Labor

Several different Biblical terms are commonly interpreted as "labor:" Greek κόπος, G3160, Hebrew יְגִיעָה, H3331, עָמָל, H6662. These are translated “labor” thirteen times, “trouble” five times, and “weariness” once in the New Testament. The English term has several distinct senses:

  • work, labor in the physical, originally in the agricultural sphere
  • moral action, deed, hence, with adjectives or genitives defining its character (Souter); synonym: work, ἔργον, G2240. Translated “work” 152 times, “deed” twenty-two times, “doing” one, “labor” one in the New Testament. The meaning here is “produce activity... exert one’s powers of body or mind... to strive, as toward a goal” (RHD). “Toil, labor, laborious toil, involving weariness and fatigue” (Souter).
  • The noun "labor" is today confined to the abstract use—the act of laboring (Gen.31.42; Rom.16.6). Formerly it expressed also the fruit of labor, as in Exod.23.16, “When thou hast gathered in thy labours out of the field,” or John.4.38, “Ye are entered into their labours” (both kjv). The word is used also of labor in childbirth (Gen.35.16 kjv).

    In Bible times there was no class of men known as “labor” in contrast with “management.” All but a favored few labored, and hard work was looked on as the common lot of man and a result of the curse (Gen.3.17-Gen.3.19), a bitter servitude. Slavery was commonly practiced in the Bible world; the conscription of freemen for labor on government building projects was practiced by Solomon (1Kgs.5.13-1Kgs.5.17) and Asa (1Kgs.15.22).

    The Bible records a number of skilled occupations. The Potter (Jer.18.1-Jer.18.23) has left behind him unnumbered examples of his skill. Some technology in the working of metals was known. Remains of smelting furnaces have been found. Stone masons, Scribes (Ezek.9.2; Jer.36.2, Jer.36.4), dyers, weavers, and workers in precious stones and ivory carried on their work. But in general life was simple, work arduous, hours long, and wages small. “Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening” (Ps.104.23). “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me” (Eccl.2.17). By New Testament times things had changed, and the more complex civilization of the Roman world, with its skilled and more diversified occupations and better standards of living, had come to Palestine.