The Tabernacle (Exodus 25:1-40:38)
The work of building the tabernacle may seem to lie outside the scope of the Theology of Work Project because of its liturgical focus. We should note, however, that the book of Exodus does not so easily separate Israel’s life in the categories of sacred and secular that we are so accustomed to. Even if we delineate between Israel’s liturgical and extra-liturgical activities, nothing in Exodus suggests that one is more important than the other. Furthermore, what actually happened at the tabernacle cannot be equated fairly with “church work” today. Certainly, its construction has no close parallel in the construction of church buildings. The chapters in Exodus dealing with the tabernacle are all about the establishment of a unique institution. Although the work of the tabernacle would go on from year to year and be subsumed by the temple, each of these buildings was by design central and solitary. They were not exemplars to be reproduced wherever Israelites would settle down to live. In fact, the construction and operation of local shrines throughout the land proved to be a huge detriment to Israel’s national spiritual health. Finally, the purpose of the tabernacle was not to give Israel an authorized place to worship. It was about the presence of God in their midst. This is clear from the outset in God’s words, “Have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them” (Exod. 25:8). Christians today understand that God dwelt among us in the person of his Son (John 1:14). Through his work, the entire community of believers has become God’s temple in which God’s Spirit lives (1 Cor. 3:16). In light of these observations, we will take up two claims that relate to work. First, God is an architect. Second, God equips his people to do his work.
The large section in Exodus about the tabernacle is organized according to God’s command (Exod. 25:1-31:11) and Israel’s response (Exod. 35:4-40:33). But God did more than tell Israel what he wanted from them. He provided the actual design for it. This is clear from his words to Moses, “In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furniture, so you shall make it” (Exod. 25:9b). The Hebrew word for “pattern” (tavnit) here pertains to the building and the items associated with it. Architects today use blueprints to direct construction, but it may have been that some kind of archetypal model was in view. Temples were often seen as earthy replicas of celestial sanctuaries (Isa. 6:1-8). By the Spirit, King David received such a pattern for the temple and gave it to his son Solomon, who sponsored the temple’s construction (1 Chr. 28:11-12, 19). From the descriptions that follow, it is clear that God’s architectural design is exquisite and artful. The principle that God’s design precedes God’s building is true of Israel’s sanctuaries, as well as the New Testament worldwide community of Christians (1 Cor. 3:5-18). The future New Jerusalem is a city only God could design (Rev. 21:10-27). God’s work as architect does give dignity to that particular career. But in a general sense, the people of God may engage in their work (whatever it is) with the awareness that God has a design for it too. As we will see next, there are many details to work out within the contours of God’s plan, but the Holy Spirit helps with even that.
The accounts of Bezalel, Oholiab, and all of the skilled workers on the tabernacle are full of work-related terms (Exod. 31:1-11; 35:30-36:5). Bezalel and Oholiab are important not only for their work on the tabernacle, but also as role models for Solomon and Huram-abi who built the temple. The comprehensive set of crafts included metalwork in gold, silver, and bronze as well as stonework and woodwork. The fabrication of garments would have required getting wool, spinning it, dyeing it, weaving it, designing clothes, manufacturing and tailoring them, and the work of embroidery. The craftsmen even prepared anointing oil and fragrant incense. What unites all of these practices is God filling the workers with his Spirit. The Hebrew word for “ability” and “skill” in these texts (hokhmah) is usually translated as “wisdom,” which causes us to think about the use of words and decision-making. Here, it describes work that is clearly hands-on yet spiritual in the fullest theological sense (Exod. 28:3; 31:3, 6; 35:26, 31, 35; 36:1-2).
The wide range of construction activities in this passage illustrates, but does not exhaust, what building in the ancient Near East entailed. Since God inspired them, we can safely assume he desired them and blessed them. But do we really need texts like these to assure us that God approves of these kinds of work? What about related skills that are not mentioned? Somewhat facetiously, had the tabernacle needed an air-conditioning system, we assume God would have given plans for a good one. Robert Banks wisely recommends, “In the biblical writings, we should not interpret comparisons with the [modern] process of construction in too narrow or job-specific a fashion. Occasionally this may be justified, but generally not.” The point here is not that God cares more about certain types of labor than others. The Bible does not have to name every noble profession for us to see it as a godly thing to do. Just as people were not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath for people (Mark 2:27), building and cities are made for people too. The law that ancient houses be built with a protective parapet around the flat roof (Deut. 22:8) illustrates God’s concern for responsible construction that truly serves and protects people. The point about the Spirit-gifting of the tabernacle-workers is that God cared about this particular project for these particular purposes. Based on that truth, perhaps the enduring lesson for us in our work today is that whatever God’s work is, he does not leave his great work in our unskilled hands. The ways in which he equips us for his work may be as varied as are those many tasks. In divine faithfulness, the spiritual gifts God gives to us will strengthen us in doing God’s work to the very end (1 Cor. 1:4-9). He provides us with every blessing in abundance so that we may share abundantly in every good work (2 Cor. 9:8).
The translation here slightly modifies the New Revised Standard Version to show how the key word pattern appears twice.
Victor Hurowitz, “The Priestly Account of Building the Tabernacle,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 105 (1985): 22. The word tavnit describes the three-dimensional shape of idols (Deut. 4:16-18; Ps. 106:20; Isa. 44:13), a replica of an altar (Josh. 22:28; 2 Kgs. 16:10), and the form of hands (Ezek. 8:3, 10; 10:8).
Raymond B. Dillard, 2 Chronicles, vol. 15, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 4-5.
Robert Banks, God the Worker: Journeys into the Mind, Heart, and Imagination of God (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 349.