God Brings the Material World into Being (Genesis 1:2)
Genesis continues by emphasizing the materiality of the world. “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2). The nascent creation, though still “formless,” has the material dimensions of space (“the deep”) and matter (“waters”), and God is fully engaged with this materiality (“a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”). Later, in chapter 2, we even see God working the dirt of his creation. “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7). Throughout chapters 1 and 2, we see God engrossed in the physicality of his creation.
Any theology of work must begin with a theology of creation. Do we regard the material world, the stuff we work with, as God’s first-rate stuff, imbued with lasting value? Or do we dismiss it as a temporary job site, a testing ground, a sinking ship from which we must escape to get to God’s true location in an immaterial “heaven.” Genesis argues against any notion that the material world is any less important to God than the spiritual world. Or putting it more precisely, in Genesis there is no sharp distinction between the material and the spiritual. The ruah of God in Genesis 1:2 is simultaneously “breath,” “wind,” and “spirit” (see footnote b in the NRSV or compare NRSV, NASB, NIV, and KJV). “The heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1; 2:1) are not two separate realms, but a Hebrew figure of speech meaning “the universe” in the same way that the English phrase “kith and kin” means “relatives.”
Most significantly, the Bible ends where it begins—on earth. Humanity does not depart the earth to join God in heaven. Instead, God perfects his kingdom on earth and calls into being “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2). God’s dwelling with humanity is here, in the renewed creation. “See, the home of God is among mortals” (Rev. 21:3). This is why Jesus told his disciples to pray in the words, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). During the time between Genesis 2 and Revelation 21, the earth is corrupted, broken, out of kilter, and filled with people and forces that work against God’s purposes. (More on this in Genesis 3 and following.) Not everything in the world goes according to God’s design. But the world is still God’s creation, which he calls “good.” (For more on the new heaven and new earth, see “Revelation 17-22” in Revelation and Work.)
Many Christians, who work mostly with material objects, say it seems that their work matters less to the church—and even to God—than work centering on people, ideas, or religion. A sermon praising good work is more likely to use the example of a missionary, social worker, or teacher than a miner, auto mechanic, or chemist. Fellow Christians are more likely to recognize a call to become a minister or doctor than a call to become an inventory manager or sculptor. But does this have any biblical basis? Leaving aside the fact that working with people is working with material objects, it is wise to remember that God gave people the tasks both of working with people (Gen. 2:18) and working with things (Gen. 2:15). God seems to take the creation very seriously indeed.
Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, vol. 1, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 15.