What indeed has coffee to do with theology? If you’ll excuse the paraphrase, this quote from the early Christian thinker and theologian Tertullian is a great starting point on understanding avodah and life.
The Meaning of Avodah
P.S. This is the technical stuff that gets us to the application. Hang on tight!
The Hebrew term avodah is an important concept in both the Old Testament and understanding the biblical concepts of “work” and “service”. Hebrew words are constructed from “root” letters, that can be built upon to give meaning to the term in different contexts, like a foundation to a house. The root of avodah is ʿḇḏ, which can be used as a noun—”work” or “service,” even “servant” or “slave”—or as a verb—”to work,” “to serve.” Each of these definitions share the same root consonants, but their meaning (and vowels used!) depends on the context of the word. Work. Service. Serving. Working. That’s Avodah.
Life and Work Coram Deo
We’re learning all kinds of dead languages that no one else cares about anymore today, but my hope is that in these dead languages you find life, and what it means to truly live.
Coram Deo is a Latin phrase that means “in the presence of God.” In our culture, those of us who are Jesus-followers can often times fall into the trap of dividing the world into “secular” and “sacred” categories. Going to church is “sacred.” Going to work is “secular.” Listening to popular music is “secular.” Listening to contemporary Christian music that ripped-off the popular music is “sacred.” But the Bible never really gives us these categories (the concept of “godly” verses “worldly” is a much different concept).
This division is called “dualism,” and it separates the materialness (read: bad) from the spiritualness (read: good) of the universe.1
What Coram Deo means, and what I believe the Bible teaches, is that all of our life is lived “before God.” We are not to divide areas of our life in this way, but rather as early 20th Century theologian Abraham Kuyper said,
…there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry:Mine!
Avodah, Life Coram Deo, and Worship
So, if we ever want to get a Jesus-glorifying sense of our lives, we must understand the concepts of Avodah (work and service), and Coram Deo (all of life in the presence of God). It’s at the intersection of these concepts that “work” becomes “worship.” After all, Paul teaches us that “whatever you do, do it for the glory of God.”
We’ll explore the link between work, service, and worship in my next post. In it, we’ll look at the relationship between Adam’s call to Avodah in the Garden of Eden and the Priest’s role of Avodah in the Jewish Tabernacle/Temple, and compare this biblical view with the common (incorrect) view of the “Protestant work ethic.”
For the really nerdy.
- If you’re interested in pursuing this a little further, you can read more about this on my series on the importance of our physical bodies at my own blog. You can read the first five parts that have been posted: Part I: How We View the Human Body, Part II: Creation—It Was Good, Part III: Creation—Human Beings as Engendered Dirt, Part IV: Fall—Broken Bodies in a Broken World, Part V: Redemption—God is For the Body, and Part IV: Restoration-How it was Meant to Be.