Exodus 31: Who’s Going to Build It?
In our Exodus journey we have come to the close of another major section: the instructions for the building of the tabernacle (chs. 25-31). In a nutshell, the LORD told Moses (ch. 31) who would head-up and do the actual construction. God then gave Moses a staunch reminder that Israel was to keep the Sabbath. I want to spend a paragraph or two on each of these matters, and then step back and look at the big picture of these tabernacle instructions.
Having given Moses all the instructions regarding what is to be built, the LORD then told Moses whom He has chosen to be the chief builder: Bezalel. The LORD's remarks regarding this choosing are very interesting: "I have chosen Bezalel, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability, and knowledge in all kinds of crafts. . .."
We tend to think of someone being filled with the Spirit of God as a prophet or perhaps a leader in battle. Images of Elijah or Gideon or Isaiah or Moses himself come to mind. But here it is a construction superintendent who is being chosen and filled with the Spirit. Bezalel is a Spirit-anointed contractor, a Spirit-empowered craftsman. That's something to keep in mind. Preachers and prophets are not the only ones functioning under the call and authority of the Holy Spirit, nor are they the only anointed ones. The LORD has more than just preaching on His list of things that need to get done. There are tabernacles that need to be built, not just talked about. He calls and "Spirits" a wide range of craftsmen and craftswomen to transform His projects from word to wood, from the ears to the hands, from instruction to construction.
I'm sure that when Moses heard he would not be the one doing the actual building that he let out a big sigh of relief, and perhaps the people did too. Moses had been a shepherd and he had grown up in Pharaoh's house. Craftsmanship probably was not one of his chief skills. If the tabernacle were going to be built, it would require more than what Moses had to give. It would require people with skills that he did not possess. It would require more "man hours" than one man could give.
But that's how tabernacles are always built - by community rather than by individuals. And notice that this is part of the LORD's provision and plan. Yahweh gave skills to Bezalel and company that He did not give to Moses. The skills were a gift from Yahweh for Bezalel to develop and use in service to Yahweh and the community. First Peter 4:10 comes to mind, "Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms."
When Bezalel went to work on the tabernacle, he was administering a form of God's grace. There is a tendency to have a secular view of skills, whatever those skills might be. But the Biblical view is that they are graces. Whatever your skills, know they are graces. Furthermore, they are to be administered in the construction of the tabernacle, an earthly dwelling place for the Presence of God. As we serve one another with the skills that God has given us, Christ does indeed dwell in our midst. As Peter would say, we become a "Spiritual house."
Several years ago now, I read a book by Walter Brueggemann, Prophetic Imagination, that influenced my understanding of prophetic/pastoral ministry probably more than any other book I've read (excluding the Bible). One of his shaping thoughts was that the prophet announces the vision of the LORD, but does not tell the people how to get there, how to make it a reality. That is not the prophet's calling. The prophet is to proclaim the Word, to push the people's imagination to see God's world. As the people are captured by the vision of God's world, they will use the skills and gifts that God has given them to make God's world, to bring the vision to reality.
I see that happening with this tabernacle text. "They are to make them just as I commanded you." Moses received and imparted the tabernacle vision. They were to make it. The same thing is true in the ministry of a local church or congregation. Much needs to happen that is beyond the skills of the pastor or church leaders. And that's how it ought to be. Stuff that pastors and leaders can only dream and see, but not actually construct, can be made into reality by folks in the congregation.
It is interesting here that the Hebrew word for "skill" and "wisdom" is actually the same word. Context makes the difference. This range of meaning gives added weight to each concept, for skill and wisdom both have to do with insight and the ability to make good decisions and execute them. A skilled craftsman is someone who is wise in his craft. Likewise, a wise person is someone who is skilled in the craft of living. It's all about seeing what needs done, making good decisions, and executing. So be wise in your craft and skilled in your living.
Following the instruction about Bezalel and company, Yahweh reminded Moses to make sure Israel kept the Sabbath. I can't help but notice the placement of this Sabbath reminder - right after the work instructions. Even when constructing the tabernacle Israel was to keep the Sabbath. The health of the people ("down time") and "Yahweh time" are not to be neglected for the sake of the building project, even if it is Yahweh's tabernacle. How often do we destroy tabernacle because we're busy building tabernacles? Down time and Yahweh time are a must, else we live against the fabric of creation.
All along we have been comparing the Yahweh - Israel covenant relationship to a marriage. What Yahweh is saying with this Sabbath reminder is that He wants a weekly "date-night" with Israel. If they are to be His people and He their God, some quality, attention-giving time must be spent together on a weekly basis. Wives are often good at reminding husbands that they need time together. Yahweh is telling Israel the same thing. Their week is to be organized around spending time with Yahweh. To neglect that together time will be to kill the relationship.
Sabbath keeping "will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy." Sabbath keeping is their together time. In that time they will know through growing relational experience that Yahweh is indeed Yahweh, the One who Is, the One whose Presence makes all the difference in the world. They will relationally know, generation after generation, that Yahweh is the One who makes Israel holy, that Yahweh is the One who makes them a special people, a kingdom of priests. This Yahweh day will identify Israel as Yahweh's, and in so doing it will identify Israel as Israel. Israel is to be the people who keep Sabbath, who give a day a week to Yahweh, resting from business as usual, no matter what the business might be.
We find in the New Testament that Jesus is constantly under attack for breaking the Sabbath and also that Jesus attacks the Pharisees for their hypocrisy regarding the Sabbath. Sometimes we react to this by considering the whole Sabbath keeping business as a legalistic enterprise. But we mustn't let the hypocrisy of some cause us to misconstrue the Sabbath for what it was intended to be: down time and Yahweh time. If we don't give the LORD a specific day, ceasing from work as usual, then we pretty much don't give the LORD any day, no matter how we might claim that every day belongs to the LORD. And if we can't take some down time for Yahweh's sake, then chances are that our up time is not for Yahweh's sake either.
As for the big picture, these Sinai chapters (19-31) have been all about Israel becoming Yahweh's covenant people. Living in Yahweh's Presence and fulfilling Yahweh's priestly purpose calls for a total reorganization of life. In the Ten Commandments and the stipulations that follow we see that life must be reorganized theologically (worship Yahweh alone) and ethically (justice must be practiced). We also see that life must be reorganized materially - one of the first things Moses was to do is take an offering. Two other dimensions of life call for reorganization that we don't notice as quickly, possibly because they are structures embedded deep within daily life.
First, Israel is to be reorganized spatially. There will now be a tabernacle, a dwelling place for Yahweh, in their midst and they are to live life around it. At the center of their lives is to be sacred space. Spatially, Yahweh will be at the center of their individual and corporate lives. What would such a reorganization of life look like for us? Would it mean that where we choose to live would become secondary to where we are called to worship? Or called to serve? I don't know. I’m just trying to imagine what a spatial reorganization would look like for a follower of Christ.
Second, Israel is to be reorganized temporally. Their days are to be reorganized, so that the seventh day is Yahweh's. Life is to revolve around the seventh day. It builds towards and even longs for the Sabbath, and then proceeds from the refreshing rest and new strength received on the Sabbath. We have also seen earlier that time is to be marked by recurring festivals that remind them and embody who they are as God's people. Their lives are to flow through the rhythms of sacred time. What would such temporal reorganization look like for us? How would our time be reorganized to be truly fitting to Christ's presence among us and priestly purposes for us? What would our Sundays be like? Even more, what would our weeks look like in the light of our Sundays?
All this to say that the presence of Christ is no small thing. As Israel discovered, it called for the reorganization of every dimension of life. And that's one of the reasons why we meet week after week, often hearing/preaching the same basic message/story. We are meeting to do the work of reorganizing life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. May the Lord accomplish this work in us with His Holy Spirit. May we be organized into a tabernacle of His Presence.