Sweat: A Biblical Theology in Three Acts

Sweat. It’s the body’s natural cooling mechanism, regulating our temperature when it rises due to heat, exercise, fear or stress. Perspiring can be an unpleasant but very necessary bodily function which all of us experience. *

For something so common, it is perhaps surprising to note that sweating is only mentioned three times in the Bible. But these three references taken together work quite nicely to tell the whole story of Redemption. 

Creation and Fall (Genesis 3)

The story of the fall is a familiar one. God created a well-ordered world, and installed Adam and Eve as priests in a mountain-top garden Temple. But then they ate the forbidden fruit, and all hell broke loose. The ramifications of their decision affected every area of life; humanity’s relationship with God, with one another, and with Creation itself. 

God says to Adam,

“Cursed is the ground because of you;

    through painful toil you will eat food from it

    all the days of your life.

It will produce thorns and thistles for you,

    and you will eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your brow

    you will eat your food

until you return to the ground,

    since from it you were taken;

for dust you are

    and to dust you will return.”

Genesis 3:17-19

I have always taken the phrase ‘by the sweat of your brow’ in v19 to be a reference to hard work. Because the ground is cursed and produces thistles and thorns, the task of cultivating it will now be hard and tiring, and Adam will only eat food through the sweat of his labour. But in her brilliant book The Epic of Eden, which I reviewed here, Dr. Sandra Richter argues that it actually has nothing to do with hard work, but is an Ancient Near Eastern idiom for anxiety. Perspiration-inducing fear. 

She writes:

‘Where does anxiety fit into God’s curse upon us? What we find in Genesis 3 is that because of the rebellion of the earth and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from God’s presence, humanity will now live their lives in an adversarial world with a constant, gnawing undercurrent of dread that there will not be enough, that their labour will not meet the need. What if the crop fails? The livestock die? A fire, storm, or drought? Can you relate? What about groceries this week? Rent, mortgage and car payment? College tuition? Retirement? What if I get sick? What if my kids get sick? I am a citizen in the richest nation in the world. I have a secure position at a well-endowed seminary and still I worry. And so do you. This is the curse of ‘Adām – limited resources, an insecure future and a world that no longer responds to my command. Any Adams out there?’

I found this helpful. As someone who lives in a non-agrarian society, and whose only experience of working the soil is recreational, growing a few vegetables in our 4×2 foot garden bed, I’ve found this part of the curse hard to relate to. But the breadth of the idiom makes so much sense of the anxiety we experience in the world today. Providing for our families, maintaining our health, living through uncertain times. Mental health challenges are increasing dramatically in part due to a whole load of modern issues our forefathers never had to face; social media, tech addiction, loneliness and isolation, to name a few. COVID has only exacerbated these problems, as people have become firstly more aware of their vulnerability, and then have had to grapple with the fear of returning to some kind of ‘new normal’ as restrictions lift. 

Understanding this anxiety as part of the curse of the fall is helpful. We live in a sweaty world. 

Restoration (Ezekiel 44)

The second verse that speaks of sweat is Ezekiel 44:18. It comes in the final main section of the book (40-48) where, having spoken about the exile and destruction of the Temple, Ezekiel prophecies about a new Temple, re-inhabited by God’s glory. It is a vast structure, full of order and life. Whilst this section of Ezekiel’s vision may be one of the most challenging passages of Scripture to interpret, it seems that he is prophesying about the New Creation, where the fall will be reversed, and God’s presence will finally dwell among His people in a renewed Eden-like Temple, that doesn’t simply occupy a tiny portion of the world, but stretches across the whole New Earth (cf. Isaiah 66:17; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1 etc).

Right in the middle of the vision, having described the layout of the building, Ezekiel speaks about the glory of God coming into the Temple. This is such a momentous thing that the gate is shut behind Him, and nobody else is allowed to enter by the same way (44:1-3). Only one individual is allowed to use the gate, a figure known as ‘the Prince’ who sits in the gate and eats bread with the Lord. 

Ezekiel doesn’t tell us explicitly who this Prince is, and theories abound, but for my money it’s none other than the Good Shepherd prophesied about in chapter 34, where the Lord declares that He will be Israel’s shepherd, and that He will also appoint one like David to be their Prince (34:24). This is the Christ. The new David. The embodiment of the Lord’s shepherdly care for His people. 

A few verses later, Ezekiel gives instructions for the Levitical priests in the new Eden-Temple, which are all about holiness and purity. One such instruction is this:

‘They shall have nothing of wool on them, while they minister at the gates of the inner court, and within. They shall have linen turbans on their heads, and linen undergarments around their waists. They shall not bind themselves with anything that causes sweat.’

Ezekiel 44:17- 18

This seems like an unusual requirement, especially since the priests’ role included a lot of hard work and the burning of sacrifices, things that would naturally bring out a great deal of sweat. But the priests are required to wear clothing that limits their sweat, which makes sense when you remember that sweat represents the curse of the fall. 

Ezekiel is describing something we haven’t seen since Genesis 3: a garden temple, where God’s holy one eats bread with the Lord, and there is not a sweaty brow in sight! 

How will such a thing come about?

Redemption (Luke 22)

The third and final mention of sweat comes, once more, in a garden on a mountain where, having just broken bread with his disciples, Jesus agonises over what is about to take place. Luke, the physician, writes:

‘being in anguish, [Jesus] prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.’

Luke 22:44

This is the hinge. The second act that sets up the third. This is the reason why Ezekiel’s vision of a sweat-free new-creation garden-temple is even possible. In his own garden temptation, Jesus reversed the decision of Adam, and instead of saying “my will, not yours” he said “your will, not mine.” He embraced the path to the cross. He sweat and he bled, and he embodied the curse of Adam, so he could overturn it. He was buried in the dust of the earth, so he could burst forth from it again to birth a new humanity. 

A world in which there is no bloodshed, or the sweat of anxiety, and every tear is wiped away, is made possible only through the blood, sweat, and tears of the Prince-Priest Jesus Christ. By the sweat of his brow we will eat bread in the presence of God, all the days of our eternal life.

Think of that the next time you perspire from exercise, overheating, or fear. Allow your own sweat to remind you of the blood and sweat of Christ, shed to rid the world of the curse once and for all. And marvel at the God who is able to turn the unpleasant aroma of sweat and death into an aroma of life (2 Corinthians 2:16). 


Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

* With the apparent curious exception of Prince Andrew!

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