"Then Yahweh God took the earthling and put him in the Garden of Eden
to administer it and to keep watch over it." (Gen. 2:15)
The story of creation in Genesis 1-3 elevates human work as part of the divine plan for the care of Eden and the world at large. But before there is even a hint of the need for humans to labor in Eden, the story emphasizes the way in which God worked in creation. Along with the statement of simple divine fiat, "and God said, 'Let there be" are the verbs of action, "and God made . . ., and God separated. . ., and God called . . ., and God created . . ., God finished his work. . ., God rested from all his work" (Gen 1:3-2:3). The God of creation was a hard worker who in turn experienced the sweet pleasure of rest. One inference to be drawn from this emphasis on divine labor is that work and rest, which were good for the Creator, are good for those made in the image of the Creator.
The idea that God worked was not a new idea in the world of the Israelites and their neighbors. As is known from the Epic of Atrahasis (dating from the 18th century B.C., the time of Hammurabi), heaven was thought to be filled with high gods of leisure and subordinate gods of labor. According to this epic, a revolt of the lesser gods against their task masters was the reason for the creation of human beings. With open rebellion in heaven, but before a successful coup d'etat could be pulled off, the council of elite gods instructed the goddess Mami to create human beings. She mixed the blood of a god with earth's clay and thereby made the human work machine and announced in heaven, "I have removed your heavy work, I have imposed your toil on man. You raised a cry for mankind, I have loosed the yoke, I have established freedom." Thus was the human family created to do the work of the lesser gods. Heaven's peace was restored and all the gods lived happily in leisure ever after. Heavenly freedom had been achieved by servitude on earth and gods rest because people work.
If Theodotian was on the right track, the traditional "rule over the fish. . ., birds. . ., beasts. . ." may better be understood as either (a) radu! "tame" or "give training to the fish. . ., birds. . ., and beasts" or (b) radu! "go forth (from Eden) along with the fish, birds, and beasts." This second alternative is the most attractive one in view of what follows, "Behold I have given you every plant. . . upon the face of the earth. . . for food. Either way, this part of the job description suggests domestication and civilization more than subjugation.
However, this is not always as obvious as it should be. Many who know well the biblical story believe that human labor is a penalty and curse rooted in the fall of Adam and Eve, rather than a gift bestowed by the Creator. This view that work is a curse is thought to have the support of Genesis 3:17 and 3:19. Recent translations of be`tzzabon to'kalennah in Genesis 3:17 have avoided the literal meaning "in sorrow you will eat of it," found, in the King James and in the Septuagint, en lupais phage auten. They offer instead the following: "in toil you shall eat " (RSV, following the ASV "in toil shall thou eat"), "you will have to work hard" (TEV, and its Spanish counterpart, "con duro trabajo"), and "in painful toil" (NIV). The shift from sorrow to toil in these translations is unfortunate for, intentionally or otherwise, they make a different theological statement about the nature of human work than the one required by the Hebrew text.
The term be`itzzabon "in sorrow" in 3:17 cannot be disassociated from the `itzzabonek "your sorrow" and be`etzeb "in sorrow" in 3:16. The basic meaning of this word, like the Septuagint's lupeo, means "to greive, mourn, be in sorrow."
The sorrow addressed to Eve was related to infant mortality, childhood disease, adolescent trauma, and possibly even later battlefield casualty lists. It had nothing to do with the physical pain associated with childbirth, but with the heartbreak which comes after the physical pain was endured.
The male, producing the fruit of earth, like the woman in producing the fruit of the womb, was to experience sorrow in his labor. Thus Adam faced that sorrow which accompanies barren soil, drought, flood, blight, crop failure and famine.
`Itzzabon or `etzeb should be translated "pain" only when it is clear that the pain is psychic, emotional, or psychosomatic in origin and not simply muscle fatigue from manual labor.
The point being made in this part of the Eden story is that Eve and Adam share the same `itzzabon as a consequence of the fall. Both will experience grief/sorrow in producing the fruit of the womb and the fruit of the field. But conceiving, giving birth, and rearing of children is not a curse; nor is working the ground or administering the earth a curse. After the fall as before, work remained a part of the goodness in the divine scheme of things. So also did the imperative for procreation, "be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth."It is also noteworthy that the "sweat of your brow/face" in 3:19 is more literally, "the dripping of your nostrils." Although this may refer to sweat dripping off the tip of the nose, it may also in this context indicate the nasal discharge from crying in grief and sorrow.