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Religion
Scriptural Concepts

Laboring
עבדה

Hebrew Word

The Hebrew word avodah means "labor", from the verb avad meaning "to labor".

We will see that the word avodah is used, among other things, to refer to many activities of worship done in a group, or activities done in a group to help other people worship. This is in contrast to the Hebrew word shachah ("to bow down before") which refers to worship done by one's self.

In general, labor is simply doing work that requires effort. A useful verse comparing avodah with m'lachah ("profession") is First Chronicles 27:26.

And Ezri the son of K'loov was over the doing of the profession of the field [farming] to labor in the earth.

Doing your profession need not be laborious. Numbers 8:26 says the Levites over fifty should still sharath ("minister") but no longer "do the labor of labor".

In the Apostolic Writings the corresponding Greek word is latreuo ("to do menial labor for""), the verb form of latris ("hired laborer").

Meaning in Ancient Israel

In ancient Israelite society nearly everyone labored. The fourth commandment describes this reality: "Six days you shall labor and do all your profession..." (Exodus 34:21, Deuteronomy 5:13). In Leviticus 23 the phrase m'lechet avodah ("occupational labor") is used to refer to what is prohibited on the first and last days of Pesach, on Shavuot, on Rosh HaShanah, and on the first and eighth days of Sukkot.

Since the Tenach does not include many narratives of people going about their daily work to earn a living it focuses on a few kinds avodah:

Tabernacle Labor

Note that the Tabernacle vessels are sometimes referred to synonymously with the labor of the Tabernacle, such as in Exodus 35:21. Also, construction of the Tabernacle is often referred to as "occupational work" instead of (or in addition to) being called "labor" when professional craftspeople were doing their occupation's work.

Money collected to help build or run the Tabernacle or Temple was said to be for labor (Exodus 30:16, Nehemiah 10:32).

The Levites are the ones who labor in the Tabernacle (Exodus 38:21, Numbers 3:7-8, 8:11, 8:24-26 etc.) They do so by being assigned a masa ("lifting burden") to do (Numbers 4:49). Numbers 18:5-7 twice says this Levitical opportunity to labor is a gift.

This Levitical labor is not slavery done without wages. The Israelite's tithes are the Levite's payment (Numbers 18:20-24). In these verses, describing the aftermath of the Korach rebellion, the Levites are told they do not own property because someone who owns property now "bears sin" if they enter the sanctuary and will die, but they lack property and can "bear iniquity" and live.

What labor did the Levites do? We know mostly about what they did after King David reorganized the Levitical duties. In First Chronicles (verses 23:24-32, 25:1-5 and 28:15) and Second Chronicles (verses 8:14, 29:34-35, 35:2-11) we read of Levites who purify items, prophesy without instruments, who prophesy with instruments (harp, lyre, and cymbals), who play the horn, who use the Temple vessels, who are porters, who are teachers, and who help the Cohenim process the sacrifes when need arises. First Chronicles 23:28 implies this last duty was frequently done by Levites, but was not normally considered to be their labor.

Labor as Offering Sacrifices

The verb avad is also often translated "worship" instead of "labor for" when it refers to doing something for God or for an idol. Because of Isaiah 43:23-24 and the fact that keeping Pesach (the only time most Israelites sacrificed an animal themselves) is considered a kind of labor, it is reasonable to assume the kind of "worship" referred to by avad is performing animal sacrifice.

(Surely Adonai would not want his people praying to an idol or singing songs of praise to it, but these activities do not seem to be considered avodah in either context of Tabernacle use or idolatry.)

As an example of how "worship" and "labor for" can be synonymous, consider Exodus 3:12, in which God speaks to Moshe and says...

This will be the sign for you that I have sent you, for I am with you! In your bringing forth the people out of Egypt you will labor for (ta'avdoon) God on this mountain.

God repeatedly has Moshe tell Pharaoh "Let my people go that they may labor for me" (Exodus 4:23 [using 'my son' instead of 'my people'], 7:16, 8:1, 8:20, 9:1, 9:13, 10:3, 10:7-11, 10:24-26, and 12:31).

Exodus 23:25 also uses avad to mean "labor for" or "worship" Adonai, perhaps referring to both animal offerings and Torah obedience.

The second commandment says not to "labor for" idols (Exodus 20:5, Deuteronomy 5:9), as does Exodus 23:24,33, Deuteronomy 7:4, 7:16, 8:19, and many other verses in Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, etc.

Demons want us to labor for them with sacrifices (Deuteronomy 32:17, Psalm 106:37, First Corinthians 10:20).

Meaning in the First Century

The Apostolic Writings say that serving God in a latreuo way has not changed since the time of the ancient Israelites (Acts 7:7, 24:14, and 27:23; also Hebrews 9:9 and 9:14). But many more things were considered religious labor.

By the First Century "labor" also referred to good or evil deeds (Matthew 5:16, 23:3, etc.), a task given to someone by God (John 4:34, 6:29, etc.), and the combination of fasting and prayer (Luke 2:37).

The Apostle Paul adds that proclaiming the Good News is laboring for Adonai (Romans 1:9), as is bringing forth fruitful obedience in newness of spirit (Romans 7:4-6, 25). Paul also adds that obedience to Torah is fully compatible with laboring for Adonai (Acts 24:14).

We should labor for Adonai "in the Spirit" (Philippians 3:3). God himself guides our labor.

This latreuo manner of service is something we only do for God (Matthew 4:20 and Luke 4:8, also Luke 1:74). We serve God in this way with our spirit (Romans 1:9, Philippians 3:3), with an attitude of awe, reverence, and fear (Hebrews 12:28).

In the World to Come we will be "slaves" of Messiah who instead of "slaving for" him will do latreuo type of service (Revelation 22:3). That is an interesting and mysterious statement!

In the Talmud the word avodah retains its original meanings, and also is at times used to refer specifically to the entirety of Yom Kippur's rituals and ceremonies. This idiom may have been in use in the first century.

Meaning for Yeshua's followers in Modern Times

Our Spiritual Labor

Today we live without a Temple and thus cannot literally do all scripture says to labor for ("worship") Adonai.

What can we do with God to help him or ourselves? Along with Job (verse 21:15), we must ask

What is the Almighty, that we should labor for him? What profit should we have, if we meet with him?

To answer this question outside of the context of Tabernacle use we should consider several very similar generalizations given in Deuteronomy to all the Israelites, not just the Levites (verses 6:13, 10:12, 10:20, 11:13, 13:4).

To Adonai your God, you shall fear him and labor (ta'avod), and by his name swear.

And now, Israel, what does Adonai your God ask of you, but to fear Adonai your God, to walk in all his ways, and to love Him, and to labor for (la'avod) Adonai your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

To Adonai your God, you shall fear him and labor (ta'avod), and come hold fast, and by his name swear.

...to love Adonai your God, and labor for him with all your heart and all your soul...

After Adonai your God you shall walk, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and labor for him and come hold fast.

The context of all these verses is hearing and obeying God's commandments and instructions. Both in context and in grammatical parallelism, "laboring for God" is equated with listening to and obeying what God tells us. Other verses later in the Tenach are similar (First Samuel 12:14, Malachi 3:14-18, etc.).

Yeshua commented on this (Matthew 4:10) and later expounded that since his own teaching was divinely revealed interpretation of Torah then obeying it was also laboring for God (John 14:15 and 15:4).

If you love me, keep my commandments... Remain in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain in me.

In other words, following Yeshua is laboring for Adonai (John 12:26).

If anyone serves me, let him follow me. Where I am, there will my servant also be. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.

Summarizing all we have observed so far, we can currently, without a Temple, labor for God through:

The Benefits of Serving as a Laborer

Besides asking us to labor for Adonai in those ways, scripture tells us how to do so.

Zepheniah 3:9 puts forth the goal of laboring for Adonai "shoulder to shoulder" (literally "united neck"). Our labor should be cooperative and communal. Laborers often enjoy teamwork in a manner slaves do not.

In Deuteronomy 28:47 we are told to labor for Adonai "with rejoicing and goodness of heart". Psalm 100:2 asks us to labor for Adonai "with rejoicing". Why do we have joy? Because when we labor for God properly we can be near him and hold fast to him.

Furthermore, we can have even more joy because we can labor for God without fear (Luke 1:74) since we are cleansed from iniquity (Hebrews 9:9-14, 10:2). Yet our freedom from fear when approaching God does not mean we may grow careless: our labor for Adonai should still be done with modesty and caution (Hebrews 12:28).

Finally, scripture warns us that doing too much occupational labor may cause us to not hear others, including God. In Exodus 6:9 people do not hear because of their labor, in contrast to Exodus 2:23 when God hears the Israelites because of their labor.

Interestingly, when we are disobedient and God must "labor with our sins" (Isaiah 43:23-24). Perhaps this now refers Yeshua's continuing intercession for us (First John 2:1).

Serving Adonai

Latreuo service is about "toiling" for Adonai in our worship. We can toil in prayer, study, dance, and other kinds of worship. It is our offering to God, often in ritualistic activity. It is done voluntarily but with effort and endurance. It is also everyone's job and not to be "assigned" only to leadership.

Serving Each Other

We normally do not serve each other directly in latreuo service. But we do serve each other indirectly since together, in our congregations, we should be creating an atmosphere where this type of worship happens. This is why services include liturgy, for example, to provide the structure that ensures the people worshipping think about God in all the appropriate ways even though being thorough in this manner can at times seem like "toil". (Although liturgy usually seems like toil only when we really need to think about God more!)

Some congregations have one or more people actively praying during services and other events that God may work as he desires during that time. That kind of toiling in prayer on behalf of the group would be appropriate as latreuo service.

Serving with Standards

Unfortunately, even people who love Yeshua can fall into times of not being willing to toil for him. The intimacy with Adonai available through Yeshua has so much peace and joy we can be tricked into forgetting that our relationship with Adonai is also about service and hard work. This is especially true if our lives are comfortable! Let us remember to toil in prayer, study, and all other kinds of worship, and to take time to listen to Adonai to hear what work he has specifically for us to do.