At the very beginning of Genesis, God shows himself as a working God, who creates valuable things. And then right away we see that we ourselves as made in his image, also to work. Timothy Keller cites biblical scholar Derek Kidner, who notices a profound detail in the account of God’s creation of animals and humans in Genesis 1:
Only man is set apart and given a job description, “an office (1:26b, 28b; 2:19; cf. Ps.8:4–8; James 3:7) . . .” In other words, while the plants and animals are called to simply reproduce, only humans are explicitly given a job. They are called to “subdue” and “have dominion,” or rule the earth. We are given specific work to do because we are made in God’s image. (Every Good Endeavor, 48.)
So as long as the Jewish and Christian religions have been on this earth, these peoples have worked for most of the week, then set aside the seventh day for rest. Why? Because that’s exactly what God did in Creation. God is a working God, and we are workers, made in his image.
Not only is the God of the Genesis account a working God, but he is indeed a God who does manual labor. “He shapes us out of the dust of the earth, deliberately putting a spirit in a physical body, and . . . he plants a garden (Genesis 2:8)” (Keller, Every Good Endeavor, 49). In other words, he works in ways familiar to the craftsman, the construction worker: he shapes and molds the material stuff of the world. Of course, unlike us, he creates that stuff from nothing. But in a sense, all of the kinds of work we do with the material stuff God gave us also create new beauty, usefulness, and value where these did not exist before. So labor of all sorts, including manual labor, is wonderfully good, and it has dignity, both because God does it, and because, as Keller says, “we do it in God’s place, as his representatives.”
Pagan culture, by the way, had never seen anything like this. It certainly did not value manual labor. Indeed for the Greeks, work was, in Keller’s words, “a barrier to the highest kind of life,” a tiresome activity that made us more like the animals—keeping us away from the finer things of philosophy and the contemplation of the Platonic God. How different from the biblical account of Creation, which shows work as a god-like thing—something that indeed distinguishes humans from animals—again, elevating us to a place of dignity.
Evangelicals miss the wonder and dignity of work because we don’t give much time and attention to thinking about creation—in particular, how the Creation account sets the table for what Andy Crouch identifies as the Christian task of culture making.