The Tabernacle served as the representation of the divine presence during Israel’s wilderness wandering. God goes to great lengths in planning this portable dwelling place, dictating six chapters of explicit instructions to Moses (Exodus 25:1-30:38). God not only cares about the design of the tabernacle but also who will implement the vision. Moses is not to construct the tabernacle nor would there be politicking to secure this government contract. Instead, God personally selects two master craftsmen: Bezalel and Oholiab (Exodus 31:2-6).
“See, I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship, to make artistic designs for work in gold, in silver, and in bronze, and in the cutting of stones for settings, and in the carving of wood, that he may work in all kinds of craftsmanship. And behold, I Myself have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and in the hearts of all who are skillful I have put skill, that they may make all that I have commanded you: (Exodus 31:2-6 NASB)From start to finish the tabernacle was a God given structure. Brevard S. Childs (1923-2007) observes:
For the Old Testament writer the concrete form of the tabernacle is inseparable from its spiritual meaning. Every detail of the structure reflects the one divine will and nothing rests on the ad hoc decision of human builders. There is no tension whatever between form and content, or symbol and reality throughout the tabernacle chapters. Moreover, the tabernacle is not conceived of as a temporary measure for a limited time, but one in which the permanent priesthood of Aaron serves throughout all their generation (Exodus 27:20ff). (Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (Old Testament Library), 540)F.B. Meyer (1847-1929) lauds:
The tabernacle with its contents was the subject of much divine thought and care. It was not a poor hut run up in an hour. It was not the creation of human fancy. Man was not the creator, but the executor of the divine program and plan. It was thus that God made the heavens and the earth. He was alone when the foundations of the heavens and earth were laid. To Him alone must be attributed, also, the pattern of the human life of our Lord, in which the tabernacle was duplicated in flesh and blood. In the minutest details, He is immediately interested; and in the most holy place of our nature, within the veil, there is a shrine, where angels might tread with reverence, because His holy presence is there.” (Meyer, Devotional Commentary on Exodus, 303)The final instructions God gives regarding the tabernacle concern its artisans. The selection of craftsmen is a standard element in ancient building stories, especially in the region where the Bible was written (e.g., the Ugaritic Baal Cycle).
God hires local contractors for the job. Bezalel is “called by name” (Exodus 31:2), indicating a personal selection and perhaps an intimate acquaintance. Bezalel and Oholiab represent a balanced ticket as Bezalel hails from Judah in the south (Exodus 31:2), the largest tribe (Numbers 1:27), while Oholiab is from Dan (Exodus 31:6), one of the smallest tribes (Numbers 1:39), situated in the north.
God selects people who have already demonstrated talent with the requisite skill necessary to assemble the tabernacle. Some have even posed that Bezalel and Oholiab are representative of famous family guilds. It can be certain that they constitute highly skilled labor.
They likely acquired this skill set through slavery. Gene Edward Veith, Jr. (b. 1951) speculates:
Bezalel was probably already a skilled craftsman in the normal course of things before he received his divine commission...Ancient Egypt is renowned for its magnificent art, and although it glorified the Pharaohs, much of the actual labor was done by slaves. Perhaps Bezalel had been forced to adorn a pyramid. The Lord speaking to Moses indicated that He had given these gifts to Bezalel prior to the Sinai revelation. Furthermore, He states that He gave similar ability to others who would be helping Bezalel. (Veith, State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe, 108)Steven J. Binz (b. 1955) asserts:
There is a marked contrast between the dignity associated with work done in freedom and the brutal labor of slavery. God’s spirit is recognized as the source of the artisan’s skill, talent, and competence. There is pride and concern associated with mastery in the art of embroidery, metalwork, jewelry, and woodcarving. (Binz, The God of Freedom and Life: A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 117)Relatively little is known of Bezalel and Oholiab. Bezalel’s name appears nine times in Scripture; seven in Exodus (Exodus 31:2, 35:30, 36:1, 2, 8, 37:1, 38:22) and twice in Chronicles (I Chronicles 2:20; II Chronicles 1:5). Oholiab’s name is found only five times, all in conjunction with this building project (Exodus 31:6, 35:34, 36:1, 2, 38:23). There is some debate as to whether they worked in tandem or if Bezalel was the foreman. It appears that Bezalel holds a higher position as he is given preeminence.
Bezalel’s heritage is intriguing. His grandfather is named Hur (Exodus 31:2), a common name meaning “Whitey”. It is possible that this is the same Hur who famously propped up Moses’ hands during a victory over the Amalekites (Exodus 17:10-13).
The fact that Bezalel is from the tribe of Judah is noteworthy. Douglas K. Stuart (b. 1943) examines:
What is perhaps most significant about Bezalel’s family lineage is his being a Judahite. In all aspects of tabernacle service and maintenance, Levites were the only persons allowed responsibility. They alone could set up, take down, transport, maintain, or utilize anything pertaining to the tabernacle. But the original construction was another matter. The servants in God’s house were chosen for their duty by reason of birth lineage; but those who actually built it were chosen because of spiritual gifting. No Judahite would be able to touch anything in the tabernacle once it was constructed and sanctified, but until then the best craftsmen, regardless of tribe, would handle every part of it as they made it into a beautiful, portable divine dwelling for Israel’s God. (Stuart, Exodus (The New American Commentary), 649-50)Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1941) resolves:
Hur’s grandson, Bezalel, is the foreman overseeing the tabernacle’s construction (Exodus 31:2; I Chronicles 2:19-20). Postbiblical Jewish literature sometimes “found” a husband for female figures in Scripture to whose husbands Scripture never refers (e.g., Dinah marries Job, and Rahab marries Joshua). Josephus (37-100, Antiquities 3.2.4 §54) says that Miriam married Hur. This creates marital ties between the tribe of Levi (Miriam) and the tribe of Judah (Hur), as does the marriage of Levite Aaron to Judahite Elizabeth (Exodus 6:23). (Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary, 270)
Bezalel possesses the impressive set of skills necessary to complete the task at hand. A mythology has developed around Bezalel’s giftedness. One Jewish tradition asserts that Bezalel is only twelve years old at time of his commissioning (Sanhedrin 69b). Godfrey Ashby (b. 1930) has dubbed Bezalel “the Leonardo da Vinci of the Hebrews” (Exodus: Go Out and Meet God (International Theological Commentary), 142).
Scott M. Langston (b. 1960) chronicles:
The image of Bezalel...became the medieval prototype of the master jeweler, while also contributing to a Christian mystical understanding of the relationship with God. Richard of St. Victor (1123-1173), as well as the author of the fourteenth century work The Cloud of Unknowing, portrays Bezalel as “the prototype of the ideal Christian labouring, like the jeweler in Pearl, towards a vision of God by his own spiritual effort with the help of divine grace.” Casting him as the model of the “earth-bound artist, achieving a spiritual vision of grace, by sheer craftsmanship and the perfection of accomplished art.” (Langston, Exodus: Through The Centuries (Blackwell Bible Commentaries), 226)Bezalel is not merely a jack of all trades but a master. Even so, Nahum M. Sarna (1923-2005) clarifies:
The two personalities are not architects. They possess the necessary skills to fashion the several individual items in accordance with the instructions that they receive from Moses. However, when it comes to assembling the parts into an integrated whole, it is Moses personally who performs the task, not they [Exodus 16:35; Numbers 11:6; Joshua 5:12; Nehemiah 9:20-21]. This really has to be so, within the framework of the narrative, since only Moses carries a mental picture of the Tabernacle in its completed, coherent form. No one else knows the disposition of the individual components and the harmonious interrelationships of the constituent elements. (Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel, 200-1)
Bezalel’s companion is Oholiab. Though most commonly spelled “Oholiab” (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NLT, NRSV, RSV), some translations render the name “Aholiab” (KJV, NKJV). Oholiab appears in the Bible only during his commissioning (Exodus 31:6) and the fulfillment passages of his task (Exodus 35:34, 36:1-2, 38:23). There is debate as to whether Oholiab serves as a co-leader or an assistant. At the very least, Bezalel is second in command on the project.
Oholiab’s name is ironic given his task. Randall C. Bailey (b. 1951) notes:
This name may reflect a wordplay since “Oholiab” can mean “father’s tent,” “father is my tent (= protection),” “the tent of the father,” “the father of the tent,” or the like. Further, names containing the word “tent” are prominent in the ancient Near East. (Bailey, Exodus (The College Press NIV Commentary), 330)Having “tent” as part of one’s name is not irregular in the Bible. Oholibama (“A high place [is] my tent”), Oholah (“Her tent”) and Oholobah (“My tent [is] in her”) are other examples. Oholibama is one of Esau’s Canaanite wives (Genesis 36:2, 14, 18) while the last two names are metaphorical monikers that the prophet Ezekiel supplies to sinful Samaria and apostate Judah respectively (Ezekiel 23:4, 5, 11).
It is often said that “God does not call the equipped. He equips the called.” In this case God calls the equipped.
Bezael and Oholiab’s names suggest that they may have been born for a time such as this. Peter Enns (b. 1961) appraises:
If it is even valid to seek significance in the etymology of names (a last resort when other information is lacking), Bezalel probably means “in the shadow/protection of El [’el, a name of God].” Oholiab can mean either “father is my tent” or perhaps “father is a tent.” Thus, the names themselves may be an allusion to the tabernacle. (Enns, Exodus (The NIV Application Commentary), 543)Why does Moses not build the tabernacle himself? Why does God not simply speak the tabernacle into being? Who constructs and fixes churches today? Is the task of church maintenance deemed important in your church? What task have you been gifted to do? Have you ever felt as though you were enacting God’s vision? Is there anything you feel that you were born to do?
The construction of the tabernacle is not merely a human effort. As is often the case, God allows humanity to partner with the divine will. In addition to his innate talent, Bezalel and crew are given a significant performance enhancer: the Spirit of God (Exodus 31:3), more specifically, the Spirit of El (as opposed to the personal name Yahweh). Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, the phrase “the Spirit of God” occurs only five times (Genesis 1:2, 41:38; Exodus 31:3, 35:31; Numbers 24:2) twice in connection with the building of the tabernacle (Exodus 31:3, 35:31).
William T. Miller (b. 1941) comments:
The statement in Exodus 31:3, I have filled him with divine spirit (or with the spirit of God), is quite striking. The only other use of the phrase by P is found in Genesis 1:2, the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters. William H.C. Propp (b. 1957) speaks of Bezalel the artist as a “theologian, exampling divine activity and rendering it active and comprehensible.” (Miller, The Book of Exodus: Question by Question, 314)
Terence E. Fretheim (b. 1936) theologizes:
Bezalel executes in miniature the divine creative role of Genesis 1 in the building of the tabernacle. The spirit of God with which the craftsmen are filled is a sign of the living, breathing force that lies behind the completing of the project just as it lies behind the creation. Their intricate craftsmanship mirrors God’s own work. The precious metals with which they work take up the very products of God’s beautiful creation and give new shape to that beauty within creation. Just as God created such a world in which God himself would dwell (not explicit in Genesis, but see Psalm 104:1-4; Isaiah 40:22), so now these craftsmen re-create a world in the midst of chaos wherein God may dwell once again in a world suitable for the divine presence. (Fretheim, Exodus (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 269)This incident makes Bezalel the first person explicitly said to be filled with the Spirit in Scripture. It is worth noting that the first person filled with the Spirit is not a patriarch, lawgiver, prophet or judge. It is rather Bezalel, an artist.
Waldemar Janzen (b. 1932) remarks:
It is remarkable that the special spirit-endowment of Bezalel—as well as Oholiab and the unnamed others (Exodus 31:6)—is given to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft (Exodus 31:4-5). In other words, “spiritual gifts” are not reserved here for the realm with which we often associate them (e.g., prayer, prophecy, etc.). Instead, they are applied to the work of artists and artisans working with tangible materials. Again, the term “incarnational” seems appropriate; God works through earthly, bodily, and material functions of human beings (cf. Exodus 25:3-7). (Janzen, Exodus (Believers Church Bible Commentary), 368)Jo Ann Davidson adds:
One does not normally link the ministry of the Holy Spirit to artistic talent. But in this verse [Exodus 35:31] it is shown to be the initial gift given to Bezalel. In fact, Bezalel is the very first person recorded in biblical history as inspired by the Holy Spirit, even though he is an artisan and not by vocation a priest or a prophet. God’s call of Bezalel mirrors language of the New Testament where God again speaks of "calling", "filling" (Luke 1:15, 41, 67; Acts 4:8, 13:2, 16:10; Romans 1:1; I Corinthians 1:1). (Davidson, Toward a Theology of Beauty: A Biblical Perspective, 28-29)In Bezalel, the filling of the Spirit manifests itself in three ways (Exodus 31:3). John I. Durham (b. 1933) delineates:
Bezalel...is described as specially endowed for his assignment by an infilling of the divine spirit, which adds to his native ability three qualities that suit him ideally for the task at hand: wisdom (חכמה), the gift to understand what is needed to fulfill Yahweh’s instructions; discernment (חבונה), the talent for solving the inevitable problems involved in the creation of so complex a series of objects and materials; and skill (דצת), the experienced hand needed to guide and accomplish the labor itself. Bezalel, so gifted, is the ideal combination of theoretical knowledge, problem-solving practicality, and planning capability who can bring artistic ideals to life with his own hands. That such a comprehensive equipping is intended here is suggested also by the summary listing of what Bezalel is to accomplish: he is to design intricate patterns in three metals, gold, silver and copper; to engrave gemstones; and to carve wood; all these talents are required for “workmanship of every kind.” In sum, Bezalel is made expert by Yahweh himself for every kind of work necessary for fulfilling the instructions given to Moses on Sinai. (Durham, Exodus (Word Biblical Commentary), 410)Given how few details are provided regarding the tabernacle’s blueprints, perhaps such divine influence is necessary. The indwelling of the Spirit in this task certainly demonstrate’s the tabernacle’s significance.
Philip Graham Ryken (b. 1966) interprets:
This shows how important the tabernacle was. God wanted his house built in a special way. To that end, the same Holy Spirit who with the Father and Son created the world in six days (see Genesis 1:2) was poured out on the men who made the tabernacle...The outpouring of the Spirit teaches us something about the importance of spiritual gifts in the church. It takes the Holy Spirit to build God’s house. In the time of Moses, the Spirit came with special gifts for building the tabernacle. Now as the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts through faith, he brings gifts such as teaching, evangelism, discernment, leadership, hospitality, and service. These spiritual gifts are for building God’s dwelling place on earth (see Ephesians 4:7-13), which today is the church of Jesus Christ. Whatever spiritual gifts we have come from God the Holy Spirit, who calls us to use them in God’s house. The Scripture urges us “to excel in gifts that build up the church” (I Corinthians 14:12). (Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory (Preaching the Word), 1090)The combination of the Spirit of God with Bezalel and Oholiab’s skills is effective. Exodus documents both the beginning of this work (Exodus 35:30-36:2) and its successful completion (Exodus 38:22-23).
Are Bezalel’s skills “spiritual gifts”? Is there a difference between a skill and a spiritual gift? Why do you think that an artisan is the first person said to be filled with the Spirit of God? If God’s Spirit was upon them, why did they need the skill set they had? Have you ever partnered with God? Have you ever felt filled with God’s Spirit? When? What are your spiritual gifts? How are you using them to build up the house of God?
“Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art.” - Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)