This is an article by Dr. David Schreiner, assistant professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary.
The annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Institute of Biblical Research were recently in Boston, MA. Here, excitement over new ideas collides with frustration over disconnected scholarship. Part of the experience is the rat-race for jobs. To stand out in this sea of humanity, graduates and soon-to-be graduates, spend a majority of their time trying to sell themselves. Thankfully, I could attend the annual meetings without feeling the need to partake in this rat-race. Nevertheless, I felt a great deal of compassion for those who did. As I walked the halls of the convention center and observed people, I felt their anxiety. Why? Because I was doing the same thing not too long ago.
My graduation in 2012 was not a particularly joyous occasion, marred by the realization that my degree would not be producing any substantive employment any time soon. Adding to that anxiety, I was married and had a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. So, I took a job in the private sector and steadily drug myself forward with the hope of someday leaving that job for one in theological education. That journey took over 5 years.
When I returned from Boston, I pondered my experiences and observations. While I was thinking about these things, my daughters listened to Focus on the Family’s Adventures in Odyssey. In the episode playing, Mr. Barclay goes to work expecting to be promoted—only to be laid off. When he returned home, awkwardness ensued as he was forced to explain that instead of a raise, he was out of a salary. Instead of satisfaction and joy, there was shame and anxiety.
For obvious reasons, I was captivated by that episode. I listened intently, remembering the recent and soon-to-be graduates at the annual meetings, as well as the shame and anxiety I felt when I walked across the graduation stage in 2012. Eventually, my mind landed on Gen 3—the passage that remembers how the choices of Adam and Eve fundamentally undermined the original intentions of God’s creation. In verses 14 through 19, we read about the curses leveled at the serpent, Eve, and Adam. Yet among them all, there is one curse that has begun to resonate with me in a profound way. It’s found in Gen 3:19.
“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (NRSV).
What is impressive about the phrase “by the sweat of your face” is that it only indirectly has anything to do with hard work. Many of us read, “by the sweat of your face,” and think, “Oh yeah. Hard work. Part of Adam’s curse is that he is going to have to work really hard to get his food.” The issue is deeper than just hard work. It’s more crippling than just physical exertion.
Daniel Flemming published a detailed study of the phrase “by the sweat of your face” in 1994. He found that this phrase enjoys wide attestation across the ancient Near East. It’s found in royal literature and conveys a sense of crippling anxiety. Thus, the writer of Genesis is telling us that Adam is not going to be cursed with the need to work hard, as if food would have just magically sprouted from the ground if he and Eve had not eaten the forbidden fruit.
The writer of Genesis is saying that Adam will be cursed with crippling anxiety over whether his yield will be enough to produce the necessary food. Adam will be consumed with a perpetual fear wondering if there will be enough rain at the right time to produce a substantive harvest. He will fear that wild animals will pillage his harvest. He will fear the theft of what is rightfully his. He will fear that he will not be able to live up to his duties as a farmer and provider (cf. Gen 2:15).
The anxiety that I experienced 5 years ago, the anxiety that all those aspiring scholars experienced in Boston just a few weeks ago, is symptomatic of Adam’s curse. Anxiety over life’s responsibilities and basic provisions is at the core of who we are as humans….and it was not intended to be this way.
There is hope, however.
Jesus was fully aware of humanity’s curse of anxiety. He was the one who leveled it at Adam! And so when he stood on a mountain in Galilee and said, “Therefore…do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear” (Matt 6:25ff.), I have a strong suspicion that he had Gen 3:17-19 in his mind. He was saying, “I am the one who offers you reprieve from that crippling anxiety that you experience daily. Follow me and I will show you how your curse can be reversed.”
Advent season is now upon us. As we remember the incarnation of God Almighty in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, may we not forget that his life, death, and resurrection seek to redeem humanity from it’s cursed state of existence. May we remember that Jesus extends nail pierced hands to all of humanity and says, “Let me show you what was intended.”