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Issue No.114
23 November 2017

Bible study: To the glory of God

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Richard Briggs considers the craft of creating a holy dwelling place

 

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 from that?

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 God.

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.

 

For reflection

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 Durham

 

IMAGE Feast of the tabernacle, oil painting on canvas. 2010 by Yvette Beatrice Y. Co, Philippines