This post highlights the stories of a few men in Genesis, and the prominent purposes of their work.
Adam: Dominion and Food
Man was made to rule over the earth and the animals. We subdue the earth by working the ground. We rule over the animals by caring for them and directing them. Adam was commissioned not to keep the earth how God made it, but to subdue it. Eden was a uniquely fruitful place (Genesis 2:8–9), and Adam was put there to work it (Genesis 2:5). This would eventually mean the expansion of Eden to fill the whole world. It would involve digging up gold and precious stones (Genesis 2:12) and perhaps building something like the New Jerusalem. God man made in his own image so that he would look at God’s world and understand how to bring it to its full potential.
Working the ground would produce food for man (Genesis 1:29) and for the animals (Genesis 1:30). When the ground was cursed, this function remained, but became more difficult (Genesis 3:19). Man would work to prolong his life, but in the end he would die.
Cain: Worship, Security, and Culture
Cain fulfilled Adam’s calling to work the ground and produce fruit; and this allowed him to give an offering to God. Cain’s offering was not acceptable because of his sin (Genesis 4:7, 1 John 3:12), but if his heart had been in a better state then the offering would have been a good act of worship.
Cain built a city to protect his his family as they pursued creative endeavors. The invention of tents helped some rule over animals (Genesis 4:20), and metal instruments presumably helped others work the ground (Genesis 4:22). Musical instruments were created surprisingly early as an essential component of human culture (Genesis 4:21).
Jacob: Building a Household
Jacob did 20 years of hard labor for Laban, and left with a family and property. 14 years of this work was for the right to marry Laban’s two daughters. At least the first 7 years were a good deal for Jacob, because there was a shortage of God-fearing women, and he couldn’t start building a household without a wife. The next 7 were caused by Laban’s deceit and Jacob’s strong desire for Rachel. This kind of desire is a powerful motivation for young men to work, and it can make 7 years of labor feel like a few days (Genesis 29:20).
When the 14 years were finished, Jacob’s next step in building his household was to acquire wealth-producing assets (Genesis 30:30). God’s blessing turned a few sheep into many, which could provide clothing, milk, meat, and money to Jacob’s family.
Joseph: Using Resources Wisely
Jacob’s family was preserved not only by his own labor, but by Joseph’s wise administration in service of Pharaoh. Joseph managed available resources for the common good. He sold goods and negotiated prices, and this allowed resources to get to those in need.