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Bible Dictionaries

Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words

Work

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A. Verbs.

Pâ‛al (פָּעַל, Strong's #6466), “to do, work.” Common to both ancient and modern Hebrew, this word is used in modern Hebrew in the sense of “to work, to act, to function.” Found only 57 times in the Hebrew Old Testament, it is used primarily as a poetic synonym for the much more common verb ‘ashah, “to do, to make.” Thus, almost half the occurrences of this verb are in the Book of Psalms. Pâ‛al is used for the first time in the Old Testament in the Song of Moses: “… The place, O Lord, which thou hast made for thee to dwell in …” (Exod. 15:17). There is no distinction in the use of this verb, whether God or man is its subject. In Ps. 15:2 man is the subject: “He that walketh uprightly and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart.”

‛Âśâh (עָשָׂה, Strong's #6213), “to make, do, create.” This root also occurs in Moabite and Phoenician (only in a proper name). It occurs in early extra-biblical Hebrew, Hebrew, and about 2,625 times in the Bible (in all periods). It should be distinguished from the second sense of ‛âśâh, “to squeeze.”

In its primary sense this verb represents the production of various objects. This includes making images and idols: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image …” (Exod. 20:4). The verb can mean to make something into something: “And the residue thereof he maketh a god, even his graven image …” (Isa. 44:17). In an extended use this verb means to prepare a meal, a banquet, or even an offering: “And he [Abraham] took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them [his three guests] …” (Gen. 18:8).

In Gen. 12:5 ‛âśâh means “to acquire” (as it often does): “And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran.…” The “souls that they had gotten” probably were slaves.

Used in association with “Sabbath” or the name of other holy days, this word signifies “keeping” or “celebrating”: “All the congregation of Israel shall keep it [the Passover]” (Exod. 12:47). In a related sense the word means “to spend” a day: “For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow?” (Eccl. 6:12).

Depending upon its object, ‛âśâh has several other nuances within the general concept of producing some product. For example, with the object “book” the verb means “to write”: “… Of making many books there is no end …” (Eccl. 12:12). The Bible also uses this word of the process of war: “These made war with Bera king of Sodom …” (Gen. 14:2). Sometimes the word represents an action: “And Joshua made peace with them, and made a league with them …” (Josh. 9:15). “To make a mourning” is to observe it: “… And he [Joseph] made a mourning for his father seven days” (Gen. 50:10). With “name” the verb means “to gain prominence and fame”: “Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name …” (Gen. 11:4). With the word “workmanship” the word signifies “to work”: “And I have filled him with the spirit of God … , and in all manner of workmanship, … to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass” (Exod. 31:3-4).

‛Âśâh may represent the relationship of an individual to another in his action or behavior, in the sense of what one does. So Pharaoh asks Abram: “What is this that thou hast done unto me?” (Gen. 12:18). Israel pledged: “All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient” (Exod. 24:7). With the particle le the verb signifies inflicting upon another some act or behavior: “Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said unto him, What hast thou done unto us?” (Gen. 20:9). With the particle ’im the word may mean “to show,” or “to practice” something toward someone. The emphasis here is on an ongoing mutual relationship between two parties obligating them to a reciprocal act: “O Lord God of my master Abraham, I pray thee, send me good speed this day, and show kindness unto my master Abraham” (Gen. 24:12). In Gen. 26:29 ‛âśâh appears twice in the sense “to practice toward”: “That thou wilt do us no harm, as we have not touched thee, and as we have done unto thee nothing but good.…”

Used absolutely this verb sometimes means “to take action”: “Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land …” (Gen. 41:34). In the Hebrew ‛âśâh has no object in this passage—it is used absolutely. Used in this manner it may also signify “to be active”: “She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands” (Prov. 31:13). In 1 Chron. 28:10 the verb (used absolutely) means “to go to work,” to go about doing a task: “Take heed now; for the Lord hath chosen thee to build a house for the sanctuary: be strong, and do it.”

This verb used of plants signifies “bringing forth.” In Gen. 1:11 it means “to bear” fruit: “… And the fruit tree [bearing] fruit after his kind.…” In another nuance this verb represents what a plant does in producing grain: “… It hath no stalk: the bud shall yield no meal …” (Hos. 8:7). The word signifies the production of branches, too: “It was planted in a good soil by great waters, that it might bring forth branches, and that it might bear fruit, that it might be a goodly vine” (Ezek. 17:8).

‛Âśâh is used theologically of man’s response to divine commands. God commanded Noah: “Make thee an ark of gopher wood …” (Gen. 6:14). Similarly Israel was commanded “to construct” a sanctuary for God (Exod. 25:8). The manipulation of the blood of the sacrifice is what the priest is to do (Lev. 4:20). The entire cultic activity is described by ‛âśâh: “As he hath done this day, so the Lord hath commanded to do …” (Lev. 8:34). Thus in his acts a man demonstrates his inward commitment and, therefore, his relationship to God (Deut. 4:13). Doing God’s commands brings life upon a man (Lev. 18:5).

This verb is also applied specifically to all aspects of divine acts and actions. In the general sense of His actions toward His people Israel, the word first occurs in Gen. 12:2, where God promises “to make” Abram a great nation. *  is also the most general Old Testament expression for divine creating. Every aspect of this activity is described by this word: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth …” (Exod. 20:11). This is its meaning in its first biblical occurrence: “And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament …” (Gen. 1:7). This word is used of God’s acts effecting the entire created world and individual men (Exod. 20:6). God’s acts and words perfectly correspond, so that what He says He does, and what He does is what He has said (Gen. 21:1; Ps. 115:3).

B. Noun.

Ma‛ăśeh (מַעֲשֶׂה, 4639), “work; deed; labor; behavior.” This noun is used 235 times in biblical Hebrew. Lamech, Noah’s father, in expressing his hope for a new world, used the noun for the first time in the Old Testament: “And he called his name Noah, saying, This same shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord hath cursed” (Gen. 5:29). The word is scattered throughout the Old Testament and all types of literature.

The basic meaning of ma‛ăśeh is “work.” Lamech used the word to signify agricultural labor (Gen. 5:29). The Israelites were commanded to celebrate the Festival of the Firstfruits, as it signified the blessing of God upon their “labors” (Exod. 23:16). It is not to be limited to this. As the word is the most general word for “work,” it may be used to refer to the “work” of a skillful craftsman (Exod. 26:1), a weaver (26:36), a jeweler (28:11), and a perfumer (30:25). The finished product of the worker is also known as ma‛ăśeh: “And in the uppermost basket there was of all manner of bakemeats [literally, “work of a baker”] for Pharaoh.…” (Gen. 40:17); “And Moses and Eleazar the priest took the gold of them, even all wrought jewels” [literally, “articles of work”] (Num. 31:51). The artisan plied his craft during the work week, known in Hebrew as “the days of work,” and rested on the Sabbath: “Thus saith the Lord God; The gate of the inner court that looketh toward the east shall be shut the six working days; but on the sabbath it shall be opened, and in the day of the new moon it shall be opened” (Ezek. 46:1; cf. Exod. 23:12).

The phrase “work of one’s hands” signifies the worthlessness of the idols fashioned by human hands: “Asshur shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses: neither will we say any more to the work of our hands, Ye are our gods: for in thee the fatherless findeth mercy” (Hos. 14:3). However, the prayer of the psalmist includes the request that the “works” of God’s people might be established: “And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it” (Ps. 90:17). Since the righteous work out God’s work and are a cause of God’s rejoicing, “the glory of the Lord shall endure for ever: the Lord shall rejoice in his works” (Ps. 104:31).

In addition to “work,” ma‛ăśeh also denotes “deed,” “practice,” or “behavior.” Joseph asked his brothers, accused of having taken his cup of divination: “What deed is this that ye have done? wot ye not that such a man as I can certainly divine?” (Gen. 44:15). The Israelites were strongly commanded not to imitate the grossly immoral behavior of the Canaanites and the surrounding nations: “After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do: neither shall ye walk in their ordinances” (Lev. 18:3; cf. Exod. 23:24). However, the Israelites did not listen to the warning, and they “were mingled among the heathen, and learned their works.… Thus were they defiled with their own works, and went a whoring with their own inventions” (Ps. 106:35, 39).

Thus far, we have dealt with ma‛ăśeh from man’s perspective. The word may have a positive connotation (“work, deed”) as well as a negative (“corrupt practice”). The Old Testament also calls us to celebrate the “work” of God. The psalmist was overwhelmed with the majesty of the Lord, as he looked at God’s “work” of creation: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained” (Ps. 8:3; cf. 19:1; 102:25). The God of Israel demonstrated His love by His mighty acts of deliverance on behalf of Israel: “And Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that [out] lived Joshua, and which had known all the works of the Lord, that he had done for Israel” (Josh. 24:31; cf. versions).

All of God’s “works” are characterized by faithfulness to His promises and covenant: “For the word of the Lord is right; and all his works are done in truth” (Ps. 33:4).

Ma‛ăśeh is translated in the Greek as ergon (“deed; action; manifestation”) and poiema (“what is made; work; creation”). English translations are work (KJV, RSV, NASB, NIV), “doing” (KJV and RSV), “practice” (NASB, NIV)

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Bibliography Information
Vines, W. E., M. A. Entry for 'Work'. Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/vot/w/work.html. 1940.

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