When someone says the word “worship,” what jumps into your brain? In many imaginations—if not most—some kind of music comes along with the word. Music, lyrics to a song, and maybe your favorite musician. Worship music as a category is so big it generates millions of dollars as an industry every year and shows no signs of slowing down.
In the Evangelical subculture in the West, worship is music. There’s not a lot of competition either. Sure, pastors and teachers will point out that worship can be private as well as corporate—that you don’t need a band and a stage to worship God. But we can’t get away from the prevailing notion that worship is music. Churches reserve the opening portions of their services for “worship,” and they mean—without exception—singing of some kind of song.
Taken together, it’s hard to have a conversation about the nature of biblical worship that doesn’t entail some kind of examination of the Bible’s presentation of music. It’s forced in the sense that we’ve already decided before we even hit the Scriptures what worship is, and so we look for it in holy writ.
But that’s a bit out-of-order—sliding down a hill without really knowing where the cactus are, as one old cowboy put it. For the next couple of paragraphs, we’re going to lay aside the question of music and look at one of the most first explanations of worship in the Bible. If music shows up, great. If not, we’ll have to think more critically about it in the future.
A Surprising Verse about Worship
At the beginning of the Bible’s story sits a remarkable but often-overlooked little verse. The first chapter of Genesis lays out creation at a macro level. It gives us the forming of the earth and its filling as well as the creation of its rulers and the blessing and task God gives them.
But chapter two takes a different approach. It looks at the creation of humanity from a more intimate, boots-on-the-ground perspective. Instead of God speaking the first humans into existence as in chapter one, chapter two shows the Creator on his hands and knees playing with mud (Gen. 2:7). Not only that, but also creating a kind of sacred space—a garden—for the human to enjoy.
Now, at that point the passage veers into a kind of narrative description of Eden and the surrounding lands, pointing out all the jewels and precious metals in the region. It’s a detail that seems unnecessary at first, and it’s not until we read all the way through to the book of Exodus that they become crucial.
But we have to stop and recognize that we were not the first audience for the words in Genesis—the generation of Israel that had survived the forty-year wandering in the desolate places of the Negev was. The words of Genesis hit them differently because they already had the full context of how their people had worship Yahweh for decades. Even so, if we’re good and careful readers of the Bible, the description of Eden’s countryside should stick with us.
In verse fifteen, we get an almost-throwaway line that God took the human he’d created and put him in the garden to “work it and keep it.” It feels superfluous because verse eight already called out that God had put the man in the garden. The significance of the verse, however, lies in the word choice—something that rarely comes through in English translations but stands out in neon lights in the original Hebrew.
Three Important Words
The first word worth looking at traditionally gets translated “put.” Yes, “put.” The word there isn’t the same as the one used in verse eight. It’s the word from which we get the name Noah a few chapters later, which is itself a play on the idea that Noah would bring rest. The word “put” comes from the semantic family of rest. And, here, it takes on the sense that God’s putting the human into the garden was intentionally to set him at rest in his proper place.
Just as God enjoyed rest from his work in creating the world, so now the human is set in his place in a state of rest. I must be careful not to over-state the comparison, since the context and translational history doesn’t clamor for opting for “rest” over “put.” But it’s the shade of the word that’s important. The author picked nuach over the other options on purpose.
Second, the words traditionally translated “work” and “keep” (sometimes “cultivate” and “keep”) have their own unique flavor. The Hebrew there is particularly difficult, since the “it” in the English is—in the Hebrew— a feminine suffix appended to the words “work” and “keep.” The problem is there are exactly zero antecedents for the word “it” that match in gender (Hebrew is a thoroughly gendered language, where all nouns have a gender that must match with their respective parts of speech.)
The options are two: Either we say it was a scribal accident and the referent was—as is traditional—the garden, or we say it’s on purpose and, again, flavors the text. The consonants in Hebrew that form the feminine pronoun suffix (again, the “it”) can and do also form the infinitive of a verb. The effect on this verse would be to simply get rid of the “it” altogether: “to work and to keep.”
It’s a slight change, but an important one. The two words translated “work” (abad) and “keep” (shamar) appear together later in the first five books of the Bible. Abad can and does mean “work,” but also “serve” and “worship.” And shamar means “guard” or “keep” as in “keep my commandments.” In Numbers where the two words appear together often, they mean all of them at once (Num. 4:27–32; 8:25–26; 18:4–6). There, the words paint a picture of the stewardship of the priests in the care and operation of the tabernacle. The tabernacle itself was built full of motifs from the garden of Eden. Remember those weird verses describing Eden’s precious metals and jewels? Those same items appear throughout the manufacturing of the tabernacle in Exodus. And it’s on purpose.
Worship with Your Whole Life
The original audience who listened to the words of Genesis for the first time would have imagined the priests and Levites immediately when they got to Genesis 2:15. They would have pictured worship not as music but as stewardship—the care and cultivation of God’s holy place. But the parallel grows even more poignant with the charge God gives to Israel in Deuteronomy 10:12–13, instructing the people “to fear the LORD your God by walking in all His ways, to love Him, and to worship the LORD your God with all your heart and all your soul? To keep the LORD’s commands and statutes I am giving you today, for your own good?”
I’ve emphasized the words “to worship” and “to keep,” which are the self-same infinitives we found in Genesis 2:15. Five books later, they have much the same force: The people of Israel were about to enter the promised land which would be full of houses and fields and food they didn’t build or plant or grow (Deut. 6:11). Like the first humans set in repose in a garden they didn’t grow, Israel was going to enjoy the fruit of God’s hands. Their task, according to Deuteronomy 10, was the same as Adam and Eve’s: to worship their God by stewarding his gifts and keeping his commandments.
So what all does that have to do with worship? We started this journey by asking what jumped into your mind when you heard the word. Most of us think music of some kind, spiced with dusty hymnals or fog machines. But the ancient world and the first people reading the first book of the Bible pictured something different.
They saw in their minds’ eyes the priestly work of caring for, guarding, and operating the tabernacle—God’s miniature Eden. They heard the command from the pillar of smoke on Sinai instructing them to live out devotion to God with every aspect of their being and to keep his commandments. Just like Eden, their worship was their life. How they cared for his gifts to them, how they worked and moved, and how they obeyed. The sum total of their lives were worship. Sure they could—and did!—sing. But that wasn’t what worship was.
Worship, the way the Bible portrays it, is task of orienting every aspect of our life toward expressing our loyalty and love for God. Sing if you must, but don’t forget the rest of your being.