, “Let my people go” (Exod. 5:1). Pharaoh’s rebuttal was not merely verbal; he oppressed the Israelites more harshly than before. By the end of this episode, even the Israelites themselves had turned against Moses (Exod. 5:20-21). It is at this crucial point that in response to Moses’ questioning God about the entire enterprise, God clarified the design of his work. What we read here in Exodus 6:2-8 pertains not only to the immediate context of Israel’s oppression in Egypt. It frames an agenda that embraces all of God’s work in the Bible. It is important for all Christians to be clear about the scope of God’s work, because it helps us to understand what it means to pray for God’s kingdom to come and for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). The fulfillment of these intentions is God’s business. To accomplish them, he will involve the full range of his people, not merely those who do “religious” work. Coming to a clearer understanding of God’s work equips us to consider better not only the nature of our work but the manner in which God intends for us to do it.
In order to better appreciate this key text, we will make some brief observations about it and then suggest how it is relevant to the theology of work. After an initially assuring response to Moses’ accusatory question about God’s mission (Exod. 5:22-6:1), God frames his more extended response with the words “I am the Lord” at the beginning and the end (Exod. 6:2, 8). This key phrase demarcates the paragraph and gives the content especially high priority. English readers must be careful to note that this phrase does not communicate what God is in terms of a title. It reveals God’s own name and therefore speaks to who he is. He is the covenant-making, promise-keeping God who appeared to the patriarchs. The work God is about to do for his people is therefore grounded in the intentions that God has expressed to them. Namely, these are to multiply Abraham’s descendants, to make his name great, and to bless him so that through Abraham, God would bless all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:2-3).
God’s work then appears in four parts. These four redemptive purposes of God reappear in various ways throughout the Old Testament and even give shape to the pinnacle of God’s redemptive work in Jesus Christ. First is the work of deliverance. “I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment” (Exod. 6:6). Inherent in this work of liberation is the frank truth that the world is a place of manifold oppression. Sometimes we use the word salvation to describe this activity of God, but we must be careful to avoid understanding it either in terms of rescue from earth to heaven (and certainly not from matter to spirit) or as merely forgiveness of sin. The God of Israel delivered his people by stepping into their world and effecting a change “on the ground,” so to speak. Exodus not only shows God’s deliverance of Israel from Pharaoh in Egypt, but it also sets the stage for the messianic king, Jesus, to deliver his people from their sins and conquer the devil, the ultimate evil tyrant (Matt. 1:21; 12:28).
Second, the Lord will form a godly community. “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God” (Exod. 6:7a). God did not deliver his people so they could live however they pleased, nor did he deliver them as isolated individuals. He intended to create a qualitatively different kind of community in which his people would live with him and one another in covenantal faithfulness. Every nation in ancient times had their “gods,” but Israel’s identity as God’s people entailed a lifestyle of obedience to all of God’s decrees, commands, and laws (Deut. 26:17-18). As these values and actions would saturate their dealings with God and each other (and even those outside the covenant), Israel would increasingly demonstrate what it genuinely means to be God’s people. Again, this forms the background for Jesus who would build his “church,” not as a physical structure of brick or stone, but as a new community with disciples from all nations (Matt. 16:18; 28:19).
Third, the Lord will create an ongoing relationship between himself and his people. “You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians” (Exod. 6:7b). All of the other statements of God’s purpose begin with the word I except this one. Here, the focus is on you. God intends his people to have a certain experience of their relationship with God who graciously rescued them. To us, knowledge seems practically equivalent to information. The biblical concept of knowledge embraces this notion, but it also includes interpersonal experience of knowing others. To say that God did not make himself “known” as “Lord” to Abraham does not mean that Abraham was unaware of the divine name “YHWH” (Gen. 13:4; 21:33). It means that Abraham and family had not yet personally experienced the significance of this name as descriptive of their promise-keeping God who would fight on behalf of his people to deliver them from slavery on a national scale.  Ultimately, this is taken up by Jesus, whose name “Emmanuel” means God “with us” in relationship (Matt. 1:23).
Fourth, God intends for his people to experience the good life. “I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession” (Exod. 6:8). God promised to give Abraham the land of Canaan, but it is not accurate to simply equate this “land” with our concept of a “region.” It is a land of promise and provision. The regular and positive description of it as “flowing with milk and honey” (Exod. 3:8) highlights its symbolic nature as a place in which to live with God and God’s people in ideal conditions, something we understand as the “abundant life.” Here again we see that God’s work of salvation is a setting to right of his entire creation—physical environment, people, culture, economics, everything. This is also the mission of Jesus as he initiates the kingdom of God coming to earth, where the meek inherit the earth (the land) and experience eternal life (Matt. 5:5; John 17:3). This comes to completion in the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 and 22. Exodus thus sets the path for the entirety of the Bible that follows.
Consider how our work today may express these four redemptive purposes. First, God’s will is to deliver people from oppression and the harmful conditions of life. Some of that work rescues people from physical dangers; other work focuses on the alleviation of psychological and emotional trauma. The work of healing touches people one by one; those who forge political solutions to our needs can bless whole societies and classes of people. Workers in law enforcement and in the judicial system should aim to restrain and punish those who do evil, to protect people, and to care for victims. Given the pervasive extent of oppression in the world, there will always be manifold opportunities and means to work for deliverance.
The second and third purposes (community and relationship) are closely related to each other. Godly work that promotes peace and true harmony in heaven will enhance mercy and justice on earth. This is the gist of Paul’s address to the Corinthians: through Christ, God has reconciled us to himself and thus given us the message and ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16-20). Christians have experienced this reconciliation and therefore have motive and means to do this kind of work. The work of evangelism and spiritual development honors one dimension of the area; the work of peace and justice honors the interpersonal dimension. In essence, the two are inseparable and those who work in these fields do well to remember the holistic nature of what God is doing. Jesus taught that because we are the light of the world, we should let our light shine before others (Matt. 5:14–16).
Building community and relationships can be the object of our job, as in the case of community organizers, youth workers, social directors, event planners, social media workers, parents and family members, and many others. But they can also be elements of our job, whatever our occupation. When we welcome and assist new workers, ask and listen as others talk about matters of significance, take the trouble to meet someone in person, send a note of encouragement, share a memorable photo, bring good food to share, include someone in a conversation, or myriad other acts of camaraderie, we are fulfilling these two purposes of work, day by day.
Finally, godly work promotes the good life. God led his people out of Egypt in order to bring them in to the Promised Land where they could settle, live, and develop. Yet, what Israel experienced there was far less than God’s ideal. Likewise, what Christians experience in the world is not ideal either. The promise of entering God’s rest is still open (Heb. 4:1). We still wait for a new heaven and a new earth. But many of the laws of the covenant that God gave through Moses have to do with ethical treatment of one another. It is vital, then, that God’s blessing be worked out in the way we live and work with one another. Seen from the negative side, how can we reasonably expect all families of the earth to experience God’s blessing through us (the people of Abraham through faith in Christ), if we ourselves ignore God’s instructions about how to live and do our work? As Christopher Wright has noted, “The people of God in both testaments are called to be a light to the nations. But there can be no light to the nations that is not shining already in transformed lives of a holy people.” It thus becomes clear that the kind of “good life” in view here has nothing to do with unbridled selfish prosperity or conspicuous consumption, for it embraces the wide spectrum of life as God intends it to be: full of love, justice, and mercy.
Moses and Aaron Announce God’s Judgment to Pharaoh (Exodus 7:1-12:51)Back to Table of Contents
God began the first step—deliverance—by sending Moses and Aaron to tell Pharaoh “to let the Israelites go out of his land” (Exod. 7:2). For this task, God made use of Aaron’s natural skill in public speaking (Exod. 4:14; 7:1). He also equipped Aaron with skill surpassing that of the high officials of Egypt (Exod. 7:10-12). This reminds us that God’s mission requires both word and action.
Pharaoh refused to listen to God’s demand, through Moses, to release Israel from slavery. In turn, Moses announced God’s judgment to Pharaoh through an increasingly severe series of ecological disasters (Exod. 7:17-10:29). These disasters caused personal misery. More significantly, they drastically impaired the productive capacity of Egypt’s land and people. Disease caused livestock to die (Exod. 9:6). Crops failed and forests were ruined (Exod. 9:25). Pests invaded multiple ecosystems (Exod. 8:6, 24; 10:13-15). In Exodus, ecological disaster is the retribution of God against the tyranny and oppression of Pharaoh. In the modern world, political and economic oppression is a major factor in environmental degradation and ecological disaster. We would be fools to think we can assume Moses’ authority and declare God’s judgment in any of these. But we can see that when economics, politics, culture, and society are in need of redemption, so is the environment.
Each of these warnings-in-action convinced Pharaoh to release Israel, but as each passed, he reneged. Finally, God brought on the disaster of slaying every firstborn son among the people and animals of the Egyptians (Exod. 12:29-30). The appalling effect of slavery is to "harden" the heart against compassion, justice, and even self-preservation, as Pharaoh soon discovered (Exod. 11:10). Pharaoh then accepted God’s demand to let Israel go free. The departing Israelites “plundered” the Egyptians’ jewelry, silver, gold, and clothing (Exod. 12:35-36). This reversed the effects of slavery, which was the legalized plunder of exploited workers. When God liberates people, he restores their right to labor for fruits they themselves can enjoy (Isa. 65:21-22). Work, and the conditions under which it is performed, is a matter of the highest concern to God.
Israel at the Red Sea and on the Way to Sinai (Exodus 13:17-18:27)Back to Table of Contents
The foundational expression of God’s work came to dramatic fruition when God decisively led his people through the Red Sea, releasing them from Egypt’s tyrannical hold. The God who had separated the waters of chaos and created dry land, the God who had brought Noah’s family through the deluge to dry land, “divided” the waters of the Red Sea and led Israel across on “dry ground” (Exod. 14:21-22). Israel’s journey from Egypt to Sinai is thus the continuation of the story of God’s creation and redemption. Moses, Aaron, and others work hard, yet God is the real worker.
The Work of Justice among the People of Israel (Exodus 18:1-27)Back to Table of Contents
While on the journey from Egypt to Sinai, Moses reconnected with his father-in-law Jethro. This former outsider to the Israelites offered much-needed counsel to Moses concerning justice in the community. God’s work of redemption for his people was expanded into the work of justice among his people. Israel had already experienced unjust treatment at the hand of the Egyptian taskmasters. Out on their own, they rightly sought for God’s answers to their own disputes. Walter Brueggemann has observed that biblical faith is not just about telling the story of what God has done. It is also “about the hard, sustained work of nurturing and practicing the daily passion of healing and restoring, and the daily rejection of dishonest gain.”
One of the first things we learned earlier about Moses was his desire to mediate between those embroiled in a dispute. Initially, when Moses tried to intervene, he was rebuked with the words, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?” (Exod. 2:14). In the current episode, we see just the opposite. Moses is in such demand as the ruler-judge that a multitude of people in need of his decisions gathered around him “from morning until evening” (Exod. 18:14; see also Deut. 1:9-18). Moses’ work apparently has two aspects. First, he rendered legal decisions for people in dispute. Second, he taught God’s statutes and instructions for those seeking moral and religious guidance. Jethro observed that Moses was the sole agent in this noble work, but deemed the entire process to be unsustainable. “What you are doing is not good” (Exod. 18:17). Furthermore, it was detrimental to Moses and unsatisfying for the people he was trying to help. Jethro’s solution was to let Moses continue doing what he was uniquely qualified to do as God’s representative: intercede with God for the people, instruct them, and decide the difficult cases. All of the other cases were to be delegated to subordinate judges who would serve in a four-tiered system of judicial administration.
The qualification of these judges is the key to the wisdom of the plan, for they were not selected according to the tribal divisions of the people or their religious maturity. They must meet four qualifications (Exod. 18:21). First, they must be capable. The Hebrew expression “men of hayil” connotes ability, leadership, management, resourcefulness, and due respect. Second, they must “fear God.” As with the midwives in chapter 2, this is probably not specifically a religious quality. It describes people who have a clear understanding of commonly recognized morality that stretches across cultural and religious boundaries. Third, they must be "trustworthy." Because truth is an abstract concept as well as a way of acting, these people must have a public track record of truthful character as well as conduct. Finally, they must be haters of unjust gain. They must know how and why corruption occurs, despise the practice of bribery and all kinds of subversion, and actively guard the judicial process from these infections.
Delegation is essential to the work of leadership. Though Moses was uniquely gifted as a prophet, statesman, and judge, he was not infinitely gifted. Anyone who imagines that only he or she is capable of doing God’s work well has forgotten what it means to be human. Therefore, the gift of leadership is ultimately the gift of giving away power appropriately. The leader, like Moses, must discern the qualities needed, train those who are to receive authority, and develop means to hold them accountable. The leader also needs to be held accountable. Jethro performed this task in Moses’ case, and the passage is remarkably frank in showing how even the greatest of all the Old Testament prophets had to be confronted by someone with the power to hold him accountable. Wise, decisive, compassionate leadership is a gift from God that every human community needs. Yet Exodus shows us that it is not so much a matter of a gifted leader assuming authority over people, as it is God’s process for a community to develop structures of leadership in which gifted people can succeed. Delegation is the only way to increase the capacity of an institution or community, as well as the way to develop future leaders.
The fact that Moses accepted this counsel so quickly and thoroughly may be evidence of how personally desperate he was. But on a wider scale, we also can see that Moses was completely open to God’s wisdom mediated to him from someone outside the people of Israel. This observation may encourage Christians to receive and respect input from a wide range of traditions and religions, notably in matters of work. Doing so is not necessarily a mark of disloyalty to Christ, nor does it expose a lack of confidence in our own faith. It is not an improper concession to religious pluralism. On the contrary, it may even be a poor witness to produce biblical quotes of wisdom too frequently, for in so doing, outsiders may perceive us as narrow and possibly insecure. Christians do well to be discerning about the specifics of the counsel we adopt, whether it comes from within or without. But in the final analysis, we are confident that “all truth is God’s truth.”
Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:1-40:38)Back to Table of Contents
At Mount Sinai, Moses received the Ten Commandments from the Lord. As the NIV Study Bible puts it, “The Ten Commandments are the central stipulations of God’s covenant with Israel made at Sinai. It is almost impossible to exaggerate their effect on subsequent history. They constitute the basis of the moral principles found throughout the Western world and summarize what the one true God expects of his people in terms of faith, worship and conduct.” As we will see, the role of the Israelite law for Christians is the subject of a great deal of controversy. For these reasons, we will be attentive to what the text of Exodus actually says, for this is what we hold in common. At the same time, we hope to be aware and respectful of the variety of ways that Christians may wish to draw lessons from this part of the Bible.
The Meaning of Law in Exodus (Exodus 19:1-24:18)Back to Table of Contents
We begin by recognizing that Exodus is an integral part of the whole of Scripture, not a stand-alone legal statue. Christopher Wright has written:
The common opinion that the Bible is a moral code book for Christians falls far short, of course, of the full reality of what the Bible is and does. The Bible is essentially the story of God, the earth and humanity; it is the story of what has gone wrong, what God has done to put it right, and what the future holds under the sovereign plan of God. Nevertheless, within that grand narrative, moral teaching does have a vital place. The Bible’s story is the story of the mission of God. The Bible’s demand is for the appropriate response from human beings. God’s mission calls for and includes human response. And our mission certainly includes the ethical dimension of that response.
The English word law is a traditional yet inaccurate rendering of the key Hebrew word Torah. Because this term is so central to the entire discussion at hand, it will help us to clarify how this Hebrew word actually works in the Bible. The word Torah appears once in Genesis in the sense of instructions from God that Abraham followed. It can refer to instructions from one human to another (Ps. 78:1). But as something from God, the word Torah throughout the Pentateuch and the rest of the Old Testament designates a standard of conduct for God’s people pertaining to ceremonial matters of formal worship, as well as statutes for civil and social conduct. The biblical notion of Torah conveys the sense of “divinely authoritative instruction.” This concept is far from our modern ideas of law as a body of codes crafted and enacted by legislators or “natural” laws. To highlight the rich and instructive nature of law in Exodus, we shall sometimes refer to it as Torah with no attempt at translation.
In Exodus, it is clear that Torah in the sense of a set of specific instructions is part of the covenant and not the other way around. In other words, the covenant as a whole describes the relationship that God has established between himself and his people by virtue of his act of deliverance on their behalf (Exod. 20:2). As the people’s covenantal king, God then specifies how he desires Israel to worship and behave. Israel’s pledge to obey is a response to God’s gift of the covenant (Exod. 24:7). This is significant for our understanding of the theology of work. The way we discern God’s will for our behavior at work and the way we put that into practice in the workplace are enveloped by the relationship that God has established with us. In Christian terms, we love God because he first loved us and we demonstrate that love in how we treat others (1 John 4:19-21). The categorical nature of God’s command for us to love our neighbors means that God intends for us to apply it everywhere, regardless of whether we find ourselves in a church, cafe, home, civic venue, or place of work.
The Role of the Law for Christians (Exodus 20:1-24:18)Back to Table of Contents
It can be a challenge for a Christian to draw a point from a verse in the book of Exodus or especially Leviticus, and then suggest how that lesson should be applied today. Anyone who tries this should be prepared for the comeback, “Sure, but the Bible also permits slavery and says we can’t eat bacon or shrimp! Plus, I don’t think God really cares if my clothes are a cotton-polyester blend” (Exod. 21:2-11; Lev. 11:7, 12; and 19:19, respectively). Since this happens even within Christian circles, we should not be surprised to find difficulties when applying the Bible to the subject of work in the public sphere. How are we to know what applies today and what doesn’t? How do we avoid the charge of inconsistency in our handling of the Bible? More importantly, how do we let God’s word truly transform us in every area of life? The diversity of laws in Exodus and the Pentateuch presents one type of challenge. Another comes from the variety of ways that Christians understand and apply Torah and the Old Testament in relationship to Christ and the New Testament. Still, the issue of Torah in Christianity is crucial and must be addressed in order for us to glean anything about what this part of the Bible says concerning our work. The following brief treatment aims to be helpful without being overly narrow.
The New Testament’s relationship to the law is complex. It includes both Jesus’ saying that “Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law” (Matt. 5:18) and Paul’s statement that “we are discharged from the law…not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6). These are not two opposing statements, but two ways of saying a common reality—that the Torah continues to reveal God’s gift of justice, wisdom, and inner transformation to those he has brought to new life in Christ. God gave the Torah as an expression of his holy nature and as a consequence of his great deliverance. Reading the Torah makes us aware of our inherent sinfulness and of our need for a remedy in order for us to live at peace with God and one another. God expects his people to obey his instructions by applying them to real issues of life both great and small. The specific nature of some laws does not mean God is an unrealistic perfectionist. These laws help us to understand that no issue we face is too small or insignificant for God. Even so, the Torah is not just about outward behavior, for it addresses matters of the heart such as coveting (Exod. 20:17). Later, Jesus would condemn not just murder and adultery, but the roots of anger and lust as well (Matt. 5:22, 28).
However, obeying the Torah by applying it to the real issues of life today does not equate to repeating the actions that Israel performed thousands of years ago. Already in the Old Testament we see hints that some parts of the law were not intended to be permanent. The tabernacle certainly was not a permanent structure and even the temple was demolished at the hands of Israel’s enemies (2 Kgs. 25:9). Yet Jesus spoke of his own sacrificial death and resurrection when he said he would raise the destroyed “temple” in three days (John 2:19). In some important sense, he embodied all that the temple, its priesthood, and its activities stood for. Jesus’ declaration about food—that it is not what goes into people that makes them unclean—meant that the specific food laws of the Mosaic Covenant were no longer in force (Mark 7:19). Moreover, in the New Testament the people of God live in various countries and cultures around the world where they have no legal authority to apply the sanctions of the Torah. The apostles considered such issues and, under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, decided that the particulars of the Jewish law did not in general apply to Gentile Christians (Acts 15:28-29).
When asked about which commandments were most important, Jesus’ answer was not controversial in light of the theology of his time. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31).
Much in the New Testament confirms the Torah, not only in its negative commands against adultery, murder, theft, and coveting, but also in its positive command to love one another (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14). According to Timothy Keller, “The coming of Christ changed how we worship, but not how we live.” This is not surprising, given that in the new covenant, God said he would put his law within his people and write it on their hearts (Jer. 31:33; Luke 22:20). Israel’s faithfulness to the laws of Mosaic Covenant depended on their determination to obey them. In the end, only Jesus could accomplish this. On the other hand, new covenant believers do not work that way. According to Paul, “We serve in the new way of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6 NIV).
For our purposes in considering the theology of work, the previous explanation suggests several points that may help us to understand and apply the laws in Exodus that relate to the workplace. The specific laws dealing with proper treatment of workers, animals, and property express abiding values of God’s own nature. They are to be taken seriously but not slavishly. On the one hand, items in the Ten Commandments are worded in general terms and may be applied freely in varied contexts. On the other hand, particular laws about servants, livestock, and personal injuries exemplify applications in the specific historical and social context of ancient Israel, especially in areas that were controversial at the time. These laws are illustrative of right behavior but do not exhaust every possible application. Christians honor God and his law not only by regulating our behavior, but also by allowing the Holy Spirit to transform our attitudes, motives, and desires (Rom. 12:1-2). To do anything less would amount to sidestepping the work and will of our Lord and Savior. Christians should always seek how love may guide our policies and behaviors.
Instructions about Work (Exodus 20:1-17 and 21:1-23:9)Back to Table of Contents
Israel’s “Book of the Covenant” (Exod. 24:7) included the Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue (literally, the “words,” Exod. 20:1-17), and the ordinances of Exodus 21:1-23:19. The Ten Commandments are worded as general commands either to do or not do something. The ordinances are a collection of case laws, applying the values of the Decalogue in specific situations using an “if…then” format. These laws fit the social and economic world of ancient Israel. They are not an exhaustive legal code, but they function as exemplars, serving to curb the worst excesses and setting legal precedent for handling difficult cases.
The Ten Commandments are the supreme expression of God’s will in the Old Testament and merit our close attention. They are to be thought of not as the ten most important commands among hundreds of others, but as a digest of the entire Torah. The foundation of all the Torah rests in the Ten Commandments, and somewhere within them we should be able to find all the law. Jesus expressed the essential unity of the Ten Commandments with the rest of the law when he summarized the law in the famous words, “ 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40). All the law, as well as the prophets, is indicated whenever the Ten Commandments are expressed.
The essential unity of the Ten Commandments with the rest of the law, and their continuity with the New Testament, invites us to apply them to today’s work broadly in light of the rest of the Scripture. That is, when applying the Ten Commandments, we will take into account related passages of Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments.
“You Shall Have No Other Gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3)
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The first commandment reminds us that everything in the Torah flows from the love we have for God, which in turn is a response to the love he has for us. This love was demonstrated by God’s deliverance of Israel “out of the house of slavery” in Egypt (Exod. 20:2). Nothing else in life should concern us more than our desire to love and be loved by God. If we do have some other concern stronger to us than our love for God, it is not so much that we are breaking God’s rules, but that we are not really in relationship with God. The other concern—be it money, power, security, recognition, sex, or anything else—has become our god. This god will have its own commandments at odds with God’s, and we will inevitably violate the Torah as we comply with this god’s requirements. Observing the Ten Commandments is only conceivable for those who start by having no other god than God.
In the realm of work, this means that we are not to let work or its requirements and fruits displace God as our most important concern in life. “Never allow anyone or anything to threaten God’s central place in your life,” as David Gill puts it. Because many people work primarily to make money, an inordinate desire for money is probably the most common work-related danger to the first commandment. Jesus warned of exactly this danger. “No one can serve two masters…. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24). But almost anything related to work can become twisted in our desires to the point that it interferes with our love for God. How many careers come to a tragic end because the means to accomplish things for the love of God—such as political power, financial sustainability, commitment to the job, status among peers, or superior performance—become ends in themselves? When, for example, recognition on the job becomes more important than character on the job, is it not a sign that reputation is displacing the love of God as the ultimate concern?
A practical touchstone is to ask whether our love of God is shown by the way we treat people on the job. “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:20-21). If we put our individual concerns ahead of our concern for the people we work with, for, and among, then we have made our individual concerns our god. In particular, if we treat other people as things to be manipulated, obstacles to overcome, instruments to obtain what we want, or simply neutral objects in our field of view, then we demonstrate that we do not love God with all our heart, soul, and mind.
In this context, we can begin to list some work-related actions that have a high potential to interfere with our love for God. Doing work that violates our conscience. Working in an organization where we have to harm others to succeed. Working such long hours that we have little time to pray, worship, rest, and otherwise deepen our relationship with God. Working among people who demoralize us or seduce us away from our love for God. Working where alcohol, drug abuse, violence, sexual harassment, corruption, disrespect, racism, or other inhumane treatment mar the image of God in us and the people we encounter in our work. If we can find ways to avoid these dangers at work—even if it means finding a new job—it would be wise to do so. If that is not possible, we can at least be aware that we need help and support to maintain our love of God in the face of our work.
“You Shall Not Make for Yourself an Idol” (Exodus 20:4)
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The Dark Side of the High Calling (Click Here to Read)In this blog post about idolatry from The High Calling, Marcus Goodyear reminds us that when we harden our hearts and fall into a spirit of complaint about our work and our family and our life, we cannot enter into God’s rest. But when we approach the high calling of our work with gratitude and thanksgiving, we understand that God in our work is the meaning and purpose, and the rest of God becomes ours in abundance.
The second commandment raises the issue of idolatry. Idols are gods of our own creation, gods that have nothing to them that did not originate with us, gods that we feel we control. In ancient times, idolatry often took the form of worshiping physical objects. But the issue is really one of trust and devotion. On what do we ultimately pin our hope of well-being and success? Anything that is not capable of fulfilling our hope—that is, anything other than God—is an idol, whether or not it is a physical object. The story of a family forging an idol with the intent to manipulate God, and the disastrous personal, social, and economic consequences that follow, are memorably told in Judges 17-21.
In the world of work, it is common to speak of money, fame, and power as potential idols, and rightly so. They are not idolatrous, per se, and in fact may be necessary for us to accomplish our roles in God’s creative and redemptive work in the world. Yet when we imagine that we have ultimate control over them, or that by achieving them our safety and prosperity will be secured, we have begun to fall into idolatry. The same may occur with virtually every other element of success, including preparation, hard work, creativity, risk, wealth and other resources, and favorable circumstances. As workers, we have to recognize how important these are. As God’s people, we must recognize when we begin to idolize them. By God’s grace, we can overcome the temptation to worship these good things in their own right. The development of genuinely godly wisdom and skill for any task is “so that your trust may be in the Lord” (Prov. 22:19; emphasis added).
The distinctive element of idolatry is the human-made nature of the idol. At work, a danger of idolatry arises when we mistake our power, knowledge, and opinions for reality. When we stop holding ourselves accountable to the standards we set for others, cease listening to others’ ideas, or seek to crush those who disagree with us, are we not beginning to make idols of ourselves?
“You Shall Not Make Wrongful Use of the Name of the LORD Your God” (Exodus 20:7)
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The third commandment literally prohibits God’s people from making “wrongful use” of the name of God. This need not be restricted to the name “YHWH” (Exod. 3:15), but includes “God,” “Jesus,” “Christ,” and so forth. But what is wrongful use? It includes, of course, disrespectful use in cursing, slandering, and blaspheming. But more significantly it includes falsely attributing human designs to God. This prohibits us from claiming God’s authority for our own actions and decisions. Regrettably, some Christians seem to believe that following God at work consists primarily of speaking for God on the basis of their individual understanding, rather than working respectfully with others or taking responsibility for their actions. “It is God’s will that…” or “God is punishing you for…” are very dangerous things to say, and almost never valid when spoken by an individual without the discernment of the community of faith (1 Thess. 5:20-21). In this light, perhaps the traditional Jewish reticence to utter even the English translation “God”—let alone the divine name itself—demonstrates a wisdom Christians often lack. If we were a little more careful about bandying the word “God” about, perhaps we would be more judicious in claiming to know God’s will, especially as it applies to other people.
The third commandment also reminds us that respecting human names is important to God. The Good Shepherd “calls his own sheep by name” (John 10:3) while warning us that if you call another person “you fool,” then “you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matt. 5:22). Keeping this in mind, we shouldn’t make wrongful use of other people’s names or call them by disrespectful epithets. We use people’s names wrongfully when we use them to curse, humiliate, oppress, exclude, and defraud. We use people’s names well when we use them to encourage, thank, create solidarity, and welcome. Simply to learn and say someone’s name is a blessing, especially if he or she is often treated as nameless, invisible, or insignificant. Do you know the name of the person who empties your trash can, answers your customer service call, or drives your bus? If these examples do not concern the very name of the Lord, they do concern the name of those made in his image.
Remember the Sabbath Day and Keep It Holy. Six Days You Shall Labor (Exodus 20:8-11)
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The issue of the Sabbath is complex, not only in the book of Exodus and the Old Testament, but also in Christian theology and practice. The first part of the command calls for ceasing labor one day in seven. The other references in Exodus to the Sabbath are in chapter 16 (about gathering manna), Exodus 23:10-12 (the seventh year and the goal of weekly rest), Exodus 31:12-17 (penalty for violation), Exodus 34:21, and Exodus 35:1-3. In the context of the ancient world, the Sabbath was unique to Israel. On the one hand, this was an incomparable gift to the people of Israel. No other ancient people had the privilege of resting one day in seven. On the other hand, it required an extraordinary trust in God’s provision. Six days of work had to be enough to plant crops, gather the harvest, carry water, spin cloth, and draw sustenance from creation. While Israel rested one day every week, the encircling nations continued to forge swords, feather arrows, and train soldiers. Israel had to trust God not to let a day of rest lead to economic and military catastrophe.
Making time off predictable and requiredRead more here about a new study regarding rhythms of rest and work done at the Boston Consulting Group by two professors from Harvard Business School. It showed that when the assumption that everyone needs to be always available was collectively challenged, not only could individuals take time off, but their work actually benefited. (Harvard Business Review may show an ad and require registration in order to view the article.) Mark Roberts also discusses this topic in his Life for Leaders devotional "Won't Keeping the Sabbath Make Me Less Productive?"
We face the same issue of trust in God’s provision today. If we heed God’s commandment to observe God’s own cycle of work and rest, will we be able to compete in the modern economy? Does it take seven days of work to hold a job (or two or three jobs), clean the house, prepare the meals, mow the lawn, wash the car, pay the bills, finish the school work, and shop for the clothes, or can we trust God to provide for us even if we take a day off during the course of every week? Can we take time to worship God, to pray and to gather with others for study and encouragement, and, if we do, will it make us more or less productive overall? The fourth commandment does not explain how God will make it all work out for us. It simply tells us to rest one day every seven.
Christians have translated the day of rest to the Lord’s Day (Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection), but the essence of the Sabbath is not choosing one particular day of the week over another (Rom. 14:5-6). The polarity that actually undergirds the Sabbath is work and rest. Both work and rest are included in the fourth commandment. The six days of work are as much a part of the commandment as the one day of rest. Although many Christians are in danger of allowing work to squeeze the time set aside for rest, others are in danger of the opposite, of shirking work and trying to live a life of leisure and dissipation. This is even worse than neglecting the Sabbath, for “whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). What we need is a proper rhythm of work and rest, which together are good for us, our family, workers, and guests. The rhythm may or may not include twenty-four continuous hours of rest falling on Sunday (or Saturday). The proportions may change due to temporary necessities (the modern equivalent of pulling an ox out of the well on the Sabbath, see Luke 14:5) or the changing needs of the seasons of life.
If overwork is our main danger, we need to find a way to honor the fourth commandment without instituting a false, new legalism pitting the spiritual (worship on Sunday worship) against the secular (work on Monday through Saturday). If avoiding work is our danger, we need to learn how to find joy and meaning in working as a service to God and our neighbors (Eph. 4:28).
The eighth commandment is another that takes work as its primary subject. Stealing is a violation of proper work because it dispossesses the victim of the fruits of his or her labor. It is also a violation of the commandment to labor six days a week, since in most cases stealing is intended as a shortcut around honest labor, which shows again the interrelation of the Ten Commandments. So we may take it as the word of God that we are not to steal from those we work for, with, or among.
Stealing occurs in many forms besides robbing someone. Any time we acquire something of value from its rightful owner without consent, we are engaging in theft. Misappropriating resources or funds for personal use is stealing. Using deception to make sales, gain market share, or raise prices is stealing because the deception means that whatever the buyer consents to is not the actual situation. (See the section on “Puffery/Exaggeration” in Truth & Deception at www.theologyofwork.org for more on this topic.) Likewise, profiting by taking advantage of people’s fears, vulnerabilities, powerlessness, or desperation is a form of stealing because their consent is not truly voluntary. Violating patents, copyrights, and other intellectual property laws is stealing because it deprives owners of the ability to profit from their creation under the terms of civil law.
Regrettably, many jobs seem to include an element of taking advantage of others’ ignorance or lack of alternatives to force them into transactions they otherwise wouldn’t agree to. Companies, governments, individuals, unions, and other players may use their power to coerce others into unfair wages, prices, financial terms, working conditions, hours, or other factors. Although we may not rob banks, steal from our employers, or shoplift, we may very likely be participating in unfair or unethical practices that deprive others of what rights should be theirs. It can be difficult, even career-limiting, to resist engaging in these practices, but we are called to do so nonetheless.
“You Shall Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor” (Exodus 20:16)
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The ninth commandment honors the right to one’s own reputation. It finds pointed application in legal proceedings where what people say depicts reality and determines the course of lives. Judicial decisions and other legal processes wield great power. Manipulating them undercuts the ethical fabric of society and thus constitutes a very serious offense. Walter Brueggemann says this commandment recognizes “that community life is not possible unless there is an arena in which there is public confidence that social reality will be reliably described and reported.”
Although stated in courtroom language, the ninth commandment also applies to a broad range of situations that touch practically every aspect of life. We should never say or do anything that misrepresents someone else. Brueggemann again provides insight:
Politicians seek to destroy one another in negative campaigning; gossip columnists feed off calumny; and in Christian living rooms, reputations are tarnished or destroyed over cups of coffee served in fine china with dessert. These de facto courtrooms are conducted without due process of law. Accusations are made; hearsay allowed; slander, perjury, and libelous comments uttered without objection. No evidence, no defense. As Christians, we must refuse to participate in or to tolerate any conversation in which a person is being defamed or accused without the person being there to defend himself. It is wrong to pass along hearsay in any form, even as prayer requests or pastoral concerns. More than merely not participating, it is up to Christians to stop rumors and those who spread them in their tracks.
This further suggests that workplace gossip is a serious offense. Some of it pertains to personal, off-site matters, which is evil enough. But what about cases when an employee tarnishes the reputation of a co-worker? Can truth ever truly be spoken when those being talked about are not there to speak for themselves? And what about assessments of performance? What safeguards ought to be in place to ensure that reports are fair and accurate? On a large scale, the business of marketing and advertisement operates in the public space among organizations and individuals. In the interest of presenting one’s own products and services in the best possible light, to what extent may one point out the flaws and weaknesses of the competition, without incorporating their perspective? Is it possible that the rights of “your neighbor” could include the rights of other companies? The scope of our global economy suggests this command may have very wide application indeed. In a world where perception often counts for reality, the rhetoric of effective persuasion may or may not have much, if anything, to do with genuine truth. The divine origin of this command reminds us that people may not be able to detect when our representation of others is accurate or not, but God cannot be fooled. It’s good to do the right thing when nobody is watching. With this command, we understand that we must say the right thing when anybody is listening. (See Truth & Deception at www.theologyofwork.org for a much fuller discussion of this topic, including whether the prohibition of “false witness against your neighbor” includes all forms of lying and deception.)