Beliefnet
Mark D. Roberts

Part 1 of series: A Theology of Work in Ezra
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Yesterday I introduced a project to which I will soon be contributing, the Theology of Work Project (TOWP). This effort includes a systematic reading of the whole Bible, looking in every book for its theology of work. In time, the findings from this particular investigation will be published as a kind of biblical commentary. I have seen some early drafts of some of the material, and it is excellent. The more I learn about this project, the more enthusiastic I become.
My particular assignment, as I explained yesterday, is to focus on the Old Testament books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. This might seem like a surprising allocation, given that my academic expertise is in New Testament. But, as you may know, several years ago I wrote a commentary on Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. So, though I’m not an Old Testament scholar, I do have a measure of expertise in these particular books.
Ultimately, I will produce a focused, commentary-like study of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, one that seeks to answer the question: What is this book’s theology of work? I will not be publishing that production here, because it will be part of TWOP’s “library.” But I do want to work through my assigned biblical texts as a part of my blog. Not only will this give my readers a chance to think about these issues with me . . . a worthy effort, I believe. But also, I will have the chance to learn from my readers through their posted comments and emails.
But before I get to the task at hand, I want to say something about reading with an agenda.
We always approach a reading assignment with some sort of purpose or plan. When I’m on summer vacation, for example, my agenda is enjoyment. When I’m reading a book for work, usually I’m trying to glean material that will be relevant for the mission of Laity Lodge. When it comes to most reading, we want to let the text speak for itself, to tell its story or explain its point.
When I was writing my commentary on Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, my goal was to let these books speak in their own voice. Beyond this, I was hoping to accurately hear the voice of God. I tried not to bring to the text my own questions that we’re extrinsic to the text itself. In particular, I was not asking Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther to offer a theology of work, since this was not the main point of these writings. Rather, I sought to let Ezra and Nehemiah speak about restoration and renewal, the primary themes of these books. And I tried to let Esther speak about living in a culture in which one doesn’t fit, a central them of this book.
Now, however, I am bringing to Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther a question that is not the primary question of these books. Yet I am still hoping to hear what they say in some authentic way, and not merely interject my own ideas into the text. In many cases I will be listening to what is implicit in the telling of the story. In other cases I will be dealing with what is explicit, even if it isn’t the main point.
I believe that this kind of reading, when it is done with careful attention to the primary meaning(s) of a text, can be quite illuminating. I experienced such illumination a decade ago when working on the NIV Worship Bible. For this Bible, which is now out of print, I was invited to write the introductions to all of the biblical books. These introductions were not your standard study Bible fare, however, with brief notes about authorship, date, context, outline, and themes. Rather, my introductions sought to answer the question: What does this book teach us about worship?
In order to answer this question for each biblical book, I had to read the book at least twice. As I read, I kept asking myself questions like: What does this have to do with worship? What view of worship is assumed here? And so on. In the process of writing the introductions, I learned a lot about worship. And I’m quite sure I didn’t just project my own thoughts into the text, because much of what I learned I hadn’t thought before I began my study.
So, as I get ready to look for theological material related to work in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, I am bringing my agenda, if you will. This agenda is not, however, something I want to force into the text. Rather, my agenda is to ask, as openly as I can: What does this book teach us about work?

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