Richard Briggs considers the craft of creating a holy
If we think of the book of Exodus as a symphony of several
parts, then much of its climactic movement is given over to the
construction of the tabernacle. Now there's pause for thought. Not
too many readers think of the tabernacle as a highlight of this
great book, after its long narratives of Moses, the exodus itself,
the ten commandments and associated sound-and-light show at Mount
Sinai. But getting on for a third of the book is about how to make
a place appropriate for a holy God to dwell in. What can we learn
It is not about magnificence, as such. Compared to the royal
palaces of Egypt, from which the Israelites were newly departed, a
portable tent in the wilderness was unlikely to be on the 'must
see' list of a lonely ancient planet guide. Human ideas of
architectural magnificence were not particularly reliable at this
point anyway, with the building of a golden calf (exodus 32)
interrupting the many chapters on the tabernacle. There is indeed
gold and finery in the tabernacle, or particularly in its
sanctuary, with its ark overlaid with gold. From a distance,
however, very few humans would ever see it.
Though not about magnificence, that does not mean it was not
about excellence. in the care afforded to describing how to
construct the tabernacle, excellence was most assuredly an issue.
For seven long chapters, the instructions are given on how to build
it (Exodus 25 - 31), and then after the golden calf interlude, five
further chapters are devoted to rehearsing how they duly went
forward and built it (Exodus 35 - 39). The book concludes with the
dedication of the tabernacle, and with the glory of the lord coming
to dwell among the people (40:34,39).
How does one build to the glory of God, with appropriate
excellence, but without being distracted into magnificence?
Exodus has an answer: one needs skilled craft-workers, equipped
to serve in the work of making and building. part of this, then as
now, would surely be about technical competence. They needed the
ability to work with wood, gold, and the fi nest materials for
vestments and fi ttings.
However, the harder part, and the part noted in the text of
exodus, is the wisdom of character to know how to deploy these
skills to the glory of God. so exodus invites us to meet bezalel
and oholiab, introduced to us briefl y at the start of chapter 31,
and then allowed to shine in the later descriptions of actual
construction at the end of the book. Towards the end of the set-up
instructions, God says to moses: "see, i have called by name
bezalel … and i have fi lled him with divine spirit, with ability,
intelligence and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise
artistic designs." (31:2-4) Then: "moreover, i have appointed with
him oholiab … and i have given skill to all the skilful, so that
they may make all that i have commanded you." (31:6) That phrase
'divine spirit' is often translated simply (and justifi ably) as
'the spirit of God' (ruach 'elohim). Thus endowed they will build
tents, tables, utensils, vestments, and much more to the glory of
The passage is reprised at the end of chapter 35, as bezalel and
oholiab are introduced to the crowds, and set about their work in
chapter 36 with all the 'skilful ones'- as the modern translations
say. The kJv captured the hebrew idiom nicely: "every wise hearted
[person], in whom the lord put wisdom…" (36:1)
Bible readers take note (and indeed take heart). The practical
skills of construction and craft are the work of lives graced by
the spirit of God. This will make more sense to those who have
learned, perhaps from saint paul, that God's good gifts do not
generally cut across our talents and abilities, but rather are
constituted by the talents and abilities with which we have been
graced. as Thomas aquinas liked to put it, God's grace builds upon
human nature, and there is no part of us that we offer to God that
God has not already touched fi rst in grace. Craftspeople of God's
world unite: God is in the detail.
When bezalel and oholiab take their bow, at the end of the
project, what is their fi nal commendation? as we read the
concluding "These are the records of the tabernacle …" (38:21), we
learn simply that they "made all that the lord commanded moses"
(38:22). That is the craft-fi lled life well lived and the craft
that it produces will be excellent. magnifi cent too, in its way,
but only because it aimed at the glory of God, and not at magnifi
cence for its own sake.
1 What are our own abilities in craftwork? Do we see them as
part of our spiritual service?
2 How might our church buildings fare against the standards of
excellence and magnificence? When do these standards serve God and
when might they get in the way?
3 The Israelites in the wilderness carried their tabernacle with
them, as a place suitable for a holy God. What physical objects do
we have, or might we make, to take with us in life's journey to
remind us of the presence of our holy God?
Richard Briggs teaches the Old Testament at Cranmer Hall in
Durham and is also currently a curate in three churches east of
IMAGE Feast of the tabernacle, oil painting on canvas. 2010 by
Yvette Beatrice Y. Co, Philippines