God called Abraham into a covenant of faithful service, as is told at the beginning of Genesis 12. By leaving the territory of his faithless extended family and following God’s call, Abraham distinguished himself sharply from his distant relatives who stayed in Mesopotamia and attempted to build the Tower of Babel, as was told at the close of Genesis 11. The comparison between Abraham’s immediate family in chapter 12 and Noah’s other descendants in chapter 11 highlights five contrasts.
First, Abraham puts his trust in God’s guidance, rather than on human device. In contrast, the tower builders believed that by their own skill and ingenuity, they could devise a tower “with its top in the heavens” (Gen. 11:4), and in so doing achieve significance and security in a way that usurped God’s authority.
Second, the builders sought to make a name for themselves (Gen. 11:4), but Abraham trusted God’s promise that he would make Abraham’s name great (Gen. 12:2). The difference was not the desire to achieve greatness, per se, but the desire to pursue fame on one’s own terms. God did indeed make Abraham famous, not for his own sake but in order that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). The builders sought fame for their own sake, yet they remain anonymous to this day.
Third, Abraham was willing to go wherever God led him, while the builders attempted to huddle together in their accustomed space. They created their project out of fear that they would be scattered across the earth (Gen. 11:4). In doing so, they rejected God’s purpose for humanity to “fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). They seem to have feared that spreading out in an apparently hostile world would be too difficult for them. They were creative and technologically innovative (Gen. 11:3), but they were unwilling to fully embrace God’s purpose for them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). Their fear of engaging the fullness of creation coincided with their decision to substitute human ingenuity for God’s guidance and grace. When we cease to aspire for more than we can attain on our own, our aspirations become insignificant.
By contrast, God made Abraham into the original entrepreneur, always moving on to fresh endeavors in new locations. God called him away from the city of Haran toward the land of Canaan where Abraham would never settle into a fixed address. He was known as a “wandering Aramean” (Deut. 26:5). This lifestyle was inherently more God-centered in that Abraham would have to depend on God’s word and leadership in order to find his significance, security, and success. As Hebrews 11:8 puts it, he had to “set out, not knowing where he was going.” In the world of work, believers must perceive the contrast in these two fundamental orientations. All work entails planning and building. Ungodly work stems from the desire to depend on no one but ourselves, and it restricts itself narrowly to benefit only ourselves and the few who may be close to us. Godly work is willing to depend on God’s guidance and authority, and it desires to grow widely as a blessing to all the world.
Fourth, Abraham was willing to let God lead him into new relationships. While the tower builders sought to close themselves off in a guarded fortress, Abraham trusted God’s promise that his family would grow into a great nation (Gen. 12:2; 15:5). Though they lived among strangers in the land of Canaan (Gen. 17:8), they had good relationships with those they came in contact with (Gen. 21:22-34; 23:1-12). This is the gift of community. Another key theme thus emerges for the theology of work: God’s design is for people to work in healthy networks of relationship.
Finally, Abraham was blessed with the patience to take a long-term view. God’s promises were to be realized in the time of Abraham’s offspring, not in the time of Abraham himself. The Apostle Paul interpreted the “offspring” to be Jesus (Gal. 3:19), meaning that the payoff date was more than a thousand years in the future. In fact, the promise to Abraham will not be fulfilled completely until the return of Christ (Matt. 24:30-31). Its progress cannot be adequately measured by quarterly reports! The tower builders, in comparison, took no thought for how their project would affect future generations, and God criticized them explicitly for this lapse (Gen. 11:6).
In sum, God promised Abraham fame, fruitfulness, and good relationships, by which meant he and his family would bless the whole world, and in due course be blessed themselves beyond imagining (Gen. 22:17). Unlike others, Abraham realized that an attempt to grasp such things on his own power would be futile, or worse. Instead, he trusted God and depended every day on God’s guidance and provision (Gen. 22:8-14). Although these promises were not fully realized by the end of Genesis, they initiated the covenant between God and the people of God through which the redemption of the world will come to completion in the day of Christ (Phil. 1:10).
God promised a new land to Abraham’s family. Making use of land requires many kinds of work, so a gift of land reiterates that work is an essential sphere of God’s concern. Working the land would require occupational skills of shepherding, tent-making, military protection, and the production of a wide array of goods and services. Moreover, Abraham’s descendants would become a populous nation whose members would be as innumerable as the stars in the sky. This would require the work of developing personal relationships, parenting, politics, diplomacy and administration, education, the healing arts, and other social occupations. To bring such blessings to all the earth, God called Abraham and his descendants to “walk before me, and be blameless” (Gen. 17:1). This required the work of worship, atonement, discipleship, and other religious occupations. Joseph’s work was to create a solution responding to the impact of the famine, and sometimes our work is to heal brokenness. All these types of work, and the workers who engage in them, come under God’s authority, guidance, and provision.
Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 182-83.