What is the best translation of the root word avad in Exodus 34:21?
In many English translations of this passage the root avad is translated as “work.” Are there other possibilities for translating the root avad within Exodus 34:21, which says: “Six days you are to work, and on the seventh day you are to rest. Even in plowing time and in crop harvest, you are to rest.”
In Exodus 34:21, the word ta’avod is taken from the verb root avad that means “work, serve.” The word avad comes from an Aramaic word which means “worship, obey (God).” The word ta’avod in Exodus 34:21, is related to the root avad in that it is absolute and means “labour, work, do work.” Other possible translations similar to the word ta’avod that are absolute are “work for another, serve him by labour,” “serve as subjects,” “serve God or serve other gods,” or “serve with Levitical service.” In the Niphal stem, the root avad can be translated “be tilled,” “cultivated,” or “make oneself a servant.” In the Pual stem, the root avad can be translated “has been worked” or “was worked.” In the Hiphil stem, the root avad can be translated “compel to labour,” “make to serve,” or “cause to serve.” In the Hophal stem the root avad can be translated “be led to serve” or “enticed to serve.”
Related parts of speech that use the root avad are eved as a noun and eved as a proper name. The noun eved can be translated in certain Old Testament texts as “slave, servant,” “subjects,” “servants, worshippers,” “servant of ‘y’, in a special sense like Levitical singers using benedictions in the temple,” “servant of ‘y’, as having a mission to the nations and chosen witness of ‘y’,” “Thy servant: in polite address of equals or superiors,” and “become servant to.” The proper name eved is translated in certain Old Testament texts as “servant of God,” “worshipper,” “servant of (god) Edom,” and “servant of man.”
There are other possible clues from different sources to interpreting the root word avad in Exodus 34:21 as “worship.” The idea of “work” for God in the Old Testament constituted allegiance to God by doing what God desired. The call to live righteously and justly is a call to worship God by our actions. The Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament describes serving God as intrinsically inseparable from being human. To be human is to serve God. “Being human without serving God is as impossible as being human without being active. In the OT, “serving God” comprehensively describes relationship to God.” The correlation between “worshiping” and “serving” God is so closely connected to humanity’s living life that it is inseparable from being a part of our everyday living. What we do six days a week in our “working,” our “laboring,” our “serving” is for and because of our relationship, as a part of humanity, to the one and only God our Lord. “Since ‘serving God’ indicates one’s relationship to God as a whole, it cannot mean ‘to do God a service.’ Instead, it signifies acknowledgment of God as Lord, an acknowledgment that requires one’s entire existence.” There is evidence of the covenantal language in Exodus 34:21 because this passage describes God’s renewal of His covenantal relationship with Israel. In the verses before 21, there are pronouncements to do away with the worship of other gods to worship only Yahweh. The culmination of these pronouncements seems to be verse 21, when the passage depicts a week long/total existence of “service/worship” to Yahweh. “The rhythm of worship and rest following six days of work (21), in a close parallel to 23:12, with the addition of a statement not found elsewhere in the OT, that the rhythm of seventh-day rest is not to be interrupted even by the busiest work-seasons, plowing time and harvest time-this requirement, which would certainly have set Israel apart.” This type of work ethic would be contrary to the rest of the world’s social work requirements. The command seems to indicate a day of rest for reflection on the previous six days just as God did after creating all things. The command also seems to call for a reestablishment of purpose, “to serve/worship the one true God, Yahweh,” for the next six days and remain in the covenant.
Other possible clues for translating ta’avod as “worship” in Exodus 34:21, come from other passages of scripture within the Torah that translate the root word avad as “worship.” In Deuteronomy 6:13, the word ta’avod is translated as “worship.” This passage is a part of the shema, which Israel would use in worship everyday, not just one day a week. In Deuteronomy 7:16, the word ta’avod is translated as “worship” to command the people of Israel not to worship other gods. This passage echoes the call of Exodus 34:21, in that, it pertains to the fulfilling of the covenantal relationship setup in Exodus 34. In Deuteronomy 10:20, the word ta’avod is translated as “worship” to command the people of Israel to worship only God and to remain faithful to the covenantal relationship with Him.
We must remain in a posture of humility before scripture, entrusting it as the authority of God’s word in our lives. Word study enriches our appreciation for understanding the depth of scripture. As followers of Christ we must engage people by applying God’s word to our own lives within the community. In studying the word avad, we can understand our worship to God as a continual action that envelops our whole being. Understanding worship in this way helps us enact passages in the NT, like 1 John 3:18, as acts of true worship to our God. I am curious about Paul’s thought process in Romans 12, and whether or not he was thinking back to the original covenantal call to worship God in Exodus 34, by the offering of ourselves as “living sacrifices” everyday. If we truly understand the “worship” of God, identified in the Hebrew text as “service/work,” it will change how we, who are the church, engage one another for God, through Christ, everyday of the week.
Blessings and Peace,
 Durham, John I. Exodus. Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 3. Waco, Texas: Word, 1987. (pg. 456)  Brown, Francis. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Glasgow, Great Britain: Oxford University Press, Amen House, London E.C.4, 1957. (pg. 712.)  Brown, 712-713.  Brown, 714.  Brown, 714.  Jenni, Ernst. Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1997. (pg. 829)  Jenni, 829.  Durham, 461.  Even-Shoshan, Abraham. A New Concordance of the Bible: Thesaurus of the Language of the Bible Hebrew and Aramaic Roots, Words, Proper Names, Phrases, and Synonoyms. Jerusalem, Israel: “Kiryat Sefer” Publishing House LTD., 1985. (pg. 818.)