Yesterday’s post wasn’t the most pleasant Bible story, so today’s is a little less…gastric.
One of my biblical heroes, and an unsung hero at that, isn’t a household name, like Moses or Peter or David; his story is hidden towards the end of Exodus, where it’s overshadowed by a lot of technical details about construction and woodwork. But he deserves to be remembered by anyone who loves the arts or craftsmanship.
The context: God has liberated the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt; now, lead by Moses, they’re out in the wilderness, grumbling and homeless and prone to building themselves idols. Therefore it’s decided that a portable dwelling place, the Tabernacle, should be built for God. This is major: the presence of God – the Shekinah – living among his people is a crucial theme throughout the Bible. That’s why, in the opening of John’s Gospel, the coming of Jesus is directly linked with God’s presence in the Tabernacle. God is with us.
But if you’re going to build a dwelling place for God, you want to put your best people on it:
“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, or the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship.”
That passage from Exodus 31 pretty much sums up who Bezalel is – Israel’s genius craftsman, the guy who has the ability and talent to build a home for God himself. He, his assistant Oholiab and a whole bunch of apprentices, build both the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant, the holiest items in Israel’s inventory. Bezalel had a crucial role in the development of Israel’s religious life and he’s a craftsman – not a priest, not a warrior, a craftsman.
But this shouldn’t be a surprise – look at that quote from Exodus. Bezalel is filled with the Spirit of God, giving him all those artistic talents (and Israel needs help with this, given that their time as slaves was mostly spent making bricks, not tabernacles). Okay, where is the main reference to the Spirit of God before this? Right at the start of the Bible, in Genesis chapter 1:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”
The Spirit of God is intimately linked with the act of creation, so when we talk about Bezalel being given the Spirit we’re really looking at the artistry of God as well. This is where some attempts to read the Bible as a scientific textbook fail – the act of Creation isn’t described as the interplay of atoms and fundamental laws of physics, it’s described in terms of art, architecture, creativity – look at Job 38, for instance, or Psalm 139. And, when Ephesians 2:10 talks about us being God’s “handiwork”, it has connotations of us being God’s works of art.
(Just a few verses after that, Paul also talks about us being “a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” Which again ties in with Bezalel’s story.)
The language used isn’t trying to tell us about science, it’s telling us that God is a creator, and artist, and while the creation has been spoiled and broken, a major theme of the Bible is that it will be restored. (There’s a Jewish tradition that Bezalel’s grandfather, Hur, was murdered during the incident with the Golden Calf, and therefore Bezalel’s gifting were to both honour Hur and his family and show how art and craft should be used by Israel – ie, not in the cause of idolatry.)
And so Bezalel reminds us of this, as well as reminding us of the importance of art and beauty when connected with worship. Too often in modern churches, the arts are represented near exclusively by music, which is a real shame – many people sitting in the pews have gifts in arts and craft that aren’t allowed a forum in which they can be used to worship God – even though healing. This is in contrast with the biblical story, where the people can’t support Bezalel and his crew enough.
And so, maybe Bezalel’s legacy is that we can find ways to raise up these artists, give them the tools and the teaching and the spaces they need to worship God with talents that are knit into their very bones. I suspect it’s what Bezalel would have wanted.
(This post led to a whole new blogging probject for me – check out Bezalel’s Legacy!)